ECPS-MEP-Video-Panel8

Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe

Please cite as:

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Report on “Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0050           

 

This brief report offers a summary of the 8th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” which took place online on January 26, 2023. Professor Dr. Agnieszka Graff moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism and gender scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides a brief overview of the eighth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” held online on January 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr.Agnieszka Graff, Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, and a feminist activist, the panel featured speakers Dr.  Elżbieta Korolczuk, Associate Professor in Sociology at Södertörn University, Sweden, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, Professor in the Department of French & Italian and affiliated with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis, Nik Linders, PhD candidate at Radboud Social and Cultural Research for Gender & Diversity Studies, Dr. Pauline Cullen, Associate Professor in sociology at Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland.

Panel moderator Professor Agnieszka Graff began her speech with an overall assessment, choosing to define the word “gender” with two distinct meanings. Firstly, she explained its function in gender studies within the field of sociology. Secondly, she addressed the meaning that gained popularity following the rise of anti-gender campaigns across Europe, ascribed to the word by both right- and left-wing populist parties. Specifically, gender is portrayed as something unsettling, casting doubt on liberalism itself and warranting challenge. In essence, it represents excessive individualism, consumerism, and the erosion of communities due to declining fertility rates.

Professor Graff’s speech focused solely on the cultural repertoire amassed by anti-gender campaigns. According to Graff, this repertoire varies across different countries: Italian anti-gender imagery exudes chicness; Polish anti-gender repertoire leans towards raw, peasant-oriented themes; the French anti-gender narrative often incorporates references to the French Revolution. Despite these differences, there are resonances between these images, with recurring motifs such as dissolving families juxtaposed against images of united families often depicted in silhouette. Additionally, there are perverted image of people whose gender is ambiguous and threatening, along with disturbing portrayals of alienated and suffering children, sometimes represented by fetuses but more commonly as four or five-year-olds appearing terrified or even being depicted as for sale with barcodes attached. The underlying idea behind these images is to establish a link between gender equality, sexual rights, and the capitalist system, portrayed in its most menacing form. Consequently, anti-gender propaganda presents itself more as a cultural phenomenon rather than a collection of arguments. It operates in close alignment with populism on various fronts: one being the association of gender with elite versus ordinary people gender conservatism, and another in the economic dimension where both discursive and political-institutional connections come into play.

Professor Graff then presented three significant examples from European countries, each illustrating the collaboration between politicians and ultra-conservative organizations in targeting gender ideology to mobilize electorates. The first example is from Poland, where several local authorities staged protests in response to the mayor of Warsaw signing a declaration against discrimination towards sexual minorities. The second example comes from Spain, where Vox has collaborated with HazteOir, a conservative Catholic community founded by Ignasio Arsuaga. Together, they launched a campaign known as the ‘stop feminazis buses’, arguing that the issue pertains to domestic violence rather than gender violence specifically. The third example is from Hungary, where parliamentary elections coincided with a referendum on children’s education, gender identity, and sexuality. Citizens had to vote on whether to support the implementation of events concerning sexual orientation for minors in public education institutions without parental consent. The referendum aimed to legitimize Viktor Orban and his party as defenders of children. These examples demonstrate that populist actors strategically use anti-gender rhetoric with both long- and short-term objectives: the former to portray themselves as defenders of ordinary people adhering to traditional gender roles against perverse elites, and the latter to intensify campaign efforts to garner a larger share of votes.

The aim of the introductory speech is to not only inquire about the impact of gender on populists but also to explore the consequences when individuals label those parties, often referring to them as illiberal movements, using the concept of populism.

Dr. Elżbieta Korolczuk: “Explaining the Relation Between Populismand Gender in Europe”

The adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity.

In her presentation, the first panelist, Dr. Elzbieta Korolczuk began by emphasizing that the rise of the anti-gender movement can be attributed to the alignment of far-right parties with populism, particularly their adept adoption or proposition of a populist version of anti-gender rhetoric. The objective of her speech was to explore the theoretical connection between populism and gender, highlighting the gaps in existing literature on this subject. These gaps stem from the predominant focus of analyses on either the supply or demand side. For instance, some scholars argue that gender is significant for the supply side, as the presence of a charismatic leader is often crucial in populist politics. However, exceptions like the case of the uncharismatic Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński challenge this notion. On the demand side, women have been increasingly identified as more inclined to vote for right-wing populist parties in recent years.

Dr. Korolczuk suggests that the most insightful conceptualizations of the relationship between gender and populism are currently being proposed by scholars engaged in anti-genderism or anti-gender campaigns. Some propose viewing anti-gender rhetoric as a means to sanitize extreme discourses, while others advocate for an engendering approach, focusing on ethnic scandals, the gendered nature of social inequalities, or even the concept of gender colonization. Additionally, scholars discuss populism as a project of masculinist identity politics, underscoring the effectiveness of right-wing parties in identity politics compared to the left. 

Another perspective is to examine the common roots of populism and illiberal anti-gender mobilization in both their economic and cultural dimensions. These conceptualizations enable us to recognize similarities between different movements while also cautioning against oversimplifications, advocating for a dynamic and relational approach. In essence, the proposal articulated is not merely to explore how populism is ‘gendered’, but rather to examine the role of gender in shaping relationships and specific discursive structures employed by populist leaders. An important aspect here is also the organizational and financial dynamics of this relationship.

In summary, according to Dr. Korolczuk, the adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity. In conclusion, these narratives enable populist leaders and parties to bridge the cultural and economic arenas, as seen in the cases of Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, positioning themselves as protectors of social welfare provisions for children.

Dr. Eric Louis Russell: “Language of Reaction: European Populist Radical Right and LGBTQA+ Rights”

Language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

The panel’s second speaker, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, approached the topic from a slightly different angle, drawing on his background as a critical linguist and his research agenda focused on how language activity reflects Weltansichten, or cognitive contexts. Expanding on this, language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

Regarding discourse, according to Dr. Russel, it can be viewed in various ways: as textual, oral, or multimodal; as the ‘bounded residue’ of language action in a specific domain; and as describable using linguistic methods. Based on this, certain core features of populist discourse can be distinguished: the representation of a ‘strong man’ as a savior; the reframing of modernity juxtaposed with the ‘allochthonous Other’; the portrayal of autochthonous people as under threat; a narrative of role reversal with victims depicted as victimizers, such as LGBTQ+ communities; and complex intersectionalities with hegemonic structures.

A final theoretical consideration is the phenomenon of enregisterment, the process by which a linguistic repertoire becomes associated, within a culture, with particular social practices and individuals engaging in those practices. In this sense, the populist linguistic repertoire serves to connect different cultural domains with various practices. The mechanism operates through the circulation of register, its clasp, relay, and grasp. In other words, it links to areas of social action, connects across different arenas, and ultimately implants into a new arena, often with superficial or contradictory meanings.

The first example presented pertains to Dewinter’s populism in Flemish Belgium and his discourse. The warranting principles rely on superficially pro-LGBTQ+ stances, while in reality being homophobic, thus reinscribing LGBTQ+ people as instruments of both populism and illiberalism. This represents a table-turning strategy, re-articulating them in a manner that can be perceived as homophobic. 

Another significant example is Poland, where discourse revolves around using gender to denote an ideologized ‘Other’ by the Law & Justice Party (PiS). The clasping of registers of nationalism and historical victimization is employed to rearticulate traditional discourse formations of sex, personhood, and belonging to the Polish nation. These example illustrates how populist discourse practices ultimately extend into various domains, portraying gender ideology as a threat to Polish existence.

A final example concerns Italy after the election of Georgia Meloni as Prime Minister, which sheds light on key elements of the linguistic landscape surrounding non-binarity and non-binary linguistic interventions in Italy. While the predominant populist reaction denies the potential expansion of identity beyond man/woman binaries, other reactions assert various mechanisms of representation through language. Here, the articulation of language is crucial, as it reflects both the actor’s ideational world and their material reality, including or excluding categories and possibilities.

Dr. Russell also provided some concluding remarks on the issue of futurity. Given the central role of language in populism, there should be greater focus on the ecological systems of meaning-making and how they can be disrupted, as well as on the pathways through which illiberalism hybridizes and grafts onto pre-existing meaning-making processes, and how these can be disrupted.

Nik Linders: “Gender & Sexuality in Dutch Populist Voter Profiles”

While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

As the third panelist, Nik Linders focused on examining the attitudes towards gender and sexuality among the Dutch popular radical right electorate, and how these attitudes intersect with other beliefs often associated with populist radical right politics. Pim Fortuyn, the first Dutch populist radical right politician to gain popularity, positioned himself as a gay politician, arguing that his sexual orientation uniquely qualified him for leadership and presenting a form of progressive radical right-wing populism. While his positions were primarily directed against immigration and Islam, they were also informed by the amalgamation of Dutch identity with what he termed ‘sexual modernity.’ His somewhat progressive stance and legacy on gender and sexuality continue to resonate in parts of the Dutch electorate and contemporary political parties.

Turning to the present and the 2021 elections, we observed three populist radical right parties with varying positions on gender and sexuality: PVV, FVD, and JA21. The PVV is the most progressive among them, consistently supportive of gay and lesbian rights as well as transgender rights, even outside discussions on Islam or immigration. FVD, on the other hand, is the most conservative on the topic, as evidenced by their sarcastic campaign slogan “how many genders do you have today?” However, they still publicly position themselves as pro-gay rights. As for JA21, while they do not explicitly address gender and sexuality, when they do, they appear to be more progressive than FVD.

The speaker discussed how these positions were correlated with the preferences of the Dutch electorate, utilizing nationally representative survey data from the Dutch parliamentary election study and employing latent class analysis. In his study, along with other colleagues, they identified different voter profiles within the populist radical right electorate. They selected respondents who not only claimed to have voted for these parties but also expressed the intention to do so.

The first item extracted from the dataset measures whether the respondent supports adoption by same-sex couples. The second item assesses support for sex change operations, while the third item examines whether the respondent believes there is something wrong with individuals who identify as neither man nor woman. These items serve as pivotal points in the Dutch public political debate and thus act as reliable proxies for gender and sexual preferences.

To complement these measures, according to Linders, other issues such as nativism, colonialism, nationalism, anti-Islamism, and anti-immigration were included. It’s important to note the distinctions between nativism and nationalism: while nationalism refers to the belief that anyone could theoretically assimilate into the national identity through adaptation to the idea of national hegemony, nativism specifically pertains to individuals born in the Dutch context, i.e., in the Netherlands to Dutch parents, who are considered the only ones legitimately entitled to become part of the citizenry.

Linders stated that the researchers identified five profiles of voters: gender-conservative; solely nativist; undecided or divided on gender; gender-moderate; and atypical for the populist radical right, yet gender-moderate. One key finding is that only 9% of the electorate consider voting for parties that are truly gender conservative. Despite some evidence of increasing sentiment in this direction, the majority of people still generally don’t feel threatened. Consequently, an important distinction between progressive and moderately progressive voters can be drawn on three levels.

First, there appears to be an overlap between conservative or orthodox religiosity (Christianity) and the more gender conservative outlook, as evidenced by the relatively higher popularity of the Dutch Orthodox party among the small gender conservative group.

Second, considering that 60% of the profiles are men, it’s notable that the most gender-progressive group consists of 55% women, while the most gender-conservative group is composed of approximately 73% men. This indicates that the anti-gender sentiment remains closely linked with an overrepresentation of men and masculinity.

Third, while all groups consistently exhibit highly nationalist conservative tendencies, only the truly conservative group and the group that is undecided or divided on gender and sexuality attitudes demonstrate ethno-nativist thinking. This suggests that individuals with gender-progressive values are placing less stringent demands on what nationality means to them, and that gender essentialism aligns with traditional ideas about the family and nativist notions about citizenship.

In conclusion, Linders offered an analysis of the relationship between anti-gender sentiment and populism. While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

Dr. Pauline Cullen: “Populism and the backlash against gender equality: Feminist responses to right-wing populism in Europe”

The resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. There is also a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice. Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations, their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

As the final speaker, Dr. Pauline Cullen presented the findings of her paper published in the Journal of European Politics and Society. The central question addressed in the research was how the rise of populism has impacted political opportunities for civil society organizations in the European Union (EU). The study focused on feminist civil society organizations, specifically an urban women’s lobby with a transnational scope, funded by the EU and emblematic of European elite technocrats.

The main argument of the paper is that feminist opposition to anti-gender equality interests and ideas is complicated by the co-optation of constructions of gender justice by right-wing populists, along with the proximity between right-wing populist ideas and feminist critiques of economic governance based on austerity. The findings suggest that while feminist and pro-gender organizations work to counter right-wing populist grievances, they are still constrained by EU imperatives and weakened by multiple crises.

Furthermore, the study highlights that these grievances, along with the ideas, actors, and institutions behind them, benefit from the absence of a strong political commitment to gender equality at the European level, the neoliberal instrumentalization of gender equality, and the lack of tactics from the center-right flank.

From a sociological perspective, European integration can be viewed as a relational ecosystem comprising organized societal groups that often benefit from the financial opportunities provided by the European Commission. This enables these organizations to serve as agents of policy integration and disseminators of EU policy ideas. As a result, women’s and feminist civil society organizations have experienced a decline in influence, particularly in terms of access.

Conversely, populist forces have created a challenging environment for these organizations. Currently, we observe a more crowded and conservative landscape of right-wing competitors operating at the European level and exerting influence across European institutions.

In response to this evolving landscape, according to Dr. Cullen, these organizations have attempted to adapt, drawing on insights from the social movements literature. Strategies include adaptation, exit, abeyance, professionalism, radicalization, and the adoption of new managerial and communication techniques. Furthermore, there are emerging collaborative efforts to establish common frameworks and approaches while maintaining strategic differentiation based on the focus of each civil society group.

The challenge lies in avoiding the reinforcement of right-wing populist anti-feminist frames and staying focused on equality and democracy. This involves minimizing conflict, engaging in less visible front-stage actions, and emphasizing more informal and backstage initiatives, resulting in a general decrease in their formal presence.

Dr. Cullen’s paper also explores the dynamics of the relationship between feminism and populism at the national and regional levels. There is a growing recognition of a backlash narrative, acknowledging the long-term impact of these processes, which have become embedded in the institutional fabric, reinforcing social gender conservatism and nationalism. This perpetuates existing patriarchal power relations through the guise of seemingly reformist agendas.

Ultimately, European civil society groups face challenges when aligning with EU values that are often technocratic and insufficient for their broader scope and goals.

One notable aspect, Dr. Cullen said, is that both European feminist civil society groups and right-wing populist movements share a common critique of the European project, viewing it as undemocratic, disconnected from the realities of European women, and committed to austerity measures. The challenge for feminist organizations is to craft frames that acknowledge the limitations of EU integration for gender equality while avoiding alignment with right-wing populist narratives of Euroscepticism.

Merely employing tactics of vilification, debunking, and frame-saving may not always suffice, as they tend to construct adversaries in a negative light. The central argument suggests that by employing specific framing and counter-framing techniques aimed at depoliticizing gender equality, particularly as a European ideal, and portraying feminism as a project for the common good, it is possible to revitalize a stagnant policy context. This approach can be directed towards EU elites to highlight the link between illiberal threats to gender equality and broader threats to European democracies.

In other words, gender equality should serve as the battleground for shaping Europe’s future. By reframing the discourse and emphasizing the importance of gender equality in safeguarding European democracies, feminist organizations can contribute to a more inclusive and democratic European project.

Dr. Cullen’s conclusion highlights that the resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. Additionally, there’s a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice.

Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations (CSOs), their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

Some current strategic developments include the emergence of “feminist Europe 2.0,” represented by organizations such as the European Institute for Gender Equality. Other strategies involve incorporating gender experts into policymaking, fostering feminist critical voices within EU and national institutions, disseminating feminist critiques through academia and research, and empowering and establishing feminist think tanks.

View of the A15 motorway near Paris, where the demonstration of farmers in tractors, are blocked by the police on January 29, 2024. Photo: Franck Legros.

Connection Between Populism and Identity Politics in the European Union Before the 2024 European Parliament Elections

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

By Katharina Diebold

The upcoming elections of the EU Parliament and the next presidency of the Council of the EU, which will be Hungary, are contentious issues for the European Community (Henley, 2024). The polls for the 2024 EU elections and the Hungarian presidency indicate a rise of right-wing and anti-Europe populist parties. These tendencies fuel the transformation of the EU towards the right and conservativism (Wax & Goryashko, 2024). 

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts (Henley, 2024; Suiter, 2016; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

In this essay, I propose that recently adopted EU legislation, the Green New Deal (including the Nature Restoration Regulation and Deforestation Regulation), and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, are influenced by populism and identity politics and harm the EU. In connection with this, populist candidates driven by identity politics threaten the future of the EU. 

Theoretical Framework 

Populism is defined as a thin ideology comprising three key elements: the people, the general will and the elite, (Zulianello & Larsen, 2021; Mudde, 2004). Additionally, it incorporates the dimension of the “dangerous others,” often represented by migrants, positioned in contrast to the people (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015).

Even though populism is in Western Europe closely associated with the right, the left has increasingly adopted populist strategies. The negligence of academic research about the populist left can be responsible for those recent findings. This seems even more relevant when we consider the outstanding electoral performance of populist left parties compared to populist right parties for the last elections of the European Parliament in 2019, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Sinn Féin in Ireland (Bernhard & Kriesi, 2021; Statista, 2024).

For example, The Greek Syriza Party (founded in 2004) and the Irish Sinn Féin Party (founded in 1905) were only recognized as left-wing populist parties in 2014 (O’Malley & Fitzgibbon, 2014; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Nevertheless, Syriza’s populism has been questionable through its government term and recent opposition in 2021 (Markou, 2021). 

Identity is a set of labels describing persons distinguished by attributes (Noury & Roland, 2020). Identity politics is the belief that identity is a fundamental focus of political work, which can be connected to lifestyle and culture (Bernstein, 2005). Politicizing immigrants as the other is an example of that. In Europe, identity politics is referred to as the protection of the “silent majority” from harmful consequences of immigration, which is used by right-wing populists (Noury & Roland, 2020). 

The effect of rising populism within the EU on the right- and left-wing can already be recognized by looking at EU-party campaigns or populist candidates for the upcoming elections. Besides the right, the left populists also employ identity politics. The left populism can be seen in promoting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identities and seeking to transform the shame previously associated with these identities into pride (Salmela & Von Scheve, 2018). Accordingly, these protests generate others, including people who abide by a different value system and also the privileged elite who overlook intersectional identities as a threat. While promoting human rights, advocacy for intersectional identities can also fall into the trap of populism among leftist groups and other advocates (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). However, intersectionality may not be the only advocacy that can turn into a populist movement in the name of advocacy. Climate and human rights activists can also be politicized and positioned as polarized identities (Mackay et al., 2021). 

Inherent Populism in EU Legislation

Environmental politics presents contention for both the right- and left-wing populist parties.  Both the right and left-wing parties instrumentalize newly adopted legislation to increase the public appeal of voters (European Commission, 2023). This can be exemplified in the recent regulations. The newest adopted legislation, the European Green New Deal, including its Deforestation Regulation and its Regulation on Nature Restoration, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, have elements of otherization and marginalization of identities. A closer examination of de jure analysis and how these laws, as portrayed in political language, unearths the need for more interest in realizing the general goals of protecting nature. It looks like nature is wiped of its identity within the hands of humans who instrumentalize nature as a theme broadly advocated by large swaths of society. Therefore, identity politics exploiting nature must be identified and widely discussed to protect nature and the shared values of humanity, not to sacrifice basic human dignity for politics, especially before the upcoming elections. 

The European Green New Deal

The European Green New Deal, including the Deforestation Regulation, entered into force on June 29, 2023, and the provisional agreement for the Regulation on Nature Restoration was accepted on November 9, 2023. These legislations gaining the support of the left can also be instrumentalized to boost the attention and sympathy of left-wing parties before the elections.

The populism surrounding the Nature Restoration Regulation can be approached as a case showcasing populist politics appealing to the left (The EU #NatureRestoration Law, 2023). The left uses advocacy of this legislation, especially the Greens/EFA, in the elections for greenwashing purposes and voter accumulation. However, this law focused more on economic benefits than actual environmental protection and lost its progressiveness throughout the legislative procedure. Therefore, it is based on the misconception that this regulation substantially improves nature restoration and indigenous rights protection (Pinto, 2023). Moreover, this law increases the financial burden for the forestry, fishery, and farming sectors, claims the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) (Weise & Guillot, 2023). However, these realities are dismissed in the political language of environmental advocacy. 

The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) campaign clearly describes the people as the “citizens, farmers, fishers and business in the EU.” The elite is defined as “the conservatives, far right and some liberals” who “try to tear down a new EU law to restore nature.” The general will of the people focuses on tackling “biodiversity and the climate crisis (GreensEFA, 2023). The campaign by the Greens/EFA for this regulation plays into identity politics as the party uses a language claiming to advocate for the protection of marginalized indigenous and local communities. While this claim remains to be only a discourse, regardless, it boosts the popularity of the Greens. Zoomed closely, the ostensibly evergreen legislation advocating the protection of biodiversity promotes local cartels and exploitative companies that benefit and take advantage of the EU partnerships (Euronews, 2023). The hypocrisy and the tact in the use of language can be seen in the advocacy language of the party that left these cartels intentionally out.

Deforestation Regulation 

The Greens/EFA campaign for the Deforestation Regulation shows characteristics of populism (European Commission, 2023). Greens/EFA characterizes “the people” as the “people that must always come before profit.” Thus, this regulation favors European distributers instead of the exploited farmers in the developing countries. In this case, “the elite” is the group of companies that need to safeguard no deforestation or human rights violations along the production.” “The general will” is intended to “end EU-driven deforestation” (Greens/EFA, 2023). This is an example of how left parties connect political anti-elitism to economic anti-elitism and the argument that hardworking, ordinary citizens are betrayed by the political-economic power elite (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015). 

Additionally, the new regulation will only prevent EU customers from buying products derived from deforestation. However, the actual deforestation and sales of deforested products to other customers worldwide can continue (Greenpeace, 2021). The regulation also lost its progressive and ambitious character throughout the legislation procedure (Fairtraide.net., 2022).

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

The left and the right use identity politics as a tool to increase sympathy for the upcoming elections through the usage of marginalized identities such as “migrants” and “asylum seekers” (Greens/EFA, n.d.). The recent pact on migration can be shown as an example of populist identity politics transcending the right and left binary, uniting the voters around the so-called threat posed by the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. 

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum reinforces the topic of illegal migration and thus supports the right-wing campaigning for the European Elections 2024. The political language on this regulation is laden with populist elements. Firstly, the right-wing European Peoples Party defines “the people” as “the hard-working EU citizens.” Secondly, “the elite” is defined as “smugglers and traffickers controlling illegal migration” (Press Statement von der Leyen, 2023). Thirdly, “the general will” is defined as stopping the suffering of the EU through migrants (Press Statement von der Leyen, December 20, 2023; Press Statement Schinas, 2023). 

The populist language forebears the identity politics around migration appealing to both the right and the left. The New Pact and statements by the EU Commission play into identity politics through the terminology of the “bad migrants,” positioning them as “dangerous others.” Unfortunately, the New Pact has been under debate in the EU since 2020 and is now used as a promotional tool for the upcoming elections to attract voters on the right and the left (Georgian, 2024). 

The New Pact can also be used by the Greens/EFA populist campaign for the European Elections 2024, reinforcing the idea of a unified peace union. “The people” are defined as “us and the migrants and asylum seekers, that we do not leave behind.” “The general will” is to “uphold human rights and international law” (GreensEFA, 2023). “The elite” is defined as the authoritarian national governments of developing countries, making it necessary for refugees to flee (Greens/EFA, n.d.).

Additionally, the Pact favors the reinforcement of border controls, returns and re-admissions over legal migration opportunities. Those stay symbolic, vague, and distant policy goals. Recent reviews of policy documents show that the EU prioritizes regulating irregular migration, and despite its rhetoric for “strengthening legal migration,” concrete action is missing (Sunderland, 2023). 

Identity Politics and Candidates 

Introducing inexperienced candidates tailored to resonate with particular social groups is a common strategy employed by both left and right populist parties to garner support. This practice serves as another instance of identity politics shaping the European political landscape. Following in the footsteps of their forerunners, like Marie Le Pen or Hugo Chávez from the past, these charismatic political figures engage in populist rhetoric, addressing a diverse range of social and legal issues in their political discourse—from environmental protection to EU identity and migration (Serra, 2017).

Examples for the upcoming European Parliament elections 2024 include Nicola Gehringer, promoted by the German right-wing party CSU (Christian Social Union), on place nine. Gehringer is a successful executive assistant of a big corporation “Neoloan AG” with potential to attract successful business owners. Another figure is the farmer and agriculture expert Stefan Köhler, who runs for the CSU on place six to attract farmers (Zeit Online, 2023). With the recent increasing farmer’s protests in Germany, France and the Netherlands, farmers have become increasingly crucial in the European discourse (Trompiz & Levaux, 2024). 

Legal and security experts are also running with public appeal to the voters across political divides. The German candidate for “Die Linke,” a leftist Party, is Carola Rackete. She is a human rights activist fighting for better refugee rights and asylum laws, running for the second position (MDR.DE., 2023). The human rights activist as a candidate can increase the amount of more radical voters from the left. The German Green Party is heading with a policeman on place eighteen towards the elections, trying to include more right-leaning social groups as well in the Green voter repertoiresince police officers can tend to vote for conservative and right-wing parties (Papanicolaou & Papageorgiou, 2016).

In Austria, the first candidate for the Greens party is Lena Schilling, a climate activist of “Fridays-for-future.” Schilling has a high chance of attracting young voters as she is the only young female top candidate among all running top party candidates in Austria (Völker, 2024). The second place will be Thomas Waitz, a sustainable and organic farmer who aims to attract sustainable farmers in Austria (Waitz, 2023; Schweighofer, 2024). The references to elite vs the people in their language blur the lines between the right and the left ideologies and connect these figures around a shared sentiment: fighting for the people against a designated elite. This populist sentiment fuels populism and social conflict, undermining liberal democracy and EU values. 

Conclusion 

The increasing populism of left and right parties in the EU and the fanatism of those who want to increase their share of voters for the upcoming EU elections are tremendously responsible for the outcomes of recent EU legislation. The populist rhetoric before and after the adoption of new EU legislation clearly shows how parties instrumentalize the outcomes of EU legislation procedure instead of trying to find real compromises and long-term future-oriented solutions for the problems of unregulated migration and the climate crises. 

Regulated migration is still almost not touched upon in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been part of discussions in the EU since 2020. The Green New Deal, especially with the Nature Restoration and Deforestation Regulations, was a proper start to increase sustainability, environmental protection, and indigenous rights. However, both proposals lost their progressiveness and lacked ambition and actual help for developing countries outside of the profit-making fetishism of the EU. If the upward trend of populism persists on both the left and right, EU politics and legislation may increasingly adopt populist and voter-driven approaches, potentially jeopardizing the democratic and compromise-oriented decision-making process within the EU. This heightened polarization between parties could further contribute to a climate of bashing and hinder cooperative efforts.

Remarkably, identity politics not only permeates the populist rhetoric of EU party politics but also extends to the selection of candidates for upcoming elections. If identity politics continues to embed itself deeply within the strategic political framework of EU parties, the shift towards prioritizing short-term voter turnout and popularity contests over substantive and long-term democratic considerations seems inevitable. This trend risks undermining EU values by leveraging EU legislation for immediate political gains rather than establishing enduring goals for the European Community. It is imperative to educate voters about this form of political manipulation that compromises EU values for short-term advantages. No political gain should supersede long-term EU objectives, as such a scenario would entail the erosion of EU values and identity.


 

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Revealing the Intricacies of Gendered Islamophobia and Populism through the Lens of Transnational Feminist Endeavors

As transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.

By Hafza Girdap

Societal perceptions in the Global North often oversimplify and stereotype immigrant women from the Global South, particularly focusing on Muslim immigrant women. This tendency is magnified within transnational feminist studies and civil society works, where categorization frequently portrays these women as a homogeneous group, primarily depicting them as victimized bodies.

The exclusive emphasis on rights, coupled with the need to consider global governance frameworks linked to class privilege and education, impedes a comprehensive understanding of this complex issue. A significant challenge faced by transnational feminist work is its struggle to transcend established affiliations such as nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion.

Recent research and activism on racism and Islamophobia, while valuable, fall short without a nuanced gender analysis. Existing approaches either overly prioritize gender or disproportionately underscore race and religion, neglecting the intricate and intersectional impact of these factors on the everyday experiences of Muslim women and women from the Global South. Addressing this gap necessitates treating these women as ‘complex subjects’ and meticulously examining their identity formation within diverse circumstances, thereby accentuating their diversities across multiple temporal and spatial signifiers.

Clarification of Some Crucial Terms

In this particular context, it becomes essential to elucidate terms like Islamophobia, anti-Islam, and anti-Muslim, given the influential role of framing and mobilization in identity politics. Islamophobia is defined as an irrational, emotional fear, while anti-Islam signifies a theoretical shift from reaction to action, aligning with the prevalent agency-oriented perspective in social movement analysis (Berntzen, 2019).

The incorporation of liberal viewpoints that depict Islam as a threat to Western civilization and as an ideology incompatible with democratic and progressive values provides justification and legitimacy for the transnational mobilization of far-right groups. Central to the discourses of this liberal far-right are discussions surrounding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and their alignment with Islamic traditions. Termed an “ideological duality” (Berntzen, 2019), the anti-Islamic far-right espouses a semi-liberal worldview and approach towards Islam, portraying it as incongruent with modernity, human rights, and liberal principles. 

Identity Formation and Intersectionality

Stuart Hall’s (1990) concept of identity as an ongoing process significantly shapes the (de)construction of identity. As a Muslim immigrant woman scholar and activist, I consistently underscore the impact of various elements within the identity process, focusing on the experiences of exploring (Muslim) immigrant women as they navigate self-discovery and re-identification within the realms of interaction, adaptation, and religion.

The concept of “cultural identity” and its intersection with politics, gender, ethnicity, and race gains particular significance in this context. Understanding identity formation necessitates the consideration of both origin and resettlement spaces, along with the influence of temporal and spatial factors.

Extending racialization theories, particularly focusing on the experiences of Muslim women, becomes imperative. This involves scrutinizing the impact of contextual factors on the reidentification experiences of Muslim immigrant women, intending to challenge prevailing paradigms such as whiteness and populism, evident in far-right, far-left, and even liberal politics.

This analysis explores the nuanced ways in which Muslim and non-Western women grapple with otherness and double-marginalization at the intersections of gender, race, class, and religion, both as migrants in Western contexts and as local women in their homelands.

Transnational Feminism and Analytical Tools

Scholarly work, grassroots activities, and political mobilization must meticulously consider the push factors for migration and subsequent reidentification experiences of these women. Addressing hegemonic masculinity in their homelands and its impact on citizenship discourse, with a focus on heteronormative requirements, adds depth to the understanding of challenges faced by Muslim women.

Transnational feminism emerges as a pivotal analytical tool in comprehending the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of identities among immigrant women. It is imperative to critically examine terms like “Third World Women” and “women of the Global South” to highlight the complexities and pitfalls of homogenizing diverse groups. An intersectional analysis becomes necessary, considering historical, regional, ethnic, racial, and religious factors.

Knowledge Production and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

In light of these considerations, knowledge production becomes a critical practice aimed at dismantling prevailing knowledge frameworks dominated by Western perspectives. This strategic approach is essential to challenge Islamophobic populist discourses impacting particularly Muslim immigrant women.

As the term ‘Global South’ transcends a metaphor, encompassing narratives of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and ongoing disparities, scholars and activists must continue developing concepts and practices of solidarity drawn from experiences in the Global South. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing diverse experiences, challenging binary constructions of identities, and engaging in transnational alliances is crucial. Grewal and Kaplan’s (1994) idea of a “politics of location,” delving into the tension between temporal and spatial theories of subjectivity, provides a valuable framework. Discourses and language use, aligned with Bell Hooks’ (1989) concept of a “dialectical space,” prove instrumental in dismantling binaries and discriminations.

Resistance and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

Such an understanding underscores the potential of resistance through the creation of spaces that facilitate the transformation of the current reality. It also highlights the importance of challenging enduring colonial and discursive homogenization through counter-hegemonic discourse. Research and civil society engagements contribute to the generation of diverse perspectives and epistemologies, particularly through the experiences and agency of Muslim immigrant women.

In conclusion, attention to the emotional impact of activism on immigrant women and the potential for reduced emotional distress when actively advocating for equality is essential. The ability to reconceive culture and religion as spaces that allow reasoned, autonomous, and democratic participation, aligning with the approach of exploring reidentification experiences “on them, by them,” becomes pivotal in transnational feminist work challenging any forms of (gendered) populism. This includes far-right, far-left in Western contexts, as well as authoritarian, Islamist populism in the Global South. Contextual factors in origin and resettlement spaces play a crucial role in adaptation and integration processes, influencing the manifestation of identities.

Highlighting the transnational impact of the growth of the far-right and an anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America, an anti-Islamic activism of pioneering movements and political parties in Europe is conducted through hypocritical discourses and acts by far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals. This is done to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. Women’s and gender-based rights are conveniently claimed by these politicians and other social actors, for instance, to “denigrate Muslimness.” 

Thus, a significant shift is observed within the approach of populist rhetoric, particularly of the far-right, towards Islam and Muslims. This is actually a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, the far-right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance through a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, and the preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage (Berntzen, 2019).

By framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology posing a threat to Western civilization, the far-right appears to shift from its traditional, radical, and authoritarian stance to a more liberal, modern, and rights-based strategy. This strategy places a greater emphasis on the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). 

Consequently, as transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.


References

Berntzen, L. (2019). Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Hall, S. (1990). “Cultural identity and diaspora.” In: J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference (pp. 222-237). Lawrence & Wishart.

Hooks, Bell. (1989). “Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media36, 15–23.

Grewal, I. and Kaplan, C. (Eds.) (1994). Scattered hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices. University of Minnesota Press.

Election officials and witnesses count ballots papers of presidential election at polling station in Banda Aceh, Aceh Province, Indonesia on April 17, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock.

Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

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Please cite as:

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Triwibowo, Whisnu; Bachtiar, Hasnan & Barton, Greg. (2024). “Competing Populisms, Digital Technologies and the 2024 Elections in Indonesia.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0029

 

Abstract

The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia on 14 February 2024 are poised to involve over 200 million citizens out of a total population of 285 million. Among these eligible voters, approximately 115 million belong to the millennial or Gen Z demographic. Within this electoral landscape, the presidential race features a diverse array of candidates, where populism plays a significant, albeit not the dominant, role in shaping the campaigns and agendas of three key contenders. This study aims to explore the relationship between various forms of competing populisms and their utilization of digital technologies. It examines how these dynamics intersect with the digital divide, democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion within Indonesia’s electoral framework. Additionally, the paper outlines potential areas for further research in this domain.

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Whisnu Triwibowo*, Hasnan Bachtiar & Greg Barton**

Introduction

When Indonesia goes to the ballot box for the parliamentary and presidential elections on February 14, 2024, more than 200 million of Indonesia’s 285 million citizens will be eligible to vote, and more than half (~115 million) will be millennial or Gen Z voters. The forthcoming presidential race in Indonesia presents a diverse array of candidates (Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan), each embodying distinct and evolving political personas. Within this context, populism emerges as a pivotal, albeit not dominant, element shaping the campaigns and platforms of these three presidential candidates. 

Furthermore, the landscape of Indonesian leadership stands redefined, characterized by nuanced shifts and strategic recalibrations among key contenders. Analyses focusing on the manifestations and impact of competing populisms in the political landscape, specifically within the realm of digital campaigning, technological utilization, the digital divide, and the dissemination of disinformation are urgently needed.

Against this backdrop, this paper examines the interplay between diverse forms of competing populisms and their engagement with digital technologies, the digital divide, democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion within the Indonesian electoral context with a focus on the presidential candidates. It also suggests some avenues for further research. 

The Presidential Candidates

Ganjar Pranowo, as Central Java Governor, at a cultural festival in Batang / Central Java Regency, Indonesia on October 2, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

Anies Baswedan, once identified with Islamist populism, now takes center stage with a recalibrated persona, shedding overt affiliations while gathering support from influential right-wing religious factions (Bachtiar, 2023). This transformation marks a departure from his previous political maneuvers during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial race, presenting Anies as a potential unifying force for Indonesia’s diverse populace.

On the other hand, Prabowo Subianto’s trajectory since his last electoral defeat in 2019 has been a paradigm shift, pivoting towards a role within Jokowi’s cabinet as Minister of Defense. Prabowo first contested the presidential elections in 2014 as a classical ‘man on horseback’ strongman populist. He literally rode a chestnut stallion in military uniform whilst inspecting his ‘troops’ at a key campaign event in the National Stadium, where he also addressed his supporters dressed to imitate Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Formerly associated with cultural nativism and a stance against foreign influence, Prabowo has rebranded himself as a stalwart advocate for the people, navigating the choppy waters of geopolitical upheavals and external pressures. This transformation aims to project resilience and solidarity amid the evolving global landscape.

The third candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, following in the footsteps of his mentor President Joko Widodo, affectionately known as Jokowi, has embarked on a metamorphosis from a popular leader to a technocrat deeply engaged in bolstering public services and fostering developmental initiatives (Bachtiar, 2023). Paralleling Jokowi’s trajectory, Ganjar’s evolution underscores a shift towards a more technocratic approach centered on tangible progress and societal welfare.

Remarkably absent from the direct electoral fray is Jokowi himself, particularly following the setback of his proposal to extend the presidential term limit. His endorsement of Prabowo, coupled with the astute political calculus surrounding his son Gibran Rakabuming’s vice-presidential candidacy within Suharto’s son-in-law’s camp, delineates a nuanced political landscape, painting a mosaic of calculated realignments and strategic choices.

Jokowi has navigated a distinctive trajectory throughout his ten-year tenure as the incumbent president. Emerging from entirely outside the realm of Jakarta’s political elite, Jokowi initially embodied the quintessential underdog, advocating for the interests of the common populace upon entering national politics. His ascent was marked by a palpable sense of grassroots support, culminating in a commendable approval rating that continues to soar, defying global standards at around 70% to 80%. 

However, the landscape of his leadership has undergone a discernible evolution. While initially associated with a strain of populism, Jokowi has transformed into a bastion of development-focused governance, aligning himself closely with Indonesia’s preeminent political entity, the PDI-P. This shift has effectively overwritten earlier populist tendencies, reshaping him into an influential figure within the Jakarta establishment.

Yet, this metamorphosis has not occurred without repercussions. The paradigm shift towards a development-oriented presidency has coincided with a subtle erosion of accountability and scrutiny. Within this context, Indonesia has witnessed a nuanced regression in democratic tenets under Jokowi’s stewardship. The narrative of authoritarian developmentalism, often veiled in the rhetoric of populism, has become the reflexive justification for this incremental decline in democratic checks and balances.

Ganjar Pranowo, the nominee representing the PDI-P party and currently serving as the governor of Central Java, diverges notably from traditional populism in his approach. His candidacy is characterized by a departure from populist rhetoric, signaling a potential shift towards a more nuanced and pragmatic governance style.

Contrastingly, retired general Prabowo Subianto, making his third bid for the presidency, has surged ahead in social polling since March 2023. Prabowo has long cultivated an image as a stalwart strongman and populist advocate for the people. His political trajectory has been marked by a consistent portrayal of himself as a champion of the masses, embodying the tenets of populist leadership.

Occupying a steadfast position in the social polling rankings, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan represents a distinct faction within the electoral landscape. Baswedan garners support from the forces aligned with Islamist “civilizational populism” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022a; 2022b), constituting a third but significant bloc within the upcoming presidential election. His candidacy embodies the fusion of religious identity with populist ideals, marking a distinctive presence in the political spectrum.

The diverse range of candidates vying for Indonesia’s presidency underscores the multifaceted nature of the electorate, with each contender offering a distinct and changing ideological and governance framework to the voters.

Competing Populisms in Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto gives a speech about the vision and mission of the 2019 Indonesian presidential candidate in front of a crowd of supporters on the campaign in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on April 8, 2019. Photo: Aidil Akbar.

The evolution of Indonesia’s political landscape since the conservative shift, highlighted by scholars like Bruinessen (2013), Assyaukanie (2013), and later examined by Sebastian et al. (2021), manifested prominently in the 2016 Islamist civilizational populist demonstrations in Jakarta. These events notably contributed to Anies Baswedan’s victory in the gubernatorial race, marking a pivotal moment in the country’s political trajectory.

This shift towards conservatism and the subsequent rise of Islamist civilizational populism coincided with an overarching trend towards authoritarian inclinations within the governance framework of Indonesia. Scholarly works by Power (2018), Diprose et al. (2019), and Mietzner (2018; 2020) have extensively documented this progression, highlighting the observable authoritarian undertones within the political landscape.

Simultaneously, the response from the established government to curb Islamist civilizational populist movements, exemplified by the banning of entities like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), indicated a proactive stance against such groups. However, the manner in which these actions were executed, often without due process, raised concerns among scholars, signaling a potential deconsolidation of democratic norms and practices within the country.

Scholars and analysts have echoed apprehensions about the state of Indonesian democracy, painting a picture of a system under duress and potentially in regression. Works by Warburton & Aspinall (2019), Schäfer (2019), Power & Warburton, and Aspinall et al. (2020) collectively underscore the prevailing sentiment that Indonesia’s democratic foundations face formidable challenges, with some even suggesting a retreat from the established democratic principles. This confluence of events and scholarly observations emphasizes the complexities and potential threats facing Indonesia’s democratic fabric.

In the field of populism studies, the concept of ‘competing populisms’ elucidates the simultaneous existence of multiple populist ideologies within a singular political milieu, i.e. the nation-state. Scholars such as Mietzner (2020), Hadiz and Robinson (2017), and Vampa (2020) have showcased the relevance of competing populisms in understanding the complexities of political dynamics. Hadiz and Robinson’s analysis in 2017 sheds light on the landscape of populisms in Indonesia, identifying two prominent and competing strands: secular-nationalist populism and Islamist populism. Their argument posits that the rise of these rival populisms is deeply rooted in societal and ideological divides prevalent within the country. However, crucially, they attribute the ascendance of these populist movements primarily to the perception of enduring ‘systemic injustices’ that have persisted in the wake of a two-decade-long democratic era following three decades of authoritarian rule.

This perspective offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the genesis and proliferation of competing populist ideologies in Indonesia. The legacy of authoritarianism and the subsequent transition to democracy created a breeding ground for societal and ideological rifts, laying the groundwork for the emergence of rival populisms. The societal and ideological divides, amplified by historical and contemporary grievances, have given impetus to these divergent forms of populism. 

The divisions delineate the contours of competing chauvinist, Islamist, and technocratic populisms (Mietzner, 2018; 2020), where distinct factions vie for ideological dominance. The chauvinists, Islamists, and technocrats represent divergent populist visions for the nation’s political and socio-religious landscape. The clash between these populisms manifests as a multifaceted struggle, with each faction endeavoring to shape the narrative and direction of Indonesia’s political trajectory. It must be noted that the mere existence of these divisions within society is not adequate; instead, their active politicization by a populist leader becomes imperative (Mietzner, 2020). This process involves the strategic engagement with discourse surrounding socio-economic disparities, often framed within overarching primordial and ideological divisions. This viewpoint resonates with a broader body of literature that examines the relationship between populism and societal dynamics. It emphasizes that populism does not emerge in a vacuum but rather thrives within the fertile grounds of existing societal, economic, and ideological rifts and emotive polarizations. 

Populism, Emotions and Digital Technologies

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

In a comprehensive literature review focusing on emotions, religion, and populism (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021), it was shown that populists frequently utilize emotions as a potent tool to garner support, establish connections with their audience, and influence public opinion. Their rhetoric is crafted to either create new or capitalize on existing collective grievances or aspirations, evoking intense emotions like fear, anger, hope, nostalgia, resentment, or vindictiveness, which deeply resonate with their followers. Through these emotional appeals, populists construct a narrative that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite,’ often portraying the elite as collaborating with or serving the interests of ‘dangerous others,’ typically marginalized groups and minorities. Consequently, this emotionally charged dichotomy reinforces a sense of victimhood, identity, and belonging among their supporters, simultaneously portraying their opponents as outsiders or adversaries. In Indonesia’s context, this becomes particularly evident as various populist movements tap into and amplify these divisions and emotive polarizations, thereby fueling their own narratives and agendas.

Populism often capitalizes on pre-existing fault lines within society, exploiting them to mobilize support and consolidate power. This dynamic interaction between populism and existing societal fissures perpetuates a cyclical relationship where populism both exacerbates and is influenced by these underlying divisions. By framing socio-economic inequalities within broader primordial and ideological contexts, populist leaders resonate with specific segments of the population, further deepening the societal fault lines they seek to exploit. This interplay underscores the complex and symbiotic relationship between populism and the existing socio-political landscape.

The notion of ‘systemic injustices’ serves as a catalyst for the traction gained by these populist movements. The perceived inadequacies and persisting inequalities within the democratic system have become fertile ground for the mobilization of support behind secular-nationalist and Islamist populist narratives. These narratives often capitalize on the grievances stemming from economic disparities, political marginalization, and cultural divisions, resonating with segments of the populace disenchanted with the post-authoritarian democratic order (Barton et al., 2021a; Barton et al., 2021b; Yilmaz et al., 2022; Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023).

The evolution of technology, particularly the advent of the internet and digital media, has dynamically reshaped the landscape of political engagement. This transformation has not only ushered in new avenues for communication but has also catalyzed the surge of divergent populist movements.

In contrast to traditional media outlets like newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, which were often beholden to the interests of media magnates, new media platforms operate on a different paradigm. The internet, especially when access is widespread and unrestricted, empowers citizens to freely engage with political messages disseminated by various populist figures. This direct interaction allows for real-time responses and active participation in shaping the discourse.

Media anthropologists underline the transformative potential of new media, emphasizing how these platforms revolutionize individual thought processes and communication patterns (Anderson, 2003; Eickelman and Anderson, 2003;Hirschkind, 2017). These digital landscapes present novel opportunities for fostering digital egalitarianism, enabling diverse voices to be heard and empowering individuals to actively engage with populist narratives. In essence, new media stands as a powerful intermediary, fostering direct and unfiltered communication between populist leaders and the populace. Through digital platforms, these leaders can directly connect with and mobilize their supporters, shaping and amplifying their messages in real-time, creating a dynamic and interactive political sphere.

The concept of digital equality as a catalyst for democratization is a compelling notion. However, the realization of this potential largely hinges upon the actions and intentions of the media users themselves. In the realm of political competition, the digital sphere becomes a battleground where self-image can be meticulously crafted to present an idealized and flawless persona. Conversely, it becomes a tool to fabricate negative narratives about political adversaries.

This phenomenon has contributed not only to the proliferation of misinformation but also the deliberate dissemination of disinformation. While misinformation refers to the misuse of accurate information in an inappropriate context, disinformation entails the deliberate spread of false or misleading information with the explicit aim of undermining political opponents, particularly those seen as opposition figures. Consequently, the aspiration to expedite the evolution of benevolent democratic practices through digital media confronts the harsh reality of its manipulation by entities that disregard fundamental values such as truth, integrity, equality, fairness, and civil liberties. This challenge poses a significant impediment to the genuine realization of digital platforms as drivers of democratic progress, highlighting the urgent need to address the ethical and moral dimensions of digital engagement in the political sphere.

The landscape of digital media in Indonesia has evolved into a key domain for political mobilization, offering an avenue for ordinary citizens to engage in the political discourse. This evolution, however, is marred by the proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, hate speech, and other divisive behaviors that run counter to democratic values (Lim, 2017). The online rivalry of competing populisms has notably exacerbated societal and political divisions, amplifying the polarization within Indonesian society.

This amplification of societal cleavages through the mediation of digital media in populist politics has significantly impacted Indonesia’s socio-political history over the past two decades. The period following the democratic transition that commenced in 1998 has been marked by intricate complexities stemming from the lingering effects of collective trauma, widening socio-economic disparities, and the exacerbation of public grievances fueled by competing populist groups. Consequently, this dynamic has posed formidable challenges to Indonesia’s pursuit of democratic consolidation in this era.

On the other hand, the control wielded by the governments and capital owners over key infrastructures presents a clear demonstration of their capacity to impact political contestation through means like access restrictions, hacking, surveillance, and even total control cut-offs. In instances where a ruling government maintains complete dominance over a country’s digital operations, political contestation tends to be severely lopsided, with one side significantly advantaged due to excessive control over technology. Consequently, this imbalance fosters an environment conducive to digital authoritarianism (Yilmaz, 2023).

Importing advanced digital technologies entails not just acquiring access but also welcoming a certain degree of influence from the exporting entities. This influence can extend politically, leading to interference between the technology’s owner/exporter and the user/importer, potentially empowering specific political entities, like the establishment, to monitor and manipulate their adversaries. This dynamic doesn’t just create opportunities for digital authoritarian behavior; it also introduces a transnational dimension wherein such behaviors are inherited or transmitted from external sources (Yilmaz, 2023).

Conclusion

The complexities surrounding the competing populisms in Indonesia, particularly in the lead-up to the upcoming February 2024 elections, present a complex and cyclical interplay within the realm of democratic processes. The dynamics of consolidation and deconsolidation in democracy create a compelling and challenging landscape that merits thorough investigation and extensive research to fully comprehend its multifaceted nature, demanding a comprehensive exploration to reveal its nuanced dimensions. There is an urgent need to explore the following key areas:

i) Understanding Diverse Manifestations: Investigate and categorize the varying forms and expressions of competing populisms within a specific country. Analyze their ideological underpinnings, rhetoric, and mechanisms of mobilization.

ii) Interplay with Democracy: Examine the complex relationship between competing populisms and democratic institutions. Investigate how populist movements impact the functioning, resilience, and legitimacy of democratic systems.

iii) Impact on Pluralism, Polarization, and Social Cohesion: Assess the effects of competing populisms on societal structures, focusing on their influence on pluralism, polarization, and social cohesion. Explore their implications for social fabric and unity.

iv) Digital Technologies and Populist Movements: Study the utilization of digital platforms and technologies by these populisms. Investigate how social media, online networks, and digital tools are employed to propagate populist ideologies and mobilize support. Explore the role of disinformation campaigns in shaping public opinion and polarizing societies.

v) Digital Divide and Its Implications: Analyze the digital divide’s role in the context of populist movements. Explore how disparities in access to technology and information contribute to social fragmentation and exacerbate existing societal divides.

vi) Mapping Transnational Dimensions: Explore the transnational aspects of competing populisms. Map connections, influences, and collaborations among populist movements across borders, identifying shared ideologies and exchanges of strategies.

By addressing these critical research areas, scholars can help to deepen our understanding of contemporary political dynamics, contributing to informed policymaking and the preservation of democratic values in an ever-evolving global landscape.


 

(*) Whisnu Triwibowo is an Assistant Professor (Communication) and the Head of Undergraduate Studies at the Universitas Indonesia. He holds a PhD in Information and Media from Michigan State University. His research interests are at the intersection of information studies and communication science. Especially in investigating the social dynamics of the internet, such as digital divides, inter-organizational networks, internet use, and persuasion in the digital environment. Email: w.triwibowo@ui.ac.id

(**) Greg Barton is research professor in Global Islamic Politics at the University of Deakin, Melbourne, Australia. Dr. 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. Email: greg.barton@deakin.edu.au


 

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Ganjar Pranowo, as Central Java Governor, at a cultural festival in Batang / Central Java Regency, Indonesia on October 2, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

Ganjar Pranowo’s Quest: Resisting Islamist Civilizational Populism in Indonesia

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Please cite as:

Bachtiar, Hasnan. (2023). “Ganjar Pranowo’s Quest: Resisting Islamist Civilizational Populism in Indonesia.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 19, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0028

 

Abstract

Ganjar Pranowo stands as a pivotal figure within technocratic populism, anticipated to advocate for the people’s volonté générale and counter the sway of Islamist civilisational populism within Indonesia. The impending 2024 election positions him in a direct contest against Anies Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto, both politicians who garnered support from Islamist populist factions in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections, respectively. Perceptions of Ganjar’s political stance vary, with some viewing him as a populist figure. However, in essence, he embodies the antithesis of populism, distinct from narratives and rhetoric persistently leveraging Islamism for political gain. This article seeks to delve into Ganjar’s political prospects in the upcoming 2024 election, shedding light on his role in confronting rivals and their supporters entrenched in Islamist populism. While widely seen as the most compelling figure for upholding the continuity of a vibrant democracy, his emergence also sparks inquiries into the trajectory of substantive democratic progress within the nation.

By Hasnan Bachtiar

Introduction

Dan Slater, an American political scientist, contends that Indonesia’s “vibrant democracy” stands a better chance of continuity under the continued leadership style of Jokowi (Slater, 2023). Among the limited pool of potential presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo emerges as a leading contender, viewed as the most fitting successor to Jokowi. Pranowo’s potential lies in his ability to potentially surpass other candidates, notably Anies Baswedan, who enjoys support from an Islamist “civilisational populist” (Yilmaz et al., 2022) group (Bachtiar, 2023), and Prabowo, classified as a chauvinist populist (Mietzner, 2020).

However, the upcoming 2024 political contest presents an unexpected turn as Jokowi aligns himself with Prabowo, positioning his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, as the vice-presidential candidate within Prabowo’s political coalition. This move poses a significant challenge to Ganjar’s standing, pitting him against both his political mentor and a potent political force. It seems plausible that Jokowi, recognizing that no one can precisely fill his leadership role, seeks to extend his influence through his son, whom he can effectively oversee.

Indonesia, in its ongoing pursuit of economic development and democratization, appears to lean towards an authoritarian trajectory (Power, 2018) following two decades of democratization since the 1998 political reform. Within this landscape, Jokowi’s inner circle comprises bureaucrats who echo the political ethos of the New Order era. This group notably includes Prabowo, serving as the Minister of Defense, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, holding the position of Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs in Indonesia. Their influence transcends their designated roles due to their adeptness in driving strategic state development. Trained and accustomed to Suharto’s militaristic approach, characterized by precision and effectiveness albeit often entailing human rights violations, they now wield considerable power.

This authoritarian inclination gains momentum amidst the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak and concurrent challenges stemming from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, triggering crises in food and energy. A recent illustration is the displacement of indigenous people from their customary lands in Rempang, Batam Island. This displacement aims to pave the way for the ambitious transformation of the region into Indonesia’s Eco-City, a venture seeking significant foreign investment from the Chinese corporation Xinyi Glass Holdings.

In his role as a symbol of popular sovereignty, Jokowi endeavours to persuade his cabinet that any developmental initiatives under his leadership should not undermine democratic progress. Their objective is to ensure the sustenance of formal democracy throughout the stipulated five-year periods between general elections. This perspective contrasts with criticisms asserting that Jokowi is eroding democratic principles (Mujani & Liddle, 2021; Lindsey and Butt, 2023). Consequently, the fate of substantive democracy in the nation remains uncertain.

The intricate web of relationships among political leaders, business figures, parties, and various influential actors significantly shapes the practical dynamics of politics, thereby shaping the gradual evolution of substantive democracy. However, prevalent manoeuvres seem to exhibit a recurring pattern that weakens democratic structures. Collaborations among political entities, leaders, and business elites often lead to multifaceted political manipulations (Bachtiar, 2020). Notably, the diminishing authority of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and its apparent tolerance toward corruption, particularly in strategic party projects, signify regressive steps detrimental to democracy.

A recent, contentious incident spotlighting the country’s political landscape involves Jokowi’s facilitation of his son, Gibran, assuming the position of Prabowo’s vice-presidential candidate. This manoeuvre involved leveraging legal and political channels excessively, evident in the Constitutional Court’s proceedings (Baker, 2023). Through his brother-in-law, Chief Justice Anwar Usman, Jokowi influenced legal amendments to ease the eligibility criteria for his son to run for office before turning 40.

Ganjar’s challenge extends beyond contending with Jokowi’s political influence. Amidst the stakes involving economic development, political stability, and the precarious state of substantive democracy, Ganjar confronts the remnants of post-Reformasi political manoeuvring, notably Islamist populism, which, while recently receding, still poses a significant challenge. Anies and Prabowo, figures supported by Islamist populist forces in the 2017 gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections respectively (Barton et al., 2021a; Barton et al., 2021b), exemplify this trend. While Prabowo acquiesced to becoming Minister of Defense in Jokowi’s cabinet, Anies, having risen to Governor of Jakarta by defeating Ahok, remains in opposition.

This article aims to explore Ganjar’s approach to combating Islamist populism, particularly when certain political entities employ identity politics as a tool in their contestations. Examining Ganjar’s stance in this context will elucidate whether he indeed embodies the ideal figure capable of upholding a vibrant democracy and whether he exhibits the empathy necessary to drive substantive changes within the landscape of Indonesian democratization.

Who is Ganjar Pranowo?

On October 28, 1968, Ganjar Pranowo was born in Karanganyar, Central Java, Indonesia. He studied law at Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This is the same campus that Jokowi and Anies graduated from. He subsequently completed postgraduate studies at the University of Indonesia. He had been a student activist since 1992. Three years later he was a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) during the New Order era. In the party, he was a loyalist of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of the country’s founding father, Soekarno. Ganjar joined the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in early 2003, before running for parliament in the 2004 legislative elections, but he lost. However, after his rival (the winning candidate) was appointed Ambassador, Ganjar was also appointed to sit on the DPR RI Commission IV.

It was his tenacity and courage to speak out that made his political reputation grow. From 2009 to 2014, he had been entrusted with the position of Vice-President of Commission II in charge of internal affairs. He was experienced in serving on the Commission of Inquiry investigating the Century Bank case, Indonesia’s largest unresolved corruption case. In September 2012, with the support of the Central Java PDI-P Regional Leadership Council, he decided to run against the incumbent deputy governor, Rustriningsih, in the Central Java gubernatorial election. Ganjar Pranowo-Heru Sudjatmoko was officially sworn in as Governor and Deputy Governor of Central Java for the period 2013-2018 on August 23, 2013. After being inaugurated, he promised to execute the “Agenda 18” program, a kind of regional development blueprint that is considered progressive and pro-people. 

Ganjar is known as a populist figure, a subject of political performance and ideology. Populism, in this context, is the simplest form of populism that is in favor of the interests of the people. In fact, he also portrays himself as a technocrat who cares about people’s everyday lives. This is the same image that his predecessor Jokowi has built up. In his official speech as governor of Central Java, he said, “…we must serve the people well, not betray them. And why this infrastructure development is so important because it is one of the main requirements to revive the people’s economy” (Pranowo, 2022). Ganjar can therefore be called populist, at least performatively and ideologically.

Ganjar’s Chance in 2024 Presidential Election

As governor of Central Java, he has a reputation for being a good leader, popular and close to the people. He is working to imitate Jokowi. He often makes impromptu visits (blusukan) or goes down to the grassroots to see and talk directly with ordinary people. Through this unique way, he evaluates whether his programs in government are working well or not. He also ensures that his policies benefit people’s lives. This made him a well-known figure and built his image as a leader close to the people. In addition, all his activities are always publicized through various social media, especially X/Twitter (@ganjarpranowo), Instagram (ganjar_pranowo) and YouTube (@GanjarPranowoOfficial). Taking advantage of his popularity, he has become one of the leading candidates who will take part in the presidential elections of 2024.

Prabowo Subianto gives a speech about the vision and mission of the 2019 Indonesian presidential candidate in front of a crowd of supporters on the campaign in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on April 8, 2019. Photo: Aidil Akbar.

As a candidate, Ganjar Pranowo faces competition from Anies Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto. Anies, a professor at the University of Paramadina, holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University, USA. Although not affiliated with any political party, he has been declared as the presidential candidate of the Nasdem party and enjoys support from Islamist populist groups. Prabowo, on the other hand, is the former military commander of the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) and was once the son-in-law of Indonesia’s powerful figure, Suharto. Since being involved in various significant special operations, Prabowo has faced accusations of human rights violations, which has been a contentious issue for his party during election seasons. A co-founder of the Gerindra party, Prabowo has been a prominent political figure who contested against Jokowi in the 2014 and 2019 elections. Anies was part of Jokowi’s cabinet in 2014 but later underwent reshuffling. In contrast, Ganjar is perceived to share similarities with Jokowi, a sentiment reinforced when Jokowi expressed a preference for a presidential candidate with white hair and a wrinkled forehead, a description that notably aligns with Ganjar’s characteristics.

According to the Indikator Survey (October 2023), Ganjar Pranowo holds a significant lead in electability with 29.5%. He surpasses other candidates, including Anies Baswedan (22.8%), Prabowo (19.5%), Ridwan Kamil (5.7%), Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (1.9%), Erick Thohir (1.4%), Puan Maharani (1.3%), Khofifah Indar Parawansa (1.1%), Hari Tanoesoedibjo (1.0%), and Sandiaga Uno (0.8%). Even when compared to the prominent leader of Islamist populism, Habib Rizieq Shihab, Ganjar’s electability remains the highest (Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, 2020). This dominance in popularity may be attributed to several factors, including his identity as a Muslim and Javanese, as well as his avoidance of identity politics that instrumentalize Islam in practical political contests. Ganjar positions himself as a pro-diversity figure, aligning with Indonesia’s multicultural nature.

Furthermore, Ganjar’s standing within the PDIP, the victorious party in the 2019 elections, is firmly established. He enjoys support not only from Megawati, the influential figure in control of the party but also from her daughter, Puan Maharani, who was initially his competitor within the party. While Puan was groomed to succeed Megawati and was expected to run in the 2024 elections, her extensive political experience did not translate into public electability. Despite holding key positions, such as Chairperson of the PDIP faction in the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat/DPR) from 2012-2014, Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture of Indonesia from 2014-2019, and Speaker of the DPR from 2019-2021, Puan was not retained as a candidate for the 2024 elections. Puan’s internally strong but nationally weak position put her at odds with Ganjar. Hence the emergence of a symbolic polemic depicting a bull (banteng) against a wild boar (celeng), successively thought to represent Puan and later Ganjar.

Ganjar is known for his resilience and sagacity in confronting challenging decisions, although some perceive him as stubborn. However, he would certainly not contemplate attacking his own mother, let alone a larger animal like a bull. When questioned by a student about whether, as President, he would be a party cadre and officer (petugas partai) or a leader for all the people, he diplomatically responded, “When I led Central Java for ten years, did I prioritize only my party?” (Televisi UI, 2023). He aimed to convey that, as a party cadre, his role is to serve the people. On his official website, he states, “I’m ruled by the people, the Governor is just a mandate” (https://www.ganjarpranowo.com/).

Although considered the most fitting successor to Jokowi, Ganjar faced a practical challenge as Jokowi’s political moves diverged from PDIP. Without formally leaving PDIP, Jokowi nominated his son, Gibran Rakabuming, the mayor of Solo, as the vice-presidential candidate alongside Prabowo Subianto. Gibran is a PDIP cadre and won local elections on the party’s ticket, but his candidacy at the age of 35 is viewed as premature. Public perception suggests Jokowi’s involvement in dynastic politics, potentially impeding substantive democratization. This presents a significant obstacle to victory. On the other hand, Ganjar’s vice-presidential candidate is Mahfud MD, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs (Menkopolhukam). Known for his outspoken stance against corruption, especially among high-ranking officials, Mahfud shares Ganjar’s clean bureaucratic record and pro-pluralism stance, enhancing their chances in the race.

With his traditionally pro-people populist positions, a clean track record, experience as a technocrat, strong anti-corruption stance, and pro-diversity credentials, Ganjar was expected to appeal to a broad voter base, including moderates and individuals of various religious backgrounds. He still stands a chance to emerge victorious, but the outcome remains uncertain. The Prabowo camp, currently supported by Jokowi, poses a formidable force that the PDIP cannot underestimate. However, Ganjar has capitalized on public dissatisfaction with Jokowi’s perceived involvement in ‘dynastic politics.’ Additionally, Jokowi, once seen as a pro-democracy figure, is now viewed by some as an executioner of democracy itself. If Ganjar secures victory, the question arises: will he follow in Jokowi’s footsteps in handling populist Islamic groups?

Ganjar and Identity Politics 

Identity Politics is a political strategy that employs specific identities to gain a political advantage. Typically, this involves appealing to the masses, particularly the majority, to secure their votes, as large population segments are often considered favorable voting blocs in formal representative electoral politics. However, this approach is not without challenges, particularly in the context of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, characterized by thousands of ethnic groups, languages, and notable ethnic diversity. How does Ganjar navigate the complex landscape of identity politics in Indonesia, given its unique demographic and cultural context?

As the presumed successor to Jokowi, Ganjar embodies the charisma of a nationalist champion of the people. He possesses the essential qualities associated with the presidency: a Javanese figure connected to the populace, a tendency to avoid controversial statements, loyalty to the decisions of the prevailing political party, and a consistent reluctance to challenge the established power structure, even during instances when the ruling government had to counter opposition that often employed majority identity politics, such as Islam, as a political tool. Embracing the Pancasila ideology, Ganjar frequently emphasizes the need to protect and preserve diversity, considering it a crucial aspect that should be shielded from any form of degradation or destruction by any group. Despite being pro-government and pro-people simultaneously, he supports various democratic mechanisms, including demonstrations. However, he disagrees with protests and popular movements that employ the term “people power,” finding it discriminatory, intolerant, and undermining the values of unity in diversity.

In some respects, it is evident that Ganjar engages in identity politics, leveraging his Javanese, Muslim background to present himself as a nationalist Pancasilaist closely connected to the people. Simultaneously, he strategically criticizes those who exploit Islam as a tool in a confrontational, intolerant, and violently negating manner for realpolitik purposes. Ganjar takes a firm stance against groups like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Defenders Front of Islam (FPI), considering them ideological opponents of Pancasila, which promotes coexistence in a diverse society encompassing various elements such as ethnicity, religion, race, and class. His opposition intensified after the official government ban on HTI and FPI, with Ganjar, in his capacity as governor, issuing explicit instructions to civil servants not to associate with banned organizations. He vowed to dismiss any civil servant found violating his populist policies in this regard (Pranowo 2021b).

In this way, Ganjar positions himself as pro-government (establishment), pro-Pancasila, and pro-people. This is how he presents himself performatively. Notably, he also critiques Anies and Prabowo, his two main competitors, who, in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2016 and the presidential election in 2019, capitalized on the power of Islamist populism. As the well-known Nusantara saying goes, “once you have rowed, you have passed two or three islands (sekali mendayung, dua tiga pulau terlampaui).”

Ganjar and Islamist Populism

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

Practical political contestation has exacerbated the polarization of Indonesian society, with identity politics playing a pivotal role in this process. On one side, there are nationalists who lean towards pluralism, while on the other, there are Islamists. This polarization is a direct consequence of the 2019 presidential election, where Jokowi faced Prabowo. Prabowo garnered support from the populist Islamist movement, although this alliance soured when the movement deemed Prabowo a ‘traitor’ for accepting a ministerial position in Jokowi’s government. Consequently, the populist Islamist group is now throwing its support behind Anies for the 2024 presidential elections. This coalition aligns with a popular political narrative aimed at challenging elites perceived as incapable of representing the collective will of the people and others deemed threatening to populist interests.

Indeed, there is no ‘stable and fixed’ theoretical concept of populism (Muhtadi, 2019). It is inherently contextual and dynamic, adapting to the prevailing circumstances. Generally, following Cas Mudde’s minimal definition (2004: 543-4; 2017), populism is a set of ideas or ideologies that dichotomize society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups—the pure people versus the corrupt elite. It is rooted in the moral belief that the elite either fails to serve the general interests of the people or actively corrupts them. When manifested as an ideological movement, populism tends to disregard the rule of law, champion popular sovereignty, emphasize people power, and is often viewed as detrimental to democracy. It can manifest as a street-level force, enabling mobocracy, where the crowd determines political direction and even the interpretation of truth.

In its expression, Islamist populism in Indonesia employs a civilizational rhetoric that diametrically contrasts ‘us’ and ‘them’ using cultural and religious language (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023). Within the Indonesian context, populists employ terms such as Islam against the West and China, the ummah against oppressive rulers, or the marginalized (mustadhafin) against the oppressors (mustakbirin). A recent addition is the dichotomy of defenders of Islam against blasphemers, which emerged from Jakarta electoral politics in 2016. However, despite emphasizing the rhetoric of civilizationism, the Islamist populism that has gained prominence lacks any inherent connection with the genuine interests of the people. Notably, NU and Muhammadiyah, claiming a combined mass of 100 million people, have expressed opposition to Islamist populism, considering it a disruptive minority that tends to hijack democracy, foster social polarization, discriminate against minorities, and threaten national integration (Triono, 2023).

While Islamist populism strategically deploys religious ideology and civilizationism as political instruments to advance its populist objectives within mainstream political contestation, practical political actors leverage the populist group to secure support from their voter base. This dual instrumentalization operates on two levels. Initially, it exploits religion to stir mass emotions, foment animosity toward elites, and create a narrative of “civilizational populism,” framing resistance to populist adversaries as a religious and holy struggle (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Subsequently, Islamist populism becomes a political tool that recognizes the social and cultural significance of religious symbols within the majority of the population.

Ganjar takes a clear stance in opposition to Islamist populism. Unlike his political rivals Anies and Prabowo, who have benefited significantly from the maneuvering of Islamist populism to increase voter percentages in previous elections, Ganjar emphasizes identity politics. He positions diversity, pluralism, and nationalism as political symbols that can strengthen the ‘Indonesianess’ of society. Consequently, he challenges rivals like Anies and Prabowo, as well as Islamist populist actors such as HTI and FPI. Ganjar’s explicit warning to government officials in Central Java, under his jurisdiction, prohibiting their involvement in the activities of banned organizations (HTI and FPI), serves as evidence of his stance against Islamist populism.

The effectiveness of Ganjar’s confrontation, whether on an ideological or instrumental level, remains somewhat ambiguous. If his confrontation operates on an ideological level, it is rooted in his status as a cadre of the PDIP, the ideological successor of Soekarno’s nationalism. In this capacity, he positions himself as a defender of Pancasila, promoting ideas of pluralism, tolerance, inclusiveness, and human rights. Alternatively, if his confrontation in the instrumental level, it is because his appearance should be an Indonesian instead of Javanese Muslim. This strategic shift is essential due to the diverse composition of his voters, representing the varied demographics of Indonesia. Furthermore, Ganjar must craft his political narrative as the successor to the ‘Javanese King’ Jokowi, a figure whose actions, according to political scientists, have played a significant role in steering Indonesia toward authoritarianism through the political banning of HTI and FPI (Power, 2019).

Thus far, Ganjar has played the role of Jokowi’s mouthpiece, navigating important policy decisions in the political arena, even though this poses a dilemma as Jokowi is in disagreement with Megawati and the PDIP. Ganjar is the attacking pawn in the game of political chess that is ready to fight for the elimination of the agents of Islamist populism. However, in this game where he has not succumbed to the adversary, he also has the opportunity to ascend to the position of Crown Prince. Ultimately, he emerges as the frontrunner to succeed the king, especially as Jokowi hesitates to extend his term beyond the constitutional maximum of two terms. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s nomination of his son, Gibran, as Prabowo’s running mate is both a strength and a political experiment, but it also presents a vulnerability by fueling discourse around dynastic politics and authoritarianism, which has faced public criticism (Muhtadi & Muslim, 2023). This weakness in Jokowi’s strategy clearly works to Ganjar’s advantage.

If Ganjar genuinely takes on the challenge of eradicating Islamist populism – which, in the Indonesian context, presents an opportunity for elites to pursue democratization – on both ideological and practical-instrumental levels, he positions himself in the middle ground between the flawed elite and the oppressed people. He can be a successor to Jokowi and a committed member of the victorious party, making it easier to garner voter support, while also serving as a political force that counters Islamist populism. Simultaneously, he can align with the suffering populace by steadfastly upholding diversity and facilitating communication with the ruling elite, ensuring that the people’s aspirations are better understood. This approach may pave the way for new policies that prioritize the interests of the people.

On the flip side, Islamist populist entities can also function on two simultaneous levels: ideological and practical politics. Ideologically, Islamists aim to influence the electoral agenda and advocate for the implementation of Sharia, while instrumentally, their elites have historically been employed by previous rulers (such as Soeharto) to obstruct civil society’s efforts to compel the government to address the economic crisis of the late 1990s. Regardless of the level, Ganjar persists in countering them, driven by his robust ideological and nationalist convictions, as well as the pursuit of victory in the 2024 presidential election.

Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, is visiting Purwokerto, Indonesia on August 20, 2022. Photo: Ainul Ghurri.

Conclusion

Ganjar’s prospects in the political arena are not without challenges, despite his viable chance of winning. Prabowo, supported by Jokowi, holds significant influence, even among Megawati and her dedicated supporters. In a hypothetical two-round election scenario where Anies loses in the initial round, it is anticipated that Anies’ voters would likely shift their support to Prabowo rather than Ganjar. This shift signifies that endorsing Anies aligns with supporting Islamist populism and other conservative Muslim factions. With only two choices—Prabowo and Ganjar—voters tend to lean towards Prabowo due to his previous candidacy in 2019, despite subsequent characterizations as a traitor and his current support by Jokowi. Ganjar’s candidacy does not align with the original intentions of Islamist populism, leaving the alternative for them to abstain from voting altogether.

Ganjar staunchly advocates for diversity, positioning himself as an anti-Islamist populist figure. In contrast to Islamist populism’s labeling of figures using derogatory terms, Ganjar consistently emphasizes the symbol of Pancasila and the motto of ‘unity in diversity’ to unite the nation and voters. He emerges as a significant advocate for democratization, emphasizing inclusivity in politics, religion, and fostering social tolerance.

While Ganjar may rhetorically support substantive democratization, his ability to maintain a vibrant democracy hinges on navigating the complexities of economic development, largely influenced by New Order cadres, ensuring political stability, and upholding national security. However, these complexities do not necessarily guarantee the concurrent advancement of substantive democracy.

The fragile democratic landscape in Indonesia is susceptible to conservative and authoritarian shifts, both signaling democratic regression. Though less superficial than in previous years, the highly polarized role of identity politics poses challenges to substantive democratization. Yet, persistent issues like oligarchic competition, weakened anti-corruption institutions, and eroding judicial roles remain significant hurdles.

The current political scenario underscores the difficulties in making informed political choices during elections, primarily due to the diverse interests among the three candidates—Anies, Prabowo, and Ganjar. This underscores Indonesia’s elite-centric political landscape, limiting substantial participation from the populace. The opaque and unpredictable nature of practical politics in the country constrains the organic development of democracy rooted in the demos. The evolving situation emphasizes the vital importance of substantial democratic progress. Ganjar’s capacity as a democracy-builder aligning with the people’s aspirations will ultimately stand the test of time.


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

Eight Years of Populist Rule in Poland Comes to an End

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.” PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. 

By Simon P. Watmough*

After eight years in power, Poland’s national-populist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has left office. On Wednesday, 13 December 2023, following more than eight weeks of delay tactics, Poland’s president, Andrej Duda — first elected in 2015 with PiS’s backing — finally appointed Donald Tusk as head of an incoming coalition government made up of his center-right Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO), the centrist Third Way (Trzecia Droga), and the New Left (Lewica). Tusk now returns to the post of prime minister, which he first held between 2007 and 2014.

Throwing more than a little shade on the outgoing government during remarks as his government was sworn in, Tusk vowed“Allegiance to the provisions of the constitution will be the trademark of this new team, this new government.”

The three coalition partners took 53.7% of the vote and a comfortable majority (248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm) in elections held on 15 October. On 10 November, the parties inked a coalition deal signaling their readiness to assume government immediately. But despite calls for a speedy transition in the national interest, President Duda chose to drag the government formation process out to its constitutional limit. While it had no chance of success — PiS took the largest vote share (35.4%) and won the most seats overall, but it failed to win a majority and was never in a position to form a government — the president gave PiS’s caretaker prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki the first shot at forming a government. Duda’s foot-dragging portends the kinds of challenges an incoming Tusk government will likely face as it seeks to reverse eight years of democratic backsliding.

The question now is what the PiS defeat means for the future of populism in Poland — and, indeed, Europe more broadly. This commentary argues that PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. Getting down to causes and conditions — that is, dealing with the underlying structural factors that have given rise to populism in the first place — will be essential if Poland is to remain in the pluralist camp.

The Most Divisive Government in Polish History

Commentators have described the 2023 parliamentary campaign as the most divisive and hardest-fought electoral campaign in Polish history. PiS was seeking an unprecedented third term in office, promising to complete its national-populist agenda of defending traditional Polish values against perceived threats and “cleansing” the state and society of leftists and “foreign influences,” including so-called “LGBT ideology.”

A third PiS term would almost certainly have seen Poland follow Hungary’s slide into outright “competitive authoritarianism,” an outcome that might have put the entire European project in jeopardy. On returning to power in 2015, PiS head Jarosław Kaczyński held up Fidesz — in power since 2010 — as the model the party would adopt in government.

Indeed, from confronting Brussels to subverting media freedom and stifling minority rights in the name of “traditional” national values, PiS has hued close to the Fidesz line. For example, like Fidesz, it engaged in political hiring and firing on a massive scale, placing thousands of party loyalists in every state institution — including the public broadcaster, which devolved into little more than a party mouthpiece during the campaign — but also the civil service and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Infamously, the party also brought sweeping changes to how judges are appointed, giving the political majority greater control over the judiciary and sparking a “rule of law crisis” with the EU. The European Court of Justice initiated legal proceedings against Poland for these breaches of the rule of law.

Attacks on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights — including the declaration of “LGBT-free zones” by some PiS-led municipal governments — were widely condemned by human rights groups and the international community. As a result, Poland’s Freedom House “democracy score” has fallen steadily since 2015, and the country has fallen from 18th in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom rankings in 2015 to 58th today.

During the campaign, PiS pulled every move in the populist playbook. PiS used its dominance of public media to target prominent Poles with any “foreign” connection, including Tusk himself (he has German ancestry). Casting him as a “German agent” deliberately invoked images of the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War. This chimed with PiS’s general tendency to cast internal enemies as conspiring with the external Other to do the country in. PiS also directed government agencies and SOEs to promote the party’s electoral message, thus redirecting their advertising budgets toward campaigns that supported PiS’s agenda, effectively leveraging public resources for party gain.

The opposition parties met this onslaught with a campaign focused on the economy, the rule of law and Poland’s future in Europe. KO and Third Way, in particular, campaigned tirelessly in rural areas and Poland’s less prosperous urban areas. This went a long way to mitigating the perception in the mind of some voters that Tusk and his party are “aloof” liberal elites with little concern for “real Poles.”

A Win for Pluralism …

The biggest winner in PiS’s defeat is Polish democracy. Voter turnout broke all records, with 74.4% of Poles casting a ballot (compared to 69% in 2019). The rise in youth turnout was more impressive still, rising from 46% last time to 69%. The Polish diaspora, which generally disfavors PiS, also turned out en masse, with over half a million Poles living abroad registering to vote (nearly double that in 2019). The immense turnout necessitated a 70% increase in overseas electoral commissions to manage the volume​.

Secondly, it is now clear that PiS’s claim to represent “the people” is a dead letter. This much was already apparent in early 2021 when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles poured onto the streets to demonstrate against a near-total ban on abortion that went into effect after a ruling from the Constitutional Tribunal, which PiS has stacked with friendly judgesSuch mass mobilization of “the people” against PiS was clearly in evidence during the campaign, with Tusk headlining a public demonstration of half a million people in Warsaw in July and another that was reportedly attended by a million Poles two weeks before the 15 October polls.

Crucially, we’ve learned that governance matters and that voters will punish populist governments that fail to deliver, engage in corruption, and push the policy and ideological envelopes too far. Beyond rampant corruption and cronyism, PiS has appeared incapable of handling basic policy. The government’s disastrous fumbling of the summer “grain imports” crisis (Romania’s government has deftly handled the same issue) and Prime Minister Morawiecki’s ham-fisted announcement that Poland would stop arms shipments to Ukraine (in fact, they continue) managed to simultaneously alienate farmers (and annoy Kyiv) and paint a picture of a government out of its depth.

As Polish political scientist Sławomir Sierakowski noted in September: “For Kaczyński and the PiS government, transferring cash is easy; but anything more complicated than that is beyond their capacity. That is why queues for doctors are twice as long as in the past, and why court cases take twice as long.”

… and for Europe

PiS’s defeat is also great news for the EU. Brussels (and, for good measure, Berlin) has long served as a useful foil for a national-populist outfit bent on emphasizing “cultural threats” to Polish sovereignty from hostile neighbors. Tusk is a Brussels brahmin, having served as president of the European Council between 2014 and 2019 and then head of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament (EP) until his return to Polish politics in 2021. Ahead of plans to attend EU summits this week on 13–14 December, Tusk declared Poland would “regain its position as a leader in the European Union.”

Crucially, Poland will no longer play a spoiler role in the institutions. Tusk’s coalition is committed to abiding by EU law, not least to unlock the €35.4 billion in frozen EU recovery funds as quickly as possible. Poland’s “return to Europe” will strengthen the EPP and reduce the sway of the sovereigntist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), home to many of Europe’s national-populist parties in the EP. With European elections scheduled for mid-2024, the result in Poland will be a welcome shot in the arm for centrists who have been fighting something of a rearguard action against populists across the continent.

Polish Populism: Down, but Not Out

Still, we should not overread the results. A KO-led government will face several challenges that PiS will be primed to exploit in opposition. While the coalition agreement pledges to reverse the near-total ban on abortion that sparked the aforementioned mass protests in 2021, the parties remain divided on the issue. In any event, any legislation loosening abortion access will likely face a veto from President Duda, which the coalition lacks the numbers to override despite its parliamentary majority. Other lightning rod issues will be recognizing same-sex unions (short of marriage), social policy (Lewica will push for major reforms) and support for farmers (the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian outfit, is part of the Third Way coalition).

Moreover, reversing eight years of democratic backsliding will prove a tougher challenge than some have predicted. Expectations are sky high, and with a daunting to-do list, the new government may struggle to meet the moment. The young voters who came out to vote for the coalition parties in droves will be impatient for change, and Tusk will be under pressure to quickly remove PiS loyalists from the media and judiciary. Yet in doing so, Tusk must be careful not to stoop to the same “decisionist” tactics of PiS, which saw the party bypass the law to make political appointments.

The Constitutional Tribunal is already showing signs of obstruction. In rulings this week, it has declared that proposed judicial reforms needed to unlock EU funds would be unconstitutional.

More importantly, PiS is now back on what is, in some ways, more familiar territory. Opposition is, in some respects, the “natural habitat” of populists since lobbing grenades at “ruling elites” is much more straightforward from outside the corridors of power. Those in any doubt about this should recall the relentless “post-truth” campaign Jarosław Kaczyński ran against Tusk after the Smolensk plane disaster in 2010, in which the forces of PiS’s networks in civil society and the Catholic media spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. And, while Mr. Tusk has worked hard to shed his image as an out-of-touch liberal with a haughty contempt for PiS’s conservative base, the resentment lingers in some quarters, something PiS is certain to exploit

Conclusion

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.”

But equally, policymakers must not learn the wrong lessons. Yes — governance matters, and voters will punish populists in power that cannot deliver. But the European social model remains broken, leaving plenty of scope for populists of the left and the right to exploit very real grievances and the perceived out-of-touchness of policy elites for electoral gain, something Geert Wilders’ shock victory in the Dutch elections last month makes all too clear.

Policymakers in Poland and elsewhere are on notice: both the style and the substance of policy must meet voters where they are at. The impending green transition and the need to address workforce gaps and demographic issues are vital and unavoidable policy moves. But if these policies are communicated ineffectively, and the cost of implementation falls most heavily on those least able to afford it, the forces of populism will have their opening.


(*) Simon P. Watmough is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently writing a book on the global history of populism.

Brazilia’s Luiz Inácio Lula is seen during the 2022 election campaign in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on October 20, 2022. Photo: Aline Alcantara.

Confronting Populist Authoritarians: The Dynamics of Lula’s Success in Brazil and Erdogan’s Survival in Turkey

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Please cite as:

Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2023). “Confronting Populist Authoritarians: The Dynamics of Lula’s Success in Brazil and Erdogan’s Survival in Turkey.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 6, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0027

 

Abstract

This article delves into the political trajectories of anti-establishment leaders Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) in Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, both of whom ascended to power in the early 2000s amid politically fragmented environments. The analysis explores the dynamics of their rise, governance styles, and the factors influencing the retention or loss of power. Lula’s success in the 2022 elections against right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro is attributed to his adept coalition-building and pragmatic policies. In contrast, Erdogan, facing economic crises and deep political unrest, managed to secure his position in the May 2023 elections, showcasing the complexities of populism. The article examines the leadership qualities, coalition-building strategies, and responses to challenges encountered by Lula and Erdogan. Despite initial similarities, Erdogan’s transformative approach to institutions and the establishment of a self-sustaining clientelist regime contributed to his longevity, in contrast to Bolsonaro’s defeat. The role of clientelism, rent-seeking, and corruption in both countries’ politics is discussed, emphasizing their impact on public perception. Lula’s effective positioning as an alternative to Bolsonaro is contrasted with Turkey’s lack of a convincing opposition. Despite bringing Turkey to the brink, Erdogan’s retention of power is attributed to maintaining a “man of the people” persona amid societal concerns for security and stability. In conclusion, the article underscores the nuanced dynamics of populist leadership, emphasizing the significance of historical context, governance strategies, and external factors in shaping the trajectories of leaders such as Lula and Erdogan.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

Introduction

In Brazil and Turkey, nations marked by histories shaped by military coups and dictatorships, establishment forces found themselves unable to thwart the ascent of anti-systemic actors to power. In the early 2000s, the leftist Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and the rightist Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Erdogan) rose to prominence in a highly fragmented political environment, garnering support from individuals who had long been marginalized.

Contrary to apprehensions, the transition of power from so-called establishment elites to the “real people” occurred primarily within the existing rules, devoid of bloodshed or violence. Two pivotal factors played a decisive role in shaping this outcome. Firstly, the global landscape witnessed the winds of democracy and market economy reforms, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the decisions of China and India to embrace globalization, and the zenith of the appeal of the European Union and the United States. Secondly, public anger and discontent intensified due to the escalating number and depth of economic and political crises in developing countries, such as Brazil and Turkey, which struggled to keep pace with globalization and increasingly found themselves on the periphery.

Furthermore, Turkey’s fragmented political environment, in addition to addressing country-specific challenges like corruption, terrorism, and natural disasters, contributed to the impetus for change. Despite Erdogan’s party receiving limited support with only 34.28 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) disproportionately secured 363 deputies in the 500-seat parliament due to an unfair electoral system, while many other parties were excluded. In Brazil, the Lula-led alliance triumphed in the presidential race with 61.27 percent support, compared to 38.73 percent for its opponents. Recognizing the significance of coalition-building in such a delicate political climate, Lula moderated his left-wing working-class discourse in Brazil, and Erdogan adjusted his religious and anti-secular rhetoric in Turkey. Both leaders shifted towards the political center, aligning themselves with democratic and market-oriented principles. This suggests that citizens in both countries anticipated a measured and predictable change in central policies rather than a complete overhaul of the system.

Lula and Erdogan assumed power amid the implementation of painful austerity programs in response to economic crises, yielding impressive initial results in both countries. Consequently, they fostered a “responsible” image regarding market economy principles and demonstrated a “sensible” approach toward those experiencing poverty. In Brazil, where macroeconomic stability improved and capital inflows surged, significant commodity exports fueled growth, generating foreign currency. Meanwhile, Turkey garnered attention for its EU membership-oriented reforms, heightened institutional quality, predictability, and productivity. Positive developments in Turkey were primarily driven by structural reforms, leading to productivity and efficiency-driven growth, while in Brazil, the advantage of being a “commodity exporter” was leveraged through the rapid increase in global commodity prices.

Protesters protest for the freedom of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo, Brazil on April 7, 2019. Photo: Cris Faga.

After Lula was barred from politics for a third term amid corruption allegations, unaddressed judicially, issues such as corrupt scandals, weakened economic growth, deteriorated income distribution, and political chaos paved the way for the rise of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, with a military background, to power at the end of 2018. In contrast, Erdogan did not lose power. After securing control for the third consecutive time in the 2011 elections, Erdogan’s response to the economic crisis and systemic corruption scandals took on an authoritarian tone. He implemented “counter-coup” processes to legitimize his ultimate aim of marginalizing democracy in the country. This led to subsequent practices of a state of emergency, the enforcement of radical public security measures, and a rhetorical emphasis on national independence and sovereignty, defining the characteristics of his governance. That is, he maintained power by leveraging security concerns and intimidating voters.

Bolsonaro and Erdogan, facing the pandemic crisis, were expected to leave power due to the severe economic crisis triggered by their incompetent and arbitrary one-person regime practices. While this expectation came true when Lula returned to power for the third time in the March 2022 elections, Erdogan, who had been in power for 20 years, retained his position in the May 2023 elections. This article explores why Erdogan held onto his seat against a coalition led by a center-left-wing leader in 2023, while in 2022, a left-wing coalition led by Lula emerged victorious against the right-wing authoritarian populist Bolsonaro.

The paper unfolds as follows: after establishing a framework outlining the globalization-populism transmission mechanism in the next section, the third section focuses on a brief comparative perspective of the economies of Brazil and Turkey. The fourth section utilizes social welfare policies to elucidate Lula’s rise and Erdogan’s endurance in the aftermath. The fifth section delves into the nature of the “coalitions” subject to contestation between the populist incumbent regime and the mainstream opposition. The final section summarizes the main findings and derives some policy implications.

Populist Waves in the Post-Cold War Global Conjuncture

Over time, the Western-centered liberal multilateral order (LMLO), established in the post-Second World War (WW-II) era, and the unparalleled globalization it ushered have given rise to some pathological contradictions due to the economic, political, and social fault lines they activated. The traditional values and norms of the LMLO prioritized rapid growth, full employment, the pursuit of equality, and democracy, imposing a certain level of control and discipline on excessive capitalist tendencies. In other words, while economies became more integrated through trade, governments could maintain firm control of corporate activities and regulate labor markets, trade unions wielded strength, and, above all, finance was restrained (Kuttner, 2018).

Three global imbalances in different regions and countries triggered uncharted globalization, but self-serving market mechanisms failed to “correct” or neutralize them. First, with the opening up of China and India and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, billions of cheap surplus labors changed the nexus of the world economy, not through direct labor movements but through free trade. Second, radical technological shifts fundamentally transformed the existing global economic paradigm in trade, production, and finance, highlighting excessive connectivity and dependency. Third, the emergence of a substantial structural saving glut in northern Europe, centered on Germany, and in East Asia, centered on China and Japan, triggered enormous global financial flows (Cheung et al., 2020). Despite the surge in production, trade volume, and financial flows that created employment, generated income, and helped lift many people from absolute poverty, it also set parallel and more destructive trajectories in motion.

Taken together, these factors operated in diverse geographies in a complex manner, yielding asymmetric outcomes such as the ascent of a powerful and wealthy business elite, the decline of trade unionism, escalating worker insecurity, financial instability, and surging income and wealth inequality. This process triggered significant migrations and dislocations, perceived as threats to established endogenous lifestyles, national identity, and security in developed countries. Consequently, these outcomes inevitably and dangerously contributed to the rise of populist, xenophobic, and authoritarian attitudes among a growing proportion of the population (Cingano, 2014).

Simultaneously, the “voice of the great masses” emerged against elites who economically oppressed the people, humiliated them as a way of life, and excluded them politically. Given that globalization diminished national sovereignty and independence in both developed and developing countries from various perspectives, opposition to existing multilateral governance institutions (i.e., the United Nations, NATO, IMF, WTO, and World Bank) and multinational companies externally, along with criticism of the status quo internally, has become a prevalent trend. The possibility of pursuing multiple balanced politics, created by the emerging multipolar world, also provided a fertile ground for alternative combinations of populist rhetoric. As the global economic crisis (GER 2008-2009) and the COVID-19 pandemic (2019-2021) have shown, excessive connectivity undermines the resilience of national economies. Therefore, sustained economic growth and the protection of social peace in semi-peripheral countries like Turkey and Brazil rely on their capacity to manage their adaptation to the instabilities of the global economic system. The similar crises opened the avenue for further populism.

Experts highlight the crisis of trust in democracy over the last three decades, a period dominated by neoliberal globalization as the primary alternative. This crisis is primarily attributed to corruption and the failure of governments to provide essential public goods, particularly in health and education, ultimately impeding the transition of developing countries into higher-income status.

Therefore, populist leaders, who initially adhered to global market norms and upheld the rule of law amid the remarkable global economic growth from 2002, shifted their stance with the onset of the global economic recession (GER 2008-2009) associated with the neoliberal paradigm and its political and economic challenges. Taking advantage of the increasingly multipolar world order, they began gravitating towards their “hardcore” ideologies, legitimizing them with populist rhetoric. This era marked the golden age of global populism until the COVID-19 pandemic (Posner, 2017).

Recent studies (DEMO Finland, 2023; International IDEA, 2022; V-Dem Institute, 2023) measuring the global state of democracy underline that the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism is more than double that of those moving towards democracy, placing 37 percent of the world’s population under authoritarian rule (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2023). A recent report from Freedom House (2022) finds that only 43 percent of countries can be classified as free and considered democracies.

On the other hand, as discussed by Öztürk (2022a), the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deepening economic crisis did not yield definitive results regarding populist trends. Viktor Orbán in Hungary defeated the opposition coalition and remained in power, while Donald Trump, who lost the elections but increased his votes in the USA, contested the results, refusing to concede peacefully and leaving behind “Trumpism.” In Brazil, Bolsonaro lost the election by a narrow margin and, like Trump, attempted to deny the results. In Turkey’s most recent case, the ruling populist Erdogan remained in power in largely unfair elections. While the defeat of populist leader Kaczyński in the elections in Poland (October 15, 2023) created some early signals for optimism, the victories of libertarian outsider populist Milei in Argentina and far-right Wilders in the Netherlands suggest that the populist backlash has resurged amid the economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the paradoxes or fragilities of incumbent regimes is that, despite their shortcomings, they enable populist leaders to come to power through relatively free and fair elections. However, once in power, the populist leaders often deny the rules of the game, refraining from adhering to or improving upon the same rules, norms, and values, thereby turning elections into mere spectacles. Unsurprisingly, the “defeating of authoritarian populist leaders” has become a hot topic worldwide. Two such cases are Lula’s victory over the incumbent populist leader Bolsonaro and his subsequent rise to power. The other is Erdogan’s survival in office in the May 2023 elections despite multiple political and economic crises, pandemics, and a devastating earthquake.

Brazil and Turkey in Perspective

Introducing Main Political Figures

Although the international interconnectedness and geographic proximity (the so-called geostrategy), democratic experiences, population dynamics, economic structures, and cultural codes of these two countries are significantly different, the strategies and policies of said political leaders in mobilizing these different parameters can still provide a reasonable basis for a comparative study with an opportunity to draw far-fetched lessons in the fight against democratic backsliding. Lula and Erdogan ascended to power during a profound governance crisis in 2002. After decades of military dictatorship, Brazil emerged as a prominent and the youngest democracy in Latin America and the world since 1985, undergoing a relatively peaceful power transition. Subject to the separation of powers among the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches, Brazil also possesses a civil oversight mechanism comprising an independent media and an autonomous central bank. Its current constitution provides robust protections for civil liberties.

On the other hand, while Turkey’s democratization efforts date back to the second half of the 19th century, genuine multi-party free elections only took place after World War II. Despite numerous interruptions, the multi-party parliamentary system, based on checks and balances, persisted until the implementation of the Presidential Government System (PGS) in 2018. Theoretically, Turkey’s PGS can be characterized as a representative democracy and a constitutional republic within a pluriform multi-party system, where the president (serving as the head of state and head of government), parliament, and judiciary share powers reserved for the national government. In practice, since the consolidation of power in 2018, the political regime in Turkey has lost its democratic and rule-of-law-bound characteristics. The parliament has effectively become a rubber-stamping body, providing legitimacy cover for Erdogan’s arbitrary and erratic one-person rule. Numerous elected representatives have been expelled from the parliament and imprisoned. Elected mayors, particularly in the Kurdish region of the country, were ousted, imprisoned, and replaced by appointed public servants as “substitutes.” The judiciary underwent a thorough purge by the Erdogan regime, with positions filled by professionally unqualified individuals demonstrating a cult-like adherence to the regime.

Given the overarching characteristics of political regimes and the pragmatic, opportunistic, and contingent attitudes of populist leaders reflecting their personalities, comparing populists and deriving reliable, generalizable conclusions proves challenging. Nevertheless, despite differences in rhetoric, their discourse ultimately aligns with mainstream ideology when in power. In this context, Lula is a left-wing populist, Bolsonaro is right-wing, and Erdogan represents a hybrid form, oscillating between left and right-wing rhetoric. 

Of working-class origin, Lula embarked on his career as a metalworker, evolving into a trade unionist during the 1970s. Amidst the Brazilian military dictatorship, he led significant workers’ strikes from 1978 to 1980. He played a pivotal role in founding the Workers’ Party in 1980, contributing to Brazil’s political opening and the end of the military regime. Although Lula has maintained ideological consistency, his two terms in power from 2003 saw him adopting a more market-friendly approach to gain confidence while concurrently upholding a “pro-citizen” stance through extensive social welfare policies. 

In contrast, as a right-wing populist, Bolsonaro utilized anti-elitist sentiments, challenging the establishment and positioning himself as a spokesperson for the “common people” while championing family values. Bolsonaro, who entered politics in the late 1980s as a retired representative of a “democratically defeated military class,” is the complete opposite of Lula, who fought against the military class. His national populism relied on themes of neo-nationalism, social conservatism, and economic and fiscal conservatism. It should be an incredible coincidence that after successfully confronting Bolsonaro’s military forces in the late 1980s as a left-wing trade unionist, actively contributing to the revival of democracy in Brazil, Lula found himself in a new role as Bolsonaro’s rival in civilian politics in the 2020s. While Bolsonaro aimed to undermine Brazil’s democratic gains through civilian means, Lula declared his intention to advance democracy even further. As a seasoned trade unionist and politician, Lula again emerged victorious in the battle against Bolsonaro, this time in civil politics.

On the other hand, Erdogan, with a “hybrid” political personality, defies easy comparison with center-left-wing figures like Lula, right-wing figures like Bolsonaro, and others. This uniqueness led Cagatay (2017) to label him the “inventor of 21st-century populism” in the post-Cold War multipolar world. Beyond his personality and ideological affiliation, the geopolitics of Turkey has significantly shaped Erdogan’s approach, compelling him to adopt a pragmatic stance to balance competing interests at the intersection of the East and West, and the global North and the South. Additionally, the varied impacts of Brazil’s abundant natural and energy resources, along with Turkey’s dependence on them, have contributed to the formulation of distinct policies and strategies by these leaders.

Despite the mentioned differences between Lula, Erdogan, and Bolsonaro, and regardless of their tenures in power, they all fell short of exhibiting transformative leadership. Instead, they pragmatically engaged in transactional give-and-take relationships, mainly when circumstances were favorable. Ultimately, they could not steer the economy onto a sustainable growth path. As de Colvalho (2017) puts it, the combination of low-quality intellectual rather than political leadership, poor strategic thinking, and weaknesses in the face of financial markets made the adoption of ‘a liberal capitalism with a human look’ a done deal. In both countries, it was not a step in any direction but the result itself.

Campaign posters of opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 3, 2023. Photo: Tolga Ildun.

The final political actor to be considered in this analysis is Kemal Kilicdaroglu (referred to as Kilicdaroglu), the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the opposition coalition’s presidential candidate in the May 2023 parliamentary elections. A retired bureaucrat with left-wing leanings, Kilicdaroglu observed a significant shift in political rhetoric toward right-wing ideologies during Erdogan’s rule. Recognizing the need to resonate with the conservative silent majority, he endeavored to align his discourse and the CHP’s rhetoric more closely with them. At the same time, Kilicdaroglu anticipated that the traditional elites would remain loyal voters to the CHP. However, neither he nor his party managed to establish a consistent, convincing, and trustworthy line within this evolving discourse. That is mainly because CHP is known to be the status quo party whose supporters include the elites, military and civilian bureaucrats, and a privileged, wealthy class. Aware of the ongoing negative political legacy or image of the CHP’s top-down societal engineering, repression, negation, and insult of the lifestyle of the so-called silent majority, Kilicdaroglu built his entire election campaign in 2023 on a kind of defense, apology, self-criticism, and the need for a new “social contract.” However, with his weaker and indeterminate leadership quality, these “last-minute efforts” were seen as a tactical maneuver and remained unconvincing. Although his established electorate continued to support him, in the end, he was not entirely successful in recruiting a significant number of “borrowed votes” from the alternative circles.

By leveraging his shared ethnicity as an advantage, he also managed to prevent the Kurds from fielding a separate presidential candidate and thereby secure their support. Although the nationalist tone of his discourse unsettled the Kurds and the conservative aspect troubled the secular Kemalists, the prevailing distrust towards Erdogan garnered him significant support. However, despite leading in the early phase of the first round of the May 2023 elections, he ultimately failed to secure victory after Erdogan’s alleged voting fraud which was left unchallenged and uninvestigated because every single apparatus of the state and the media is controlled by him and his cronies. Unfortunately, his passive response to political interference, silence, non-compliance with voter laws, cowardice, indecision, and the highly volatile nationalist stance he adopted in the second round resulted in a decline in his supporters’ numbers. As a consequence, Erdogan emerged victorious in the elections once again. However, rather than relying heavily on populist rhetoric, he should have shown that his party was more competent for power with his coalition partners than Erdogan. By triggering a populist race regarding distributive policies, he opened Eden’s doors by legitimizing Erdogan’s destructive policies. At a more fundamental level, as compared to Lula’s stance against Bolsonaro, Kilicdaroglu has no past combative stance or leadership capacity for such a Herculean race. 

It can be stated that Kilicdaroglu failed to garner the support of (i) the white pro-status quo Kemalist Turks due to his ethnic Kurdish origins, (ii) a large Sunni Muslim population due to his minority religious affiliation (Alevism), (iii) Kurds and Leftists because of his Kemalist-nationalist ideology, and, last but not least, (iv) liberals and the big capitalists because of his distance from the market economy, inconsistent statements against the capital owners. Furthermore, given his late age, relatively weak leadership, the fact that he had lost every election he had contested, and opaque “negotiations” with various lobbying forces, it was unlikely that a coalition led by Kilicdaroglu would defeat Erdogan. In conclusion, while Lula competed in a more anti-establishment and anti-elite position than Bolsonaro in Brazil, Kilicdaroglu failed to settle in the same position against Erdogan’s competitive authoritarian regime. 

Economic Challenges

When Lula and Erdogan took over the power in the early 2000s, they faced three main challenges with crucial implications for their success: i) Overly politized and excessively divided political culture hinders stability, social capital, and coalition building. ii) A decade of stagnated economy with chronic high inflation. iii) High level of uncertainty caused by a lack of trust in Lula’s hardcore left and Erdogan’s conservative Islamist ideology.

To address these serious concerns, starting from the election campaign at the latest, they emphasized trust building and maintaining social coalitions by promoting a pragmatic, flexible approach to economic management in their first years in power. They also promised to continue ongoing reforms, respect for the rule of law, and adherence to market economy principles. The external world was also quite supportive to their advantage, as the 2000s witnessed one of the golden ages of global capitalism in terms of production, trade, and financial flows. The ongoing austerity programs in the economies of both countries began to show positive results, and the reforms enabled them to take advantage of the new opportunities emerging in the expanding global economy. Turkey’s comprehensive reform program for the EU membership provided additional anchors.

To succinctly summarize the stylized facts of macroeconomic progress during the initial two terms of Lula and Erdogan, average growth generally aligned with Brazil’s and Turkey’s long-term averages of 4 and 5 percent, respectively. From a comparative standpoint, Brazil exhibited significant volatility compared to similar emerging market economies, while Turkey’s growth saw a consistent decline post-2014. In Erdogan’s initial years, the surge in productivity resulting from EU and IMF reforms took center stage in driving growth, whereas Brazil relied on commodity exports as the primary engine of economic expansion. Both countries achieved the upper-middle-income (UMI) country status regarding their per-capita GDP, which hit 13,000 dollars in Brazil in 2012 and 12,500 in Turkey in 2013. Both countries’ monetary and fiscal discipline, implemented in response to the persistent threat of inflation during the 1990s, played a pivotal role in achieving reasonably high growth and a successful disinflation process. Inflation remained in single digits for both nations. Alongside the disinflation process and the expansion of employment opportunities, capital inflows, surpassing historical benchmarks for the two nations, facilitated the financing of a substantial fight against poverty, leading to a notable improvement in income distribution. 

However, the global financial crisis laid bare the vulnerable and fragile nature of both countries’ growth trajectories. The growth episodes in both nations, highly susceptible to external conditions, were significantly interrupted by the global crisis in late 2008, contributing to a deterioration in the political climate. Although the growth performance surpassed the OECD (2 percent) and world average (3 percent), it remained well below the growth achieved by the reference group of upper-middle-income countries (UMI) at 7.3 percent. This disparity can be attributed to both countries experiencing unstable and long-term declines in growth, indicating structural issues, an overemphasis on fiscal austerity, and a lack of well-designed and implemented industrial policies.

Over the subsequent decade, the situation further deviated. Average growth between 2011 and 2018 was 0.7 percent in Brazil during the unstable post-Lula years and 6.2 percent in Turkey until the full institutionalization of the one-person regime. In contrast to their 2012 achievements, Brazil and Turkey fell behind the world GDP per capita and the UMI group. Several negative factors, including the post-2014 recession bringing renewed unemployment and poverty, political instability, and associated uncertainty, paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018. Turkey faced persistent reform backlogs, loss of EU membership perspective, and Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian tendencies after the 2011 election, resulting in significant regression. Widespread and systemic corruption scandals from December 17-25, 2013, Erdogan’s self-orchestrated coup attempts on July 15, 2016, and the system reform in 2018 triggered a period of deconstruction (Öztürk, 2022b; Guriev & Papaioannou, 2020).

During the Bolsonaro era (2019-2022) and Erdogan’s single-man regime, average growth remained at 0.7 percent and dropped to 4.7 percent in Turkey. Professional and autonomous institutions in both countries were undermined and occupied by Erdogan’s incompetent but ambitious loyalists, becoming highly politicized and discredited. Consequently, these figures are deemed unreliable, exaggerated, and manipulated. Unlike Brazil, the excessive use of unsustainable expansionary monetary and fiscal policies made inflated growth costly and short-lived. Growth was significantly lower during Bolsonaro’s era and insufficient in Turkey after the presidential change in 2018. 

In the 2019-2022 period, the most concerning socioeconomic indicators in Brazil include a surge in poverty due to low growth and a deteriorating fiscal balance resulting from the escalating public debt burden. Conversely, in Turkey, alongside these issues, the alarming increase in external deficits and inflation reaching triple digits are significant factors contributing to the economic challenges. It is crucial to note that these factors have led to an extreme depreciation of the Turkish lira.

From a comparative perspective, the rise of right-wing populist Bolsonaro to power in Brazil and the complete transformation of the Turkish parliamentary system towards one-person presidential rule in 2018 played a crucial role in the subsequent years of both countries. The argument that unsustainable growth dynamics and populist policies would lead to a deterioration in the macroeconomic environment and those populist leaders, contrary to their promises, would cause more significant damage to society was proven. Like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan worked to curb the country’s institutional capacity by attacking the judiciary’s power and electoral institutions. Their aggressive manner and attacks on women and journalists served as apparent methods of implementing a “divide and rule” strategy (Phillips, 2022). Their far-right rhetoric also exhibited hatred for minorities.

The pandemic also highlighted how populists deny science, scientists, and expertise. They both dismissed and denied COVID-19 and promoted unproven remedies (Burni & Tamaki, 2021). Even went beyond that, Erdogan mobilized people for political campaigns during the pandemic and expressed skepticism about vaccines. Both countries have recorded some of the worst COVID-19 responses, with death tolls presumed to be significantly undercounted (Béland et al., 2021; Phillips, 2022).

Neglecting the green economy deal and environmental sustainability has been another significant aspect of their populist approach. Deforestation in the Amazon region returned in Brazil, turning the country into a pariah in the global fight against climate change. In Turkey, the construction sector took center stage in Erdogan’s economic policy, leading to shrinking agricultural areas (Adiguzel, 2023; Le Monde, 10.08.2023).

Bolsonaro’s actions after the elections raised concerns about how authoritarian populist leaders (do not) leave power. Far-right supporters stormed the presidential palace, Supreme Court, and Congress in Brasilia on January 8, 2023, echoing the attack on the US Capitol in 2021. Erdogan’s use of state resources for the campaign and his slander against opposition candidates during the 2023 elections further highlighted populist tendencies. Both leaders have shown a pattern of opposing what they promised in opposition, resorting to unsustainable policies, and not leaving power quickly when unsuccessful.

With Bolsonaro’s election at the end of 2018 and Erdogan’s significant regime change in Turkey in the same year, the political environment in both countries took on an increasingly repressive character. Indicators of democracy, separation of powers, human rights, and quality of governance began to decline. The Freedom House Report (2023) classified Turkey as a “not free” country, contrasting Brazil’s status as a “free country.” According to the World Justice Project’s (WJP) Rule of Law Index (RLI) (Table.1), Turkey ranked 117th out of 140 countries in 2023, with an overall score of 0.42 (the higher the score, the better the rule of law). Turkey, which had a “rules-governed, albeit weak, country” status with a score of 0.52 in 2012 and 2013 when the WJP began, has steadily declined and has been mainly out of the “rule of law” realm since 2015. However, Turkey’s most worrying scores focus on limitations on government powers at 0.28, fundamental rights at 0.30, and criminal justice at 0.34.

These data clearly show that, besides the economy, fundamental rights have also been sacrificed under the arbitrary one-person regime introduced in Turkey in 2018. In Brazil, the RLI was 0.58 in 2012-2013, right after Lula. However, it fell steadily to 0.49 until 2022, when Bolsonaro lost the election. 

Table 1 WJP Rule of Law Index
  Argentina Brazil China India Kazakhstan Mexico Poland Romania Turkey
Income Group Upper middle  Upper middle  Upper middle  Lower middle  Upper middle  Upper middle  High  Upper middle  Upper middle 
Overall Score 0,55 0,49 0,47 0,50 0,53 0,42 0,64 0,63 0,42
Constraints on Government Powers 0,56 0,51 0,32 0,58 0,43 0,44 0,54 0,62 0,28
Absence of Corruption 0,46 0,43 0,53 0,40 0,48 0,26 0,72 0,55 0,45
Open Government  0,61 0,60 0,40 0,59 0,46 0,59 0,60 0,63 0,40
Fundamental Rights 0,68 0,48 0,26 0,47 0,46 0,49 0,61 0,67 0,30
Order and Security 0,61 0,64 0,81 0,64 0,80 0,52 0,85 0,83 0,73
Regulatory Enforcement 0,50 0,48 0,48 0,47 0,52 0,44 0,63 0,58 0,40
Civil Justice 0,55 0,50 0,51 0,43 0,61 0,37 0,61 0,65 0,43
Criminal Justice 0,41 0,33 0,45 0,39 0,47 0,28 0,58 0,53 0,34
Source: https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index/country/2022/Turkey/

So, if Bolsonaro had stayed in power as long as Erdogan and managed to reshape the system, the results in Brazil might have mirrored those in Turkey. This sheds light on why the authoritarian right-wing populist leader Erdogan, unlike Bolsonaro, successfully secured his 21-year seat and retained power in Turkey’s May 2023 elections.

Answering the question, “How and why was Bolsonaro defeated and had to accept the results so that Lula could return for a third term in 2022, while Erdogan retained power in Turkey’s 2023 elections?” leads to the first conclusion: Changing populist-authoritarian governments in power is a daunting task, especially if they persist and fundamentally change the regime, as Erdogan effectively did in 2018. As discussed by Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) from different perspectives, Erdogan’s ability to impose his point of view on society depends on taking control of the press, manipulating the justice system, and effectively using national culture. Society’s ability to adapt is influenced by time, and over the past two decades, Erdogan has found or artfully created such an opportunity in Turkey. While the elections in Brazil took place within a functioning democratic constitutional state, such an order was almost abolished in Turkey, turning elections into a mechanism for legitimizing an authoritarian leader.

The following section focuses on the extraordinary relationships that Lula and Erdogan have built through social welfare policies and the two leaders’ coalition-building ability with society to ensure that all of these factors produce results in the complex web of relationships with each other.

The Use of ‘Social Policy’ 

Family Stipend (Bolsa Família) During and After Lula

During their first two terms, economic growth in two countries with the above-discussed fragile aspects until the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 and the significant rise in national income allowed both Lula and Erdogan to implement social policies toward the most fragile targeted groups. To start with Brazil, the growing export surplus and rising tax revenues allowed the Lula government to fight widespread poverty by investing in social programs. During Lula’s era, social spending accounted for 16 percent of GDP through direct/indirect social assistance. Direct transfers included conditional cash transfer programs, non-contributory pensions, food transfers, unemployment benefits, exceptional circumstances pensions, etc. In-kind transfers are benefits of universal free public education and health systems. According to OECD (2023), with the addition of contributory pension payments, social spending topped 25 percent of GDP.

Among others, Bolsa Família (the Family Stipend), the core of Lula’s social policies, was implemented in 2003 as the world’s most extensive direct conditional cash-transfer program directly to the poor. It supported families with children with a per capita income of fewer than 70 dollars a month, granted a small sum of money per child (up to three children) as long as they were vaccinated, stayed in school, and did not engage in illegal child labor. The benefits are mainly paid to women via a chip card. As a result, as of 2010, 12.4 million households had enrolled in the program, and, in sum, 20 to 30 million Brazilians were rescued from poverty. According to Neri (2010), one-sixth of Brazil’s strides in poverty reduction can be attributed to this program, which only cost 0.5 percent of the Brazilian GDP. 

Through Bolsa Família, nearly 13 million new jobs were created, and the increase in the minimum wage from $100 to $205 during Lula’s presidency was crucial in addressing Brazil’s traditionally skewed income distribution. Recent studies indicate that targeted cash transfer programs associated with Bolsa Família and minimum wage hikes accounted for more than half (55 percent) of the decline in earnings inequality among formal sector employees and thus contributed to Lula’s re-election for a second term in 2007 (Ferrari & Bittes, 2023).

According to World Bank (2022) indicators, the Gini coefficient, an inequality measure, stood above 0.60 in 1995 and was at 0.58 when Lula assumed office in 2003. It then declined to 0.53 after his two terms in 2010, signifying a noteworthy improvement, although still ranking as the highest among major countries and democracies. This is attributed to the constraints on the state’s social spending caused by financial needs, emphasizing the necessity for increased employment generation and targeted cash transfers to address the significant inequalities. Despite their significant success, Neto & Vernengo (2007) argue that Lula’s social policies failed to break the longstanding pattern of income inequalities and escalating social injustice.

After Lula, things rapidly changed. Dilma Rousseff, who ruled Brazil after Lula but was impeached in 2016, was subject to the nexus of problems like massive corruption scandals, economic recession, and fiscal crisis and had to limit social spending, especially after 2014. When Brazil’s worst-ever recession began in 2014, and GDP per Brazilian dropped by 10 percent from 2014 to 2016, progress stopped and, in some areas, reversed. Michel Temer, who led the country until the end of 2018, opted for a complete austerity program in which social spending would be cut entirely. Instead of turning to capital and the rich, he assumed that poverty would be combated under market conditions only after economic growth returned (Ferrari & Bittes, 2023). However, growth and the market mechanism alone are unlikely to eradicate poverty or improve income distribution.

An unusual aspect of social welfare spending in Brazil is that, although total social transfers reached an enormous 25 percent of Brazil’s GDP, even higher than in most prosperous countries, they have been “hardly redistributive” in Brazil. Interestingly, while 2015 taxes and transfers reduced the average Gini coefficient in OECD countries from 0.47 to 0.31, Brazil cut inequality by only half as much on average. The Gini coefficient stood at 0.53 in 2017 (Higgins & Pereira, 2013). One reason for this is the biased tax structure against the poor (OECD-IDB, 2020). At the end of 2018, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day reached 8.2 million, the highest since 2007.

Besides other factors, that process finally allowed the right-wing party leader Bolsonaro to come to power. However, unlike his rhetoric favoring the poor, he did the opposite with the policies favoring the rich; like his predecessor Temer, he thought that economic growth and employment increases would contribute more to the fight against poverty than that kind of direct cash support. In that line of thinking, he underestimated hunger and malnutrition; thus, tens of millions were impoverished. Morevoer, Bolsonaro, who wanted to get out of Lula’s shadow, instead of developing and popularizing theBolsa Família, wanted to go around and erase it from the public’s memory with other names, measures, mechanisms, and policies. Among others, restricting applications, extending the waiting period, expelling the current beneficiaries, and reducing the real effect of aid amounts by not updating according to inflation were the central approach (Higgins & Pereira 2013). 

According to experts, while many areas must be intervened to save a resource close to 10 percent of the national income, the Bolsa Família aid category, whose share of national income is meager but whose marginal contribution is unmatched, caused the most significant deterioration in income distribution. As a result, Brazil reappeared on the World Food Program’s “Hunger Map” of the United Nations (UN) in 2021, with 28.9 percent of the population living in food insecurity. Thirty-three million Brazilians faced acute hunger, and 100 million lived in poverty, the highest number in years. It was a significant setback for a country removed from the map in 2014 (France 24, 2022). As the 10th largest economy in the world, the largest one in Latin America, and one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters, Brazil’s return to the UN’s hunger map is not easier to bring any convincing explanation other than an overall wrong management system.

As compared to his rivals, during his first two terms, Lula remained in the past as a model and mechanism in the fight against poverty and income inequalities. Adapting a patriarchal approach, he regarded social expenditures as his blessing rather than handling them from a modern constitutional perspective. Thanks to favorable global economic conjuncture, he increased social aid significantly compared to the past. The society focused on aid, and the model, mechanism, and philosophy behind it remained of secondary importance. Most importantly, with time after 2010, the Lula period stood out as a success story due to the cutting of social aid that started with Temer and continued with Bolsonaro in the aftermath of the global crisis and an environment of instability and economic stagnation.

Erdogan’s ‘Green Card’ and Transactional Approach

The banner ‘Potato, onion, goodbye Erdogan’ was carried in the 1 May rally, which coincided with the critical 14 May elections in Turkey on May 1, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Since 2003, Erdogan has employed social transfer and protection spending as practical fiscal policy tools to address poverty (Sarısoy and Koç, 2010). His social policies blend market-friendly economic strategies with substantial redistribution effects, incorporating health education elements and active labor market policies like training programs and public works (Sagdic, 2021; Baylan, 2019).

Besides the central government benefits, after the ruling AKP changed the Metropolitan Municipalities Law to expand municipalities’ social assistance capacities in 2004, benefits were exponentially expanded to poor families, encompassing various types of in-kind and cash assistance programs. For instance, by 2014, regular central government benefits in kind and cash for low-income families had risen to $260 monthly, while the official minimum wage stood at $370. Initially, a free healthcare card program for the poor (the Green Card program) was implemented and covered 6.9 million individuals, 4.2 percent of the population in 2003 and 12.7 percent in 2009. Finally, a universal healthcare system was established, and Green Card holders were included in the new system in 2022 (Yörük, 2023).

The number of beneficiaries and the share of government budgets allocated to these programs have dramatically increased. As a result, public social spending increased from 3.4 percent of GDP in 1995 to 12.5 percent as of 2016. Adjusted for inflation, spending increased by 176 percent between 2006 and 2017 (Yentürk, 2018; Üçkardeşler, 2015). Social programs are funded by the state’s general budget, municipalities, the European Union, and other funds for encouraging social assistance and solidarity. 

The AKP’s wage policy also targeted society’s most fragile or vulnerable segments, composed of its potential conservative voters (Karataşlı, 2015). Intentionally or not, the minimum wages have been used as an income distribution policy in the form of “low-wage equalization.” With all these caveats, the minimum wage, $100-150 band in 2001, rose sharply to $450 by 2008. After 2018, marking the consolidation of the “contingency management” came with a one-man rule, the sharp rise in exchange rates from 2,20 per US dollar in January 2014 to 27 in July 2023, a 12-fold increase over a decade resulted in a steady decline of minimum wage, falling to an all-time low $220-250 range during 2021-2022.

A notable weakness in Erdogan’s approach, intentionally overlooked for reasons to be elucidated later, was the curtailment of the “protective welfare state.” This reduction specifically targeted passive labor market policies, including unemployment insurance, workplace regulation, and the tolerance of trade union activities, as well as agricultural support and housing subsidies. Considering all these facets, some economists characterize Erdogan’s social policies as “social neoliberalism” (Öniş, 2012).

What has a crucial implication from the viewpoint of the current discussion in this article is that despite Erdogan’s social spending policies failing to bring a lasting impact on poverty and income inequalities amidst a sharp increase in living costs, Erdogan has successfully maintained the adherence of even the most vulnerable segments of society to his political career, necessitating an explanation. In addition to Erdogan’s widely recognized populist strategies involving media manipulation, scapegoating the opposition as inept and colluding traitors, and employing fear-based politics by portraying the outside world as an enemy and a threat to national independence and sovereignty, a pivotal factor in his success is his transactional approach, linking aid and voting through sustained dependency.

The modern welfare state, aiming to “liberate the individual and protect his dignity,” as advocated by Amartya Sen (1999), necessitates transformational leadership with a focus on a clear vision, collective benefits, and long-term value. On the contrary, as Kuhnert and Lewis (1987) stated, transactional leaders prefer to operate within the existing organizational structure and culture, adhering to precedent rather than instigating change. In other words, instead of addressing poverty and permanently liberating individuals from its grasp, this approach perpetuates and manages poverty by creating a system that fosters people’s dependence on aid in exchange for votes, forming a parasitic symbiosis of “give-and-take.”

In this context, Erdogan’s leadership is characterized by a transactional approach centered on negotiations for short-term goals, seeking voter loyalty through clientelism—a pyramid structure wherein selective benefits are distributed, with the assistance of brokers, to individuals or groups in exchange for political support (Gherghina & Volintiru, 2017). The crucial aspect here is to furnish this structure with the essential political, cultural, and psychological elements that sustain loyalty and affiliation with politics based on this aid rather than prompting questioning the enduring poverty among those in need. This characteristic positions Erdogan as a contender for the title of the “populist of the 21st century,” as mentioned earlier.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended the rally in Izmir as part of the 14 May General Elections campaign in Izmir, Turkey on March 29, 2023. Photo: Idil Toffolo.

 

By taking the historical legacy of the patrimonial state, Erdogan has successfully positioned himself on the side of the people against the elites and the system and, more importantly, articulated social aid with this discourse. In the particular case of Turkey, transactional leadership involves: i) Honoring the so-called homogeneous, virtuous, silent majority by claiming to represent their voice and interests. ii) Legitimizing their visibility and vertical mobility as their right to effectively participate in governance has been severely blocked. iii) Improving income distribution by transferring a larger share of social assistance to the selected social groups. 

This approach has long-term implications regarding the rule of law, economic development, democracy, and human rights. Erdogan comes from a political tradition claiming that the elites and institutions of the political establishment, such as the Constitutional Court and the High Judiciary, are allied to prevent people from achieving power. In that regard, as Aytaç and Öniş (2014) stated, like his predecessor Necmettin Erbakan, he continued employing the famous motto “Milli İrade” (The Will of the Nation), the term refers primarily to the Muslim lower classes as opposed to the establishment elites. The persistent and polarizing insistence of populists that the interests of “establishment elites” and the large silent majority, representing the “national will,” are mutually exclusive implies that, in power, those who subject to positive discrimination in controlling public resources will change hands.

Soon after coming to power, the AKP, garnering broad support from the urban poor and conservative masses affected by recurring economic crises, and who had lost trust in mainstream political parties, aimed to forge relevant coalitions and implement swift, albeit progressively more heterodox policies, to introduce new forms of targeted social policy. The essence of the matter is that, considering the volatile voting behavior among the average electorate, assisting the poor primarily through “modern state mechanisms” may not foster perpetual dependency and “loyalty.” For this reason, alongside conventional social state approaches outlined in the previous section, aid was also “privatized” through pro-business wealth transfer policies, individualized to the voters, closely monitored by party branches, and coordinated with governorates and municipalities.

All the way down to the neighborhood committees, local party organizations identify the loyalists and channel aid and employment opportunities. In doing so, the ruling party established mutual interdependence between the party, the urban poor, and the business or economic elites through highly partisan methods of targeted resource distribution. Over time, this symbiosis evolved into their shared destiny. In other words, with the flow of resources, privileges, and dependence on the AKP’s continued control of the state apparatus, the two constituents of this trio became increasingly partisan and apprehensive of redistribution and reprisal should the AKP lose power (Esen & Gumuscu, 2021). Through the social networks where Erdogan holds influence, mainly via various foundations and associations managed by his family members, close relatives, and other conservative structures, he cultivates self-fulfilling prophecies, portraying Erdogan as a patrimonial figure, a big brother, a modern-day Robin Hood who “takes from the rich and gives to the poor.” By that, he aims to implant in people’s consciousness the idea that “corruption is inevitable for the good of the people.” To reinforce this image, some religious authorities have even attempted to produce religious credentials (fatwas), discussing “what is corruption and what is a legitimate commission of the Sultan” in Islam (Yilmaz, 2020).

In essence, the efficacy of the “divide and rule” strategy lies in scapegoating others. In alignment with this approach, Erdogan, at the expense of the ongoing comprehensive reform and the EU membership agenda, subjugated the entire establishment. Instead of dismantling exclusive interest groups, he adopted a confiscation strategy in Olson’s (1982) terminology, institutionalizing corruption, political pressure, and exclusion, thus introducing a fundamentally new approach to social spending.

Erdogan’s transactional approach revolves around a well-established and highly sophisticated form of clientelism, emphasizing dyadic relationships, contingency, hierarchy, and iteration (Hicken, 2011). It is more accurate to characterize these developments as a product of a learning-by-doing or trial-and-error process during his tenure as the mayor of Istanbul, which he assumed in 1994 amidst a highly divided opposition landscape, securing the lowest vote rate at the time. This incubation period allowed him to evolve his system from its rudimentary stages to a state of sophistication (Compiegne, 2022).

For Erdogan’s “give-and-take” or “win-win” game to operate successfully, the following conditions must be met:

i) Utilizing the state apparatus as a platform for executing the “distributional game” involves creating rent arrears in various regions and sectors as leverage for distributional purposes.

ii) Developing an anti-systemic religious-nationalist language for the “divide and rule” strategy (Tahiroglu, 2022).

iii) Gaining control of financially dependent media to collaborate in manipulating the public by disseminating fake yet appealing stories (Yanatma, 2021; Coşkun, 2020; Kizilkaya, E. 2023; Tahiroglu, 2022b).

iv) Distancing from external actors and anchors, such as the EU and the IMF, which advocate transparency, discipline, and compliance with the rule of law. Notably, Erdogan halted EU accession negotiations at the transparency and tender chapters, citing political, religious, and national reasons. Subsequently, Erdogan projected the image of a country failing to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions (Eurobarometer, 2022).

v) Enlisting “militant bureaucrats,” particularly within the judiciary, to cooperate in undermining systems like public procurement, facilitating favoritism and money laundering. The corruption files of December 17-25, 2013, revealed lenient treatment of government contract favoritism by law enforcement, ensuring a steady revenue stream in exchange for support in Erdogan’s re-election (Emek & Acar, 2015; Arslantas & Arslantas, 2020; Özgür, 2020; Akça & Özden, 2021; Özel & Yıldırım, 2019).

vi) Establishing dependent capitalists or an economic elite through extensive patronage networks of corruption and favoritism to serve as intermediaries in the rent distribution process (Esen & Gumuscu, 2021).

vii) Establishing effective intermediaries, such as local party branches, municipalities, foundations, associations, and religious sects, to facilitate the delivery of privatized aid to the targeted social segments.

As convincingly demonstrated by Esen and Gümüşçü (2021), Erdogan’s transactional approach and corruption are closely related and mutually supportive. First, in the abovementioned process, Erdogan established an alternative, dependent capitalist class. This class contributes a portion of the rents it acquires from the government, involving practices such as construction permits, land allocation, municipal companies, and large infrastructure projects without tenders but with customer guarantees (Emek, 2015). Second, the enormous corrupt economy allowed him to create massive sources of rent arrears and distribute it partly to people experiencing poverty in the form of “cash and kind or subsistence allowances in exchange for loyalty and votes.” (Buğra, 2020; Özel & Yıldırım, 2019). The explained pay-off matrix has brought critical political repercussions, namely, the AKP’s weakened reluctance to resign through democratic means and the increased tolerance of its coalition partners for democratic backsliding. Therefore, with the personalization of power and rising authoritarianism under Erdogan’s rule, especially after the 2018 regime change, the need to attract voters and dependence on the economy for private resources decreased, underlining a further alert on the collapse of democracy.

The same happened in Brazil but with different dimensions. Although clientelism, rent-seeking, and kleptocracy – altogether corruption- are the dominant features of politics in Brazil, they are not subject to profound public awareness or concern as long as economic growth delivers positive results. Rather than eradicating the sources of corruption, the regime’s grand barons use the existing “culture of ignorance” as an integral part of their reckoning in the struggle for power against one another. As an expression of social culture or helpless devotion, society tends to justify that mechanism by relying on the understanding of “he who keeps honey licks his finger” or “it does not matter if politicians steal from what they produce.” 

Lula’s dismissal in 2010 at the height of his popularity, conviction in 2018, and return to power in March 2022 are case in point. Lula, who was argued to have been involved in “Operation Car Wash-2014,” the most extensive corruption investigation involving politicians, public institutions, and major construction companies, was found guilty and imprisoned in 2018. However, according to the UN resolution and many other observers, Lula’s trial process was unfair because of insufficient evidence and human rights abuses. Indeed, the appointment of the case judge as minister of justice by Bolsonaro, who won the 2018 elections while Lula was in prison, shows the nature of the above-mentioned intra-elite power struggle. To continue with the same logic, the fact that Lula’s case was dropped, and his political career was reopened due to the aforementioned systemic shortcomings does not show Lula’s absolute innocence either. 

It is emphasized here that in many countries such as Brazil and Turkey, where institutions are weak, social culture is accommodative, and voters’ awareness of citizenship is insufficient, overt conflicts between elites through the judiciary and the media only prepare the ground for further negotiations between the status quo powers rather than radically reforming and improving the system to achieve better democracy, human rights, and economic development. 

Establishing ‘Coalitions Against the Populist Incumbent Regime

Establishing a coalition within the voter base to attain and retain power is crucial, but equally essential is forging a robust alliance in parliament after the removal of authoritarian populists. As observed in the 2022 elections in Brazil and the 2023 elections in Turkey, the electoral process witnessed significant economic, political, and social upheaval orchestrated by the reluctant incumbent populist government. Recent evidence also highlights that even in defeat, populists leave behind a resilient structure and a trail of destruction, particularly challenging when they narrowly lose elections. Overcoming these challenges necessitates efficient administration through sustained coalition building.

As Lemos (2022) discusses, the overarching goal is establishing a government committed to implementing essential reforms and mending the nation’s economic, political, and social fault lines. However, overcoming this legacy poses a significant hurdle for the new government, requiring efficient administration. It necessitates concerted efforts to gather diverse interests and navigate challenges posed by the remnants of the populist regime. The focus should be on acquiring and leveraging power to build a resilient government. This government must confront the enduring legacy of populism, enact necessary reforms, and prevent a recurrence of populist influences in future elections. Despite facing considerable resistance and witnessing the destructive impact of the right-wing authoritarian-populist leader in Brazil, Lula’s rallying cry to “let’s leave everything else aside other than taking back democracy and institutions” proved effective. Reflecting on his past success, society reconsidered its preferences, particularly evident in the second round of the election. In contrast, Turkish voters did not afford the opposition coalition a similar opportunity. The opposition encountered additional reluctance in garnering support, especially following apparent missteps in the second round of the election. Voters, skeptical of the leadership’s capacity to either counter Erdogan’s destructive actions or propel the system forward, chose to withhold their endorsement.

Highlighting Lula’s advantage, absent in the Turkish opposition coalition, it is crucial to note a shortcoming in Bolsonaro compared to Erdogan. Bolsonaro’s limited time in power prevented him from establishing an Erdogan-like kleptocracy, as described earlier. Unlike Erdogan, he couldn’t consolidate control over institutions and failed to institute a robust “transactional model” that resonated with voters. Consequently, Bolsonaro couldn’t position himself as an anti-establishment and anti-elite or embody the image of a “paternal figure” redistributing wealth from the affluent to the less privileged. 

An important observation regarding Erdogan’s situation is that, unlike Bolsonaro in Brazil, he has gained control over the state apparatus, the judiciary, the press, and economic resources. That allowed him to manipulate the opposition to determine whom to cooperate with and compete against within the opposition. As a reminder, when Erdogan was President and his party lost power in 2015, neither CHP (Kilicdaroglu) nor MHP (led by Devlet Bahçeli) formed a coalition with Erdogan’s party. In the next elections that year, Turkey entered a turbulent phase marked by fear that came with political bloodshed, heightened public security concerns, and Erdogan’s party regaining power independently. As a reaction to Bahçeli’s resistance to establishing a “coalition government” following the June 7, 2015, events that caused Erdogan’s bloody victory, opposition within MHP intensified. Although Bahceli lost his post in the party congress in June 2016, the pro-Erdogan court came to his aid, declaring the party congress invalid and allowing him to maintain his leadership. However, that episode rendered Erdogan’s former rival politically beholden to him, resulting in a notable shift in his political discourse towards becoming Erdogan’s long-term coalition partner. Erdogan has also been proactive in disseminating compromising materials of a prominent opposition leader and orchestrating his replacement through various media manipulations.

The success of keeping his political rival, whom he had consistently defeated in previous elections, in his seat by portraying him as oppressed and victimized, with unfair attacks reminiscent of those directed against Erdogan in the past, serves as evidence of Erdogan’s strategy to divide and rule Turkey along deep fault lines. Indeed, taking it a step further, Erdogan, with his charismatic leadership, effectively dismantled the concept of “center politics” in the past. By steering the language of politics towards the right and conservative spectrum, he eradicated space for left-wing political discourse. Consequently, he compelled his opponents to navigate unfamiliar terrain, leaving them as guests, novices, or the away team, ultimately defeating them. (Korkmaz, 2022a-b). 

To further consolidate the above perspective, it is interesting to briefly compare the Great Marmara Earthquake of 1999, which played a significant role in his rise to power amid ongoing significant political pressure, enduring economic crisis, and heightened political instability, with the recent earthquake in Southeast Anatolia in 2023. This time, it reflects Erdogan’s heavy toll of political-populist mistakes, economic crisis, and instability. Despite these challenges, he managed to stay in power. Besides the factors mentioned in the former earthquake, his performance in the mayorship of Istanbul, plus his unfair discrimination by the establishment forces in the media, judiciary, bureaucracy, and the military, brought him to power. 

Unlike the 1999 Marmara Earthquake, conditions in the earthquake of 2023 were remarkably against the Erdogan government in power. In deep shock, his response to the earthquake was incomplete, incorrect, and significantly delayed. Similar to the previous natural disasters, the main reason was the government’s unpreparedness, the incompetence of civil servants, and the fragile institutions. In addition, the government prevented nongovernmental organizations outside the government’s direction and control from engaging because it feared this would be to its detriment. Despite the earthquake’s devastations, the loss of more than 50,000 lives, the economic destruction it brought, the heavy systemic corruption that caused it, and the ongoing economic crisis, aside from Turkey in general, Erdogan’s high vote in this specific earthquake-hit disaster region in the last election needs explanation. 

Despite the recent economic hardships and the devastating earthquake that caused an unknown number of lives, exposing Erdogan’s corrupt regime, other things being equal, the outcome changed due to manipulations by Erdogan-controlled media and the belated yet highly organized efforts of agents in relief organizations closely aligned with Erdogan’s rent-seeking coalitions, like large private companies, religious civil society organizations, and public institutions. In other words, Erdogan’s well-functioning “transactional approach,” successfully implemented in the earthquake environment, came together with cultural codes, creating an invincible armada in his favor. This is not the first time the government bought political loyalty in return for short-term material rewards combined with religious-nationalist language. The same tactics have been successfully employed in many natural disasters and industrial or occupational accidents.

In the context of Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, (i) his low-profile leadership that lacks conviction, (ii) his perceived ethnic and religious affiliation, and (iii) CHP’s elitist, oligarchic, and pro-capitalist identity, rooted in the tradition of top-down social engineering, hinder him from gaining resonance in society. Conversely, Erdogan’s portrayal of him as “a coupist and junta supporter, collaborator with foreigners, and enemy of national will” has proven effective in triggering concerns related to national security, independence, and sovereignty. In an environment of shifted political cleavages and conservative-right-wing rhetoric, his efforts were perceived as a “last-minute tactical maneuver.”  

Conclusion

In conclusion, the economic, social, and political crisis caused by unrestrained neo-liberal globalization and overconnectivity, highlighted during the contagious global financial crisis in 2008-2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in significant disappointments and a growing public inclination toward populist rhetoric.

Populists, capitalizing on fractures in existing governance structures, rise to power and attempt to retain it by transforming the main characteristics of the regime. This creates a “populist vicious cycle,” where their central ideology and personality lead to contingency management and arbitrariness in governance, inadvertently inviting failure by disabling institutions, rules, merit, independent-autonomous bodies, science, and check-and-balance mechanisms. As populists lose the capacity to fulfill extreme promises made while in opposition and exhibit effective governance, they tend to become even more oppressive, leaning towards a one-person regime.

This process ultimately gives rise to clientelism, rent-seeking, and kleptocracy, constituting corruption as a dominant feature of politics in countries like Brazil, especially under Bolsonaro since 2018, and in Turkey, starting with Erdogan’s third term in 2011.

The challenges of how populists come to power and leave it are markedly different. While it is possible to replace incumbent conventional politicians bound by the game’s rules, replacing a populist who stays in power for an extended period and shifts the regime from its central axis requires entirely different skills. Authoritarian populists leverage the state’s power during election campaigns, often pushing legal and ethical limits.

The personal leadership capacity of populists also plays a decisive role. For example, Erdogan’s crony capitalism, rooted in transactional rather than transformative leadership, is closely tied to his ability to blend cultural, economic, and political elements, combining hope with fear and security with short-term self-interest. This entails intertwining his political destiny with the fate of a large segment of voters.

In such a scenario, an opposition leader aiming to remove a populist from power must possess leadership capacity, the ability to form a coalition, and the capability to present voters with a more adaptable and transformative vision for the future, persuading them of its merits.

In contrast to Lula, who effectively positioned himself as a viable alternative to Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2022, the opposition in Turkey failed to do the same. Bolsonaro lost power not only because of his failures but also because of Lula’s past performance and high leadership quality in forming inclusive coalitions. Despite bringing Turkey to the verge of destruction during the 2023 election, Erdogan, by successfully using pro-citizen and anti-establishment rhetoric, presented himself as “the man of the people” persona. No leader emerged in Turkey to convincingly replace him amidst an environment of fear and societal concerns for security, stability, and sovereign independence.


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

Javier Milei’s Victory: A New Chapter for Right-Wing Populism in Argentina?

Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Javier Milei’s victory, it is crucial to approach Milei’s election cautiously and avoid interpreting it as a definitive sign of a substantial conservative shift in Argentine politics. To comprehend Milei’s success, it is essential to delve into the Argentine context, where it seems to signify more a public frustration with the establishment than a straightforward resurgence of right-wing populism.

By Imdat Oner*

After a second-round election on November 19, 2023, libertarian candidate Javier Milei emerged as the president-elect of Argentina, securing 56 percent of the votes compared to his opponent Sergio Massa’s 44 percent. This victory marked a significant milestone, as Milei garnered the most votes in any election in Argentine history.

In the wake of Milei’s decisive win, former US President Donald Trump commended the Argentinian president-elect, asserting that Milei would “truly make Argentina great again.” Jair Bolsonaro echoed these sentiments, hailing the victory as a triumph for “progress and freedom.” Some right-wing activists are already envisioning a domino effect, anticipating that Milei’s success could pave the way for Trump and Bolsonaro to reclaim power in 2024 and 2026.

Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Milei’s victory, it is essential to approach Milei’s election with caution and refrain from interpreting it as a clear sign of a significant conservative shift in Argentine politics. Understanding Milei’s success necessitates a nuanced exploration of the Argentine context, where it seems to reflect more a manifestation of public frustration with the establishment than a mere resurgence of right-wing populism.

Milei’s ascension to the presidency is unprecedented, marking the first occurrence of an outsider leading Argentina. His far-right inclinations, epitomized by his self-proclaimed anarcho-libertarian stance, set him apart from the conventional political spectrum. Peronism has upheld its supremacy in Argentine politics by building an alliance that encompasses both the left and the right, uniting trade unions and major businesses. The party movement has effectively established an organizational structure with widespread influence, extending across the country. 

Milei, a former TV commentator and economist, presented himself as a symbol of change against this establishment that has been in power in Argentina for the past two decades. His campaign was marked by a strong anti-establishment narrative, echoing the widespread dissatisfaction among voters. He focused on economic ideas and blamed past administrations resonating with a population weary of traditional politics. His use of a chainsaw as a symbol of cutting state spending emphasized his commitment to making radical changes.

In this context, Milei’s electoral success primarily derives from economic dissatisfaction rather than an embrace of far-right policies. The economy with inflation over 140 percent yearly and 40 percent of the people in poverty has fueled a collective desire among citizens for a departure from the existing status quo. Massa, the current Minister of Economy, faced the full force of public frustration during one of Argentina’s most severe economic crises in decades. Milei smartly connected with people by presenting himself as the leader of significant and quick change, contrasting with what many see as the mishandling of past administrations. 

However, Milei’s confrontational style, lack of political experience, and limited allies in Congress add an additional layer of unpredictability for the future. In reality, he could turn out to be one of the least influential Argentine presidents in many years. His political party, Freedom Advances, currently has only seven out of 72 seats in the Senate and 37 out of 257 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies. Even if legislators from right-wing parties, including members of Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal party, support Milei, he won’t have enough support for a governing majority. The complexity of passing laws and radical reforms requiring a qualified majority poses a significant governance challenge for the president-elect. Securing the necessary majority for passing laws and projects entails negotiations with various factions within Peronism. Furthermore, Milei’s coalition does not have a single governor in any of Argentina’s 23 provinces.

The difficulties ahead for Milei extend beyond legislative hurdles. The implementation of a shock therapy in the economy often results in substantial adverse effects on employment and income, potentially sparking social unrest that could further strain the country’s already complicated situation. The extent of Milei’s ability to capitalize on his personal popularity will play a significant role in shaping his political influence over the country. To achieve the objective of forming a legislative majority, Milei will need to maintain popular support. 

In conclusion, while Javier Milei’s political style may bear similarities to Trump and Bolsonaro, his success in Argentina is more indicative of a deep-seated frustration with the establishment and traditional politics. As Milei assumes the presidency, the world watches with curiosity to see whether his unconventional approach can bring about the promised change in Argentina or if it encounters the challenges inherent in radical policy shifts.


(*) Imdat Oner is a former Turkish diplomat who recently served at the Turkish Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Ph.D. from Florida International University, where he wrote a dissertation titled “Great Power Competition in Latin America Through Strategic Narrative.” His articles have been published in the Journal of Populism, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, and the Miami Herald.

Israelis protest at Tel Aviv against Netanyahu's anti-democratic coup on April 1, 2023. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Professor Filc: Netanyahu’s Era Is Coming to an End, Influence of Clerical Fascism Will Likely Persist

Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism in the country, Professor Dani Filc of Ben Gurion University confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of “clerical fascism” in Israel is poised to persist.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Dani Filc, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, confidently asserts that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, a longstanding figure in Israeli politics, is on the verge of conclusion. However, he also underscores that the influence of clerical fascism is poised to persist.

Offering profound insights into the dynamics of Israeli politics and the evolving role of radical right-wing populism, the interview delves into the historical transformation of the ruling Likud. From its roots as a radical right vanguard to its current status as a sui generis form of right-wing populism, Likud’s evolution is explored. The discussion tracks Likud’s inclusive elements and examines the ideological shifts that occurred during Netanyahu’s tenure.

Addressing the intersection of populism with identity politics, Professor Filc highlights the dangerous chain of equivalencies used to demonize Israeli Arabs and the instrumental use of religion to differentiate the “in-group” and the “out-group.” Professor Filc also provides insights into Israel’s global alliances, pointing out the alliance with European far-right parties. Filc touches on the evolution of Likud under Netanyahu and its alignment with illiberal, right-wing populist movements in Europe. 

Asserting that the ongoing war in Gaza signals the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics, Professor Filc predicts that “with the conclusion of the war in Gaza, Netanyahu will fall, leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.” However, he expresses concerns about the lasting impact of the ongoing conflict on populist movements and calls for a just peace in the Middle East, highlighting potential dangers associated with civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations.

In this comprehensive interview, Professor Filc shares invaluable insights into the intricate landscape of Israeli politics, the evolution of populism, and the challenges posed by religious and right-wing populist movements in the country.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Dani Filc with minor edits.

How has populism manifested in Israeli politics historically, and are there specific events or periods that stand out? Can you provide insights into the historical roots and evolution of the radical right in Israel?

I think the first populist moment was when Menachem Begin, who was the then-leader of the Herut Party, the main party of the coalition, became the Likud party, which is the party now in government. Sometime in the early to mid-1950s, Begin led a transformation of the Likud party from a radical right, a vanguard type of party to a populist party. This process was relatively a prolonged one, starting in the mid-50s and reaching its peak when Likud arrived in government in 1977, winning the elections against the Labor party, which had been in government from 1948 until 1977.

Likud, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, was a kind of sui generis type of populism. Why? It was a nationalist party with right-wing views on Israel, a commitment to the idea of Greater Israel, and a denial of the existence of a Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. However, it also had inclusive elements, especially for Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab countries). Likud was symbolically inclusive, politically inclusive, and had some material inclusion measures, particularly in areas like housing and education for Oriental Jews. Mizrahi Jews became the central leaders within Likud, ministers, members of the Knesset in a way, and Oriental Jews also became part of the Likud. There were some measures that included Oriental Jews and improved their material conditions. Although there is a kind of commonality between left-wing populism and inclusive populism, and right-wing populism and exclusionary populism, Likud was not more exclusionary than the Labor Party that preceded it while it has not been inclusive towards Israeli-Palestinian citizens. So, Likud’s populism was not stereotypical, and it had some inclusive characteristics, making it a sui generis form of right-wing populism.

Likud Transformed into Extreme Radical Right-wing Populism

On the ideological front, despite Takis Papas define populism as anti-liberalism, Likud under Begin was not anti-liberal. It adopted conservative liberal views, especially in the relationship between judicial power and the executive or legislative power. As people like Ernesto Laclau and Margaret Canovan described, populist ideologies are often framed as against the hegemonic ideology, the ideology of the power, and since the Labor Party in power held socialist rhetoric, Likud’s adoption of a more liberal rhetoric can be seen as opposition to the then-elites or at least to their rhetoric. This situation made Likud under Begin a kind of sui generis populist party. 

With Begin’s departure from politics in 1982, Likud underwent a period of transition, with internal conflicts between the more populist wing and the more conservative liberal wing. This lasted until 1992, when Netanyahu became the Likud leader. Between 1992 and 2006, Netanyahu aimed to make Likud a near-conservative party as Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s Republican Party with radical neoliberal, nationalist, and realistic in international politics and culturally conservative characteristics. When he was replaced by Ariel Sharon as leader of the Likud and he was Sharon’s minister of finance, he performed more radical neoliberal transformations within Israel.

When Sharon split from Likud in the 2006 elections, the Netanyahu-Sharon split occurred because Sharon supported a one-sided retreat from the Gaza strip without an agreement. Netanyahu opposed Sharon on this issue. Netanyahu became the chairperson of Likud once again, and in the 2006 elections, Likud, led by Netanyahu, obtained only 12 seats in the Knesset, which was 10 percent of the vote. These were the worst elections for Likud since the elections to the second Knesset in the early 1950s.

In my view, Netanyahu understood the limits of the Neo-con project in Israel, leading him to shift towards a radical right exclusionary populist party. However, he wasn’t the pioneer of radical right populism in Israel. The pioneer was Avigdor Levi Lieberman, a former Likud member. When Netanyahu was elected chairperson of Likud in 1992, he appointed Lieberman as the CEO of Likud, the principal executive. In 1999, Lieberman split from Likud and created a party called “Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home),” which is a clear-cut exclusionary radical right-wing populist party. They even have observers in the radical right populist group in the European Parliament.

Eventually, Lieberman became the first politician with a clear exclusionary rhetoric and policy against Israeli Palestinians. He was also the first to assert that Israeli Palestinians posed a greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Using populist rhetoric, he positioned himself as the voice of the people against the oligarchy. However, he clarified, “we are not anti-elitists because elites are good, but there is not an elite. There is an oligarchy, and we are anti-oligarchic.”

Netanyahu also embraced that exclusionary rhetoric and approach, and their parties ran together in the 2013 elections. Despite Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition, the merger was not successful. Lieberman eventually split from the alliance. This marks the moment when Likud transformed into a radical right-wing populist party, even verging on extreme radical right-wing populism, with some members exhibiting characteristics almost akin to fascism.

Religion Is Instrumental for Likud

To what extent does populism in Israel intertwine with identity politics, particularly concerning issues such as nationality and religion (Jewishness)? Are there populist narratives that specifically target or resonate with certain social groups?

Okay, so for sure, nationalism is nativism as Cas Mudde calls them are very central element of Likud’s populism. The demonization of Israeli Arabs is achieved by creating a chain of equivalences that asserts ISIS is like Iran, Iran is like Hezbollah, Hezbollah is like Hamas, and Hamas is like the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is then equated with Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Arabs are likened to the leftist traitors that support them. This chain of equivalencies places national identity at its core.

Regarding the role of religion, it is more instrumental. Most Likud members are traditionalist, observant Jews. However, they are not explicitly religious, and many do not wear a kippa to cover their heads. While they respect some religious mandates, they disregard others. Religion is primarily used functionally to distinguish between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” This is why Likud is much more tolerant in issues such as the LGBTQ community and women’s rights compared to orthodox religious parties.

How does the media landscape contribute to or counter populist narratives in Israeli politics? Have you identified any patterns in the use of media by populist and radical right figures?

They use social media due to the algorithm and the business model being highly conducive to supporting populist leaders and populist politicians. Social media supposedly enables a direct relationship between the leader and the people, eliminating the need for intermediary organizations such as political parties. It creates a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” The impact of social media is evident globally, from Trump in the US to other leaders. In this context, Netanyahu stands out as a master in the use of social media.

Israel started as a secular country and the Zionist movement strongly supported separation of church and state. Then religious populism gained ground and became so powerful today. What went wrong? How did religious populism become such a strong movement?

At the beginning of Zionism, there was a prominent socialist current. However, when the Labour Party did not succeed, or perhaps chose not to, in 1948 to establish a constitution that would formalize the separation between Church and State, things took a different turn. Due to their political alliance with the national Jewish religious party, decisions regarding the relationship between state and religion were postponed. Consequently, Israel does not recognize civil marriages and civil divorces. The religious establishment often dictates personal matters in many areas such as marriages or funerals. The state funds a national rabbi.

So, from the outset, there was no clear separation between the State and the church. 

I believe populism, in terms of establishing a distinction between the in-group and the out-group, has a strong religious identity at its core. However, Likud’s populism is not strictly religious. There is a party called Shas, an ultra-orthodox party, which has exhibited even more pronounced populist characteristics in the past, though this is not the case for Likud. For instance, one of Likud’s prominent leaders is openly homosexual, illustrating that despite its strong core religious identity, Likud is not a religious party. It seems to use religion in an instrumental manner.

Radical Right Populists in Europe are Strong Allies to Likud

Professor Dani Filc.

In the article you co-authored, ‘Israel’s Right-Wing Populists: The European Connection’, you argue: ‘The partnership between Netanyahu’s Israel and Orbán’s Hungary is indicative of the enormous change that Israel has undergone during Netanyahu’s era. Israel has become, much like Orbán’s Hungary, a right-wing, populist, illiberal powerhouse. And it is not above joining forces with a European far right with antisemitism in its lineage.’ How do you explain this enormous change, what are the dynamics of this change and how did Netanyahu achieve it?

I believe this change is part of a broader global shift marked by the rise of radical right populism in the US and Europe, which supports Likud’s Israel’s policies towards the Arab world. Notably, the Palestinian issue takes precedence over the problematic antisemitic past of many of these leaders. This holds true for figures such as Georgie Melonie and the fascist history of her party, as well as Jean Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen and the antisemitic past of the Front National. Considering Likud’s worldview and its current commitment to exclusionary radical right populism, it seems that radical right populists in Europe are strong allies to Likud. This alliance is especially evident in the close relationship between Poland’s PiS and Likud, despite the potential challenge posed by PiS’s revisionist stance on Poland’s attitudes during the Nazi regime. However, the focus appears to be more on the present than on the past.

As for the strength of Likud, its main supporters are the lower middle class, middle class, and upwardly mobile middle class, particularly among oriental Jews. The loyalty of these social groups to Likud can be explained by Likud serving as an instrument of social and political mobility for them. Likud has also evolved into a more populist party. Netanyahu, in particular, was willing to adopt more heterodox economic policies, deviating from his earlier radical neoliberal stance. Between 2009 and 2019, the decade during which Netanyahu held continuous power, there was a notable process of social mobility for these groups. The minimum wage increased by 38 percent, accumulated inflation was no more than 20 percent, and the Gini Index decreased in Israel for the first time since the mid-1980s. The two lower quintiles showed improvement compared to the higher quintiles. During this period, private consumption in Israel surpassed the average private consumption in OECD countries for the first time. From a security standpoint, the conflict remained relatively quiet, and economically, there was positive development for the social groups that constituted Netanyahu’s main support base.

Clerical Fascism Supports Colonization of Occupied Palestinian Territories

In the same article, you mention ‘the ongoing Israeli colonialism in the occupied territories.’ Do you see Israel as a colonizer? If so, what role does religious populism play in colonizing Palestinian lands?

The question is quite tricky in today’s context. I don’t think that the colonization process should encompass all of Israel, as some advocates of “free Palestine from the Jordan to the sea” claim. However, I do contend that the policies within the occupied territories reflect a colonizing approach, and there is a connection between this type of process and the rise of radical right populism, which is associated with the colonization process. Presently, the primary role in the settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories is not played by Likud as a radical right populist party, but rather by the radical religious right, which is not populist at all. They hold an avant-garde, and in many ways, an anti-democratic conception of populism. My understanding of populism is that it is inherently democratic. While it may support an illiberal form of democracy, it is not anti-democratic in my view. This is why fascism cannot be considered a form of populism; these are distinct phenomena. What is referred to as the religious Zionist party in Israel appears to be a form of religious fascism, and some scholars even characterize it as clerical fascism, providing significant support for the colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories.

In the same article, you underlined that ‘Netanyahu has turned to nativism and xenophobia, mostly in the form of Islamophobia.’ What does this Islamophobic populism mean for the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians?

For Israeli Arabs, it entailed the denial of their collective rights and the delegitimization of their political leadership. Netanyahu employed this tactic rhetorically multiple times. During the 2015 elections, he asserted, “Jews come to vote because the Israeli Arabs are coming by the hundreds in buses paid for by leftist NGOs.” This statement was made on election day. Between 2019 and 2021, there were four rounds of elections. In one of these rounds, Netanyahu and Likud advocated for the inclusion of cameras in voting booths to combat fraud. However, it was evident that this measure was targeted specifically against Israeli Arabs with the aim of reducing their voting percentage. This move backfired. In the subsequent round of elections, there was an attempt to mitigate this nativism, but it resurfaced with full force in the latest elections.

How do you explain the close relationship between Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right populist parties in Europe like Vlaams Belang in Belgium or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands?

As mentioned earlier, Likud is currently a populist radical right party. Its messages closely mirror those of the Vlaams Belang and Freedom Party, and I see Islamophobia as essentially a replay of the traditional role that antisemitism played for the radical right in Europe. In many ways, they are like brothers in their promotion of Islamophobia. Islamophobia takes precedence over antisemitism. Given that Islamophobia seems to supersede and, in a way, legitimize their shared narrative.

What do you think about the fate of the so-called judicial reform being pushed by Netanyahu? Do you think the Israeli people will agree to it?

The proposed judicial reform has faced opposition for quite some time; as you may be aware, there were extensive protests against it, and the nation became divided following the massacre of October 7th. The ongoing war in Gaza seems to mark the end of Netanyahu’s dominance in Israeli politics. I hope for a swift resolution to the war, and I anticipate that with its end, Netanyahu will fall and leading to the abandonment of the judicial reform.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 18, 2023, against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic coup as a bill to erase judicial ‘reasonableness clause’ is expected to pass despite 27,676 reservations. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

A Just Peace Is Crucial to Preventing Reemergence of Radical Right Ideologies

How does the current war with Hamas will impact the Populist movements in Israel? Some argue that the era of Netanyahu is about to end. Would you agree with that?

I believe Netanyahu’s era is coming to an end, but the influence of clerical fascism will likely persist. In Israel, as in many democratic countries, populism arises from the blind spots and a lack of self-criticism within liberalism, particularly due to its association with neoliberalism. My optimism is limited concerning a significant shift in liberal self-critique, especially as neoliberalism remains a potent factor contributing to the emergence of populism, specifically the populist radical right in Israel.

While Netanyahu may face setbacks, and there might be a temporary decline in the power of the populist radical right, I am concerned that, in the medium and long term, we may witness a resurgence of the radical right if there are no changes in socioeconomic policies. Additionally, a shift toward a just peace in the Middle East, considering the collective rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, is crucial to preventing the reemergence of radical right ideologies.

Do you believe that the recent conflict in Gaza could potentially trigger a wave of civilizational populism beyond Israel and Palestine, and even beyond MENA region? How would you characterize this wave: as civilizational populism or a clash of civilizations?

I do not categorize all right-wing ideologies as populist. My greater concern lies with the potential emergence of clerical fascism or fascism within right-wing populist movements. It’s important to note that clerical fascism or religious fundamentalism does not necessarily have to be populist, and its non-populist manifestation can be particularly dangerous. I sincerely hope for a swift resolution to the ongoing conflict, as it could prevent an escalation and a clash of civilizations that would only lead to more circles of death and destruction. Ending the war promptly is crucial, and it should be followed by a broader understanding that the only sustainable solution for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire region, is an agreement that respects the right of self-determination and security of both peoples, while safeguarding their collective and individual rights and respect it.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital Authoritarianism in Turkish Cyberspace: A Study of Deception and Disinformation by the AKP Regime’s AKtrolls and AKbots

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Please cite as:
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Kenes, Bulent. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism in Turkish Cyberspace: A Study of Deception and Disinformation by the AKP Regime’s AKtrolls and Akbots.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0026



Abstract

This article explores the evolving landscape of digital authoritarianism in Turkish cyberspace, focusing on the deceptive strategies employed by the AKP regime through AKtrolls, AKbots and hackers. Initially employing censorship and content filtering, the government has progressively embraced sophisticated methods, including the weaponization of legislation and regulatory bodies to curtail online freedoms. In the third generation of information controls, a sovereign national cyber-zone marked by extensive surveillance practices has emerged. Targeted persecution of critical netizens, coupled with (dis)information campaigns, shapes the digital narrative. Central to this is the extensive use of internet bots, orchestrated campaigns, and AKtrolls for political manipulation, amplifying government propaganda and suppressing dissenting voices. As Turkey navigates a complex online landscape, the study contributes insights into the multifaceted tactics of Erdogan regime’s digital authoritarianism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Bulent Kenes

Since the last decade, authoritarian governments have co-opted social media, compromising its potential for promoting individual liberties (Yilmaz and Yang, 2023). In recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Turkish government has staunchly endeavoured to control online platforms and manipulate digital spaces to consolidate power, stifle dissent, and shape public opinion. Given the large online user base and the declining influence of traditional media, the internet has become a crucial platform for opposition voices. In response, President Erdogan’s “authoritarian Islamist populist regime” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) has implemented various measures to regulate and monitor the digital space to suppress dissent (Bellut, 2021).

Turkey’s domestic internet policy under the Erdogan regime has shown a convergence towards information control practices observed in countries like Russia and China, despite Turkey’s nominal compliance with Euro-Atlantic norms on cyber-security (Eldem, 2020). This convergence is characterized by increasing efforts to establish “digital sovereignty” and prioritize information security, often serving as a pretext for content control and internet censorship (Eldem, 2020). The Erdogan regime takes a neo-Hobbesian view of cyberspace and seeks to exert sovereignty in this realm through various information controls (Eldem, 2020). Under the Erdogan regime, there has been an increase in the surveillance of online activities, leveraging the surveillance and repression tools provided by social media and digital technologies. Once the regime established its hegemony over the state, it expanded its surveillance tactics to govern society. 

In Turkey, a combination of actors including riot police, social media monitoring agents, intelligence officers, pro-government trolls, hackers, secret witnesses, informants, and collaborators work together to identify and target individuals deemed “risky.” This surveillance apparatus follows the hierarchical structure of the Turkish authoritarian state, with President Erdogan overseeing its developments (Topak, 2019).

The article examines the Turkish government’s pervasive use of trolls, internet bots, orchestrated campaigns, and transnational manipulations that have shaped the country’s online environment. Social media platforms, especially Twitter, are central to these manipulation efforts in Turkey. While Twitter has taken action against thousands of accounts associated with the ruling party’s youth wing, the resistance from the government highlights the significance of these online campaigns.

The use of fake accounts, compromised profiles, and silent bots further deepens the complexities of digital authoritarianism in Turkey. These accounts serve as vehicles for spreading disinformation, astroturfing, and manipulating social media trends. While efforts have been made to identify and remove such accounts, the adaptability of these manipulative actors poses a significant challenge. Many of these bots remain dormant for extended periods, resurfacing strategically to create and promote fake trends while evading conventional detection methods (Elmas, 2023). These software applications play a pivotal role in amplifying government propaganda, countering opposition discourse, and creating an illusion of widespread support. From replicating messages to retweeting content across hundreds of accounts, these automated bots have become instrumental in shaping online narratives and suppressing dissenting voices (Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2023).

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls

The Erdogan regime appointed trustee to Zaman daily in Istanbul, Turkey on March 4, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital authoritarianism is extensive utilization of information control measures by authoritarian regimes to shape and influence the online experiences and behaviors of the public (Howells and Henry, 2021). These regimes have adeptly adapted to the mechanisms of internet governance by exploiting the vast reach of new media platforms. They employ various forms of censorship, both overt and covert, to suppress dissent and control the dissemination of information. 

The literature on digital authoritarianism extensively explores how China has effectively utilized digital technology to maintain and strengthen its rule (Polyakova & Meserole, 2019; Dragu & Lupu, 2021; Sherman, 2021). While China relies on sophisticated surveillance systems and targeted persecution of individuals, the people of Russia experience the impact of digital authoritarianism through internet censorship, manipulation of information flow, the spread of disinformation, and the mobilization of trolls and automated bots (Yilmaz, 2023; Timucin, 2021).

In the realm of digital authoritarianism, disinformation has become a favored tool (Diamond, 2021; Tucker et al., 2017). Authoritarian regimes obscure information, engage in deception, and manipulate the context to shape public opinion (Bimber and de Zúñiga, 2020). It is important to note that digital authoritarianism is not a uniform strategy; different regimes adopt various approaches. Some directly restrict access to the internet, while others rely on heavy censorship and disinformation campaigns (Timucin, 2021; Polyakova & Meserole, 2019). 

The Russian model of digital authoritarianism operates with subtlety. Manipulating social media networks is easier to accomplish and maintain compared to comprehensive monitoring systems (Timucin, 2021). In these cases, the open nature of social media becomes a double-edged sword, enabling the widespread distribution of both accurate information and misinformation while amplifying voices from various ends of the political spectrum (Brown et al., 2012).

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls in Turkey

During the third term of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2011, Turkey witnessed a shift towards increasing populist authoritarianism. Since then, the dissidents and critics of the AKP government have been framed and demonised as the enemies of the Turkish people (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018). 

Initially, the government targeted conventional media outlets, subjecting them to various tactics employed by President Erdogan (Yanardagoglu, 2018). Many critical media organizations were forced out of business, and their assets were taken over by pro-government entities. The persecutions both preceding and after the state of emergency in 2016 heightened, leading to the confiscation of media groups like the Gulen-linked Samanyolu Group, Koza Ipek Group, and Feza Publications (Timucin, 2021; BBC 2016).  These actions effectively created a clientelist relationship between the government and the media, as anti-government entities were closed and transferred or sold to pro-government supporters (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018).

The government’s dominance over traditional media outlets served as the foundation for Erdogan’s digital authoritarianism, granting the government control over the “formal” form of digital media (Timucin, 2021). Faced with limitations in conventional media, the public turned to online sites, alternative media, and social media platforms in search of reliable news and information.

The Gezi Park protests in 2013 marked a significant moment in Turkey’s social movements and the role of social media activism. These protests initially started as a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park to oppose the demolition of trees for a shopping mall construction but quickly escalated into one of the largest civil unrests in Turkey’s recent history. During the early days of the protests, traditional media outlets did not provide adequate coverage, leading people to seek alternative sources of information. Social media platforms played a crucial role as a source of news, organization, and political expression, particularly among urban, tech-savvy youth (Yesil et al., 2017). The number of Twitter users in Turkey skyrocketed from an estimated 2 million to 12 million during the protests (Ozturk, 2013; Varnalı and Görgülü, 2015). Social media allowed for a more decentralized and inclusive form of communication during the protests, as it facilitated the rapid dissemination of information and bypassed traditional media gatekeepers (O’Donohue et al., 2020). 

The corruption scandal in December 2013 was another event where social media played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and disseminating information. Government opponents utilized social media platforms to share incriminating evidence of corruption involving President Erdogan, his party, and his cabinet. In response, the ruling AKP adopted a heavy-handed approach, detaining Twitter users and implementing bans on platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. The government positioned social media as a threat to Turkey’s national unity, state sovereignty, social cohesion, and moral values (Yesil et al., 2017; Kocer, 2015).

In recent years, Turkey has made efforts to assert control over social media platforms and internet service providers. In 2020, a “disinformation law” was introduced, pressuring these entities to remove “disinformation” from online platforms. Proposed changes to Article 19 in 2022 aim to enhance control over the cyber space, granting more powers to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) to regulate the internet. These developments indicate Turkey’s increasing efforts to curb the flow of information, maintain a favorable narrative, and suppress dissenting voices, potentially impacting freedom of expression and the right to access information in the country.

The increasing level of digital governance in Turkey has manifested in various forms, leading to significant consequences. Content regulation has played a crucial role in the government’s efforts to control the internet. Bodies such as BTK have been granted the power to block access to online content deemed threatening. This has created a climate of increased pressure on internet service providers to comply with the state’s requests regarding content removal and access to personal user data. Failure to adhere to these obligations can result in penalties or even the revocation of licenses. There are also speculations that service providers may face bandwidth reduction and limitations on advertisements as a means of exerting further control.

Furthermore, cybercrime provisions intended to safeguard against hacking and online harassment have been instrumentalized by the state to gather user information for investigation, prosecution, and cooperation with “international entities.” Individuals found guilty of online offenses can be brought to court and punished under specific articles of the Turkish Penal Code.

In summary, the government introduced legal restrictions, content removal requests, website and social media platform shutdowns, prosecution of internet users, state surveillance, and disinformation campaigns. These measures have resulted in a significant decline in internet freedom and the rise of digital authoritarianism in Turkey between 2013 and the controversial coup attempt in July 2016.

Technical Instruments and Surveillance Methods to Monitor and Control Cyberspace

The Erdogan regime has employed various technical instruments and surveillance methods to monitor and control online activities. Reports indicate that Western companies provided spyware tools to Turkish security agencies, which have been in use since at least 2012. These tools include Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, enabling surveillance of online communications, blocking of online content, and redirecting users to download spyware-infected versions of software like Skype and Avast. Additionally, the Remote-Control System and FinFisher spyware programs are used for extracting emails, files, passwords, and controlling audio and video recording systems on targeted devices (Privacy International, 2014; Yesil et al., 2017; CitizenLab, 2018; AccessNow, 2018).

The Erdogan regime also established a “Social Media Monitoring Unit,” a specialized police force responsible for monitoring citizens’ social media posts. There is also a group known as AKtrolls, who can act as informants and report social media posts of targeted users to security agencies, potentially leading to arrests. The AKP has also formed a team of “white hat” hackers, ostensibly for enhancing Turkey’s cyber-defense. Furthermore, civilian informants have been mobilized for internet surveillance, with ordinary citizens encouraged to spy on each other online, creating a culture of “online snitching” (Yesil et al., 2017). This pervasive surveillance approach, utilizing both software and social-user-based surveillance, creates a climate of self-censorship and vigilance among users (Saka, 2021; Morozov, 2012).

The National Intelligence Organization of Turkey (MİT) has been granted extended surveillance powers, both online and offline, following the post-Gezi Park protests. Law No. 6532 allowed MİT to collect private data and information about individuals without a court order from various entities. The law also granted legal immunity to MİT personnel and criminalized the publication and broadcasting of leaked intelligence information. MİT operates within the authoritarian state’s chain of command. Given MİT’s lack of autonomy, it is highly likely that the Erdogan regime exploits the agency’s expanded powers for unwarranted surveillance, political witch hunts of dissidents, journalists, and even ordinary online users, aiming to suppress any online criticism (Yeşil, 2016).

In October 2015, the AKP implemented the “Rewards Regulation,” which offered monetary rewards to informants who assisted security agencies in the arrest of alleged terror suspects. This measure encouraged journalists, NGOs, and citizens to monitor online communications and report dissenting individuals (Zagidullin et al., 2021).

The Turkish police introduced a smartphone app and a dedicated webpage that allowed citizens to report social media posts they deemed as terrorist propaganda. The main opposition party claimed that the police prepared summaries of proceedings for 17,000 social media users, and they were attempting to locate the addresses of 45,000 others (Eldem, 2023). Consequently, the state of emergency (SoE) decrees following controversial coup attempt in 2016 further tightened the government’s control over the internet. Decree 670 granted “all relevant authorities” access to all forms of information, digital or otherwise, about alleged coup suspects and their families. Decree 671 empowered the government to take any necessary measures regarding digital communications provided by ISPs, data centers, and other relevant private entities in the name of national security and public order. Finally, Decree 680 expanded police powers to investigate cybercrime by requiring ISPs to share personal information with the police without a court order (Topak, 2019; Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2023).

Prior to Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, Turkish prosecutors initiated investigations into social media users accused of spreading disinformation aiming to create fear, panic, and turmoil in society. The Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the Twitter account holders who allegedly collaborated to spread disinformation, potentially reaching around 40 million social media users (Turkish Minute, 2023).

The Erdogan regime has significantly expanded its online censorship toolkit through legislative amendments passed in October 2022 (HRW, 2023). As an example of the restrictions imposed, on May 14, 2023, Twitter announced that it was restricting access to certain account holders in Turkey to ensure the platform remains available to the people of Turkey.

AKtrolls 

The Erdogan regime responded to critical voices on social media during the Gezi Protests by employing political trolls. This strategy of political trolling, whether carried out by humans or algorithms, is closely associated with Russia and has been adopted by AKP’s trolls, known as AKtrolls, who exhibit similarities to Kremlin-operated networks. The deep integration of political trolling within the political system and mainstream media in Turkey has been highlighted in a study by Karatas and Saka (2017). These trolling practices are facilitated through the collaboration of political institutions and media outlets. Trolls act as precursors, disseminating propaganda and testing public opinion before mainstream political figures introduce favored populist policies and narratives.

The AKP’s troll army was initially established by the vice-chairman of the AKP and primarily consisted of members from AKP youth organizations. Over time, it has grown into an organization of 6,000 individuals, with 30 core members responsible for setting trending hashtags that other members then promote. Many of these trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It is worth noting that these trolls receive financial compensation, and there are indications that pro-AKP networks provide additional benefits to successful trolls, including entities like TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) and mobile phone operator Turkcell.

The first network map of AKtrolls was provided by Hafiza Kolektifi, a research collective based in Ankara, in October 2015. This map revealed the close connections among 113 Twitter accounts, including not only ordinary trolls but also politicians, advisors to President Erdogan, and pro-government journalists. The map was created based on the analysis of a popular and aggressive troll named @esatreis, who was identified as a youth member of the AKP. By monitoring the users followed by @esatreis using the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API) and conducting in-depth network analysis, two distinct groups were identified. The first group consisted of politicians, Erdogan’s advisors, and pro-government journalists, while the second group comprised anonymous trolls using pseudonyms. The study demonstrated that @esatreis acted as a bridge between the troll group and the politicians/journalists, with Mustafa Varank, an advisor to Erdogan and currently the Minister of Industry and Technology, serving as a central connection node between these two groups (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

It was revealed that politicians and state officials maintained their own anonymous troll accounts, in addition to their official ones. Instances have surfaced where AKP officials were caught promoting themselves through fake accounts. For instance, Minister of the Environment and Urbanization Mehmet Ozhaseki and AKP’s Bursa Mayor Recep Altepe were exposed for sharing supportive tweets mentioning themselves mistakenly from their official accounts instead of their fake ones. Another case involved AKP deputy Ahmet Hamdi Çamlı, who inadvertently opened his front camera while live-streaming parliamentary discussions with a fake account using a female name (@YelizAdeley) and a teenager’s profile photo. Within the AKP, different trolls seem to specialize in specific subjects aligned with the party’s policies and strategies. For example, accounts such as @WakeUpAttack and @UstAkilOyunlari fabricate conspiracy theories related to international affairs, while @AKKulis shares tweets from state officials and provides updates on AKP’s latest news and activities. Another troll account, @Baskentci, shared lists of journalists to be detained and media outlets to be shut down, as well as advanced information on post-coup attempt decisions (Tartanoglu, 2016).

AKP trolls specifically target and disrupt social media users who express opposition to the ruling party, openly identifying themselves as its supporters. While they are known within party circles, they remain anonymous to outsiders. However, some trolls, driven by rewards and recognition within their social networks, choose not to conceal their identities. In fact, Sözeri (2016) describes how certain pro-government journalists themselves act as political trolls and even lead the attacks. It is important to note that political trolls are not necessarily anonymous or isolated individuals. When aligned with a ruling party led by a president with increased powers, many trolls shed their anonymity, and some even threaten legal action when called out as trolls (Saka, 2021). Realizing that such tactics were not improving the AKP’s popularity, the party changed its approach just before the 2015 general elections by establishing the New Turkey Digital Office, which focused on more conventional forms of online propaganda (Benedictus, 2016).

The proliferation of digital disinformation coordinated networks of fake accounts, and the deployment of political trolls have had a significant impact on online discourse in Turkey, hindering the free expression of critical voices and fostering an environment of manipulation and propaganda. Much like the Russian “web brigades,” which consist of hundreds of thousands of paid users who post positive comments about the Putin administration, Erdogan regime also recruited an “army of trolls” to reinforce the declining hegemony of the ruling party shortly after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 (Bulut & Yoruk, 2017). Their objective is to discredit, intimidate, and suppress critical voices, often resorting to labelling journalists and celebrities as “traitors,” “terrorists,” “supporters of terrorism,” and “infidels.” Consequently, Twitter has transformed into a medium of government-led populist polarization, misinformation, and online attacks since the Gezi protests (Bulut & Yoruk, 2017). The situation worsened after the events of 2016, exposing critical voices to open cyberbullying by trolls and intensifying their persecution (Saka, 2021).

One prevalent form of political trolling is the deliberate disruption of influential voices on Twitter who contribute to politically critical hashtags or share news related to potential emergencies. Trolls and hackers primarily target professional journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and members of opposition parties. AKtrolls repeatedly attack and disturb these individuals using offensive and abusive language, labelling them as terrorists or traitors, intimidating them, and even threatening arrest. However, ordinary citizens who participate on Twitter with non-anonymous profiles are also vulnerable targets for AKtrolls. Being targeted by trolls often leads to individuals quitting social media, practicing self-censorship, and ultimately participating less in public debates (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

AKtrolls specifically target critical voices that share undesirable content or use specific hashtags. They employ tactics such as posting tweets with humiliating, intimidating, and sexually abusive insults. Doxxing, the act of revealing personal and private information about individuals, including their home addresses and phone numbers, is also a common strategy employed by AKtrolls. In some cases, AKtrolls may have connections to the security forces, particularly the police. Additionally, hacking and leaking private direct messages have been popular tactics used to discredit opposing voices on Twitter. Pro-AKP hackers affiliated with the AKtrolls have targeted numerous journalists. The initial stage often involves hacking into the journalist’s Twitter account and posting tweets that apologize to Erdogan for criticism or betrayal. Furthermore, AKtrolls frequently engage in collective reporting to Twitter in an attempt to suspend or block targeted Twitter handles (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

A significant event within the ruling AKP was the forced resignation of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu by Erdogan. Prior to his resignation, an anonymous WordPress blog titled the “Pelikan Declaration” emerged, accusing Davutoglu of attempting to bypass Erdogan’s authority and making various allegations against him. This declaration was widely circulated by a group of AKtrolls who later became known as the “Pelikan Group.” It is worth noting that this group had close ties to a media conglomerate managed by the Albayrak Family, particularly Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s former Minister of Economy, as well as his elder brother and media mogul Serhat Albayrak (Saka, 2021).

AKbots

The Erdogan regime extensively utilizes internet bots, which are software applications running automated tasks over the Internet, to support paid AKtrolls (Yesil et al., 2017). Researchers have demonstrated that during the aftermath of the Ankara bombings in October 2015, the heavy use of automated bots played a crucial role in countering anti-AKP discourse. Twitter even took action to ban a bot-powered hashtag that praised President Erdogan, leading Turkish ministers to claim a global conspiracy against Erdogan (Hurriyet Daily News, 2016; Lapowsky, 2015).

The use of automated bots differs from having multiple accounts in terms of scale. The presence of bots becomes noticeable when a message is replicated or retweeted to more than a few hundred other accounts. It is worth noting that as of November 2016, Istanbul and Ankara ranked as the top two cities for AKbot usage, according to the major internet security company Norton (Paganini, 2016; Yesil et al., 2017; Eldem, 2020).

Furthermore, DFRLab (2018) has revealed that many tactics, including doxing (revealing personal information), are employed through cross-platform coordination. It is important to recognize that in the Turkish context, the influence of AKtrolls extends beyond internet platforms and involves close cooperation with conventional media outlets under Erdogan’s control (Saka, 2021). In October 2019, DFRLab identified a network of inauthentic accounts that aimed to mobilize domestic support for the Turkish government’s fight against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria (Grossman et al., 2020). This network involved fabricated personalities created on the same day with similar usernames, several pro-AKP retweet rings, and centrally managed compromised accounts that were utilized for AKP propaganda. The tweets originating from these accounts criticized the pro-Kurdish HDP, accusing it of terrorism and employing social media manipulation. The tweets also targeted the main opposition party, CHP. 

Additionally, the accounts promoted the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, which consolidated power in Erdogan, and sought to increase domestic support for Turkish intervention in Syria. Some English-language tweets attempted to bolster the international legitimacy of Turkey’s offensive in October 2019, praising Turkey for accepting Syrian refugees and criticizing the refugee policies of several Western nations. The dataset of accounts included individuals who appeared to be leaders of local AKP branches, members of digital marketing firms, sports fans, as well as clearly fabricated personalities or members of retweet rings (Grossman et al., 2020).

In 2019, a significant proportion of the daily top ten Twitter trends in Turkey were generated by fake accounts or bots, averaging 26.7 percent. The impact was even higher for the top five Twitter trends, reaching 47.5 percent (Elmas, 2023). State-organized hate speech, trolls, and online harassment often go unchecked (Briar, 2020).

In 2020, Twitter took action to remove over 7,000 accounts associated with the youth wing of the ruling AKP. These accounts were responsible for generating more than 37 million tweets, which aimed to create a false perception of grassroots support for government policies, promote AKP perspectives, and criticize its opponents. Many of these accounts were found to be fake, while others belonged to real individuals whose accounts had been compromised and controlled by AKP supporters. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, issued threats against Twitter for removing this large network of government-aligned fake and compromised accounts (Twitter Safety, 2020; HRW, 2023a).

A study published in the ACM Web Conference 2023 identified Turkey as one of the most active countries for bot networks on Twitter. These networks were found to be pushing political slogans as part of a manipulation campaign leading up to the 2023 elections. Alongside the reactivated bots, the main opposition presidential candidate, Kilicdaroglu, warned about the circulation of algorithmically fabricated audio or video clips aimed at discrediting him (Karatas & Saka, 2017).

Bots on social media engage in malicious activities such as amplifying harmful narratives, spreading disinformation, and astroturfing. Elmas (2023) detected over 212,000 such bots on Twitter targeting Turkish trends, referring to them as “astrobots.” Twitter has purged these bots en masse six times since June 2018. According to Elmas’ study, the percentage of fake trends on Twitter varied over time. Between January 2021 and November 2021, the average daily percentage of fake trends was 30 percent. After Twitter purged bots around November 2021, the share of fake trends decreased to 10 percent in March 2022. However, it started to rise again and reached 20 percent by November 2022. As of April 7, 2023, just before the 2023 Turkish election, the attacks continued, and the percentage of fake trends fluctuated between 35 percent and 9 percent (on weekends). Notably, many bots in the dataset were silent, meaning they did not actively post tweets. Instead, they were used to create fake trends by posting tweets promoting a trend and immediately deleting them. This silent behaviour makes it challenging for bot detection methods to identify them, with 87 percent of the bot accounts remaining silent for at least one month (Elmas, 2023). 

In May 2023, during the election month, Turkey saw 145 million tweets shared from 12,479,000 accounts, with 23 percent of these identified as bot accounts by the Turkish General Directorate of Security. An examination of the top 10 trending hashtags revealed that 52 percent of accounts using these hashtags were bot accounts (Bulur, 2022). It was also reported that approximately 12,000 Russian- and Hungarian-speaking Twitter accounts had been reactivated, along with reactivated Turkish-speaking accounts, accompanied by numerous bot followers to amplify their posts. Although only 27 percent of the Turkish population is believed to use Twitter, the impact is significant, with 20 percent of the trending topics on Turkish Twitter in 2023 being manipulated and not reflective of public discourse. A dataset covering the period from 2013 to 2023 indicated that 20 to 50 percent of trending topics in Turkey were fake and primarily propelled by bots (Soylu, 2023, Unker, 2023). 

Hackers

Photo: Shutterstock.

The Erdogan regime’s extensive investments in domestic and global information operations, include the recruitment of hackers worldwide. The regime has also established a “white hat” hacker team ostensibly for enhancing Turkey’s cyber-defense (Yeşil et al., 2017). However, there are suspicions that this team has been utilized offensively to silence government critics (Cimpanu, 2016).

The private Cihan News Agency, known for its accurate and swift reporting of Turkish election results since the 1990s, faced a significant cyberattack for the first time during the local elections on March 30, 2014, raising concerns about election security (Haber Turk, 2014). Opposition newspapers, including Zaman, Taraf, and Cumhuriyet, which faced similar cyberattacks, pointed to Ankara as the source of these attacks, raising discussions about the state and service providers’ negligence and potential involvement (Akyildiz, 2014).

A similar situation recurred during the 2015 general elections when concerns about the Erdogan regime manipulating election results intensified. On the evening of June 7, 2015, during the ballot counting, a cyberattack targeted the Cihan News Agency, disrupting its services. Zaman newspaper reported that the attack was linked to a special team established within TÜBİTAK, with connections to foreign countries established through TÜBİTAK computers and botnet networks used to direct the attacks and obscure the source (Internet Haber, 2015).

Starting from 2009, Erdoganist hackers also targeted numbers of western countries whose politicians expressed anti-Islamic views or criticized Erdogan regime in Turkey (Souli, 2018; Hern, 2017; Space Watch, 2018; Goud, 2018). In a striking illustration of how cyber activities often align with geopolitics, the Turkish hacktivist group Ayyildiz Tim faced accusations of hacking and taking control of the social media accounts of prominent US journalists in 2018. Their aim was to disseminate messages in support of President Erdogan. These cyber incidents unfolded amidst a period of notably strained US-Turkish ties. Additionally, Turkey grappled with an economic crisis, widely attributed to Erdogan’s ill-advised economic policies, although he consistently laid the blame on the US. The US-based cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike exposed the activities of Ayyildiz Tim, a group active since 2002. There is evidence indicating potential ties between Ayyildiz Tim and security forces loyal to Erdogan (Space Watch, 2018; Goud, 2018).

In January 2023, a Turkish hacker collective known as “Türk hackteam” initiated a call for cyberattacks targeting Swedish authorities and banks, coupled with a warning, stating, “If you desecrate the Quran one more time, we will begin spreading sensitive personal data of Swedes” (Hull, 2023). Several prominent Swedish websites reportedly suffered temporary outages due to DDoS attacks, with responsibility for these attacks claimed by the Turkish hacker group Türk Hack Team. Identifying themselves as nationalists, they alleged their lack of affiliation with Erdogan, who had previously stated that Sweden should not expect Turkish NATO support after the Quran incident (Skold, 2023).

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 2023 presidential elections, Turkey’s primary opposition leader and presidential candidate, Kilicdaroglu, made allegations that the ruling AKP had engaged foreign hackers to orchestrate an online campaign against him, employing fabricated videos and images (Turkish Minute, 2023a).

Demonstrating the Erdogan regime’s keen interest in hacking endeavors, an annual event known as “Hack Istanbul” has been hosted by Turkey since 2018. This unique competition challenges hackers worldwide with sophisticated real-world cyberattack scenarios crafted under the guidance of leading global experts (Hurriyet Daily News, 2021). The Turkish Presidency’s Digital Transformation Office has been responsible for organizing these hacking competitions, which offer substantial financial rewards. Furthermore, the regime has initiated Cyber Intelligence Contests as part of its training campaigns, effectively expanding the pool of individuals with cybersecurity skills (Cyber Intelligence Contest, 2021). 

Conclusion

The evolution of information controls in Turkey began with first-generation techniques, such as censorship and content filtering, aimed at restricting access to specific websites and online platforms. However, as technology advanced, the government adopted more sophisticated methods. One prevalent tool has been the instrumentalization of legislation, through which laws have been enacted to curtail online freedoms and enable state surveillance. Additionally, regulatory bodies, originally intended to ensure fair practices, have been weaponized to enforce censorship and impose restrictions, eroding the independence of online platforms. Furthermore, the Turkish government has resorted to tactics like shutdowns, throttling, and content removal requests to suppress dissenting voices and control the flow of information. 

In the third generation of information controls, Turkey has focused on establishing a sovereign national cyber-zone characterized by extensive surveillance practices. Advanced technologies have been employed to monitor online activities, creating a pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and curtailing privacy rights. Critical netizens, including activists, journalists, and dissidents, have faced targeted persecution, enduring harassment, intimidation, and legal prosecution to silence opposition and stifle open discourse. Moreover, regime-sponsored (dis)information campaigns have played a significant role in shaping the digital narrative. 

Central to the concept of digital authoritarianism in Turkey is the extensive deployment of internet bots and automated tools. The use of internet bots, fake accounts, and orchestrated campaigns for political manipulation is indeed pervasive in Turkey, particularly in shaping public opinion, supporting government policies, and undermining political opponents. Numerous studies have revealed the extensive deployment of automated bots by the Erdogan regime and its supporters to amplify government propaganda, counter anti-government narratives, and create a false perception of grassroots support. 

The deployment of individuals known as “AKtrolls” has been used to disseminate pro-government propaganda and attack dissenting voices. Automated bots have been utilized to amplify certain narratives while suppressing opposing viewpoints, distorting the digital discourse, and undermining the integrity of online discussions.

As the Turkish political landscape evolves, the role of social media in shaping public opinion and electoral outcomes remains a critical concern. The elections intensified the battle for online influence, with the government attempting to purchase accounts and engage with dark web groups. The landscape of online manipulation in Turkey is further complicated by the prevalence of fake accounts, compromised profiles, and silent bots that intermittently generate and promote false trends. Silent accounts, which quickly delete tweets, evade detection, making it challenging to identify them. 

Additionally, the manipulation of social media in Turkey has a transnational dimension, with instances of foreign interference and coordinated campaigns coming to light. The use of extensive networks of fake or compromised accounts to amplify certain political views or spread false information on social media has become increasingly prevalent, particularly during politically sensitive periods like elections. Many of these coordinated networks are dedicated to promoting pro-Erdogan perspectives, and the regime occasionally presents their artificial presence as evidence of grassroots support for its policies.


Funding: This research was funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, AZ 01/TG/21, Emerging Digital Technologies and the Future of Democracy in the Muslim World.


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