Opposition party deputies, members and the members of civil society organisations had to guard the ballots for days to prevent stealing by the people organized by Erdogan regime in Turkey. The photo was shared by opposition deputy Mahmut Tanal's Twitter account @MTanal during the Turkish local elections on March 31, 2019.

Prof. Kurt Weyland: Elections in Turkey are held but manipulated

The Turkish regime is competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.

By Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Kurt Weyland from the University of Texas at Austin argues that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has destroyed democracy in Turkey and adds that although elections in Turkey are held, they are manipulated to a large extent. He argues that Turkey is now a “competitive-authoritarian” regime. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Prof. Weyland says the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed but draws attention to the opposition’s electoral victory in Istanbul at the 2019 local elections. 

Prof. Weyland argues that the idea that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated, stressing that advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation. “Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry,” he says. 

The following are excerpts from the interview lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Trump Did Not Have Much of a Chance for His Undemocratic Efforts

You think former US President Donald Trump’s threat to American democracy is overestimated. Can you explain why?

Trump certainly intended to concentrate power, weaken checks and balances, disadvantage the opposition, and so on. So, he did pose a threat. But as my 2020 article in Perspectives on Politics explains, US democracy is highly resilient, institutions are very firmly rooted, a constitutional transformation was out of the question, and checks and balances (including the federal division of power) “held” to quite some extent, as evident in the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the US has a strong, vibrant civil society and an independent press, good parts of which constantly monitored and strongly opposed Trump. Therefore, he did not have much of a chance to succeed in his undemocratic efforts.

Trump could not impose his populist system but has democracy in the United States emerged intact from the challenge of Trump’s populism? Has Trump left lasting scars on US democracy?

Trump has exacerbated the partisan polarization that has plagued US democracy for many years and has further deepened the hostility between different political forces, especially Democrats vs. Republicans. Moreover, Trump has sown doubt about “the truth” in many Republicans’ minds and thus helped to weaken the public sphere, civic debate, and political pluralism. So, Trump has done some damage to US democracy.

But institutionally speaking, US democracy remains almost entirely intact. Trump has not managed to undermine or weaken the institutional framework of US democracy. There has been no constitutional transformation, no major change in institutional checks and balances, in election laws, and so on. So, US democracy is largely intact.

Why do you think the argument that advanced democracies are vulnerable to populism is exaggerated?

Advanced democracies have a high degree of consolidation, with firm institutions, independent judiciaries, reasonably strong party systems, a vigilant press, a vibrant civil society, and an energetic and resourceful citizenry. Populist efforts to concentrate power and undermine liberal democracy, therefore, face very substantial obstacles.

Note that populist leaders who have governed in advanced democracies (e.g., Berlusconi and Trump) have done no significant damage to democracy. Note also that even during the turbulent, crisis-wracked interwar years, democracy in advanced countries (Northwestern Europe) survived, as Cornell, Moller, and Skaaning highlight in their 2020 Oxford University Press book.    

For democracies to succumb to populism, you argue that a second precondition is necessary, which is either to experience some kind of acute crisis or be blessed by huge hydrocarbon windfalls. However, in Turkey, the second precondition has not been met. How do you explain that Erdogan’s populism has been so successful?

Sure, there was – the fallout of the 2001 economic collapse, which significantly weakened the opposition and helped Erdogan win a clear election victory in 2002.

Trump Has Inadvertently Re-energized US Democracy

“Trump, you’re fired!” poster was held during a demonstration in Orlando, FL, USA on June 19, 2020.

You argue that President Trump’s populism could inadvertently spark a revival of American democracy. Could you expand on this a little?

I cover much of this in the last part of my 2020 article. Precisely due to the partisan polarization in the US, Trump’s problematic machinations prompted a strong reaction—a lot of anti-populist, anti-Trump energy—from many sectors of civil society and, of course, the Democratic Party. And because of the institutional strength of US democracy, this energy did not lead to contentious protests, which can be problematic for democracy and can fuel populism by playing into populist leaders’ penchant for confrontation. Instead, this energy was channeled into conventional channels, especially elections. So, in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections, voter turnout was significantly higher than in the recent past—and the anti-Trump forces won! Thus, Trump has inadvertently re-energized US democracy and counteracted the tendency toward low electoral participation (in comparison to Europe).

You argue that Erdogan destroyed democracy in Turkey. How do you define Turkey’s political system today?

Competitive-authoritarian a la Levitsky and Way (2010, Cambridge UP). Elections are held but manipulated, with massive government overspending and a great deal of pressure on the opposition (e.g., the Kurdish party, the HDP). So, the electoral playing field is unfairly skewed. Nevertheless, opposition forces do have a chance to win, as in 2019 in Istanbul.

Unlike many colleagues of yours who deal with populism, you started writing on populism in the 1990s. How do you explain this?

The root cause is my old age! At the tail end of my dissertation research in Brazil, I witnessed the electoral campaign and early government of Fernando Collor de Mello (1990–92), who was a right-winger but used a typically populist political strategy to win and exercise power. As a charismatic leader, he appealed directly (without any organized party) to the heterogeneous masses — “the people.” His base came disproportionately from the politically unorganized people in the urban informal sector and the rural poor. Then in government, he constantly invoked his 35 million votes and tried to bypass established parties and civil-society groupings, willfully imposing his projects from the top down.

I then “saw” a similar strategy in Argentina under Carlos Menem (1989–99) and especially Peru under Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000), whose government I followed closely, starting my field research in Peru with a brief visit in 1995 and then an extended stay in 1996. Together with the borderline case of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico (1988–94), those three leaders inspired my analysis of neopopulism. These were also foreshadowed by Alan Garcia of Peru (1985–90), as analyzed by Cynthia Sanborn in her 1991 Harvard dissertation.

My early writings on neopopulism then gave rise to my conceptual article (2001) on populism as a political strategy. Due to my interest in populism, I also followed the rise of “Bolivarian” populism a la Hugo Chavez. And then, finally, Trump.

Overall, populism has had a long tradition in Latin America that I have followed since taking a graduate seminar on Argentina’s history in the 19th and 20th century in 1984 (!) as an MA student at the University of Texas at Austin. The military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s failed in their efforts to extirpate populism, which made a comeback in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in the 1980s. Thus, for almost a century now, populism has played a very important role in several Latin American countries, which any student of these countries must recognize.  

Political Developments Often Do Not Advance in Linear Trajectories

If populist waves continue, what sort of a US and Europe will we witness in 20–30 years?

That is very difficult to predict! One usually thinks in terms of continuities and ongoing trends, such that things would get worse and worse. There certainly are factors that would point in that direction, such as the continued weakening of “established” party systems, which creates political space for populist leaders. There is also the growing complexity of modern politics, which leaves citizens at a loss and makes them susceptible to the simplistic slogans and appeals of populists. Finally, there are specific issues that populist leaders take advantage of, such as the seemingly growing pressures of international mass migration.

But then, political developments often do not actually advance in linear trajectories. Instead, there can be surprising turnarounds, driven, for example, by processes of learning or other counteracting tendencies. I hope that over time, citizens will learn to “see through” the simplistic slogans, the unproductive resentments, and the facile promises made by populist leaders and won’t “fall for” these kinds of politicians anymore. 

Fukuyama predicted the victory of liberal democracy after the Cold War. Instead, we now witness the rise of populism. What went wrong?

First, with his specific claim, namely that all ideological alternatives to liberal democracy had collapsed, Fukuyama was essentially correct. Populism constitutes, in Juan Linz’s term, a vague “mentality,” not a real ideology. And it has no real institutional alternative to democracy, as Marxist communism and fascism did. All that populism proposes is to add a few plebiscitary mechanisms, and of course, to concentrate power in the presidency and to soften or limit institutional checks and balances. At the same time, populists, as we know, sneakily distort that whole framework through overbearing personalistic leadership. But that’s a surreptitious effort, not an institutional project. 

Consequently, there is no ideological and institutional alternative to liberal democracy, just as Fukuyama argued. Nobody has come up with another project, vision, or utopia – neither the right nor the left.

But for sure, liberal democracy hasn’t remained as triumphant as it was circa 1990, nor has it flourished, as Fukuyama had hoped. Instead, a deep malaise has set in – not unlike the malaise affecting earlier hopes of liberal progress in the late 19thcentury. This is partly a product of the fact that the ideological alternative to liberal democracy has folded. Ideological projects often look better, find more support, and are more vibrant when they confront dangerous adversaries. Note that in the struggle against an authoritarian regime, liberal democracy looks great. But as soon as the battle is won—authoritarianism is defeated, and democracy established—disenchantment (desencanto in Spanish) usually sets in. This is because democracy is not wonderful, because it involves compromise rather than heroic struggle, and because politicians often pursue particularistic deals rather than programmatic projects.

But there are also deeper, serious structural problems. I believe that one of the most important difficulties arises from the incredible (and growing) complexity of modern politics, which citizens have increasing difficulty grasping. Moreover, all governments have felt compelled to enlist more and more technocrats, who tell citizens and especially their governments what they “can” and “cannot” do. Therefore, governments often diverge from their campaign promises to citizens who want more social benefits and more police in the street, yet lower taxes. How can this circle be squared? 

These gaps diminish citizens’ trust in politicians and governments and create space for populists, who irresponsibly promise even more than establishment politicians. And nowadays, can citizens still have the civic competence that democracy presupposes? Do they know how best to advance their own interests, who it is in their best interests to vote for, and which party or leader represents them best? 

I think these fundamental structural problems, examined, for example, in Yasha Mounk’s 2018 book, are among the root causes of democracy’s contemporary problems.

Who Is Kurt Weyland?

Kurt Weyland is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Weyland’s research interests focus on democratization and authoritarian rule, social policy and policy diffusion, and on populism in Latin America and Europe. He has drawn on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches, including insights from cognitive psychology. He has done extensive field research in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, and Venezuela. After receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1991, he taught for ten years at Vanderbilt University and joined UT in 2001. From 2001 to 2004, he served as Associate Editor of the Latin American Research Review.

Weyland is the author of several books and many articles in journals such as World PoliticsComparative Politics,Comparative Political StudiesLatin American Research ReviewInternational Studies QuarterlyJournal of DemocracyForeign Affairs, and Political Research Quarterly. He has also (co-)edited two volumes—namely Learning from Foreign Models in Latin American Policy Reform (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004) and, together with Wendy Hunter and Raul Madrid, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His latest book, Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.

Photo: ubisoft.com

Eivor the Trickster: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the popularization of tricksters, anti-fascist neo-paganism, and Scandinavian mythology

ABSTRACT: In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, developer Ubisoft brings its acclaimed series to Viking-era England and casts Eivor as the protagonist. She is a fierce Viking whose saga is shaped by the player’s choices throughout the game. In this commentary, we argue that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

How do we define a trickster, let alone a popular one? We know tricksters are found across cultures and traditions: Myrddin the Wizard, Nasreddin the Scholar, and Sun Wu Kong, the wise and victorious Stone Monkey. All of these figures have shared characteristics, such as being able to transform both their identities, whether understood as metaphorical or physical, and “the society’s norms” (Wiget, 1990: 86). In addition, they are “timeless, universal,” and “disrupt all orders of things, including the analytic categories of academics” (Wiget, 1994: 95).

In the latest update to its beloved series, entitled “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” we find Ubisoft placing tricksters at the forefront of the game’s narrative. By taking its latest game to Viking-era England, it also benefits from the richness of Scandinavian mythology and its trickster characters. While AC Valhalla is not the first game to take advantage of Scandinavian folklore (Skyrim also comes to mind), it could be the first such game to make the trickster the central character of the game.

In AC Valhalla, the player shapes the story of Eivor, a fierce Viking warrior with a warm heart, throughout the game. As the game uses Scandinavian lore as a backdrop, Odin (known in Scandinavian mythology as the All-Father) and Loki (a trickster and companion of Odin, known for his cunning mind and transformations), also make an appearance. The game, as a whole, emphasizes the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki. Perhaps most importantly, the game gives Eivor similar trickster qualities, such as a cunning mind, ambiguity in terms of gender and loyalty, and the ability to communicate with the divine. Furthermore, by casting none other than Einar Selvik—the famous Norwegian musician—as Bragi (the game’s bard and companion of Eivor) and having him sing most of the songs heard in the game, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism. At the same time, it popularizes traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a ‘trickster spirit’ in one of the game’s arcs.

In the Glowecestrescire arc of the game, Eivor finds herself participating in a Gaelic festival called Samhain. During the festival, Eivor puts on an animal skull (symbolically representing her transformation into animal form) and goes from door to door, telling riddles, and receiving gifts from the hosts. While the Samhain festival later transformed into Halloween (Simpson & Weiner, 1989), what is important for us here is that Eivor is called a “trickster spirit” in this part of the game.

While this is undoubtedly the highlight of Eivor’s tricksterism in the game in the literal sense, many allusions are scattered throughout this latest installment in the franchise. First of all, the player is given the option of choosing Eivor’s gender, as we are told that we cannot ascertain the character’s gender from historical records. In this sense, Eivor is similar to Loki, the Nordic trickster, who ‘has the ability to change his shape and sex’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, Loki). Similarly, while we have observed the aforementioned metaphorical transformation of Eivor (by donning the Samhain mask) during the Glowecestrescire arc, we find out that Basim, a legendary assassin in the game, is an incarnation of Loki.

Thor fighting Loki on a beach in Anyer, Banten, Indonesia. Photo: Ari Wid

There are other similarities that connect Eivor to Loki, the traditional trickster of Norse sagas. Loki is a ‘companion of [the] great gods Odin and Thor’ (Britannica), and Odin is always seen at the side of Eivor throughout the game, giving her advice or commenting on her actions. At the same time, Loki is also “the enemy of the gods,” causing “difficulty for them and himself” (Britannica). Not surprisingly, Eivor also eventually challenges the Norse god Odin, even fighting him as part of a boss fight toward the end of the game. This contradictory character of Loki is also reflected in other aspects of Eivor in the game, based on player choice and game design. While Eivor can choose to spare or slay her enemies throughout the game, she regularly finds herself in the position to raid monasteries and settlements, which is a central mechanism in the game that allows players to develop their own settlements with the materials gained through raiding.

Through these intentional similarities, Ubisoft popularizes Norse mythology, and the traditional trickster character Loki, as part of Scandinavian and Germanic culture, through the game’s protagonist Eivor. This process of popularizing traditional cultural elements is called “cultural populism” (or one aspect of it) in Cultural Studies. Jagers and Walgrave (2007) hold that populism is a discursive practice. For Barr (2009), populism is a well-devised strategy. For yet others, it is a kind of performance, and within the realm of International Relations, it is a type of political strategy (Moffit, 2017). On the other hand, cultural populism, as mentioned above, is the “infusion of popular cultural elements into ‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). In our case, cultural populism can be understood as the popularization of traditional cultural and mythological elements through the popular medium of gaming.

Cultural populism also has a negative connotation, as it can be criticized as a means of trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (e.g., TV films versus arthouse cinema, airport paperbacks versus “serious” literature). While this kind of populism does not mobilize the masses, it can still affect the consumer in more subtle ways. For example, it can trivialize the complexity of characters, turning them into caricatures, or water down traditional stories with shallow characterizations, under the assumption that consumers cannot handle the complexity of the original material.

By featuring Einar Selvik, the Norwegian musician known for his anti-fascist stance and neo-pagan music, Ubisoft’s latest game also popularizes neo-paganism. This is underscored by the inclusion of many other pagan elements throughout the game, such as the pagan festivals of Ostara, Samhain, and the Yule Festival, among others. This links with other cultural elements of the game. Norse cultural elements are also utilized extensively by proponents of neo-paganism, with Thor, Odin, and other Norse deities of particular importance. Although the game does not explicitly promote neo-paganism, it features pagan elements heavily, thus popularizing the pagan aspects of Norse mythology and culture.

Thus, through Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft takes us back to Viking-era England. Players are able to control Eivor as a trickster character, a Viking leader, and a problem solver, whose actions depend on each player’s choices. In this commentary, we have argued that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft contributes to the rising popularity of a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism, while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

As explicated above, in the virtual space of gaming, participants not only observe and are exposed to stories but also are given opportunities to live in and be part of the cultural elements and narratives in a fashion that is remarkably close to real-life experience, if not more. This encourages participants to engage emotionally with the epic elements of said culture. Thus, in general, the realm of gaming and interactive entertainment is open to the soft power, even sharp power, activities of third parties. This certainly is not a new thing, as the prominent example of the US army sponsoring video games for new recruits shows (Jacques, 2009).

Whether video games such as the Call of Duty series have been used to securitize certain groups or communities is an open question, which can be investigated as the topic of another commentary. For now, we can at least rest assured that Ubisoft is aware of this phenomenon, as they include a disclaimer at the start of each entry in their franchise: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” As Burns rightly points out, this is necessary given the sensitivity of the topics that the series has been exploring from the beginning (Burns, 2012).

(*) OMER SENER holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.

References

— (n.d.). “Loki.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loki

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics. 15(1), 29–48

Burns, Matthew Seiji. (2002). ‘Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things.” https://matthewseiji.com/notes/2012/8/17/assassins-creed-multiculturalism-and-how-to-talk-about-thing.html (accessed on June 4, 2012). 

Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium.” European Journal of Political Research. Vol. 46 (3), pp. 319–345. 

Jacques, John. (2009). “US Army has Spent $32.8m on America’s Army.” Game Rant. December 10, 2009. https://gamerant.com/army-spent-328m-americas-army-game/ (accessed on June 4, 2012).

McGuigan, J., & Mcguigan, D.J. (1992). Cultural Populism (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203413609

Moffit, Benjamin. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational ‘People’.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Simpson, John & Weiner, Edmund. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). London: Oxford University Press

Wiget, Andrew. (1994). Dictionary of Native American literature. Garland.


[1] This commentary includes spoilers about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, particularly regarding the identity of the protagonist and the ending of the game.

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

Prof. Ruth Wodak: I am very worried about the future of Europe

“Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call ‘post shame’. You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable.”

By Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading scholars on populism, Prof. Ruth Wodak, said she was very worried about the future of Europe. Prof. Wodak, who is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated with the University of Vienna stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Some EU countries abide by the EU conventions, but others do not, risking the EU’s unity. She underlined that some EU member countries like Hungary and Poland behave as if nothing has been learned from history. 

Prof. Wodak believes we are now living in a “post shame” age where all norms have been attacked by the populist and far-right parties. Lying for politicians has become so normal that nobody cares anymore whether they tell the truth or simply lie. “This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump ‘finally said what everybody was thinking’,” Wodak said. Despite many negative developments, Wodak thinks populist parties can be defeated at the ballot box. The latest example is the elections in the US where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. 

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

How does the “politics of fear” work for populist parties? How do they instrumentalize fear?

This is, of course, always context dependent. Far-right populist parties thrive whenever there is a crisis. They either construct or exaggerate a crisis or instrumentalize existing crises. They create unreal scenarios of threat and danger, and then they position themselves as the only party and the only politicians who can save “us” from this crisis and danger. In this way, they first create fear and then hope. This is an interdependent pattern. Which is, of course, not new, which has existed for many, many centuries; but they are very clever at employing this pattern.

Your book “The Politics of Fear” was published before Donald Trump and Brexit, before the surge of populist leaders, and it is very to the point. How do you explain this?

In the meantime, there is the second edition. It just came out in 2021. It’s updated: I also write about Trump and Brexit and the many new socio-political developments which occurred since the first edition. As for the first edition, it was obvious to look at the Austrian, Italian and Hungarian examples. “The politics of fear” was very successful in the far-right.

The oldest European far-right populist parties, like the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party, became much stronger, especially after 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Jörg) Haider’s party, the Freedom Party, for example, gained many votes because they instrumentalized xenophobic rhetoric against migrants from the former Eastern bloc countries. Interestingly, in 2015, in the refugee movement, we experienced a very similar xenophobic pattern in far-right discourse. The only salient difference was that now refugees  were coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Africa, Somalia, Sudan, etc. But basically, the exclusionary rhetoric is very similar.

There Is No “One Size Fits All”

As you have stated in your lectures: almost all populist parties in Europe are successful. Why is this the case?

This is an interesting question. Again, it’s context specific because it’s very different in the south, where there exists bigger polarization. Moreover, left-wing and centre-left parties have been quite successful in Spain, Portugal, and Italy; right now, we have a technocratic government in Italy. The Lega (a populist right-wing party), which was initially very successful, had to leave the government in Italy. In Greece, there exists huge polarization. But it’s different in the rich countries—and I am now speaking of Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and Norway, probably the richest countries in Europe. The fear was created that the people would lose out; thus, they haven’t lost yet, but they [were made to fear that they] would lose all the social benefits etc., because refugees were and are arriving. Such fear was mobilized and instrumentalized. We label this phenomenon “welfare chauvinism.” 

Then there are countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, etc., which are poorer countries; [in these countries], the far-right creates fear that people might lose their “true” national identity and their national language and maintain that Christianity (i.e. the Christian Occident) is threatened. People were mobilized through such fears. For example, look at Hungary: many Hungarians had emigrated to Western countries, so huge fear was created that the “true” Hungarians would die out. This is a trope that Viktor Orbán frequently uses. In sum, there exist very different reasons for the success of the far right. There is no “one size fits all.” One must really look at the context, the history, at the socio-political and economic developments, to understand cultural developments and explain how these parties work.

When and how do populist parties become unsuccessful? Is there a way to defeat them at the ballot box?

Obviously, examples exist. In some countries that has already happened. Sometimes they even “shoot themselves in their own foot.” Like in Austria: The Coalition-Government from 2018-2019 (with the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner) failed because of big scandals, and they lost a lot of votes. But they seem to have found a new agenda, new “enemy images,” new niches, a new way of mobilizing voters. In other cases, it really depends on other factors: if there is a good opposition, if there’s an alternative program, you might have a chance [to defeat far-right populism]. If there is no alternative program, other parties will not defeat them; one has to provide alternatives, provide more participation so that citizens feel that they are acknowledged and that their worries are being taken seriously. A third possibility is that the party vanishes but then, the conservative parties usually take on their agenda. That’s what I call, now in my second edition, “normalization.” In this way, the far-right agenda becomes normalized, and the mainstream conservatives implement the programs of the far right. Indeed, the parties might vanish or become smaller, but the agenda survives.

There Are Many Politicians Who Lie a Lot

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

What do you mean by “post shame” age?

I think this is important. There’s a lot of talk about a “post truth era.” Indeed, there are many politicians who lie a lot. Of course, the example of Donald Trump is obvious, but lying is not new in the far right. Or in politics tout court. As Hannah Arendt and other theorists have shown, they (the liars) were sanctioned, they had to apologize, or they would lose votes; they even resigned. Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call “post shame.” You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable. This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump “finally said what everybody was thinking.” The appeals to the people, to this alleged homogeneous people, is a very important strategy. These politicians construct themselves as those actors who can not only save the people from alleged dangers but who “dare say what everybody thinks.”

One of the terms you use is “shameless normalization.” What is so shamelessly normalized in recent years?

It is exactly what I have just mentioned. The shamelessness is making it acceptable to lie, to violate conventions of dialogue and negotiation, to denounce and defame your enemies in ways which violate many taboos. We were used to politeness conventions, to values which support and maintain interaction, and negotiations, i.e. arrive at compromises. Currently, it seems to be the case that we live in parallel worlds. We now seem to live in parallel discourse worlds, and those worlds cannot interact with each other anymore. Let’s take the example of Victor Orbán of Hungary again: The European Commission and many heads of state have criticized Fidesz’ and Orbán’s policies. Article Seven has been invoked against Hungary but it seems not to matter. Orbán will say, “okay there’s some little formal things which we can change to abide by the rules,” but basically the content of the undemocratic policies doesn’t change. The EU seems quite helpless and doesn’t really have the resources to implement the sanctions, mostly also due to the rule that all heads of European member states have to vote unanimously in such cases. In this way, Orbán has implemented some really authoritarian measures—for example, restricting press freedom, the freedom of universities and science, and so forth. 

You argue that instrumentalizing the media, both traditional and new, is part and parcel of the immediate success of populist movements. What should media do to escape the trap of the “mainstreaming” of populist parties?

That’s also a good question. If possible, media should, on the one hand, comment and explain what is happening, not just print what was said but frame it in a different way. They also don’t always have to print every provocation and scandal on page one. On the other hand, scandals sell well, so there is an important economic side, which has to be acknowledged. Right now, in Austria we are experiencing what is called “message control.” Media who are not reporting and printing what the government handouts every week in press conferences receive less subsidies, they receive fewer official advertisements—they’re basically starved by the government. It’s very difficult for them to survive as independent media; the pressure is huge. It’s not like in Turkey where journalists are being put into jail, but there exist subtle ways of disciplining the media and journalism. On top of that, there exists the option that every politician creates his/her own media. Trump tweeted; he didn’t need the media. He delegitimized the quality media as “fake news.” He legitimized what he called the alternative facts. He could do that via his own propaganda tool—tweets. He didn’t need the quality and mainstream serious media. Politicians can remain in their own bubbles, in their “parallel worlds.” That is a very dangerous development, and we observe the delegitimization of serious quality media in all the far-right parties.

US President Joe Biden defeated one of the strongest populist leaders in the world, Mr. Trump. Are there any lessons for Europe to take as it deals with its own populist leaders?

Yes, absolutely. The victory of Joe Biden has many reasons of course but one really big factor was that Trump failed in the Covid crisis. He spent a lot of money to start producing the vaccines, but he relativized the danger of the Covid crisis and, of course, the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans could not be dismissed. Covid created more dead Americans than both World Wars. Probably, without the Covid-crisis, Trump would have won. 

Secondly, Biden, only won by a small margin. All in all, he had millions of more votes, but if you look at the specific states, his victory was very small. Thus, it was important to have democratic institutions which didn’t fail. Justice was maintained. Indeed, some Republican senators abided by the rules and not to Trump’s big lies. 

Thirdly, Biden had an alternative program. Biden promised not only to fight the crisis and to provide vaccines, but he also promised better health services, higher minimum wages, to fight against poverty, tax the very rich, etc. 

Another example: There exists by Leonie de Jonge a very interesting study illustrating how such shifts happen. De Jonge works in the Netherlands. She did a study on the far-right parties in Belgium, where there are two far-right parties: one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. And there exist two social democratic parties, one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. In the Flemish part, the Social Democratic Party tried to overtake the far-right by proposing ever stricter anti-immigration measures and adopted xenophobic rhetoric. They lost heavily and the far right won. Xenophobia is the brand of the far-right. You shouldn’t compete with their brand. In the French part, the Social Democrats won. Why? Because they aligned with the media, they created a “cordonne sanitaire.” The media didn’t publish every provocation and scandal. They also proposed a left-wing program against poverty, for human rights and gender equality and anti-discrimination. The Social Democrats won; the far-right lost. This is truly like an experiment, where you can observe how different programs and alternative strategies might work.

EU: Nation States Remain More Powerful Than Transnational Entity

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

After the Cold War, it was believed by many academicians that liberal democracy had won, and all the countries would reform themselves to attain the standards of liberal democracy. Right now, we witness just the opposite. What went wrong?

This is a question we could write many books about. I think that there are many factors. One factor is, of course, neoliberal economic policies which cut through the social welfare systems. The huge rise of inequality is obvious. Look at the United Kingdom, for example but also what happened in the European south. The second important factor is the fear “of losing out.” In the financial crisis of 2008, one could say simplistically the banks were saved but not the people; the fact that our generation cannot provide a better life for the next generation is a huge problem. The third factor is global inequality and continuous uncertainty. We all live on one planet, and we all face problems like climate crisis and migration. Countries have changed, they have become much more diverse; and such phenomena have triggered fears with respect to national identity issues, which we already talked about. And there are many other factors… 

If the trend continues i.e., the surge and the success of populist parties, what sort of a Europe shall we have in 20-30 years?

I am not a prophet, and I am also not a political scientist. I believe that the EU is endangered as a transnational entity. If the EU cannot guarantee human rights anymore, which are part and parcel of the Treaties, if it cannot guarantee the convention of child rights, it might fall apart into countries which abide by the conventions and countries which go a very different way, like Hungary, Poland, and so forth. Then, the EU might remain an economic area, but it would not guarantee what the EU, actually, stands for. 

I personally am very worried about this because we can observe such developments. For example, we have witnessed that heads of state cannot find a compromise on how to save hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children stranded on Greek islands. As if nobody has learnt from history! Strong reforms are necessary. The EU members and the EU Commission will have to consider reforms. Hopefully the citizens can participate through referenda, [determining] which direction the reforms should take. There’s an inherent contradiction in the structure of EU that, on the one hand, there exists the European Parliament. We all vote for the MEPs [member of European Parliament]. On the other hand, the heads of state are the most powerful actors. The nation states remain more powerful than the transnational entity. I think this contradiction has to be solved in some way. Otherwise, I don’t see how the EU will be able to continue in a positive, peaceful way.

Who is Ruth Wodak?

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an Honorary Doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an Honorary Doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-President of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became Honorary Member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and SocietyCritical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics

She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at Örebrö University). In the spring 2014, Ruth Wodak held the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the spring 2016, Wodak was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM). 

Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; identity politics and the politics of the past; political communication and populism; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work. 

Professor Wodak has published 10 monographs, 29 co-authored monographs, over 60 edited volumes and special issues of journals, and ca 420 peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her work has been translated into English, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Bosnian, Greek, Slovenian, and Serbian. 

Recent book publications include The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses (Sage 2021, 2nd revised and extended edition); Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control (Multilingual Matters 2020; with M. Rheindorf); Identitäten im Wandel. (Springer 2020; with R. de Cillia, M. Rheindorf, S. Lehner); Europe at the Crossroads (Nordicum 2019; with P. Bevelander); The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics (Routledge 2018, with B. Forchtner); Kinder der Rückkehr (Springer 2018, with E. Berger); The Politics of Fear. What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015; translated into the German, Russian, Bosnian, and Japanese); The discourse of politics in action: Politics as Usual’ (Palgrave, revised 2nd edition 2011; translated into the Chinese); Methods of CDS (Sage 2016, with M. Meyer; 3rd revised edition, translated into the Korean, Spanish, and Arabic); Migration, Identity and Belonging (LUP 2011, with G. Delanty, P. Jones); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (Palgrave 2008; with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (Transaction Press 2009; with M. Krzyżanowski); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Sage 2010; with B. Johnstone, P. Kerswill); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge 2013; with J E Richardson), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (Bloomsbury 2013; with M. KhosraviNik, B. Mral). See http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/profiles/Ruth-Wodak for more information. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is seen during a public rally in Istanbul on the second anniversary of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The Islamist Populism, Anti-Westernism and Civilizationism of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs

In Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Friday sermons of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

Over the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has cemented itself as the country’s hegemonic ruling party by appealing to the conservative Muslim majority of the country. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven exceptionally adept at uniting Islamism and populism, fusing the two into a powerful and pervasive political force with which he has established a stranglehold over Turkish politics and society while exporting this ideology abroad via its transnational apparatuses and networks (Yilmaz, 2021a). Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) controls all mosques (more than 90,000) in Turkey, many thousands in the West, and employs imams for these mosques. It has become one of the powerful instruments in propagating the AKP’s Islamist populism and anti-Western civilizationism.

The AKP did not begin its rule as an authoritarian party. Initially, the party—though populist in orientation—promised a more liberal and inclusive society. Throughout the 2002–2008 period, Erdogan called for Turkey to join the European Union and enacted a series of reforms that sought to eliminate the secular authoritarian tutelage of the Kemalist institutions. However, after 2008, and when the European Union refused in practice to accept Turkish entry into the organization and with increasing economic problems, the AKP began a slide into right-wing nationalism colored by Islamism.

Here, Islamism is understood as a politicized version of the religion of Islam, a counter-hegemonic paradigm, which “refers to turning religion into an ideology and an instrumental use of Islam in politics […] by individuals, groups and organisations in order to pursue political objectives” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 104). It is also important to note that “Islamism is not a coherent ideology – it focuses on identity politics rather than ideas and an appeal to emotions rather than intellect” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 105). Thus, this Islamist ideology relying on antagonistic binaries where the Islamists are constructed as the true and only legitimate representatives of the pure people against the corrupt elite and their international supporters is inherently populist (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 5; Laclau, 2006; Wojczewski, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020).

The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests—in which mostly secular young people in cosmopolitan Istanbul protested against the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption—shifted the party further toward the right, as it sought alliances with conservative, religious elements in Turkish society. The failed 2016 coup d’état, a somewhat mysterious event, appears to have convinced Erdogan to abandon any pretense of liberal democracy and to embrace authoritarian religious populism instead.

The AKP’s turn toward authoritarian religious populism has proven largely successful. Erdogan remains a popular political figure, and—having purged the military, bureaucracy, and the universities of so-called undesirable citizens (especially secularists, leftists, and Gulenists)— the AKP now controls Turkey’s most important and influential institutions (Yilmaz, 2021b: 203-220). Through this power, the party has re-shaped Turkish identity in ways that suit the ruling regime. Fusing their populist ideology, which emphasizes the battle between “elites” and “the people” with Islamism, the AKP created a new type of Turkish nationalism in which “the people” and the state are identified with orthodox Sunni Islam. Adding this religio-civilizational element to their populism, the AKP gained the ability to portray Turkey’s domestic political battles and antagonisms as part of a wider cosmic religious war between Islam and its enemies, especially the “Judeo-Christian” West. The internal or domestic enemies, especially secular “elites” and Gulenists, were thus branded enemies of Islam who posed an existential threat to Turkey and – more broadly – the entire ummah (Yilmaz, Shipoli & Demir, 2021).

The AKP has tried to re-shape Turkish national identity through a variety of means. The party’s ability to set a national curriculum, dominate the media (traditional and new), and direct Turkey’s religious authority – the Diyanet – is highly important. The Kemalists established the Diyanet following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to bring Islam under greater government control. The Kemalist regime was a secularizing force in Turkey and often hostile toward religion and Islamic bodies. The Diyanet was thus created to help secularize Turkey and was intended to reduce the power of Islamic authorities and increase the power of the secular state.

Under Kemalist hegemony, the Diyanet was a promoter of sovereignty, national unity, and freedom, and it glorified the founding father of Turkey. It was restructured under the AKP regime to build the “new Milli [national]” (Mutluer, 2018) citizens the AKP desires. When the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002, instead of eliminating this institute, they ironically captured and widened its capacity boosting it financially and employing it to create an Islamist–populist appeal.

Thus, the Diyanet’s importance rapidly increased after the election of the AKP in 2002, particularly after the party’s turn toward Islamist populism in the 2010s. The AKP increased the religious directorate’s budget and encouraged the body to have a more socially and politically active role. Erdogan appears to have decided that the Diyanet was an ideal vehicle through which he could communicate and disseminate his religious populist rhetoric and ultimately increase his party’s political power.

Seeing the Diyanet’s potential in this way paved the way for the elevation of the President of the Diyanet (Başkan) from directorate to permanent undersecretary (Müsteşar), and the protocol ranking of the Diyanet director’s hierarchy being elevated from 51st to 10th under the AKP. This can be considered both symbolically and practically one of the greatest prerogatives given to the society’s conservative segments. This new status of the Diyanet and its increased budget allowed the organization to establish radio and television channels. The Diyanet’s mandate was expanded to provide religious services outside mosques, from foreign policy (Özturk, 2021) to prisons, retirement homes, and women’s shelters and families (Adak, 2020). Also, the Diyanet generates the Friday sermon, which all mosques in Turkey deliver in its exact form.

Weekly Friday prayers have been considered theoretically by both Kemalists and Islamists as a very important tool to control Turkish citizens’ perspective about Islam and to construct “good citizens.” Friday as a day and Friday prayers as a ritual has a significant place in Muslim religious life. Mid-day prayer on Friday was replaced by Friday prayer, and the sermons are an inseparable aspect of this weekly prayer. Thus, a proper Friday prayer necessitates delivering the sermon. Today in Turkey, in all mosques, it is estimated that more than 15 million male citizens (women are not provided space for Friday sermons) participate in weekly Friday prayers as the audience of Friday sermons. To put this number into perspective, when including adult female relations, the number of attendees equates to roughly 30-40 million voters or around 50 percent of the entire electorate. Friday sermons continue to have a special religious status among Muslims, and attendees are forbidden to speak among themselves during the delivery of sermons.

It is not surprising, then, that as the AKP shifted from liberalism to authoritarian Islamist populism, Diyanet’s Friday sermons reflected this change. Sermons began to echo, in particular, Erdogan’s Islamist–populist narratives. For example, the Diyanet began to stress the oneness of the ummah and the notion that Turkish Muslims were victims of ever hostile Western powers. For example, one sermon asserted that “One of the most important duties of Muslims is to be one voice against unbelief and to be united before the oppressor. However, it is possible to achieve this by basing not on each other’s sect, legitimacy, race, language, geography, and ideology, but Islam’s understanding of oneness and unity. The road to unity, amity, and peace; the way to know the friend and the enemy; make the ummah smile, not the others [the Western powers] passes from here” (April 8, 2016).

Reflecting the AKP’s assertion that Turkey is the “guardian of the ummah,” Diyanet sermons began to frame Turkey as the hope of the Muslim world and indeed of all oppressed peoples. One sermon read: “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who have nobody by their side, and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (October 11, 2019).

Diyanet sermons, particularly after the AKP’s slide into Islamist populism after 2013, have increasingly used religio-civilizationalist rhetoric and framed contemporary events within a larger, almost cosmic religious war between Islam and the West.

Following the Turkish Armed Forces’ offensive into Syria in October 2019, one sermon invoked Islamic principles to justify this operation. The sermon claimed: “…. believers never consent to the violation of the values ​​of which the religion of Islam regards as sacred and untouchable, such as the occupation of homelands and homes. They do not hesitate to launch an honorable struggle to correct the deteriorating balances, to establish an environment of peace, and to ensure justice.”

Another sermon, which coincided with Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, portrayed Turkey and the Islamic ummahas a single entity and the target of external attacks. It urged unity among Muslims to prevent further attacks: “In recent years, we have been passing through the circle of testing both as the ummah of Islam and within our nation […] By threatening our unity and vitality, the hopes of the Islamic ummah are actually being consumed” (January 26, 2018).

It is also important to note that the Diyanet has embraced victimhood rhetoric in its sermons, portraying Muslims as victims of the West, which they accuse of opening “holes of fire in the Islamic territory.” Without naming the exact enemy, the sermons often claim that all Muslims have been victimized by “certain” enemies, enemies who even today are conspiring against Muslims, their religion, their unity, and their hopes. References to these unnamed enemies are kept obscure, and therefore are open to loading in parallel with the changing context, especially in horizontal and vertical dimensions.

In a majority of passive and hostility-loaded sentences in Friday sermons, the hidden subject refers to the enemy(ies) of Muslims as Judeo-Christian Western civilization. For example, the sermon delivered on Friday, January 26, 2018,reads: “We have been going through certain trials as a nation and as the Islamic ummah in the recent years. Those who want to weaken us and to pit Muslims against Muslims are coming at us with the weapons of sedition, terror, and treachery. They are trying to pull our country into the pits of fire they have opened in all corners of the Islamic geographyOur independence and future are targeted through various tricks and plots, plans, and traps. They are trying to drive the Islamic ummah to despair by threatening our unity and peace.”

The Friday sermon dated October 4, 2014 reads as follows: “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e., the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence, and hostility [between Muslims].” Another sermon dated October 11, 2019 echoes many of these earlier themes: “Unfortunately, the world today was turned into a place full of dark and evil traps. Those who claimed to bring so-called independence to some places have rather invaded those places […]. Those who plan to dig pits of fire all around the Islamic world have used weapons of sedition, terrorism, and betrayal to cause brothers to hit one another. Using various plots, plans, tricks, and traps, they have targeted our existence and future survival, as well as our freedom and future. They have attempted to bring us, our noble nation, to have been the flagbearer of the Muslim ummah for hundreds of years to our knees.”

This rhetoric, which closely echoes Erdogan’s religio-civilizationalism—namely, his contention that the ummah is involved in a defensive religious battle against non-believers— assists the AKP in two ways. First, it creates demand for populism by activating emotions of fear and anger. The AKP has instrumentalized Friday sermons to help construct a populist narrative that serves the party’s agenda. Through Diyanet sermons, the majority population of Turkey (i.e., Sunni Muslim Turks) is presented with statements and fatwa that evoke negative emotions and play on their sense of victimhood, their feelings of being part of an ummah oppressed by Western powers. The AKP uses this fear of and anger toward the West via the Diyanet to create a sense of permanent crisis and a belief that only the AKP can defend Muslims from a mighty opposition made up of non-Muslim powers who hate and wish to harm the ummah.

The Diyanet’s sermons serve the AKP’s religio-civilizationist populist division of society. Friday sermons have increasingly supported the AKP’s attempts – largely successful – to construct populist binaries based on religio-civilization identification. The sermons promote the notion that “we” (Sunni Muslim Turks) are the ummah, while secularists, non-Muslims, Gulenists, and certain other groups are implacable enemies of the ummah. This binary can then be used to mobilize “the people” to support the authoritarian Islamist–populist regime, which purports itself to be fighting on the people’s behalf against a non-Muslim civilizational enemy.

The AKP is hardly alone in using religion to aid its populist agenda and constructing antagonistic binaries and the sense of crisis upon which populism relies. Indeed, like other religious populist parties and movements, Erdogan’s AKP couches the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational frame. By this, we mean that the typically populist vertical division between “the people” and “elites” and horizontal division between “the people” and “others” is framed by a larger religio-civilizational concern or within a belief that religion-based civilizations are doomed to clash. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the Diyanet’s Friday sermons frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the AKP’s fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

The AKP’s ability to instrumentalize the Diyanet has played an important role in the party’s increasing domination of Turkey’s political and social life. The Diyanet’s Friday sermons have assisted the AKP in fundamentally altering notions of how an ideal citizen of Turkey should appear and behave. Under AKP rule, the ideal Turkish citizen is an Islamist and a nationalist, albeit one with neo-Ottoman aspirations for Turkey. Moreover, the AKP’s ideal citizen believes that Turkey is at the forefront of a clash of civilizations and must therefore act as a defender of Muslims worldwide while also remaining vigilant at home where anti-Muslim actors—secularists, liberals, Gulenists—continue to threaten “the people.”


References

Adak, Sevgi. (2020). “Expansion of the Diyanet and the Politics of Family in Turkey under AKP Rule.” Turkish Studies. 22:2, 200-221, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2020.1813579. 

Katsambekis, Giorgos. (2020). “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective.” Journal of Political Ideologies. doi:10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.

Laclau, Ernesto. (2006). “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 646–80. 

Mutluer, Nil. (2018). “Diyanet’s Role in Building the ’Yeni (New) Milli’ in the AKP Era.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5953https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337811594_Diyanet%27s_Role_in_Building_the_%27Yeni_New_Milli%27_in_the_AKP_Era_httpsjournalsopeneditionorgejts5953langde(accessed on May 16, 2021).

Ozturk, Ahmet Erdi. (2021). Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wojczewski, Thorsten. (2020). “‘Enemies of the people’: Populism and the politics of (in)security.” European Journal of International Security. 5: 5–24, doi:10.1017/eis.2019.23.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12: 301. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12050301 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 2nd Edition, 170-187. London and New York: Routledge.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turkish Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

How Are Religious Emotions Instrumentalized in the Supply of and Demand for Populism?

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses the world over. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and the US have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz and Nicholas Morieson

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses across the world. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the NetherlandsHungaryTurkeyIndiaPakistan, and the United States have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism—which is primarily a right-wing phenomenon—has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

Examples of this religio-civilizational discourse are surprisingly common and warrant more attention from scholars, journalists, and political analysts. For example, Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ third largest political party, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), is a prominent exponent of this discourse (Brubaker, 2017). According to Wilders, Dutch culture and identity are the product of, and inextricably linked to, Western Civilization’s “Judeo-Christian and humanist” character. In the copious tweets and articles that appear on his website, Wilders argues that Muslims pose an existential threat to the Netherlands and must be expelled from Dutch society. Moreover, Islam should not be tolerated in the Netherlands because, he alleges, it is antithetical and inherently hostile to the core Judeo-Christian principles that produced the secular culture of contemporary Europe.

In Hungary, religio-civilizational notions of identity are an important part of the discourse practiced by the ruling right-wing populist party Fidesz, and especially its leader and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Though Hungary is not an especially religious nation, Orbán describes Christianity as one of the core elements of Hungarian identity and culture and the key ingredient without which the nation would collapse. Much like Wilders, Orbán conceives of the world as divided into different civilizations and Islamic and Christian civilizations as mighty opposites doomed to clash. Yet where Wilders embraces Christian identity politics to defend secularism, Orbán uses Christian identity to defend social conservatism—and traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality—from secularism.

Religious populism is hardly endemic in Europe and may indeed be more prevalent outside the West. For example, Hindu Nationalism is a core element of the political program of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples’ Party, BJP). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, in which Muslims are alleged to be a foreign and hostile element within Hindu civilization. In Turkey, the ruling populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dramatically altered Turkish citizens’ sense of national and civilizational identity through its neo-Ottoman discourse, which posits that Turkish Muslims are at the vanguard of the ummah (the global community of Muslims) (Yilmaz, 2021a). Moreover, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses his considerable rhetorical skill, political acumen, and even unofficial Islamic legal opinions (fatwas) (Yilmaz, 2021b) to convince Turkish citizens that the Judeo-Christian West is at war with the ummah and that he alone stands against the existential threat to Muslims globally.

From these examples, we may learn two important things. First, religious populism is a global phenomenon (see in detail Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Second, it is a versatile set of ideas that people of any of the major religious traditions can use just as secular and non-religious people do. Yet why should religion, in an age of secularization, become such an important component of populist politics the world over? What is it about religion that populists find so useful?

Populism and Emotions

To understand why populists have increasingly used religious-sounding rhetoric, we must first consider how populist movements and leaders produce public demand for their political agendas. Populist discourse is centered on separating society “into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’,” and ensuring that politics is a representation of “the will of the people.” Beyond this binary, populist discourses often seek to create or exploit antagonisms in two different directions: vertically, or between the people at the top of society (elites) and those at the bottom (“the people”); and horizontally, or between “the pure people” and their class, ethnic, or religious internal and external enemies.

For a populist party or leader to achieve an electoral breakthrough and sustained political success, they must successfully construct these antagonistic groups, and moreover, create a sense of an impending crisis brought on by elites and “others” that threatens to engulf and destroy “the people.” To create this necessary sense of crisis (Moffitt, 2015), populists must elicit and exploit emotions from the general public, which help construct antagonistic relationships and create demand for populist solutions.

Emotions such as fear and rage must be elicited and harnessed and ultimately directed toward the groups and individuals allegedly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place: ruling elites and internal and external enemy groups. Populists must then portray themselves as patriotic champions of the people, who will “save” the nation and its people by overthrowing elites and defeating foreign and internal threats from “others,” and establishing a new form of democratic governance in which the will of the people is obeyed.

Emotions, therefore, are essential to populists. Not because populism relies more on eliciting emotion than all other forms of politics, but because populism cannot succeed without evoking particular emotions among a large section of the general public, especially feelings of anger toward elites and fear of “others,” but also at certain times nostalgia for a happier time now past, and love for one’s homeland.

Religious Populism and Emotions

To elicit emotions that create demand for populism, populists produce narratives that paint events, in-groups, and out-groups in a certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitates strong emotions in their desired audience (Brady et al., 2017). Salmela and von Scheve suggest that populists have fared incredibly well in recent decades due to their ability to capitalize on the negative emotions produced in response to the rise of neoliberal capitalism, which they claim “humiliates” ordinary people. Right-wing populists, they claim, exploit the “repressed shame that transforms fear and insecurity into anger, resentment, and hatred against perceived ‘enemies’ of the precarious self” (Salmela and von Scheve, 2018: 434).

Populists can instrumentalize religion in a variety of ways. Religion can help sacralize “the people” by tying them to an existing religious tradition. Religion can also be used to perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality—the religion of “the people” can be framed positively, while the religion (or lack of religion) of “others” can be demonized as an existential threat to ‘us.’ For example, Christian identitarian populists in Western Europe frame Muslim immigration to Europe as an existential threat to the West’s (Judeo-)Christian culture and identity. By framing Muslim immigrants as dangerous, they provoke a fear response in the public that can easily be turned into anger against Muslims, but also toward the government elites who permit Muslims to immigrate to Europe. At the same time, populist parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and French National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) exploit deep feelings of nostalgia and love for one’s country by framing themselves as national and civilizational saviors, who alone can restore their nation’s greatness (Morieson, 2021).

Most of all, however, what religion offers populists is the ability to couch the typically populist horizontal (the people vs. others) and vertical (the people vs. elites) antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame to create a narrative of elite failure and civilizational crisis. Examples of religious populists employing an emotion-based appeal to the people are not challenging to find. In Turkey, the Islamist AKP has always been adept at exploiting the emotions of the Turkish people and transforming them into demand for the party’s populist solutions. Mahir Unal, a senior Turkish politician in the populist-Islamist AKP, confessed that his party’s mobilizational strategy was “emotional vampirism,” by which he meant that the AKP “sucked and exploited all emotions in the society” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 136). Indeed, the AKP has established itself as the ruling party by exploiting several emotions felt deeply by large segments of the public, especially fear, anger, rage, a desire to sacrifice oneself for one’s homeland, and nostalgia—in this case, a deep restorative nostalgia for the glorious and dominant Ottoman Empire (Yilmaz, 2021a).

The AKP has been highly skilled at couching the traditional populist vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a larger Islamist and neo-Ottomanist frame. For example, “the people” of Turkey are conceived by the party as part of a global Islamic community—the ummah. Thus, secular elites in Turkey are portrayed by the party as not merely corrupt but anti-Muslim enemies of the global ummah. Likewise, non-Muslims and non-orthodox Muslims are portrayed as threats to the ummah who must be overcome, and for this purpose, lives must be sacrificed if needed (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021). Indeed, Erdogan’s discourse frames Turkey’s social problems within a larger problem of clashing civilizations, and particularly within a battle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. By framing the corruption of the previous secular regime, Turkey’s disputes with the European Union, and the country’s internal ethnic and religious struggles, within a broader “clash of civilizations” in which the ummah is under constant threat from enemy forces, the AKP has been able to create a sense of permanent crisis and turn subsequent emotions of fear and anger into support for their Islamist populist agenda (Yilmaz, 2021a).

By couching populism’s typical vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame, populists have at times successfully convinced segments of their broader publics that their identity, nation, and civilization are threatened by both the rulers of their country, but also internal and external enemies belonging to other civilizations. Given how frequently right-wing populists movements and parties throughout the world instrumentalize religion, we must begin to consider the power emotions related to religion play in creating demand for populism and sustaining populist government.

References

Brady, William J.; Wills, Julian A.; Jost, John T.; Tucker, Joshua A. and van Bavel, Jay J. (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114: 7313–18

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2015). “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism.” Government and Opposition. 50: 189–217.

Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). Religion and the Populist Radical Right: Secular Christianism and Populism in Western Europe. Delaware and Malaga: Vernon Press.

Salmela, Mikko, and von Scheve, Christian. (2018). “Emotional dynamics of right- and left-wing political populism.” Humanity & Society. 42: 434–54.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas, and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. 2nd Edition. 170-187. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

Yilmaz, Ihsan, and Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion, and Emotions.” Religions. 12, no. 4: 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272.

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, O. F. (2021). “Populism, Violence and Authoritarian Stability: Necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965.

"Father traces from haven" - election poster for Shas, featuring Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Rishon Le Zion, Israel on March 7, 2015. Shas is an ultra-orthodox religious political party in Israel.

Different ways in which religion and populism intersect within world’s great faiths

Over the past three decades, religion has re-emerged as a key factor in domestic and international politics. One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular societies, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. Religious people who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism. They discover that their populism is not in tension with their religious beliefs and practices. Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

To the surprise of many scholars, religion has re-emerged over the past three decades to become a key factor in domestic and international politics (Grzymala-Busse, 2012). One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular Western Europe, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. What, then, is the relationship between religion and populism, and how has it manifested across the world and in different societies?

There are two different major dimensions to the religion-populism relationship. First, populism sometimes resembles religion, or at least fundamentalist interpretations of religion, insofar as of true believers if they follow a particular leader or party or participate in a particular movement. And like religious fundamentalists, populists often view the world through the prism of a Manichean antagonistic struggle between “the people,” who are good, and “elites” and “others” who are evil (Mudde 2004: 543; Zúquete 2017: 446)

Yet, populism is not a replacement for religion; instead, it is compatible with certain forms of religion, particularly religions which possess near absolute notions of good and evil. It should not be surprising, then, that Muslims and Christians who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism, and that their populism is not necessarily in tension with their religious beliefs and practices.

Populists may also have a functional relationship with religion. They may themselves be members of a religious group, church, or organization and may possess a political agenda based on or heavily influenced by religious texts and doctrines. We may call this group “religious populists.” 

“Identitarian populists” reject religious government but use religion to identify “the people” and their enemies according to a religio-civilizational classification of peoples. There is inevitably some overlap between the forms of populist, and the boundary between them is often ambiguous. 

The difference between the two, however, is significant. Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects as expressed through a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movements/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism, however, does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, it embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilizations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) It is not, then, religious itself, but often wholly secular.

What religious and identitarian populists share is civilisationalism—or a religion-based classification of world civilisations. Yet whether populists possess a genuinely religious agenda, or merely use religion to define national and civilizational identity, it is becoming clear that religion, in its various forms, is providing fertile ground not only for the construction of a receptive audience—“the pure people” of the populist imagination —but also provides relevant and highly valuable materials which help populists create “us” versus “them” dichotomies and at perpetuating these divisive binaries (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, in order to begin to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

Islam

The democratic Muslim majority world is home to a number of powerful religious populist movements. Several of these movements have achieved significant electoral success, especially in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. These movements are mostly Islamist in nature, and therefore combine “material and cultural understandings of religion,” ultimately forming “a multivalent religio-moral populism—a potentially explosive articulation of different class interests and religious cravings” (Tugal 2002: 86). Because Islamism is itself attached to Islamic ideas of justice (both economic and social), it can be easily combined with the thin ideology of populism, which is itself based upon the notion that corrupt elites are acting unjustly towards “the people” and must be removed from power. 

Perhaps the most significant Islamist populist party in the contemporary world is Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has led Turkey since 2002, replacing secular rule with a new programme, incorporating “Islamism, nationalism, and populism” and substantially blurring the boundaries between each (Taş, 2020: 2). While the AKP maintains a populist conception of society in which Erdogan is presented as “the voice of victimised ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against old ‘elites’,” the party also pursues an Islamist, anti-secular project involving the Islamist religious education of the young. The AKP has a post-Kemalist, “Islamist civilisationist”(Yilmaz, 2021) outlook that has radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself, as well as elements of its foreign policy (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55).

A homeowner displaying his political affiliation and religious devotion on his front lawn in Forest, Virginia on Aug. 21, 2020.

Christianity

A similar religio-civilizational conception of the world can be found in Christian populist movements. However, we must be careful to distinguish between two broad types of Christian populism. In Greece, for example, we see evidence of a genuinely religious populism in the “populist character” (Stavrakakis 2004: 260) of the political discourse used by the Church of Greece and, especially in the rhetoric of the late Archbishop Christodoulos (Paraskevaidis). The very political Archbishop’s discourse was “organized according to an antagonistic schema,” and divided society into two categories: the “good” people who belonged to the Greek church, and the evil atheistic, secularizing, and modernizing forces of the government and its supporters (Stavrakakis 2004. 261–62)

In the United States, where religion has long had a powerful influence over domestic politics, religious populism played a role in the ideology of the Tea Party movement. A “convergence of libertarianism and fundamentalist religion” (Montgomery, 2012: 180–81), the Tea Party movement claimed that the American Constitution, “which restricts the powers of government… [was] divinely inspired.” Americans who called for “big government” were branded by Tea Party activists as not merely un-American, but un-Christian (Montgomery 2012: 180–81)

The generally secular orientation of Western politics, however, often precludes genuine religious populism. Instead, more common is Christian identity populism. The best example of Christian identitarian populism in Western Europe might be the Netherland’s Party for Freedom. A nominally secular, liberal party supportive of gay rights and women’s rights, the Party for Freedom is also a deeply anti-Muslim party which conceives of Dutch culture as the exclusive product of “Judeo-Christianity and Humanism.” This religio-civilizational conception of the Netherlands automatically excludes Muslims, who the party faults for being too conservative, undemocratic, and political. 

A similar yet different Christian identitarian populism exists in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, Viktor Orbán’s ruling party, the populist Fidesz, also practices a religio-civilizational categorization of peoples, in which Hungary is defined as a Christian yet also secular society, and in which Muslims are demonized as belonging to a hostile foreign civilization. Yet, Fidesz is fundamentally illiberal and seeks to use Christian identity to protect traditional sexual mores and gender relationships from secular progressive forces, which are attempting to introduce gay rights, transgender rights, and multiculturalism.  

Election billboards of religious political parties Shas and Otzma Yehudit before Israel’s fourth election in two years in a street of Jerusalem on March 22, 2021. Photo: Gali Estrange

Judaism

Populism and Judaism have a complex relationship, partly due to the role of Israel as a somewhat exclusive Jewish homeland but also because “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167).The most concrete example of a Jewish populist movement is the Israeli party Shas. Shas’ ideology divides Israeli society between “the people,” who are “all the Jews of Israel” and includes “the Ashkenazim and Sephardim” (Filc, 2016: 176), and others, especially Arabs, African asylum seekers, and secular “elites.” The party opposes secular notions of the necessity of separating the “public sphere and individual religion” and rejects the “neutral state and a pluralistic society” (Filc, 2016: 173). Instead, Shas claims the state must “define and build a common good” based upon Jewish theological understandings of these notions (Filc, 2016: 173).

Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi visiting the Ananda Temple, in Bagan, Myanmar on September 06, 2017.

Hinduism

Beyond the monotheistic faiths, populism is increasingly attached to Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In India, Narendra Modi’s populist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly uses a Hindu nationalist narrative—in which India is a Hindu civilization wounded by Muslim and British invaders—to shape its domestic politics and elements of its foreign policy. The BJP has won control of the government several times under Modi’s leadership, having successfully adapted the philosophy of Hindutva to a populist-nationalist framework, in which Hindus are identified as “the people” and secular nationalists (such as the former governing party, the Indian National Congress) are demonised as “elites” beholden to dangerous foreign ideologies (including secularism) (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488–90).

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen with his wife and family in the Gangarama Temple at for religious ceremony and baptism in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020.

Buddhism

In Sri Lanka, populism has been employed since the 1990s by Sinhalese Buddhist political leaders in order to construct and, when necessary, mobilize “the people”—that is, Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankans—and to define Sri Lanka’s national identity. Political leaders such as former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tailored their rhetoric to typical populist binaries (ie., the people vs. the elites or us vs. them) to appeal to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (Stokke, 1998; Devotta & Stone, 2008). Moreover, as part of this populist rhetoric, they frequently referred to minority groups—particularly Tamils and Muslims—as threats to the people of Sri Lanka and the nation’s Buddhist and Sinhalese identity. They did this “in order to win the rewards of power” (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). Buddhist organizations such as Bodubalasēna (BBS, Buddhist Power Army) play an important role in supporting populist politicians in Sri Lanka and frequently claim that minorities, and specifically Muslim Sri Lankans, pose a threat to national unity and the country’s authentic Buddhist identity (Sarjoon et al., 2016).

Conclusion

It may be tempting to view the rise of different religious populist movements, in both secular and religious societies, as ultimate proof of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Yet, despite the emphasis placed on religion and civilization by all these movements, few could be called transnational or international, and all are deeply nationalist in orientation. Therefore, we might conclude that religious and identitarian populists use religion primarily as a framing devise, a tool with which they can divide people within a single nation between “the pure people” and their enemies, the ruling elite and “others.” We may also surmise that religion and religious identity remain powerful forces, even in the secular West—forces which can elicit deep and sometimes violent emotions. The power of religion to engender feelings of rage in people, when they sense something sacred being profaned, may be especially useful to populists, who must create a sense of national crisis to generate the demand for populism among the public.


References

Devotta, Neil; Stone, Jason. (2008). “Jathika Hela Urumaya and Ethno-religious Politics in Sri Lanka.” Pacific Affairs. 81: 31–51. 

Filc, Dani. (2016). “’We are the (Chosen) People, you are not’ The Case of Shas Populism.” In: Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion. Edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Grzymala-Busse, Anna. (2012). “Why Comparative Politics Should Take Religion (More) Seriously.” Annual Review of Political Science. 15: 421–42.

Hadiz, Vedi R. (2018). “Mobilising Islamic populism for right-wing politics in Indonesia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48: 566–83.

Jaffrelot, Christopher and Tillin, Louise. (2017). “Populism in India.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jayasinghe, Pasan. (2021). “Hegemonic Populism: Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Populism in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” In: Populism in Asian Democracies: Features, Structures, and Impact. Edited by Sook Jong Lee, Chin-en Wu and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

McDonnell, Duncan, and Cabrera, Luis. (2019). “The right-wing populism of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party.” Democratization. 26: 484–501. 

Montgomery, Peter. (2012). Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39: 541–63. 

Roy, Olivier. (2016). “The French National Front: From Christian Identity to Laïcité.” In: Saving the People How Populists Hijack Religion. Edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy. London: C. Hurst & Co. 

Sarjoon, Athambawa; Yusoff, Mohammad Agus and Hussin, Nordin. (2016). “Anti-Muslim Sentiments and Violence: A Major Threat to Ethnic Reconciliation and Ethnic Harmony in Post-War Sri Lanka.” Religions. 7: 125.

Stavrakakis, Yannis. (2004). Antinomies of formalism: Laclau’s theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece. Journal of Political Ideologies 9: 253–67.

Stokke, Kristian. (1998). “Sinhalese and Tamil Nationalism as Post-colonial Political Projects from ‘Above’ 1948–83.” Political Geography. 17: 83–113.

Taş, Hakkı. (2020). “The chronopolitics of national populism.” Identities. 1–19. 

Tugal, Cihan. (2002). “Islamism in Turkey: Beyond instrument and meaning.” Economy and Society. 31: 85–111

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdoğan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29: 52–76. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Galib Bashirov. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: Emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 39

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal RoviraKaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

The Islamic Defenders Front: The Face of Indonesia’s Far-Right Islamism

This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?

Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.

 

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Habib Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.

As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).

While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).

Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?

Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”

Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).

For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).

The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).

President Joko Widodo campaigned in Banjarmasin Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan on March 27, 2019. Photo: Iman Satria

What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?

Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).

In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).

While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).

Protester waving Indonesian flag and Habib Rizieq Shihab picture during President Election Protest in front of Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24, 2020.

The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”

The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”

This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).

At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?

Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).

This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).

The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.

Professor Kaltwasser: Turkey cannot be considered a democratic system anymore

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: “The crucial question is what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric … because he can still present himself as an ‘outsider.’”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading academics in the field of populism, Prof. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argues that Turkey under the Erdogan regime can no longer be considered a democratic system and should now be classed as a competitive authoritarian regime. Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser—who teaches at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile—also stresses that once a populist is able to entrench him or herself into the political system, as Erdogan has, he or she is likely to be at the helm of the country for an extended period of time: “And this is [what] I think that the experience from Turkey, but also from other countries like Venezuela, shows…”

Asked whether authoritarian populism is itself here to stay, Prof. Rovira Kalwasser says it will in part depend on the aftereffects of COVID-19: “I’m thinking here mainly about the social and economic aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.” He indicates that if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal in a systemic way with those aftereffects, populism could lose its appeal. If not, Rovira Kaltwasser says, populist forces will exploit socio-economic tensions and the aftereffects of COVID-19, which — he stresses — could strengthen populism.

The following excerpts from our interview have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Populist Voters Tend to Have Very Illiberal Understanding of Democracy

You argue in your article on “the Populist Citizen” that “evidence suggests that populists are politically engaged citizens who do not want to overthrow the democratic system but rather push for the democratization of democracy.” If this is the case, do we not need to worry about the surge of populism?

This is an interesting question. I think it depends on how you analyze the data. What we found out when analyzing data in different countries—we have Latin America, Turkey, and a couple of European countries—is a striking commonality in all those places. The commonality is that citizens tend to have strong populist attitudes. At the same time, populist citizens tend to be in favor of the democratic system. From this study, one might conclude that democracy and populism are compatible. But I think this would be too easy an interpretation of the data because we don’t know what concept of democracy citizens have in mind. We only know that these citizens are in favor of democracy.

In fact, one of the issues we mention at the end of the paper is that we need much more research on the type of understanding of democracy that populist citizens have across all these countries. Currently, I am researching with two colleagues, analyzing data about populist citizens on the one hand and citizens’ concepts of democracy on the other. The data we have collected covers several Western European countries. What we found out is pretty interesting. We have data for those who voted for populist radical right-wing parties and populist radical left parties. One interesting commonality among those voters is that—when we ask them which concept of democracy they have in mind—they reference a very illiberal understanding of democracy. Populism can be a democratic threat, mainly because those who support populist ideas tend to have a very peculiar understanding of democracy at odds with the liberal institutions we know are crucial for consolidating a liberal democratic regime.

Populism: Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism

In the same article, you argue that the demand for populism can be interpreted as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Does this mean populism can also be something that corrects the defects of democracy? Could you elaborate?

Well, I mean, here you’re combining two questions in one, and each of them, I think, is interesting. The first question is about whether populism is a threat or a corrective for democracy. I would say that populism is both—there are many examples in which it is very clear that populism has destroyed the democratic system.

Venezuela under Chavez is one example, as is Turkey. If you think about Turkey and what is happening in the country with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. These are two examples in which we can clearly see that the coming into power of a populist figure represents a democratic threat. But there are also many instances in which you have populist forces that sometimes enter into government in a coalition with other parties. Think about the case of Spain’s radical left party Podemos, which is in a coalition with the Socialist Party. Or think about the case of Austria where we have radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party), which between 2017 and 2019 was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. And the democratic system didn’t collapse in Austria—probably some things have been changing, but it’s not that the system has disappeared. And this is why I think that we need to be very careful with the theoretical arguments about populism and the empirical analysis. Depending on the case in question, we can say whether it is a threat or a corrective.

And the second part of your question is about this argument that I had been developing with my friend and colleague Cas Mudde that populism can be understood as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. And the argument that we develop is that if we think about liberal ideas both in the cultural sense and also in the economic sense, to a certain extent, many of these ideas have been pushed without asking the people whether they want to go in that direction. I think that the European Union (EU) is the best example of that. This is why we see in different countries within the EU that many citizens ask themselves whether this is the kind of EU they want. People are questioning the extent to which “we, the people” can control those liberal institutions, and I think this is a good question. While populism probably is not offering the right answers, it’s posing the right questions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan Still Presents Himself As an “Outsider”

You’re currently researching Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), showing voters for the party are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about malign global forces than those who vote for other parties. Why is this the case?

Well, this is the topic of a new article that I have written with two colleagues from Turkey. They know much more about Turkey than I do but based on the findings from our article, I can say two issues are quite interesting here. This article is based on survey data that we have for contemporary Turkey. The first finding is very peculiar. We realize that those who support the AKP tend to have less populist attitudes than those supporting other parties. And this is sort of a paradox because we know that Erdogan and the AKP articulate a populist discourse.

But our data shows that those who support the AKP and Erdogan are not that populist compared to those in the opposition. So how can we interpret the paradox? And the argument that we develop here, and this is also based on literature covering other countries, is that once you have a populist force in government who can stay in power for a long time, that sort of populist actor becomes the establishment. I mean, Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years, so he’s controlling the system. So, in this sense, those who support Erdogan and AKP, for them populism is not really the key driving force for their support because they know that they are part of the elite, so to say.

But here comes the second finding that it’s also interesting, and this is related to your question. We find out that those who support the AKP tend to have a much firmer belief in conspiracy theories against global forces. And I think this is the sort of discourse the AKP is developing. This is the discourse populist forces typically develop in government. They say, in fact, “we are not the real elite of the country because the real elite who controls the country lives outside of the country, and they are controlling the system.” And this is why we cannot do all the things that we want for “the people” because we have these outside forces that are blocking the will of the people. And in this way, the populist figure can still present himself or herself as an outsider. And I think this part of the analysis that we develop in our paper and analyzing this interaction between conspiracy theories and populist attitudes is very promising for the case of Turkey, but probably for many other places in the world as well.

Erdogan Can Stay in Power for a Long Time 

The AKP has been in power since 2002 as a single-party government. How long do you think the AKP can stay in power as a single party, given the rising populist rhetoric of Erdogan?

Well, again, I’m not an expert on Turkey, but based on my knowledge, my main fear here is that it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. It is, in fact, what many scholars call a competitive authoritarian regime. Turkey is a country in which you still have elections. Elections take place, there is opposition, but running against the AKP and Erdogan is very, very complicated. And this is why I think that the experience from Turkey, but also other countries—like, for instance, the case of Venezuela—shows that once you have a populist figure who is able to entrench itself into the political system, this figure can stay for an extended period of time. In the case of Venezuela, in fact, Hugo Chavez died, but even he was able to appoint (Nicolas) Maduro, who is the head of the government now. I think the case of Turkey, it’s very, very dependent on the leader Erdogan, so the crucial question is, “can we have AKP without Erdogan?” A similar question arose in Argentina a long time ago, “can we have Peronism without Peron?” In Argentina, that became a possibility.

The crucial question is, what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric, as I mentioned before because he can still present himself as an “outsider.” [Propagating the idea that] powers from outside are controlling the country … is the sort of language that many populist leaders in government develop.

Hugo Chavez is seen during his last campaign for presidency. Photo: Luis Arismendi

Are populist systems able to stay in power for a long time, or are they prone to collapse? Can you offer examples for each one?

Well, you can see it all if you look at different cases across the globe. I mean, you have cases in which populist figures could come into power, and they had to leave quickly because they were not able to build a strong alliance with crucial actors. Or there was an economic collapse or something like that, and because of that, they had to leave power relatively fast. If you think about Brazil at the beginning of the 1990s, they elected Fernando Collor de Mello as president. A huge corruption scandal popped up, and after two years, there was an impeachment, and he left office. His brief story was one of a very unsuccessful populist figure.

But we also have other instances, as in the case of Turkey, where Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years. So, I think it’s difficult to generalize based on different examples. For example, Alberto Fujimori in Peru was ten years in government, and after that, he left office and disappeared from the political scene. But the division within society in Peru, to some extent, falls on whether you are in favor of Fujimori or against him. If you go to Venezuela nowadays, the whole political debate is the same: whether you are for Chavismo or against it. And I can imagine that, for example, in Turkey, there will arise a debate after Erdogan of whether you were in favor of Erdogan or not. Then you have the emergence of a new political cleavage. That is not necessarily a cleavage between left and right politics but a cleavage between being in favor or against that sort of populist project.

Liberal Institutions May Challenge the Will of the People

How do you explain the recent success of populist parties in the EU, which was once seen as the embodiment of liberal democratic values?

This goes back to our discussion before about this idea of undemocratic liberalism. I think that the EU, to a certain extent, is an example of pushing liberal values in an undemocratic way. If you think just in economic terms, consider that the EU has been developing both the eurozone and a whole infrastructure concerning economic integration and economic liberalization. Very often, citizens were not necessarily in favor of that process. However, politicians at the national level said, “Well, this is what Brussels is doing, and we cannot do anything.” To a certain extent, these politicians were using the EU as a foil, displacing responsibility to Brussels for these developments, which they supported at the national level but did not want to be held accountable for.

Later came the Great Recession (2008–2009), and then we realized the power of the EU economic structure. You had the European Central Bank telling certain countries, particularly in Southern Europe, you have to do A, B, and C. Then you realize that you have these liberal institutions that challenge the will of the people. If you asked people in Italy, in Greece, or Spain, they were saying, “we don’t want these policies.” So, you have here a supranational institution — a liberal institution —pushing against the will of the people. This is just one example that has not been completely developed in an engagement with the will of the people, and because of that, now we have the rise of populist forces of both right and left. They are politicizing specific issues that are relevant for certain sectors of the electorate.

Nigel Farage arrives at the House of Commons to lend support to the Leave Means Leave campaign in London, UK on January 15, 2019. Photo: Brian Minkoff

British political scientist Paul Taggart argues that “populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary people.” Do you agree with him, and could you elaborate?

Yes, I one-hundred percent agree with that beautiful sentence from Paul. This is again a sort of a paradox because populist figures usually talk about ordinary people. But if you think about populist figures very often, they tend to be very peculiar. Think about Donald Trump, think about Nigel Farage, think about Fujimori and figures like that. This is part of the paradox because populists’ leaders try to do two things simultaneously to rise to prominence. The first thing that they try to do is to break certain taboos. If you break certain taboos, you will get a lot of visibility, and therefore they’re very good with social media because they say certain things that generate a lot of tension within society. So, in this way, they are in the news the whole time. At the same time, populist figures are very clever in presenting themselves as outsiders, although they’re not necessarily real outsiders. Take the example of Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire—I mean, he’s not a real outsider. But he presents himself as an outsider within the political system, and in that way, he generates a lot of publicity. This is part of the paradox that very well describes that sentence from Paul Taggart.

Socio-economic Inequality and Declining Legitimacy Threatens Liberal Democracies

After the end of the Cold War, it was predicted that liberal Western democracy had prevailed, and all the other systems would try to be like these democracies. However, as you mention in your book Populism: A Very Short Introduction,populism is at odds with liberal democracy. What went wrong, and why did Francis Fukuyama prove to be wrong?

Well, I think that the problem is, at the beginning of the 1990s, when we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and also a process of re-democratization in most Latin American countries, many people, I mean many people within academia— Fukuyama is probably the best example of that sort—thought this was “the end of history,” in the sense that we expected the prevalence of liberal democracy all over the world. But I think that sort of prediction was a bit naive, and it was based on seeing the expansion of democracy across many places of the world in a very short period of time. In contrast, what we’re experiencing today is an unambiguous signal that to have liberal democratic systems that can stabilize over time, we need specific prerequisites that are not necessarily present across all—or even most—societies. This is a problem not only for Latin America or for Turkey—for developing countries, so to say—but this is also a problem in developed countries like in Europe and the United States.

I think the two prerequisites are, to a certain extent, under stress today. The first prerequisite is legitimacy because most citizens believe that democracy is the only game in town. As I mentioned at the beginning, my feeling is that there is an important section of the electorate across different societies with a very peculiar understanding of democracy. I mean a non-liberal understanding of democracy. And this is why legitimacy is failing in many countries across the globe. The second prerequisite, I would say, is related to the issue of socio-economic inequality. To have a democratic system that can prevail over time, you need a certain minimum and a safety net within society. And if you don’t have that, there is a real chance that many people will start to feel deprived on either a subjective or an objective level because they’re saying the system is not working in a fair way. And this is a real problem for most countries of the world because of economic globalization. Socio-economic inequality and declining legitimacy are two of the main—although not the only—reasons that liberal democratic systems across the globe are under stress today.

How Is the World Going to Look After COVID-19?

Do you think current populist authoritarianism trends will continue? If yes, what sort of a world is waiting for us in the next five to ten years?

Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I think this is probably related to the major crisis that we’re experiencing today. This is the coronavirus, and the question is, how is the world going to look after COVID-19? One of the trickiest aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is that it generates a lot of social and economic inequality within countries and across the world. Take the whole debate, for example, about vaccines—we are seeing what is happening in India, a developing country that is not able to get enough vaccines. And this is generating a lot of tensions within that country. Also, we realize that social and economic inequalities are getting wider within countries. As mentioned, the expansion of socio-economic inequality is one of the main reasons there is democratic fragility across much of the world.

So, in this sense, the answer to your question of whether populist forces will continue to experience success in the near future is related to how well we can deal with the aftereffects of COVID-19. I’m thinking here mainly of the social and economic aftereffects of the crisis. And I think if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal with the aftereffects of the crisis in a systemic way, the likelihood is that populist forces will continue to diminish. But if this is not the case, I think the opposite will be true, and we might see populist forces of the radical right or the radical left exploit the tensions that arise with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Who is Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser?

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a full professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University (UDP) in Santiago de Chile and an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES)

Kaltwasser received his PhD in political science from the Humboldt-University of Berlin in 2008. His main area of research is comparative politics and he has a special interest in the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Before his current job Kaltwasser worked as a research fellow at the University of Sussex, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Human Development group of the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Together with Cas Mudde (Georgia University), Kaltwasser has written the book “Populism. A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai amongst others.

Fatima Spar and The Freedom Fries. Photo: Received from http://www.freedomfries.at

Singing protest in Vienna

While many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations, others worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake. This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past. Vienna continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance.

By Heidi Hart

Recently a dangerous package arrived in the post: a tango sent by a musician friend in Vienna who had found the sheet music at a flea market. “I’ve had absolutely no luck in finding anyone willing to take it here,” she wrote, noting the taboo around late 1930s music associated with the Nazi party. This orchestrated dance piece from 1938, titled “Mädi, nach dir hab’ ich Heimweh” (“Girl, I’m homesick for you”), also suggests the fraught word “Heimat” in the nationalistic sense of “homeland.” Because I work on antifascist music from that period, I found the music interesting as background, but also painful to hold in my hands. The composer, Horst Raszat, also contributed a song to a National Socialist anthology in 1939. 

Like the problematic figure of Wagner, blatantly antisemitic in the nineteenth century and beloved by Hitler in the twentieth, many composers have retained the poison of their fascist associations. Others, like Hanns Eisler and others who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht, worked directly to counter the nationalistic bluster of Nazi marches and sentimental songs, using interruptions and other distancing techniques to keep listeners’ and musicians’ critical faculties awake (Hart, 2018).

This musical battleground is not just a thing of the past, however. Vienna, once one of the most modern and diverse cities in Europe, until the Nazi Anschluss and subsequent gutting of its Jewish population stripped much of its cultural richness away (Weyr, 2005), continues to be contested ground between far-right populism and resistance. Protest music plays a large role in how these tensions are embodied and whose voices are heard. 

One response to xenophobic populism has been musical parody. In 2005, the FPÖ or Freedom Party in Austria campaigned with the slogan “Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden” (idiomatically translated as “Don’t let Vienna turn into Istanbul”), based on a 1990s slogan expressing the same wish not to “turn into Chicago” (Demokratiezentrum Wien, 2008) after the rise of far-right ideology under Jörg Haider. In response to the “Istanbul” slogan, Turkish-Austrian jazz singer Fatima Spar and her band The Freedom Fries turned the words around as a song title: “Istanbul darf nicht Wien werden” (“Don’t let Istanbul turn into Vienna”).

The anti-xenophobic song begins with these stanzas, sung in Turkish and translated with intentionally lower-case, democratizing typescript on the band’s website:

             they are afraid

             that in the city’s heart

            we’ll soon raise a mosque

            and pull down their church

     

           that in masses we will settle

           and run down their flats

          with our mercedes

          parked neatly at our doorsteps

The music works in a push-pull dynamic of parodic Viennese waltz and taverna music, a blend of styles that reflects crisscrossing cultures southeast of Vienna. Spar sings in quick, faux-panicky patter against this contrast of 3/4 and 4/4 time. Her voice slows and becomes almost mournful at the end, when she sings: “you let us row the boat/ yet our faces meet stone-cold/ “i say”, they say/ ‘that turkish girl sure is one of us.’” 

In another vein, Isabel Frey, a young Yiddish singer who has found herself as uncomfortable with Zionist politics as with European populism, adapted an old protest song in 2019 that led to her own unexpected political career. After the “Ibiza Affair” became public in May of that year, linking Freedom Party officials with corruption and election support from the Russian elite, the Austrian coalition imploded. Frey responded with a song, outside the Chancellor’s residence “atop a white van with her guitar surrounded by speakers and protesters” (Baur, 2021).  

The song “Daloy Politsey,” or “Down with the Police” was sung by Jewish protesters against the Tsarist regime in early twentieth-century Russia. Frey, who had already been learning Yiddish songs as part of contemporary Diaspora culture, added a German verse and chorus, and her adaptation became an anthem for the anti-populist Thursday demonstrations in Vienna (listen to it here). When she sang the song the day after the Ibiza Affair had been made public, she added the line, “heute ist Straches letzter tag” (“today is [Heinz-Christian] Strache’s last day”), referring to the Vice Chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (Hillis, 2020).

The Austrian LINKS party grew out of the Thursday demonstrations, and party member Frey won a city council seat in the recent election, representing the historically Jewish Leopoldstadt community. As part of her agenda, Frey presses for a more thorough reckoning with history and exclusionary politics in Austria. She has explained, “It doesn’t work if you just talk about the Holocaust and then use that as an expression of Austrian national identity, and use it to indirectly exclude other people from the national community, like refugees and Muslims” (Baur, 2021). With this year’s protests in Vienna over Covid restrictions, often involving Freedom Party supporters (Reuters, 2021), she will have plenty of work ahead in that area as well. 

Adapting older protest music to meet current political crises is a practice with a long history. In 1949, American bass Paul Robeson, best known as a Black singer of spirituals, performed the Yiddish marching song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in Moscow. This expression of “solidarity with the Jewish people” in a “Holocaust-era Partisan song” (Kutzik, 2018) also intersected with the oppression of Blacks in the US (Rogaly, 2021). The performance led to both applause and boos in the USSR (listen to the recording here), where Jewish intellectuals were still facing persecution; Robeson’s support both for Jewish friends and for the USSR shows the complexity of anti-fascist music-making after the Second World War (Kutzik, 2018)

In today’s fraught political climate, older protest songs continue to be repurposed, from the Italian farmworkers’ “Bella Ciao” originally sung against Mussolini’s regime, and now sung in anti-authoritarian protests worldwide, to the “Marseillaise” appropriated on the right and reclaimed by the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and Paris Opera workers in 2019 (Dorcadie, 2020). In the US, the familiar Woodie Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” is under new scrutiny, as its lyrics sound blatantly colonialist to Native peoples (Kesler, 2021). Twenty years ago, an adaptation by Mexican-American singer Lila Downs already included critique of the song’s assumptions, by speaking in the collective voice of immigrant farmworkers and then asking “When did you come to America?” in an accusing “white” voice (Downs, 2001)

Meanwhile, back in Vienna, the recent May Day demonstration occurred in the nexus of Covid fatigue and community concern over fair housing, especially for refugees (Vienna Online, 2021). Young organizers gave impassioned speeches in front of the famous opera house, with its own history of musical conservatism and recent resistance, in the form of an opera by Olga Neuwirth based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Ross, 2019). For all the ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment and resurging antisemitism in the city (Reuters, 2021), Vienna will continue to be an important site of protest. Though Austrian writer-of-conscience Thomas Bernhard, forced to sing Nazi marching songs as a child, lamented the “lethal soil” embedded in the beauty of cities like Salzburg, which “has always rejected those spirits it could not understand” (Bernhard, 2003: 100-101), spirited singers like Fatima Spar and Isabel Frey insist, today, on being present and being heard.  

References

Bernhard, Thomas. (2003). Gathering Evidence: A Memoir. Translated by David McLintock.  New York: Vintage.

Hart, Heidi. (2018). Hanns Eisler’s Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty. Rochester, NY: Camden House.

Rogaly, Ben. (2021). “Resisting racial nationalism and the depredations of capitalism.” Seminar presentation at the Department of Musicology, Lund University, April 27, 2021.

Weyr, Thomas. (2005). The Setting of the Pearl: Vienna Under Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during 74th Anniversary of Parachutist Infantry Battalion held at Military Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 23, 2019. Photo: Celso Pupo

Military and Populism: An Introduction

Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights. This commentary tries to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja M. Ali Saleem (*)

Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights.

This commentary seeks to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders. It also distinguishes between cases where the military supports populist leaders from those in which military leaders themselves become populist leaders.

The Role of Military in the Modern Nation-State

The contentious debate over whether war is part of human nature or the product of nurture continues. However, the link between power and the forces organized and trained to wield violence (i.e., the military) is ancient. As democracy becomes an ideal accepted by people worldwide, it is easy to forget that, for millennia, the military was the primary component for attaining and retaining power. The origins of almost all of the ancient and medieval empires can be traced to a single warrior (or a group of warriors). Most kings and emperors in the past spent more time learning how to fight than learning how to govern. The head of the military was either the king himself or a close confidant. Unsurprisingly, discussion and analysis of war and military force form a large part of the established literature and religious books. Both The Iliad and Mahabharata are war epics, and the Old Testament devotes much space to the Israelites’ wars with their enemies. Almost all heroes of antiquity were warriors, from Achilles and Arjuna, through to Karna and David.

Even today, the military cannot be separated from statecraft, public policy, and governance. The unbelievable misery suffered by the soldiers during the global conflicts of the twentieth century and the gross iniquity and carnage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not resulted in lesser admiration for the military. Violence and turmoil across the world stare us in the face as an undeniable reality that calls for the maintenance and use of military force.

Militaries also play a critical role during emergencies. As an organized force, ready to be deployed at short notice, the military has assisted governments during floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has again shown the utility of military forces, which have been deployed in many countries to enforce lockdowns, transport medical equipment and patients, assist in delivering vaccines, and much more besides.

Modern nation-states are obviously different from the kingdoms and empires of old. The key distinction is that the ancient and medieval empires lacked a national core. Although some scholars have argued that proto-nationalism was present in some of them, nationalism was absent in these empires. Imperial control over subjects and the governance required of the center was minimal compared with the nation-state. Emperors left peripheries largely to themselves or appointed feudal lords or regional hegemons to rule in their stead. Unsurprisingly, emperors had few responsibilities. They were not responsible for education, health, potable water, sewerage, or any of the modern public utilities that we have come to expect. Nation-states, in contrast, usually exert complete control over their territory and are generally thought responsible for providing basic amenities. However, the military’s primary role has changed little from ancient times —namely, to defend the territory from internal and external enemies using instruments of violence.

Modern nation-states can be divided into two major categories—democracies and non-democracies. Various constitutional and legal bounds are either absent, defined, or violated depending on whether a nation-state is democratic or not. These variations determine the interaction between the military and the rulers. In non-democracies, the role of the military is generally not clearly demarcated or regulated. Constitutions or laws are usually absent, and if they are present, they give the ruler broad leeway. For example, the basic law of Saudi Arabia barely mentions (just two articles) the armed forces. In addition to the legal ambit, multiple and varied factors—such as the history of conflict, threat perception, governance, militarism, and public opinion regarding the role of the military and rulers—determine the checks and balances on the military.

In a state where the constitution is respected, there is usually a consensus within the political domain as well as in society at large to respect the clear constitutional role of the armed forces and its relationship with the state apparatus. This enables the civilian state apparatus to form a well-defined working relationship with the military, with the parliament and civilian leaders responsible for governance and security matters. The constitutional arrangements and laws also ensure that both civilians and the military have a mutually agreed framework to collaborate and cooperate for national security in a synergistic manner. In addition to the constitutional definitions, the power of the parliament to determine the budget also gives the civilian rulers a fair advantage as they can decide and limit the military’s size and activities. Lastly, public perception regarding the military’s defined role and its efficacy vis-à-vis its civilian counterparts is crucial to ensure the military remains subservient. Like the civilian bureaucracy, the country’s armed forces need to stay out of partisan politics and support all elected governments.

Thus, to ensure the apolitical nature of the national military, a country requires strong democratic checks and balances. However, not all democracies are fully functional—some are highly susceptible to military intervention, where—for various reasons—the military is a partisan political force and generally plays an extra-constitutional role. Most of these states have suffered military coups and subsequently martial law and even military governments. Unsurprisingly, once a coup is successful, it increases the probability of more coups in the future. Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar are examples of pro-coup states. South America was once a continent replete with pro-coup states and adventurist militaries but, during the last three decades, democracy has taken hold, and the armed forces have largely adhered to constitutional boundaries.

Populism

Populism, very broadly, refers to the idea that a small, corrupt elite is exploiting the moral majority. Besides this vertical dimension, there is also a horizontal dimension where the above-mentioned moral majority is also threatened by outsiders and traitorous insiders that are in cahoots with the corrupt elite. Populist leaders claim to represent this moral majority and condemn the financial and moral corruption of the elite. At the national level, populist leaders generally also add a temporal dimension to the populist idea. Thus, national history is divided into three parts: a glorious past, a vile and odious present, and a magnificent future. The populist leader then presents him or herself as the vehicle the nation can use to move from the execrable present to the promised nirvana.

While discussing the military’s relationship with populism, it is important to distinguish between two types of populism based on ideological preferences: left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Left-wing Populism

Before the 1950s, populism was a term primarily used by historians to describe two 19th century agrarian political movements—the People’s Party in the United States (nicknamed “Populists”) and the Russian Narodniks, which means populists in the Russian language. While these movements took place continents apart, they shared agrarian origins and common beliefs—namely, anti-capitalism, people’s rights, and anti-monopolism. Both stood opposed to industrial interests, which they saw as the driver of income and wealth inequality in their respective societies.

These left-wing populist movements cast the “elites” as those groups that illegitimately acquired and held onto economic power from “the people.” Economic power being the basis of all other types of power, it should therefore be returned to “the people” to restore balance in society. Their policies are closer to the concept of “populist-socialism” as coined by Crawford Young, which constituted of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism.

Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, where populist leaders such as Júan Peron in Argentina used a blend of charisma, ideology, strategy, and discourse to sway the masses. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, these leaders amassed a vast amount of public support. Many left-wing populist leaders also emerged in post-colonial Asia and Africa. They included multinational corporations and the Western governments as part of the international “elite” that has subjugated their “people.” Neo-colonialism was the strategy through which the former colonial powers continue to rule over Asian and African people. This added anti-globalization to the left-wing populist repertoire.

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

Right-wing Populism

At the opposite end of the spectrum is right-wing populism, which is currently undergoing a surge globally. As opposed to its left-wing counterpart, this variant is rooted in ideas of “the pure people,” religious “righteousness,” and ideas of right to a “sacred” or “native land.” “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to “protect” their culture and values from “the other.” A wide variety of individuals are “otherized.” For instance, in Europe, an emphasis on “Christian civilization” has seen Muslims as “outsiders” who are unable and unwilling to integrate. Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of the “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture. Former US President Donald Trump constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “the other.”

Beyond Europe and the West, populism has also found ground across the world in a diverse range of political landscapes. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has deployed right-wing populist rhetoric based on the Hindu religion (Hindutva) to win two back-to-back national elections. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Imran Khan have used Islamist populism to gain and retain power in their respective countries, Turkey and Pakistan. In southeast Asia, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced populist rhetoric to win people’s confidence.

There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. However, in coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges.

Military and Populism

The points of contention between populists and the military are primarily populism’s anti-capitalism, anti-science, and anti-war program. Populists are generally anti-capitalistic, which is problematic to the military as capitalists are enthusiastic about military expenditures and generally support wars. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a former five-star general, warned the Americans about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Populists are also against foreign interventions and wars and are generally ready to decrease defense expenditures to increase the budget for social programs, which is not acceptable to the military. Populists are also anti-science, making their alliance with the army difficult as nowadays the armed forces use the most sophisticated technologies available.

There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. Depending on their institutional interests, the military elite silently helps or thwarts populist leaders while remaining within the laws and rules in advanced democracies. The interests of the military generally find more acceptance in right-wing populism than left-wing populism. The idea of the nation being in danger from foreigners or traitors who are constantly conspiring against it supports authoritarianism and an increased role of law-enforcement agencies, including the military.

The military is also considered the most nationalistic and less corrupt part of the elite. The familiar populist refrain of the glorious past is usually based on the past military victories of the national core—namely, the majority ethnolinguistic or religious group. This refrain also helps otherizing minorities, which the right-wing considers part of the problem. The right-wing populists are ready to militarily deal with this “problem,” which has less representation in the military. Left-wing populism is generally pacifist and against war and using the military against minorities. One area where both right-wing and left-wing populists seem to agree is that military interventions in other countries should be limited or avoided altogether.

While populism is largely a civilian political dynamic, as discussed above, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can become embroiled. In coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges. They may include the military in the corrupt elite they are fighting against. Therefore, neutrality is usually not an option. The army either negotiates and then aligns itself with the populist leader or opposes and condemns the populist narrative as destabilizing and traitorous. A closer relationship between the military and populism occurs when the leader of the military junta ruling the country becomes a populist. The populist military leader condemns the previous ruling elite and presents themself as the nation’s savior.

The following section presents examples of the different scenarios discussed above.

The Military’s Support for Left-wing Populist Leaders

During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Getulio Vargas became the President of Brazil in 1930, and—during his long tenure as elected president and then dictator—he favored socialist policies and was supported by the Brazilian military. Under Vargas, policies such as nationalization of industry, the 40-hour workweek, the expansion of education, a minimum wage, and many others were adopted, and laws regulating banks, insurance companies, and other industries were passed. The Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution.

Gualberto Villarroel led a successful coup in Bolivia in the 1940s. He adopted socialist policies to gain a foothold with the masses. His reforms included expanding indigenous peoples’ rights, recognizing worker unions, launching a retirement pension scheme, labor reforms, and much more besides. The Bolivian military initially supported him but later abandoned him when he became unpopular.

Pakistani Military officials perform during the opening ceremony of Balochistan Sports Festival organized by Balochistan Government on March 22, 2016 in Quetta, Pakistan.

The Military’s Resistance to Left-wing Populist Leaders

In Pakistan, the populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) came to power on the back of a populist program of socialism and welfarism, combined with Bhutto’s personal charisma. He ended more than thirteen years of military rule that ended in ignominious defeat by India and subsequent division of the country, resulting in Bangladesh’s independence. Bhutto adopted socialist policies, such as nationalizing banks, industry, educational institutions, and land and labor reforms. Throughout his tenure, the military refused to accept him as the country’s leader and eventually dismissed his government and hanged him after an unfair trial.

Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, came to power using an anti-elitism rhetoric that targeted both the civilian and military elite. After the 1952 populist revolution, he carried out a wide range of reforms, including land distribution, nationalization of the largest tin companies on which the Bolivian economy relied, and universal suffrage for all adult citizens. He also disbanded the military and was replaced by workers and peasant militias led by men from his party. He was removed by a military coup in 1964.

Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force.

The Military’s Support for Right-wing Populist Leaders

Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force. One of the most famous right-wing populist leaders supported by the military was Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. He was elected president in 1965 but led a coup and imposed martial law, with the support of the military, in 1972. He remained in power until 1986 with the continued support of the military as he shared the spoils by increasing the defense budget, expanding military recruitment, boosting military industries, and placing military officers as heads of civilian organizations. The Catholic Church also supported Marcos during most of his rule as he protected the privileges of Catholicism as the majority religion.

Currently, in the Philippines, another right-wing populist supported by the military governs the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, a “strongman” populist leader, has been able to garner support with “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” and other social undesirables. Duterte’s action-oriented strategy to “crush” these undesirables has led him to use penal populism. This variant of populism is supported by the military, which Duterte has relied on heavily in his crackdown on those groups in the Philippines deemed a threat to good social order.

In Brazil, right-wing populism has also been supported by the military. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro —a right-wing populist leader and a retired military officer— there has been a growing trend of military presence in technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. According to one estimate, almost half of all cabinet seats, including those of President Bolsonaro and his vice president since 2019, Hamilton Mourão, have been occupied by retired military officers.

The Military’s Resistance to Right-wing Populist Leaders

One of the longest oppositions to right-wing populism by the military was seen in modern Turkey. From the 1950s to 2009, for more than five decades, the Kemalist military elite defended an aggressive secular nationalism against right-wing populous elected governments. The Kemalist military—supported by the judiciary, academia, and the media—kept right-wing governments on a short leash and imposed martial law on three occasions to thwart any attempts to challenge its control.

Another example of military opposing right-wing populist leader was in Egypt when President Mohamed Morsi was opposed by the Egyptian military and was deposed only one year after his inauguration. President Morsi was the only democratically elected leader in the history of Egypt and came into power after almost six decades of continuous rule by military officers. Still, he faced opposition by the military and was replaced by General Sisi in a coup.

Left-wing Populist Military Leaders

In rare instances, the military leaders go beyond their constitutional roles and assume power. Dictators, however, also require public support, so military leaders try to adopt policies that increase their popularity. Some embrace populism to legitimize their unconstitutional rule. In Argentina, Júan Peron, an army general, became the face of socialist populism. He was able to amass popular support by leading welfare and labor protection policies, combined with nationalization.

In Mexico, a similar pattern was observed when Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) came to power. His program led to significant economic strides and boosted people’s welfare by supporting the rights of women, indigenous groups, and rural communities. A similar course was taken by soldiers-turned-populist-politicians in Latin America and beyond, including President Manuel Odría of Peru (1950-56), Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (1956-70), Ben Bella in Algeria (1962-65), and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1983–87).

Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry took power in Sudan after leading a coup in 1969 and remained in control until 1985. He initially projected himself as a populist leader adopting socialist policies, such as land reforms and nationalization of banks and industry. He banned all political parties except his own, the Sudan Socialist Union.

Right-wing Populist Military Leaders

Right-wing coup leaders adopting populism is also quite common. Colonel Nimeiry started as a left-wing populist but became a right-wing populist at the sunset of his regime. In 1983, he introduced a campaign of Islamization across the country. Nimeiry justified his campaign by adopting populist rhetoric of going back to one’s roots and eliminating foreign colonial influence. This rhetoric was accompanied by populist measures such as emptying thousands of liquor bottles into the Nile, the prohibition of interest on loans, asking for bayah (the pledge of allegiance) from government officers, and declaring himself an Imam. Like other populists, he refused to acknowledge any divisions in the country and claimed frequent rebellions in South Sudan were driven by imperialist plots.

The Greek regime of the colonels in the late 1960s and early 1970s was another example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation, Greece’s glorious past, and claimed it would restore the nation to its ancient grandeur. This obsession with race, heritage, and nation was combined with paranoia about foreigners and the use of religious imagery to bolster the military’s weak legitimacy.

Conclusion

Usually, ethnolinguistic or religious nationalism, conservatism, socialism, or Marxism are added to populism to develop a comprehensive political program. However, certain aspects of populism make it amenable – even attractive – to the military. Populism encourages the centralization of power as it exalts one people and extols one leader. Dissent and diversity are downplayed or ignored. The military, as an institution, is based on strict hierarchy, and the criminalization of dissent within is closer to populist politics than constitutional politics, which is based on the separation of powers. The anti-intellectualism and xenophobic rhetoric of populists are often also closer to the military’s thinking. The military—save for the most senior ranks—can also be anti-elite. Military officers, especially in lower ranks, may identify more with ordinary people than the ruling elite. Populists and the military may also agree on the importance of “getting the job done” instead of following legal or constitutional processes, which may cause delays.

Examples from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe demonstrate that populism is not a new phenomenon and that the military relationship with populism is largely dependent on context. Very broadly, it can be argued that the era of military leaders themselves becoming populist leaders is drawing to a close. Furthermore, one can see more affinity between right-wing populist leaders and the military than populists of the left because right-wing populists extol the military and are ready to increase defense budget in these times of fiscal constraint and austerity.


(*) RAJA M. ALI SALEEM (Ph.D.) is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than twenty years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.