Photo: Matej Kastelic.

ECPS Academy Summer School — Populism and Foreign Policy: How Does Populist Politics Influence Foreign Affairs? (July 1-5, 2024) 

Are you passionate about global politics and understanding the dynamics that shape it? Are you looking for a way to expand your knowledge under the supervision of leading experts, seeking an opportunity to exchange views in a multicultural, multi-disciplinary environment, or simply in need of a few extra ECTS credits for your studies? Then, consider applying to ECPS Summer School. The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) is looking for young people for a unique opportunity to assess the relationship between populism and foreign policy in a five-day Summer School led by global experts from a variety of backgrounds. The Summer School will be interactive, allowing participants to hold discussions in a friendly environment among themselves in small groups and exchange views with the lecturers. You will also participate in a Case Competition on the same topic, a unique experience to develop problem-solving skills in cooperation with others and under tight schedules. 

Overview 

Populism has often been studied as a subject of political science and investigated as a topic of domestic affairs, namely party politics and elections. Nevertheless, a growing body of literature suggests that this phenomenon is not confined to the borders of nation-states; it interferes with international relations thanks to populist leaders’ desire to shape foreign affairs with a populist and mostly revisionist view. Trump’s threats to withdraw the US from NATO, Modi’s handling of India’s relations with Pakistan, Erdogan’s diaspora politics towards European countries, Orban’s instrumentalization of migration in the EU, Netanyahu’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Johnson’s management of the Brexit process and numerous attempts by populist leaders to undermine or subvert international or supranational organizations, such as the UN, WTO, and EU, are among many examples that showcase how external relations can be blended with populism. 

Considering the current political landscape in which the number of populist figures is on the rise, we may witness more similar instances in the international political arena in the period to come. Populism in international relations has the potential to complicate existing problems, create new ones and bring about repercussions for the multilateral liberal global system. This outlook urges scholars and policy-makers to understand the interwoven relationship between populism and external relations more deeply and take into account the populist dimension of problems while crafting solutions to interstate issues. 

Against the background explained above, at the ECPS Summer School this year, we would like to look at populism from an international relations perspective. To this end, we will discuss the theoretical background of the interplay between populism and foreign affairs and examine a number of case studies from different parts of the world with a view to see similarities as well as differences between the ways populist leaders craft external politics. 

The lecturers for this year’s Summer School are:

  • Professor Sandra Destradi
  • Associate Professor Angelos Cryssogelos
  • Associate Professor Jessica Greenberg
  • Dr. Thorsten Wojczewski
  • Assistant Professor Georg Loefflman
  • Professor Cengiz Aktar
  • Professor Emeritus Louis Kreisberg
  • Professor Bertjan Verbeek
  • Irina Von Wiese
  • Professor Craig Calhoun
  • Professor Joanna Dyduch

Sessions will be moderated by:

  • Dr. Rubrick Biegon
  • Assistant Professor Gustav Meibauer
  • Associate Professor Jessica Greenberg
  • Dr. Jonny Hall
  • Professor Ana E. Juncos Garcia
  • Professor Franco Zappettini

The program will take place on Zoom, consisting of two sessions each day. Over the course of five days, interactive lectures by world-leading practitioners and experts will discuss the nexus between populism and foreign policy. The lectures are complemented by small group discussions and Q&A sessions moderated by experts in the field. The final program with the list of speakers will be announced soon. 

Moreover, as last year, the Summer School will comprise a Case Competition on a real-life problem within the broad topic of populism and foreign policy. Participants will be divided into teams to work together on solving the case and are expected to prepare policy suggestions. The proposals of the participants will be evaluated by a panel of scholars and experts based on criteria such as creativity, feasibility, and presentation skills. 

Our five-day schedule offers young people a dynamic, engaging, and interdisciplinary learning environment with an intellectually challenging program presented by world-class scholars of populism, allowing them to grow as future academics, intellectuals, activists and public leaders. Participants have the opportunity to develop invaluable cross-cultural perspectives and facilitate a knowledge exchange that goes beyond European borders. 

Schedule 

Monday, 1 July 2024 

Populism and International Relations: A Theoretical Overview

Lecture One: (15:00–16:30) – Populism and International Relations: Introducing a Dynamic Research Field

Lecturer: Dr. Sandra Destradi (Professor at the University of Freiburg).

Moderator: Dr. Rubrick Biegon (Lecturer at the University of Kent).

 

Lecture Two: (17:30–19:00) – Populism and the Challenge to the International Order

Lecturer: Dr. Angelos Cryssogelos (Associate Professor at London Metropolitan University).

Moderator: Dr. Gustav Meibauer (Assistant Professor, Radboud University).

Tuesday, 2 July 2024

Lecture Three: (15:00–16:30) – Populism, Conflicts and International Courts

Lecturer: Dr. Jessica Greenberg (Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign).

Moderator: Dr. Allison Jean Carnegie (Professor of Political Science at Columbia University). 

Lecture Four: (17:30–19:00) – Populism, Hindu Nationalism and Foreign Policy in India

Lecturer: Dr. Thorsten Wojczewski (Lecturer at Coventry University).

Moderator: Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University).

 

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Populism, Peace and Security

Lecture Five: (14:00–15:30) – America First and the Populist Impact on US Foreign Policy

Lecturer: Dr. Georg Loefflman (Assistant Professor at Queen Mary University of London).

Moderator: Dr. Jonny Hall (Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science).

 

Lecture Six: (16:00–17:30) – Showcase: Turkey

Lecturer: Dr. Cengiz Aktar (Professor at the University of Athens).

Moderator: Dr. Aleksandra Spancerska (Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs).

 

Lecture Seven: (18:00–19:30) – Populism, Constructive and Destructive

Lecturer: Dr. Louis Kreisberg (Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University).

Moderator: Dr. Alexandra Homolar (Professor at the University of Warwick).

 

Thursday, 4 July 2024

Populism and the EU Foreign Policy

Lecture Eight: (15:00–16:30) –EU’s External Relations: Do Populists Propel It, Or Does It Propel Populists?

Lecturer: Dr. Bertjan Verbeek (Professor at Radboud University Nijmegen Netherlands).

Moderator: Dr. Ana E. Juncos Garcia (Professor at the University of Bristol).

 

Lecture Nine: (17:30–19:00) –Populism and the EU Foreign Policy

Lecturer: Irina Von Wiese (President of ECPS, a former member of the European Parliament).

Moderator: Dr. Andrei Zaslove (Associate Professor at Radboud University).

 

Friday, 5 July 2024

Lecture Ten: (15:00–16:30) – Brexit and “National Conservatism”

Lecturer: Dr. Craig Calhoun (Professor at Arizona State University).

Moderator: Dr. Franco Zappettini (Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool).

Lecture Eleven: (17:30–19:00) –Populist Foreign Policy: The Israeli Case Study of Hawkish- Historicist Foreign Policy

Lecturer: Dr. Joanna Dyduch (Professor at the Israel Institute, Jagiellonian University-Institute of Middle East and Far East).

 

Who should apply? 

This unique course is open to master’s and PhD level students and graduates, early career researchers and post-docs from any discipline. The deadline for submitting applications is June 21, 2024. The applicants should send their CVs to the email address ecps@populismstudies.org with the subject line: ECPS Summer School Application. 

We value the high level of diversity in our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. Since we have a limited quota, we suggest you apply soon to not miss this great opportunity. 

Evaluation Criteria and Certificate of Attendance 

Meeting the assessment criteria is required from all participants aiming to complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance. The evaluation criteria include full attendance and active participation in lectures. 

Certificates of attendance will be awarded to participants who attend at least 80% of the sessions. Certificates are sent to students only by email. 

Credit 

This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you; however, please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.

 


 

Brief Biographies and Abstracts

 

Day One: Monday, July 1, 2023

Populism and International Relations: Introducing a Dynamic Research Field

Dr. Sandra Destradi is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She currently serves as a DAAD long-term guest professor at Reichman University, Israel. Together with Johannes Plagemann, she leads the project “Populism and Foreign Policy”, funded by the German Research Foundation.

Abstract: The lecture will introduce into the research field that studies the international implications and effects of populism. It will start by outlining how populism has been variously conceptualized in comparative politics and political theory. Second, it will introduce into the state of the art on the international effects of populism, a dynamic research field that has developed tremendously over the past few years. The third part of the lecture will outline some hypotheses on how populism might impact foreign policy, focusing on the escalation of international disputes, contributions to global public goods provision, participation in multilateral institutions, and the formation of alternative partnerships with authoritarian and other populist governments. The presentation will build on insights from a project funded by the German Research Foundation.

Reading List

Destradi S and Plagemann J (2019). Populism and International Relations: (Un)predictability, personalisation, and the reinforcement of existing trends in world politics. Review of International Studies 45 (5), 711–730.

Lacatus C, Meibauer G and Löfflmann G (eds) (2023), Political Communication and Performative Leadership: Populism in International Politics (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan).

Plagemann J and Destradi S (2019). Populism and Foreign Policy: The Case of India. Foreign Policy Analysis 15 (2), 283–301.

Spandler K and Söderbaum F (2023). Populist (De)legitimation of International Organizations. International Affairs 99 (3), 1023-1041.

Moderator Dr. Rubrick Biegon was appointed Lecturer in International Relations in 2018. He has convened modules on US foreign policy, international political economy, international security, terrorism and political violence, and foreign policy analysis, among other subjects.

Prior to coming to Kent to complete his PhD, Biegon worked as an analyst and consultant with several organisations in Washington, DC. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and an MA in International Politics from the American University’s School of International Service. He currently serves as the lead editor of Global Society, an interdisciplinary journal of international studies published by Taylor & Francis.

Biegon’s main areas of research explore the political violence and political economy of US power in international relations. He is the author of US Power in Latin America: Renewing Hegemony (2017). He is currently working on two book projects: a co-authored history of the US War on Terror (with Agenda publishing); and a research monograph on remote warfare and American hegemony (with McGill-Queen’s University Press).  

 

Populism and the Challenge to the International Order

Dr. Angelos Chryssogelos is Reader in Politics and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences of London Metropolitan University. He has worked in the past at LSE, King’s College London, Weatherhead Center of Harvard and SAIS Johns Hopkins. In 2020-21 he was Jean Monnet fellow at the Schuman Centre of the EUI in Florence.

Abstract: The global rise of populism as a major political force has given rise to the debate about its international repercussions and whether it constitutes a threat to the ‘liberal international order’. While this assessment is not wrong as such, it underappreciates the variety of populist phenomena around the world and the ability of populists to engage and even usurp elements of the LIO. This talk will argue that only a thorough conceptual understanding of populism can allow us to appreciate consistently its effects on the international order; and that the international impact of populism is less uniform and linear than often assumed, but no less important.

Reading List

Chryssogelos, A (2021) Is there a Populist Foreign Policy? London: Chatham House

Chryssogelos, A (2020) State transformation and populism: From the internationalized to the neo-sovereign state? Politics, 40(1), 22-37.

Chryssogelos, A et al (2023) New Directions in the Study of Populism in International Relations, International Studies Review, Volume 25, Issue 4, viad035, https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viad035

Moderator Dr. Gustav Meibauer is an Assistant Professor, Radboud University. Meibauer has research interests in foreign policy analysis, security studies and international relations theory. His research focuses on muddled state behavior, decision-making and the political dynamics of foreign policy choice, especially with regards to tools such as no-fly zones and buffer zones. Meibauer has published on the theoretical contributions of neoclassical realism to foreign policy analysis and international relations theory, as well as on the role of political ideas, rhetoric and communication in decision-making processes. He contributes to on-going projects on gender & diversity representation in academia as well as on novel approaches to experiential and active learning. Meibauer holds degrees from the London School of Economics, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the University of St Gallen.

 

Day Two: Tuesday, 2 July 2024

Populism, Conflicts and International Courts

Dr. Jessica Greenberg is An Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Prior to coming toUIUC, Greenberg was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and an assistant professor in Communication Studies at Northwestern University. She recently earned a Master of Studies in Law at the College of Law, University of Illinois. She is also currently the Co-Editor of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR). Her research interests include anthropology of democracy, legal studies, youth, social movements, revolution, Serbia/Balkans, Europe, Human Rights.

 

Populist Foreign Policy: The Israeli Case Study of Hawkish- Historicist Foreign Policy

Dr. Joanna Dyduch is a Professor at the Institute of the Middle and Far East of the Jagiellonian University, and head of the Department of Israel. Visiting scholar at the: University of Oxford (2023-2024), University of Potsdam (2022), Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica (2019),  University of Vienna (2017). In 2018 she was a research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Prof. Dyduch is an author of several scientific articles and books on foreign policy and other public policies (e.g. energy policy), recently her research interest has focused on European-Israeli relations, as well as Israel’s foreign policy. She has been also engaged in several research projects, among the most recent ones, there are: OPUS project funded by Poland’s National Science Center (NCN) entitled: “Energy security and the growing international interdependence. Israeli energy policy in the process of transition” (2022-2025). HORIZON-CL2-2021-DEMOCRACY – project entitled: “Rethinking and Reshaping the EU’s Democracy support in its Eastern and Southern Neighbour”, (contractor in the project. Project implemented in 2022-2025.COOPERATION financed by the European Commission; PARTNERSHIPS IN HIGHER EDUCATION (KA220-HED) titled: “Jews, Muslims and Roma in the 21st Century Metropolises: Reflecting on Polyphonic Ideal and Social Exclusion as Challenges for European Cohesion carried out in cooperation with the Charles University in Prague (project leader) and the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies (University of Potsdam).

Abstract: Building on existing literature, the paper tries to bridge and integrate scholarly insights on the causalities between populism and foreign policy. Against this backdrop, the paper suggests distinguishing between the two types of foreign policy ideological orientations: 1. ‘liberalist’ and 2. ‘historicist’ (Bjereld and Demker 2000), where the differentiating variable is the engagement of historical memory in the process of national identity construction and policy strategies conceptualisation and operationalisation. Consequently, the historical memory becomes a specific framework and driver of state international activity. In light of the above consideration, the paper introduces and utilises the concept of ‘Foreign Policy Historicism’ (FPH), (Reynolds 1999). FPH, contrary to the liberalist variant is identified with a hawkish approach, emphasising national values and interests – very often fuelled and empowered by emotions (national pride, fear, victimhood, etc.). This specific approach is strongly tied to the process of ‘othering’ as a key element of national identity formation, and therefore very much influences foreign bilateral and multilateral relations. 

Reading List

Wajner, Daniel F., and Philip Giurlando. (2024) Populist Foreign Policy: Mapping the Developing Research Program on Populism in International Relations. International Studies Review, https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viae012

Sharon Pardo, Dani Filc (2012). EU–Israeli relations. Geopolitical perspectives in the wake of nationalist populism. In: Routledge Handbook of EU–Middle East Relations, Routledge.

Dani Filc & Sharon Pardo (2021) Israel’s Right-wing Populists: The European. Connection, Survival, 63:3, 99-122, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2021.1930409.

 Joanna Dyduch (2021) “Israel and East-Central Europe: Case Studies of Israel’s Relations with Poland and Hungary.” Israel Studies Review, vol. 36, no. 1, spring 2021.

 Joanna Dyduch (2024) Israel and Poland. [in]: Routledge Handbook on Israel’s Foreign Relations, Routledge.

 

Day Three: Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Populism, Peace and Security

Showcase: United States 

Dr. Georg Loefflman is Assistant Professor at Queen Mary University of London. Previously, he was Assistant Professor in War Studies and US Foreign Policy at the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS) at the University of Warwick (until March 2023). Before that, he undertook a three-year Early Career Fellowship (2018-2021) funded by the Leverhulme Trust with a research project on the interlinkage of security discourses and populist rhetoric in the United States under the Trump presidency.

His other academic appointments include his role as research fellow working with Nick Vaughan-Williams on his project ‘Everyday Narratives of European Border Security and Insecurity’ (2016-2018) and a one-year PAIS teaching fellowship in American politics and US foreign policy (2015-2016). Between 2011 and 2014, He undertook his PhD studies the University of Warwick. His PhD thesis is titled: ‘The Fractured Consensus – How competing visions of grand strategy challenge the geopolitical identity of American leadership under the Obama presidency,’ and was supervised by Prof. Stuart Croft and Prof. Nick Vaughan-Williams. The thesis was nominated for the 2016 Michael Nicholson Prize for best doctoral thesis in International Studies. Before his PhD, he studied International Relations in Germany at the FU Berlin, the HU Berlin, and the University of Potsdam, and Social Sciences and History at the University of Erfurt in Germany.

Moderator Dr. Jonny Hall is a Lecturer at Department of International Relations at London School of Economics.  Prior to being an LSE Fellow, he was a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Surrey. He previously completed his PhD in the International Relations department at LSE before spending a year as an IRD Fellow. 

 

Showcase: Turkey 

Dr. Cengiz Aktar is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Athens. He is a former director at the United Nations specializing in asylum policies. He is known to be one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU. He was the Chair of European Studies at Bahçeşehir University-Istanbul.

In 1999, he initiated a civil initiative for Istanbul’s candidacy for the title of European Capital of Culture. Istanbul successfully held the title in 2010. He also headed the initiative called “European Movement 2002” which pressured lawmakers to speed up political reforms necessary to begin the negotiation phase with the EU. In December 2008, he developed the idea of an online apology campaign addressed to Armenians and supported by a number of Turkish intellectuals as well as over 32,000 Turkish citizens.

In addition to EU integration policies, Dr. Aktar’s research focuses on the politics of memory regarding ethnic and religious minorities, the history of political centralism, and international refugee law.

 

Populism, Constructive and Destructive

Dr. Louis Kriesberg is the Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Syracuse University. He has published widely on diverse areas of sociology and social conflicts, including the US-Soviet Cold War, Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations, non- governmental organizations, and social movements. His recent work focuses on constructive ways of fighting, conflict transformation, and conflict resolution methods. Kriesberg has been highly active in regional, national, and international associations of sociology, conflict resolution, and international peace, for which he has received numerous awards. He was also the founding director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts (PARC) at Syracuse University. He received his PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1953.

Abstract: Populism is variously defined. For the purposes of this analysis, it refers to non-governmental people taking direct actions trying to change the conduct of some other resistant group. They are in conflict. In all human societies there are procedures to pursue and settle many such conflicts – the procedures are embodied in legal and political institutions. However, members of one or more contending parties often choose to take actions which are deemed populist. Often, the actions are intended to influence the conduct of members of established institutions. In this presentation, I will examine the actions of people engaged in conflicts resorting to populist conduct. I will discuss cases in the United States, in European states, and in other countries. In accord with work in the field of conflict resolution, I will assess their degree of being constructive or destructive. This is based on my many years of research and publications on this matter. Constructiveness varies in the nature of the inducements employed in a conflict, persuasion, promised benefit, and coercion. Usually all are employed in varying degree over time. Persuasion varies in different degrees of presumed effectiveness. Promised benefits relate to the terms of settlement being sought. Coercion varies in severity and therefore destructiveness, in varying degrees of violence and denial of benefits. Constructiveness also varies by the conception of each side has of itself and of its antagonists. Finally, constructiveness varies with the degree of differences each side has about the terms of a conflict settlement. In addition to assessing varying degrees of constructiveness, I will discuss how conflict destructivity can be reduced.

Reading List

Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press, 2017 Louis Kriesberg, Realizing Peace: A Constructive Conflict Approach, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Louis Kriesberg, “Interactions among Populism, Peace, and Security in contemporary America,” S&F Sicherheit und Frieden; Security and Peace, 37 (1) pp. 1-7, 2019.

Louis Kriesberg, Fighting Better: Constructive Conflicts in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Moderator Dr. Alexandra Homolar is Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick. Homolar has taught and researched at universities in Germany, the US, and the UK. She currently holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for her project ‘Populist FantasylandLink opens in a new window‘ (RF-2021-527/7), and from 2013-2017 she was the Principal Investigator of the ESRC Future Research Leaders project ‘Enemy Addiction‘ (ES/K008684/1). At Warwick, Homolar is the academic lead of Speaking International Security at Warwick (SISAW) and the co-lead of the interdisciplinary Research in Global Governance Network (RiGG NetLink opens in a new window) as well as the organizer of the Annual Masterclass in CSS/IR. She served as Director of Research Degrees and on the PAIS Senior Management Team in 2018-2020. Homolar received her Diplom [BA Hons., MA] in Political Science, Law, History, and Empirical Research Methods as well her Dr. phil [PhD] from J.W. Goethe University Frankfurt.

 

Day Four: Thursday, 4 July 2024

Populism and the EU Foreign Policy 

EU’s External Relations: Do Populists Propel It, Or Does It Propel Populists?

Dr. Bertjan Verbeek is a Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He publishes on the impact of populism on foreign policy; on crisis decision making; and on the role of intergovernmental organizations in contemporary world politics.

Abstract: In this seminar we will discuss the interrelationship between populism and the external relations of the EU. On the one hand, the stronger the presence of populists in EU member states governments and the EU’s institutions, the more likely it is that the EU’s external relations are reflecting populists’ foreign policy preferences.  However, this requires us to first discuss whether such a thing as a populist foreign policy preference exists in the first place. On the other hand, the EU’s external relations may have an impact on the position of populist parties within its member states. We will address these topics by focusing on the EU’s worldwide promotion of democracy as well as on the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war on populism’s strength within the EU.

Reading List

Bertjan Verbeek & Andrej Zaslove, “Populism and Foreign Policy” in Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy (eds) Oxford Handbook of Populism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 384-405.

Cadier, David, and Christian Lequesne. How Populism Impacts EU Foreign Policy. SciencesPo Working Paper, (2020). downloadable at https://sciencespo.hal.science/hal-03592985/

Buzogány, Aron, Oriol Costa, and Magdalena Góra. “Contesting the EU’s external democratization agenda: an analytical framework with an application to populist parties.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 35.4 (2022): 500-522.

Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Conclusion for the report on the impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels.  https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0035

Moderator Dr. Ana E Juncos Garcia is Professor at the University of Bristol. Her primary research interest lies in European foreign and security policy, with a particular focus on the development on the EU’s conflict prevention and crisis management capabilities and its role in conflict resolution. Her previous research project examined the EU’s intervention in the Western Balkans since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation in 1991. This study looked into the coherence and effectiveness of EU foreign policy over time and assessed the EU’s contribution to post-conflict stabilisation and peacebuilding in Bosnia. In other work, she has examined EU security sector reform and the institutionalisation of EU foreign policy, in particular, in relation to the newly created European External Action Service. Her current research examines EU peacebuilding in the neighbourhood, including the shift towards resilience approaches at the EU level.

 

Populism and the EU Foreign Policy

Irina von Wiese, who is Honorary President of ECPS, was born in Germany, the daughter and granddaughter of Polish and Russian refugees. After completing her law studies in Cologne, Geneva and Munich, she obtained a scholarship to study at the Harvard Kennedy School where she gained a master’s in public administration. Her subsequent legal training took her to Berlin, Brussels and Bangkok, and gave her a first insight into the plight of refugees and civil rights defenders across the globe.

From 1997 to 2019, Irina lived and worked as a lawyer in private and public sector positions in London. During this time, she volunteered for human rights organisations, advising on migration policy and hosting refugees in her home for many years.

In 2019, Irina was elected to represent UK Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament. She served as Vice Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee and as a member of the cross-party Working Group on Responsible Business Conduct. The Group’s main achievement was the introduction of EU legislation to make human rights due diligence mandatory in global supply chains. During her term, she was also elected to the Executive Committee of the European Endowment for Democracy, whose task is to support grassroots civil society initiatives in fragile democracies.

Having lost her seat in the European Parliament after the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, Irina returned to the UK, where she was elected to the Council of Southwark, one of London’s most diverse boroughs. Her links to Brussels are maintained through an advisory role at FGS Global, where she works on EU law and ESG issues. In addition, Irina is an Affiliate Professor at European business school, the ESCP, teaching international law and politics (including a course entitled ‘Liberalism and Populism’).

Abstract: In an increasingly bipolar world, marred by two wars on Europe’s doorstep, the geopolitical influence of the EU is at risk. Accused of double standards in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compared to other conflicts, under pressure from populists in virtually all member states and unable to rid itself of an autocracy within its own borders, does the EU still have moral and political capital to spend? The lecture will explore this question and investigate, in particular, the EU’s powers in the areas of foreign policy and security and defence, and its record in conflict intervention. It will also discuss the ‘soft’ power of the EU as the world’s biggest single market. Economic tools include direct mechanisms such as sanctions, tariffs and industrial policies such as ‘friend-shoring’, but also more subtle tools like free trade negotiations, supply chain monitoring and the involvement of private actors (e.g. large companies) exerting political pressure. I will draw on my experience as vice-chair of the European Parliament’s human rights subcommittee and my work at Liberal International.

Reading List

Timothy Garton Ash, Homelands https://youtu.be/Y4_O7HIjkdA?si=veruZJjY7YqqSwCQ

 

Day Five: Friday, 5 July 2024

Showcase: Brexit 

Dr. Craig Calhoun is a Professor at Arizona State University. Craig Calhoun is a comparative and historical sociologist, social theorist, and scholar, known for his interdisciplinary work in anthropology, communications, economics, history, international studies, political science, philosophy, and science and technology studies. His latest book, “Degenerations of Democracy,” co-authored with Charles Taylor and Dilip Gaonkar, was published by Harvard University Press in 2022. He edited “The Green New Deal and the Future of Work” with Benjamin Fong (Columbia University Press, 2022) and has collaborated with former students to create widely used anthologies covering classical and contemporary sociological theory. Calhoun has authored nine books and published over 150 peer-reviewed papers, articles, and chapters.

Calhoun currently serves as the University Professor of Social Sciences at Arizona State University. Prior to joining ASU, he served as president and director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and president of the Berggruen Institute. Calhoun has taught at Columbia University, NYU, where he founded the Institute for Public Knowledge, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also served as dean of the graduate school and directed the University Center for International Studies. In addition, he has been a visiting professor at universities and institutes in the U.S. and abroad, including in Asmara, Beijing, Bristol, Khartoum, Oslo, and Paris, and as an Einstein Fellow in Berlin.

Calhoun’s research focuses on contemporary transformations, possible futures, and the political economy of the modern world-system. He is also committed to studying universities and knowledge institutions, democracy, and shifting structures of social solidarity. In his philosophical pursuits, Calhoun explores the relationship between transformation and transcendence in understanding human existence.

Calhoun is actively engaged in advancing political, economic, and social democracy locally, nationally, and internationally. Calhoun serves on the board of the MasterCard Foundation, the American Assembly, the Center for Transcultural Studies, the Pulaski Institution, and Reset Dialogues. Calhoun is also active in speaking and supporting programs for a range of organizations and communities in Arizona, elsewhere in the US, and internationally.

Moderator Dr. Franco Zappettini is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool (where he is also the current Director of the PhD Programme). He previously held the post of Adjunct Professor of English at the Faculty of Education, University of Genoa, Italy and was Honorary Researcher Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the Book Review Editor at the Journal of Language and Politics edited by John Benjamins Publishing.

 

Showcase: India / Populism, Hindu Nationalism and Foreign Policy in India

Dr. Thorsten Wojczewski is a Lecturer in International Relations at Coventry University. Previously, he was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Global Affairs, King’s College London. His research interests are foreign policy analysis, populism and the far right, world order, poststructuralist IR and critical security studies. His research has been published or is forthcoming in International Affairs, International Relations, International Studies Review, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Journal of International Relations & Development, among others. He is the author of the books ‘The Inter- and Transnational Politics of Populism: Foreign Policy, Identity and Popular Sovereignty’ (Cham: Palgrave, 2023) and ‘India’s Foreign Policy Discourse and its Conceptions of World Order: The Quest for Power and Identity’ (London: Routledge, 2018).

Abstract: This lecture discusses the relationship between Populism, Hindu Nationalism and Foreign Policy in India. It unpacks the major ideological themes and issues of Hindu nationalism and outlines the Hindu Nationalist foreign policy outlook. Drawing on discourse-theorical approaches to populism and nationalism, it then shows how populism and nationalism are related and can be used to construct and mobilize collective political identities such as ‘the people’ in the realm of foreign policy. It discusses how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi used foreign policy issues for the purpose of political mobilization and rallying ‘the people’ behind their political project. At the same time, it discusses the impact of Hindu Nationalism and populism on India foreign policy. Finally, the lecture looks at Modi’s outreach to fellow populist radical right politicians in the United States and Europe and sheds light on the rationale and effects of this international collaboration.

Reading List

Shani, Giorgio. 2021. Towards a Hindu Rashtra: Hindutva, religion, and nationalism in India. Religion, State and Society 49(3), 264–280. https://doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2021.1947731

Kinnvall, Catarina. 2019. Populism, ontological insecurity and Hindutva: Modi and the masculinization of Indian politics. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 32(3), 283–302. https://doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2019.1588851

Wojczewski, Thorsten. 2020. Populism, Hindu Nationalism, and Foreign Policy in India: The Politics of Representing “the People”. International Studies Review 22(3): 396–422. https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viz007 

Illustration by Ulker Design.

Techno-Populism: The Youth Electorate in Europe and the Interplay Between Social Media and Populism

As proven by a 2021 European Parliament Youth survey, which supported that people rely primarily on the web, whether this is social media or online news outlets to be informed for political and societal developments. This ultimately explains why politicians gradually turn to social media – it broadens their electoral base as they attempt to connect to younger voters but has the negative consequence of popularizing populism. 

By Konstantina Kastoriadou

Social media has become integral to our lives, profoundly influencing our political landscape. While its pervasive presence is undeniable, there is often little analysis of how it shapes electoral campaigns, which are increasingly prevalent across Europe. Political advertisements and activities are widely disseminated on social media platforms, subtly and overtly shaping public opinion. This article delves into the complex interplay between contemporary politics and social media, drawing inspiration from Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti’s (2021) work, Techno-populism — The New Logic of Democratic Politics. It explores how this dynamic interaction (sub)consciously affects our political preferences and contributes to rising populist parties and figures globally. 

Almost 400 million people all over Europe were eligible to vote in the 2024 European Elections. Several parties across Europe have tried their best to engage longtime supporters and attract new ones, securing their votes either way, under the light of the pressuring events that have surrounded Europe for the last two years.  However, the most complex war is fought during the pre-electoral period on social media platforms, where parties, party leaders and candidates try to engage the most difficult-to-convince audience – the youth. For years, the younger generations proved challenging to engage with as it was widely believed that they abstained from politics, yet some researchers claim this was never the case. More specifically, they support the idea that the youth has always been politically engaged. Still, this engagement is taking many forms, with one notable case being social media (Del Monte, 2023: 3). According to Flew and Iosifidis (2020), the internet allows social, political or cultural movements to form alliances and communities internationally (For example, BLM, and the equal rights movement), as people now exchange opinions and experiences with other people from across the globe which helps shape opinions about situations and problems that appear in different parts of the world. 

Social media users, as of 2024, were estimated to be roughly around 5.17 billion globally, with the most active users being the youngest generation (Shewale, 2024). The significant number of users and the popularity of some social media platforms decisively reshaped political communication. As proven by a 2021 European Parliament Youth survey, which supported that people rely primarily on the web, whether this is social media or online news outlets to be informed for political and societal developments (Del Monte, 2023: 3). This ultimately explains why politicians gradually turn to social media – it broadens their electoral base as they attempt to connect to younger voters but has the negative consequence of popularizing populism. This turn of events in the political reality is of enormous interest as it shows a dismissal of the traditional political divide of the left/right axis, which now, according to Bickerton & Accetti (2021), was transformed into a dipole between populism and technocracy which are better understood as “modes of political action” rather than solid ideological systems. 

Techno-populism is “the new logic of political action based on the combination of populist and technocratic traits,” somehow like the definition of techno-populism by Lorenzo Castellani, who defines the latter as a “political regime” characterized by “an interaction between global capitalism, technocratic institutions and new polarizing populist political movements” (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 18). Techno-populism is also a relatively new phenomenon, as there has been a steadily growing appeal to the concept of the “people” during recent years, that did not exist during the 20th century. Political parties, especially after World War II, had their target group (For example, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, etc.) and therefore did not appeal to the masses in general. Compared to contemporary politics, more and more politicians claim to represent the people, as in mainstream political parties, there wasn’t a notion of the “people” as we know it, but society consisted of different groups and classes that each party represented (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 7).

Many scholars argue that populism is a mainstream phenomenon. Roitman et al. (2023) argue that: “The rise of populist discourses in many countries in the last decades may have been due to changes in political communication.” This argument is strongly supported by data that show the rise of political and party participation on social media platforms. As argued by Bickerton and Accetti (2021: 21), this shift in political communication is an attempt for parties to become more attractive towards the youth, helping themselves to secure more votes, as the sole goal of political competition in all electoral democracies is the rise to power (Accetti & Bickerton, 2021: 21).

A strong case of this trend is presented in the work of Cervi et al., (2021: 269 – 270), who examined the interplay between TikTok and political communication. As a primary example, the Spanish populist parties, Vox and Podemos, seem to have claimed the most significant gains out of the other mainstream established parties, as most of their supporters come from the youngest generation. Podemos is the most followed (191.400 followers) and the most active party on social media, having gathered more than 3.1m likes. The youngest generation represents the bulk of the supporters gathered on the platform.

In Podemos’ case, social media is tightly interwoven into the very existence of the party, as they broadly use it as a means in its political strategy – mobilizing its audience both online and offline (Cervi et al., 2021: 271). Similarly to Podemos is the case of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. The M5S, undoubtedly classified as a populist party, claims to have an unmediated relationship with the people, especially by utilizing the internet. By accessing the internet and mobilizing the citizens by creating cyberspaces in which they interact with their electoral base, the M5S claims that it can offer more efficient government by utilizing the collective intelligence” it gathers through the web. M5S use the internet to access ordinary citizens’ competence, making the web a means to provide a better quality of public policy. This is described by Accetti and Bickerton (2021) as: techno-populism from below (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 4). 

Another case that proves the rising power of social media in politics is the example of Ireland, where the current Prime Minister (Irish term: Taoiseach) of the Fine Gael party, Simon Harris, is characterized as the first TikTok Prime Minister of the country, and coincidently also the youngest leader of the nation, rising to the chair of the party thanks to his TikTok popularity (Pogatchnik, 2024). Such cases can be observed in every established democracy in the Western world – not exclusively by populist leaders but also by the traditionally established parties’ leaders, who try to expand their electoral base to the young electorate. 

Social Media and the New Reality of Politics

As mentioned above, politics have been transformed since the mid-20th century, and society catalyzes this change. Bickerton & Accetti (2021: 35) argue that society is far more complex than in the 20th century when society seemed more homogenized. This complexity makes societal formations more fragile and fluid than they used to be, therefore making the electoral appeal of contestants for office harder than before. Perhaps due to this fragmentation and fragility, it is more effective for political contestants to appeal to emotion and, therefore, adopt post-truth tactics than to rely on the old ways of political communication to secure people’s support. According to data, 97% of world leaders use Twitter, being the first and leading social media platform for political communication (Munoz, Ripolles, 2020).

The importance of social media is also reflected in the enormous sums of money parties have spent advertising on social media during this European Electoral Campaign. Based on Google and Facebook data, such examples are Fidesz with €60.000 spent on one single ad; the separatist Flemish party Vlaams Beelang spent around €50 – 60.000 as well; and Macron’s party seems to have spent approximately €50.000 (Shickler, 2024). However, the most shocking numbers come from Greece, where the governing right-wing party New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) has spent €192.000 on Google ads alone, while the total amount of spending of the country is €321.800 for 5.753 digital ads (Μπογιόπουλος, 2024a). New Democracy’s spending on Facebook accounts for €31.430, while €17.276 of this was spent on the advertisement of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Μπογιόπουλος, 2024b). Such amounts show that the presence on social media is now necessary, as parties won’t survive in the new political reality without them since society now prefers to be more active than passive news consumers (Putmans, 2017: 2). 

Post-Truth, Propaganda and Skepticism

Although one use of social media platforms is for advertisement, for most, social media serves primarily as a source of information and the exchange of opinions, which shapes everyday life. Yet, social media has a “dark side” as they are closely linked to the spread of fake news and post-truth politics (Flew & Iosifidis, 2020). Misinformation and post-truth political rhetoric are commonalities and apply firmly to pre-electoral campaigns. The BBC found plenty of misleading content on social media platforms during the pre-electoral campaign in the UK. The content is AI generated (Spring, 2024) and could be passed as accurate, especially by people who are not so familiar with the newly introduced technologies.

Post-truth politics is widely associated with populist parties and personas. According to ECPS’ (n.d.) dictionary of populism, post-truth is: “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” Taş (2021: 169) further supports that post-truth politics are in fact: “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact” – therefore minimizing the importance of facts in the process of shaping the public opinion. As social media lacks supervision or strict political guidelines, which is more likely to happen to television, radio or press, communication among peers is loose and emotionally charged, as they mostly share their opinions and experiences. This makes social media the most appropriate medium for “disseminating” meta-truth, affecting politics and everyday life.

In the Western sphere, the truth can be explained – proved scientifically, so the truth is perceived as objective. However, since the 20th century, the perception of truth has changed again taking Nietzsche, or the post-structuralists like Foucault as an example – who highlighted the relevance of truth, making it a subjectivity and therefore contradicting the previous perception of truth as objectivity. Finally, the digital era reshaped the perception of truth, as misinformation and fake news became a common incident in our era (Youvan, 2024: 4). Post-truth, therefore, comes directly in contrast with the primary perception of “the truth” being objective, as it is based on the 20th-century revision on the objectivity of the truth highlighting the subjective nature of it. This, combined with the rise of social media, made people in advanced democracies more skeptical towards democracy and governments and even questioned the integrity of the press industry, which overall is boosted by a generalized discontentment created by the declining quality of life. 

For many political and social analysts, social media is a reason of high significance that democracies are in decline. According to research conducted in 19 countries by the Pew Research Center in 2022, social media seems to be perceived overall as a good thing for democracy, with the exception being the US, where the survey concluded that social media are perceived as a bad thing for democracy with 64%. This trend seemed popular among Republicans and Republican-leaning supporters, as they proved to be the social group more likely to be critical and negative towards social media (Wike et al., 2022). 

Additionally, 84% of the questioned people across the 19 countries believe that social media and the internet made people more accessible to manipulate with false information and/or news. 70% of them support that fake news is the second biggest threat globally, just after climate change. Another interesting finding is that across the 19 countries that participated in the Survey, people agree that social media had a positive impact on people in terms of information about worldwide and domestic events, which is believed to make people good citizens of the world – and work in favor of acceptance of different races and religions. Yet, they find that they contribute negatively to how people talk about politics, finding that 46% of individuals believe social media makes people less civil in the way they talk about politics. Maybe this is related to the fact that 65% support the idea that social media has made people divided on their political opinions (Wike et al., 2022). 

In this framework of division, confusion and growing disappointment are where the populists flourish the most. If we were to hypothesize that fear is constantly generated within our societies, through our everyday lives, then a feeling of powerlessness may occur. According to Müller (2022), fear is a medium for populist leaders, who invoke fear to provoke a revolt against the “corrupt establishment.” However, he finds that fear must not exceed a certain point, for populist leaders do not want their societies to live in fear. If this happens, populist personas will betray their promise of “being better democrats.” Wike et al. (2022) found that social media can affect people’s psychological stance, making them feel less powerless as they grow more informed about international and domestic situations. Maybe here, the fact that social media are a place where people can form alliances and exchange their views and experiences is the most critical factor contributing to a growing feeling of empowerment. 

This empowerment may stem from consumption and people’s identification with populistic agendas promoted on social media, leveraging the dissatisfaction of the masses. As populism is traditionally based on the emotional stance of society, post-truth political rhetoric is the most efficient medium to secure support and broaden their electoral base. This trend has been evident since the 2016 US Presidential election when people seemed to believe and identify more with fake news than facts. As Dan (2023) supports, populism is a force that can change the collective memory and shape peoples’ opinions and ideas, which in this case is the primarily exclusionary right-wing populism stands for identity. It promotes the protection of the mass identity, which is being attacked by various factors such as economic, class, or alternative ethnicity. Hayes defines identity politics as: “a phrase that has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context” (Heyes, 2020).

Even from the definition, it shows that identity politics is a phenomenon of a strong psychological and emotional background that is the backbone of its very existence (Dan, 2023). Maybe that’s an essential factor that makes people in the Western sphere more critical of social media and democracy. It’s found that nativists are the most skeptical among citizens. Usually, they are dissatisfied with electoral outcomes, regardless of being on the winning or losing end of the electoral process (Kokkonen & Linde, 2022).

Conclusion

Political reality has been drastically transformed over the past years, and populism can be considered both the result and the cause of the new political reality, which depends on the latest technologies for the political actors to secure support from their peers. To this progress and change of political reality, Bickerton & Accetti’s book is a perfect and realistic approach to the new way of political action, as techno-populism seems to be a phenomenon that explains precisely the current state of politics, with people growing dissatisfied with democracy due to the existing economic struggles and with populism, that will not cease. 

This transformation could be the outcome of the “win” of capitalism at the end of the Cold War Era, which established capitalism as the dominant, unchallenged system and gradually made the distinction between left and right irrelevant and outdated. It’s not a coincidence that populist figures have continuously risen and taken over globally since the 2000s. However, the most critical factor lies in this societal transformation of recent years that made society more fragmented and fragile than before, making the electoral appeal of contestants for office harder than it was during the 20th century. 

To the latter, social media are an essential factor, as they shape the opinions and dissatisfaction of the masses because they provide them with the opportunity to have almost complete access to everything. This free flow of information can also justify the rising skepticism of people towards their governments, as nowadays, it is more feasible to identify aberrant and reprehensible actions, such as institutional corruption. Also, with the free flow of experiences and opinions, people grow even more critical of their political, social or economic situation, as they can easily compare their reality with the reality of citizens from different parts of the world and are more susceptible to populistic agendas. Most importantly, on many occasions, social media presents the truth compared to television. In many instances, there is proof that television is under governmental or special interests’ control, contributing to the growth of skepticism inside liberal democracies. 

Politically speaking, this may be a strong reason why social media seem to have such overwhelming approval overall, as people see it as a positive asset for democracy, with the only exception being the US, where mostly the conservatives were more prone to rejecting social media as a beneficial factor for democracy. While people generally agree that social media made them more accepting towards different cultures and races, there is an explicit acknowledgement that social media generates a lot of negative emotions and affects people’s way of expressing political opinions, as there is a consensus that social media makes people politically divided. This could be attributed to the success of populism, which penetrated society, and the accessibility to information provided by the internet. This is the combination that Bickerton & Accetti discussed. In contemporary politics, the fight over political power doesn’t revolve around the traditional divide between right and left, but how the already established political parties with either the left or right use both populism and technocracy to their benefit. 

It’s sensible that people feel vulnerable to fake news, as the populist mode of communication seems to be the predominant one, with post-truth politics spreading steadily over the internet. Their anger and frustration can be amplified or soothed, and due to the structure of social media platforms, they can be controlled and guided in a specific direction. This controlled environment makes a “safer” framework for the contestants to power to survive and adapt. Youth engagement seemed to be the ulterior motive for political personas to turn to the web for promotion. Still, this move is undoubtedly populistic, as it builds rapport with the base, creating the illusion of closeness to the people. However, the youth is committed and politically active, and with all the necessary equipment, they seem ready to claim the change for a better tomorrow. 


 

References

 (n.d.). Post-Truth Politics. European Center for Populism Studies. Available at: https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/post-truth-politics/

Μπογιόπουλος, Γ. (2024a, June 3). Νέα Δημοκρατία: Ο καλύτερος πελάτης της Google στην πολιτική διαφήμιση, παρά το εξωφρενικό χρέος της. Documento. https://www.documentonews.gr/article/nea-dimokratia-o-kalyteros-pelatis-tis-google-stin-politiki-diafimisi-para-to-exofreniko-xreos-tis/ (accessed on June 15, 2024). 

Μπογιόπουλος, Γ. (2024b, June 4). Προσωπική διαφήμιση 401.000 ευρώ ο Μητσοτάκης στο Facebook και… μόνο 377.000 η Νέα Δημοκρατία. Documento. https://www.documentonews.gr/article/prosopiki-diafimisi-401-000-eyro-o-mitsotakis-sto-facebook-kai-mono-377-000-i-nea-dimokratia/ (accessed on June 15, 2024). 

Bickerton, J. C., & Accetti, I. C. (2021). Technopopulism – The new logic of democratic politics (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. 

Cervi, L.; Tejedor, S. & Marín Lladó, C. (2021): “TikTok and the new language of political communication: The case of Podemos. “Cultura, Lenguaje y Representación, XXVI. 267-287. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6035/clr.5817

Dan, P. (2023, May 18-20). “The Consequences of Populism: Truth Decay and the Fact Free Society.” [Conference Paper]. ASN Convention. Columbia University, New York. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/370934507_Truth_decay (accessed on June 15, 2024).

Del Monte, M. (2023, December). Y”outh Participation in European Elections (Issue Brief PE 754.634).” European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2023/754634/EPRS_BRI(2023)754634_EN.pdf

Flew, T. & Iosifidis, P. (2020). “Populism, Globalization and Social Media.” International Communication Gazette. 82:1. 7 – 25. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1748048519880721

Heyes, C. (2020). Identity Politics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Originally published: July 16, 2002; substantive revision July 11, 2020). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/ (accessed on June 15, 2024).

Kokkonen, A. & Linde J. (2022). “A nativist divide? Anti-immigration attitudes and diffuse support for democracy in Western Europe.” European Journal of Political Research. European Consortium for Political Research, 62: 3. 977-988.https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12551

Müller, J. W. (2022). “The politics of fear revisited.” In: Nationalism and Populism: Expressions of Fear or Political Strategies? Berlin. Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg. 11–21 https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110729740

Muñoz, A. L. & Ripollés C. A. (2020, August 7). “Populism Against Europe in Social Media: The Eurosceptic Discourse on Twitter in Spain, Italy, France, and United Kingdom During the Campaign of the 2019 European Parliament Election.” Media Governance and the Public Sphere. Frontiers Communication. Frontiers. 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00054

Pogatchnik, S. (2024, March 26). “Meet Simon Harris, Ireland’s first TikTok prime minister.” Politicohttps://www.politico.eu/article/who-is-simon-harris-irelands-first-millennial-leader-has-come-a-long-way-quickly/(accessed on March 26, 2024).

Roitman, M.; Bernal, M.; Premat, C. & Sullet-Nylander, F. (2023). “Introduction: Populism, political representation and social media language.” In: M. Roitman, M. Bernal, C. Premat, & F. Sullet-Nylander (Eds.), The new challenges of populist discourses in romance speaking countries (pp. 1–9). Stockholm University Press. https://doi.org/10.16993/bcj.a

Shewale, R. (2024, March 4). “Social media users 2024 (Global data & statistics).” Demand Sagehttps://www.demandsage.com/social-media-users/ (accessed on March 22, 2024).

Shickler, J. (2024, May 28). “Revealed: The far-right EU election ads flooding social media.” Euronewshttps://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2024/05/28/revealed-the-far-right-eu-election-ads-flooding-social-media (accessed on June 5, 2024).

Spring, M. (2024, June 2). “TikTok users being fed misleading election news, BBC finds.” BBChttps://www.bbc.com/news/articles/c1ww6vz1l81o (accessed on June 5, 2024).

Taş, H. (2021, August). “Politics of truth and post-truth.” In: J. Jongerden (Ed.), The Routledge handbook on contemporary Turkey (1st ed.). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354207641_Politics_of_Truth_and_Post-truth(accessed on June 5, 2024).

Wike, R.,;Silver, L. & Fetterlof, J., et al. (2022, December 6). “Social media seen as mostly good for democracy across many nations, but U.S. is a major outlier.” Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/12/06/social-media-seen-as-mostly-good-for-democracy-across-many-nations-but-u-s-is-a-major-outlier/ (accessed on June 5, 2024).

Youvan, C. D. (2024, January 30). “Arbitrage of truth: Unveiling the exploitation of reality in the post-truth era.” https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.10575.87201.  

EP

EP Elections and the Connection Between Populism and Identity Politics in the EU

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far-right as the main winners. The tendency of voters to choose populist parties could push the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far-right. This could be 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 now.

By Katharina Diebold

The mostly expected European Parliamentary elections results and the next presidency of the Council of the EU, Hungary, will likely be contentious issues for the European Community (Henley, 2024). The 2024 EU elections and the Hungarian presidency polls have indicated 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 elections has showed 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 must ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what predictions can be made for the post-2024 elections.

In this essay, it will be argued 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—is influenced by populist rhetoric and identity politics, which ultimately harms the EU. In connection with this, populist candidates driven by identity politics will be shown to threaten the future of the EU. 

Theoretical Framework 

Populism is 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).

Previous research suggests that populism, taken as a framework for populist communication and rhetoric (Aalberg et al., 2017), is also used by mainstream parties to improve their relationship with voters on social media (Lin et al., 2023). Key themes identified are people-centrism, anti-elitism, restoring popular sovereignty and exclusion (Aalberg et al., 2017; Engesser et al., 2017). Additionally, specific negative and emotional populist communication styles on social media correlate with a positive increase in relationships between mainstream parties and their voters (Lin et al., 2023, p. 608). This analysis will use populism as a guide for identifying potential populist rhetoric. 

Even though populism in Western Europe is often associated with the right, the left has increasingly adopted populist strategies, specifically in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which was covered in the media as “the rise of leftist populism” (Gross, 2022). The negligence of academic research about the populist left could be responsible for the recent findings. This seems even more relevant when we consider the electoral performance of populist left parties compared to populist right parties for the 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 throughout its government term and recent opposition in 2021 (Markou, 2021). Recently, the focus on populism in Western countries shifted again towards right-wing populist parties (Bartel, 2023; Morison, 2023). 

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 be recognized by looking at EU-party campaigns or populist candidates for the recent EP elections. Similar to the right-wing, the left-wing populists also employ identity politics. Leftist-populism can be seen promoting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identities and seeking to transform the shame previously associated with these identities into a point of 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 a point of contention for both the right- and left-wing parties. Both sides 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 this 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. 

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 left’s support have also been instrumentalized to boost the attention and sympathy of left-wing parties.

The populist rhetoric surrounding the Nature Restoration Regulation can be approached as a case exemplifying 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, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) claims this law increases the financial burden for the forestry, fishery, and farming sectors (Weise & Guillot, 2023). However, these realities are dismissed in the political language of environmental advocacy. 

We can assess that the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) campaign for 2024 EP elections utilised populist rhetoric by defining the people as the “citizens, farmers, fishers and business in the EU;” The elite as “the conservatives, far right and some liberals” who “try to tear down a new EU law to restore nature;” and The general will of the people could be characterized as focussing on tackling biodiversity and the climate crisis (Greens/EFA, 2023b). The campaign by the Greens/EFA for this regulation played into identity politics as the party used 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. Examined closely, the ostensibly evergreen legislation advocating biodiversity protection 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, which left these cartels out intentionally.

Deforestation Regulation 

The Greens/EFA campaign for the Deforestation Regulation shows characteristics of populist rhetoric (European Commission, 2023). The Greens/EFA emphasize the importance of the people,” for example, by the quote “The rights of people and nature must always come before profit,” which could be interpreted as people-centrism (Greens/EFA, 2023c). 

Another example of anti-elitism could be identified by emphasizing the misinformation and fake news campaign against the nature restoration law in a video by the Greens/EFA (Greens/EFA, 2023d). The misinformation campaign was conducted before the 2024 EP elections in multiple EU countries, including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland by political parties, Member of the European Parliament (MEP)-candidates and farming groups such as the Dutch National Farmers Party (BoerBurgerBeweging-BBB), the Dutch far-right fringe party (Forum voor Democratie) and the polish Earth farmer’s support foundation (Greens/EFA, 2023d; Carlile, 2023). 

The MEP negotiator for the nature restoration law, Jutta Paulus, mentions the agriculture lobby as a factor that made the legislation less progressive and ambitious and prevented meaningful, sustainable EU laws, such as laws regarding agricultural goods (Paulus, 2023a). Paulus mentions in another video about the nature restoration law that, specifically, the conservatives and the far-right are responsible for preventing and decreasing the effectiveness of the new legislation (Paulus, 2023b). Those examples do not mention misinformation campaigns by politicians, farming groups, the agriculture lobby, or the far-right elite. However, it can be argued that this language and framing emphasizing the element of conspiring groups could be interpreted as populist rhetoric.

This connects to other findings that suggest that 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 on deforestation will only prevent EU customers from buying products derived from deforestation. However, 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 (Fairtrade.net, 2022).

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

The left and the right used identity politics as a tool to increase sympathy for the EP 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 supported 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 “European citizens” or “our citizens” who deserve security, safety and protection in times of migration (EPP Group, 2023; EPP, 2016). Secondly, von der Leyen specifically points out in her New Pact on Migration statement that smugglers and traffickers control illegal migration (Press Statement von der Leyen, 2023). This can be understood as a symptom of a “corrupt elite” in government that allows smugglers and traffickers to run unhampered (Rusev, 2013). Thirdly, a comment by the leader of the EPP, Manfred Weber, could give insight into how his party wants to respond to the “general will” of the people (including the voters for the EP elections). He said the EPP would be “crystal clear about its desire to reduce immigration in the campaign for European elections” (O’Carroll, 2024). 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 was used as a promotional tool for the EP elections to attract voters on both the left and right (Georgian, 2024). 

The New Pact has also been used by the Greens/EFA populist campaign for the European Elections 2024, reinforced the idea of a unified peace union. In this instance, we can deduce that “the people” could be defined as “us and the migrants and asylum seekers, that we do not leave behind;” “the general will” could be characterized as ” upholding human rights and international law” (Greens/EFA, 2023a). 

The Greens/EFA shadow rapporteur for the new asylum and migration management regulation (which is part of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum), Damien Carême, emphasized in a post on his social media that EU interior ministers and the European Commission adopted vocabulary regarding migration that pleases the far right only to gain popularity and votes for the EU elections (Carême, 2024). In his view, this rhetoric compromises the truth and neglects migrants (Carême, 2024). Another post criticizes the former director of the European Border and Coast Guard agency (FRONTEX), Fabrice Leggeri, for spreading fake news and lies about the new pact on migration (Carême, 2024b). Those examples do not specifically mention politicians or the far-right as elites. However, it can be argued that this language and framing emphasize an element of conspiring groups spreading fake news to increase distrust. This could be interpreted as constituting populist rhetoric, which characterizes an “elite.”

Additionally, another shadow rapporteur of the Greens/EFA responsible for the crisis and force majeure regulation (also part of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum), Damian Boeselager, emphasizes yet more rhetoric element connected with populism – the element of populist sovereignty. In one of his posts, he claims that the EU asylum system can only be tackled on the EU level if the EU regains its sovereignty (Boeselager, 2024). Moreover, he claims that if “we” want to win sovereignty back, we must do this at the EU level (Boeselager, 2024). Concerning the New Pact on migration, specifically migration agreements with Tunis, Libya and Egypt are increasingly scrutinized in the media and by the Greens/EFA (Greens/EFA, 2023e; Carême, 2024c).

Another interesting element is that research suggests that an “emotional” populist communication style positively increases the relationship between mainstream parties and their voters. By looking at postings by the Greens/EFA and their MEPs, it can be argued that dramatic music, pictures of migrants in boats at sea, in refugee and asylum camps and centers used by Carême, as well as the main Greens/EFA page could be identified as emotional communication style. Additionally, the new Migration 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 was a common strategy employed by both left and right populist parties to garner support. This practice is 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 European Parliament elections 2024 included 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 the potential to attract successful business owners. Another figure is the farmer and agriculture expert Stefan Köhler, who run for the CSU on place six to attract farmers (Zeit Online, 2023). Farmers have become increasingly crucial in the European discourse, with the recent increase in farmer protests in Germany, France, and the Netherlands (Trompiz & Levaux, 2024). 

Legal and security experts also run with public appeal to the voters across political divides. Carola Rackete, the German candidate for “Die Linke,” a leftist Party, is a human rights activist fighting for better refugee rights and asylum laws, run for the second position (MDR.DE., 2023). The human rights activist as a candidate were expected to increase the number of radical voters from the left. The German Green Party was heading with a policeman on place eighteen in the EP elections, tried to include more right-leaning social groups in the Green voter repertoire since police officers tended to vote for conservative and right-wing parties (Papanicolaou & Papageorgiou, 2016).

In Austria, the first candidate for the Greens party was Lena Schilling, a climate activist of “Fridays-for-future.” Schilling had a high chance of attracting young voters as she was the only young female top candidate among all running top party candidates in Austria (Völker, 2024). The second place was Thomas Waitz, a sustainable and organic farmer who aimed to attract sustainable farmers in Austria (Waitz, 2023; Schweighofer, 2024).

The references to the people vs. lying or misinformation-spreading groups blurred the lines between right and left ideologies and connected these figures around a shared sentiment: fighting for the people against a designated other. 

Conclusion 

The increasing populist rhetoric of left and right parties in the EU and the fanatism of those who want to increase their share of voters for the EU elections are responsible for the outcomes of recent EU legislation. The populist rhetoric before and after the adoption of new EU legislation 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 populist communication 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 bashing climate and hinder cooperative efforts.

Remarkably, identity politics has not only permeated the populist rhetoric of EU party politics but also extended to the selection of candidates for the EP 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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Waitz, T. (2023). “Meine Kandidatur für die EU-Wahl 2024.” Oktober 2023. https://thomaswaitz.eu/language/de/meine-kandidatur-fuer-die-eu-wahl-2024/ (accessed on February 5, 2024).

Wax, E. & Goryashko, S. (2024). “EU election 2024: New poll shows right-wing populist surge.” POLITICO. January 24, 2024. https://www.politico.eu/article/right-wing-populist-surge-eu-election-policy/ (accessed on February 5, 2024).

Weise, Z. & Guillot, L. (2023). “How repairing nature became the EU’s most contentious green project.” POLITICO. June 1, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/how-repairing-nature-became-the-eus-most-contentious-green-project/(accessed on February 5, 2024).

Wulff, Jan-Denis. (n.d.). Unsere Vielfalt ist Europas Stärke https://www.jandeniswulff.de/ (accessed on February 5, 2024).

Zulianello, M. & Larsen, E. G. (2021). “Populist parties in European parliament elections: A new dataset on left, right and valence populism from 1979 to 2019.” Electoral Studies71, 102312. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2021.102312

Syrian refugees arrive from Turkey by boat through the cold waters near Molyvos, Lesbos, Greece, in an overloaded dinghy on October 29, 2015. Photo: Nicolas Economou.

Death Toll Much Higher Than Reported: Rising Casualties Among Migrants Attempting to Reach the EU

Statistics on the EU migration crisis indicate that over 3,000 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean Sea, with 60% of the deaths linked to drowning. However, these figures are not precise, many ‘ghost boats’ disappear from radar with no record of the number of migrants on board. Indeed, the majority of migrant deaths worldwide go unrecorded.

By Greta Martinez

In recent years, Europe has witnessed a large number of migrants risking their lives in search of better life and opportunities. Tragically, this search sometimes results in death. The danger of this route is too great to ignore, and this paper aims to examine the intersection between migration policies, populism, human rights, and the escalating number of deaths.

In the last decade, Europe has faced an unprecedented number of migrants attempting to cross its borders, particularly via the Mediterranean Sea, which is infamous for being the deadliest migration route. The number of deaths is alarming; in 2023, the total number increased by 20%, making it the deadliest year for migrants since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began keeping records (IOM Report, 2024). Statistics on the EU migration crisis indicate that over 3,000 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean, with 60% of the deaths linked to drowning. However, these figures are not precise, as the IOM explains, many ‘ghost boats’ disappear from radar with no record of the number of migrants on board. Indeed, the majority of migrant deaths worldwide go unrecorded (Migration Data Portal, 2024).

Populist Migration Policies to Blame for Increasing Death Tolls

To understand the reasons behind the rising death toll and the increasing number of migrants taking more dangerous routes, it is necessary to examine the interaction between these deaths and populist migration policies. The growing popularity of populist politics across Europe has dramatically impacted migration policies. Populist policymakers are known for their nationalistic rhetoric, which fosters fear of the unknown and of those who are different. Border protection policies are a central element of populism, prioritizing border security over human lives. This results in policies that focus on protecting borders rather than saving the lives of those fleeing unstable states, poverty, or wars (Osuna, 2022). When countries restrict legal routes for refugees, they force individuals to undertake even more perilous journeys to reach safety (Oxford, 2024).

The externalization of border control by populist governments often involves proposing migration deals to improve partner countries’ border management and migrant interception capabilities. Examples of these policies include the recent bilateral agreement between Italy and Albania signed by Italian populist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and a similar agreement with Libya, primarily signed by former populist Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Martini & Megerisi, 2023). These agreements shift the responsibility of handling migrants to third-party states, which do not always respect fundamental human rights or adhere to the Geneva Convention. Populist migration policies are frequently criticized by international human rights organizations for violating international laws and agreements on asylum and refugee rights (Muižnieks, 2017).

The migration policies followed by populist governments, which often result in more deaths, include measures such as refusing docking rights to rescue ships. A notable example of this was the ‘Sea Watch Case’ in Italy. The then Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, did not permit the docking of the NGO “Open Arms” rescue ship. However, the ship’s captain, Carola Rackete, defied his orders and docked anyway, sparking a legal dispute about the interpretation of humanitarian aid for migrants with sanitary needs. The policy of denying docking rights to ships in the European Union after a long and perilous journey often leads to more deaths in the Mediterranean Sea due to delayed responses from authorities. It is crucial to highlight the dangerous situations that delayed responses create for migrants arriving in the EU on illegal boats. Late actions by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) or national authorities can result in shipwrecks, such as the one that occurred in Cutro, Italy, on the night of February 25, 2023.

Border States’ Responsibility to Save Lives: The Italian Example

Populist parties in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are known by the EU Commission (Triandafyllidou, 2013) for emphasizing migration issues more strongly than other EU states, as these border countries are more affected by the illegal arrival of irregular ships. The increase in deaths is linked to the inadequate response of these states often lacking the resources and infrastructure to cope with the influx of arrivals. For example, the Italian approach to the migrant crisis has gained significant attention and generated controversy, with their closed-border policies raising critical humanitarian concerns. Italy has been a primary destination for migrants coming from North Africa and the Middle East.

The new regulations, which are part of the migration policy followed by Italian PM Meloni to prevent irregular migration, reduce the possibility of multiple rescues and introduce sanctions and administrative measures for violations. These measures have consequently led to an increase in deaths on the Mediterranean Sea. By closing ports and restricting rescue operations, Italy has effectively left thousands of migrants stranded at sea in dangerous conditions, as seen in the Cutro catastrophe. This fatal incident occurred just three days after the approval of the restrictions on NGO rescues. The cause of this shipwreck was Italy’s delayed response following the FRONTEX report of a ship needing rescue. The Italian authorities approached the situation as a police operation to stop irregular migration, not as a humanitarian mission (Pons, 2023). Despite the application of this new regulation, in 2023, Italy experienced a 50% increase in migrants arriving by sea compared to 2022.

Conclusion 

As noted in the analyzed example of Italy, populist governments justify stringent migration policies as necessary for their national security and sovereignty. However, they often do not respect international refugee and migration law and fundamental human rights. The protection of borders, fueled by populist agendas, perpetuates and maintains a lack of empathy towards the deaths during the migration process, reducing these tragedies to mere numbers in European newspapers. Furthermore, populist agendas create and perpetuate a narrative of “us versus them,” neglecting the ethical imperative to protect human rights. This undermines European credibility as an exemplar of human rights advocacy on the global stage. The escalating number of deaths at EU borders is a stark reminder of the human cost of racist and restrictive migration policies driven by populist agendas. To prevent further deaths, the EU must adopt an approach that prioritizes protecting human rights, human lives and fosters international cooperation to avoid casualties.


References

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Pons, L. (2023). “Naufragio di Cutro, cosa è successo: la dinamica e le responsabilità.” Fanpage. June 7, 2023.  https://www.fanpage.it/politica/naufragio-di-crotone-cosa-non-ha-funzionato-nella-catena-dei-soccorsi-ai-migranti/ (accessed on May 15, 2024).

Triandafyllidou, A. (2013). “Migration policy in Southern Europe: challenges, constraints and prospects.” European Website on Integration. October 18, 2013. https://migrant-integration.ec.europa.eu/library-document/migration-policy-southern-europe-challenges-constraints-and-prospects_en (accessed on May 20, 2024). 

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

Ventotene Manifesto, Europe, and Federalist Liberalism Today

The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism.

By Amedeo Gasparini

The European Union (EU) has historically been seen as a beacon of peace, cooperation, and shared values. However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable rise in populist movements – from the right to the left – across several EU countries. The use of nationalist discourse, the unabashed use of demagogy and populism as a method of political offer, and the recourse to the “protection” of the state, are elements which demonstrate today’s crisis in the EU. These elements typically belong to the populist discourse and weaken the EU as a whole. In particular, the surge in right and far-right movements has led to increased polarization in the member states (Roberts, 2022), with political discourse becoming more confrontational. Alongside the rise of far-right ideologies, euroscepticism has also gained momentum. Eurosceptics often criticize the EU’s institutions for being bureaucratic, undemocratic, and infringing upon national sovereignty.

A general sense of dissatisfaction concerning the economic conditions in some EU countries, immigration, the post-Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian war in Ukraine are among the conditions that enable right- and left-wing populism and anti-Europeanism to gain popularity. Growing eurosceptic sentiment fuels debates about the EU’s future, with traditional debates on supranationalism – that is, supranational actors promote integration through the spillover effect – and intergovernmentalism – that is, member states, following national interests, dictate control (Schmidt, 2016). Modern Europe has a decade-long legacy of fighting against totalitarian regimes and defending democratic values; and this should remind the EU about its determination to overcome internal divisions and continue to promote peace, prosperity, and solidarity.

The 80th anniversary of the Ventotene Manifesto, penned by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi (2006 [1944]) is being celebrated this year and continues to stand as an inspirational cornerstone text of the EU and its values. However, it is also a useful guide for dealing with the multiple crises plaguing the EU. Conceived in 1941 while the two authors were confined on the island of Ventotene, the document was initially distributed covertly. Eugenio Colorni later published it, adding a preface. Secretly printed in Rome in January 1944, it was later complemented with two essays by Spinelli, “The United States of Europe and the Various Political Tendencies” (1942) and “Marxist Politics and Federalist Politics” (1942-1943). While Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-Europe (1997 [1923]) advocated for a European union steered by technocrats (thus more functionalist), the Manifesto proposed a European Federation with a parliament and a government wielding substantial powers in areas like economics and foreign policy.

While this article reviews Spinelli’s and Rossi’s work, it starts from the Manifesto and its legacy to outline some priorities for the EU to return to the federal spirit and the renewal of liberal ideas in a federalist key considering the EU’s current political context. The Manifesto proposed the creation of a “United States of Europe” as a solution to avoid future conflicts on the continent and to promote peace and prosperity through greater political and economic integration between European nations (D’Auria, 2011). The document, which has had a major impact on the federalist movement (Vayssière, 2005), is still a roadmap towards an unfinished project in today’s EU, threatened in its cohesion and unity by internal – populists – and external actors – autocrats. The Manifesto’s principles and ideals might serve as a guide to strengthen the European integration process and face the current challenges with determination and common vision.

In his preface, anti-fascist Italian philosopher Eugenio Colorni cautioned against merely rearranging populations after the Second World War, advocating instead for a genuine European Federation, more advanced than the ineffective League of Nations. Mindful of the 1930s they experienced, Spinelli and Rossi argued that an integralist principle of non-intervention among European nations was absurd; and no country should freely opt for an authoritarian regime – as this would have, as it had, dramatic consequences for its neighbors. Thus, they emphasized the need to establish a new transnational political entity, a European Federation. Colorni called for the establishment of a unified federal army, a single currency, the elimination of customs barriers and migration restrictions between states, representation of citizens in federal institutions, and a cohesive foreign policy.

There is little point in listing the Manifesto’s achieved and unachieved policies, as the world today is significantly different from the mid-1940s’. It is rather useful instead to focus on the major insights set out by the authors and to understand how these can be adapted today and how they can benefit the European governance. At the Manifesto’s core lies the principle of freedom and the four liberties – free movement of goods, people, capitals, and services. For Spinelli and Rossi, a free and united Europe represented the path to rekindling the development of modern civilization oriented on liberal democracy. They envisioned a federal union enhanced by the close cooperation among member states, democratic representation for European citizens, and an unwavering respect for the continent’s cultural diversity.

The authors started by proposing to overcome territorial selfishness, both at the national and European levels, and to eliminate obstacles to the free movement of people and goods. They aspired to a reduction of state interference in citizens’ lives, openly criticizing authoritarian approaches (2006 [1944]). A significant section of the Manifesto addresses economic issues. The authors argued that given the global economic interconnectedness, the entire world has become the living space for people eager to maintain a modern way of life. In an age of economic interdependence, the authors argued, trade wars are counterproductive and unnecessary. Rossi and Spinelli highlighted how the total nationalization of the economy was seen as a liberating utopia by the working classes; however, once realized, it did not lead to the desired goal, but rather to a system in which the population is subservient to the bureaucratic managerial class.

A Europe that is truly free and ready to face future challenges is also one that values the free market and assigns the state an appropriate role, one that does not see it as a protagonist in the lives of citizens. On these notes, without mentioning it, the Manifesto was to designate federalist liberalism as the way forward for a future European construction – not by chance, both federalism and liberalism champion individual freedom, advocate for the autonomy of local communities, checks and balances. Federalist liberalism aims to strike a harmonious balance between the sovereignty of member states, and prioritizes safeguarding individual rights, while fostering economic growth and welfare. Within this framework, European federalism emerges as an indispensable system for securing peace, stability, and progress across the continent, harmonizing the individual nations’ autonomy with collaborative efforts at the European level.

The federalist vision of a united, free, and democratic Europe shines as a beacon of hope, and serves as both compass and inspiration. The Manifesto’s relevance endures today for several reasons, each aligning with five EU’s key priorities: an effective European Federation, the emphasis on peace and democracy, the spirit of solidarity, the quest for a shared European identity, and the promotion of democratic governance.

The vision of a European Federation has seen significant realization with the gradual formation of today’s EU. Given today’s global challenges, there’s an amplified need for increased integration and cooperation among EU member states. But most of all, there is still much to be done in terms of the EU’s efficiency and integration (Schimmelfennig et al.,2023) – for example fiscal union, cooperation in the energy sector, policies for high-tech companies. Today’s EU needs Spinelli’s and Rossi’ enthusiasm to reinvigorate, enhancing cohesion and cross-collaboration among its member states. It is in times of change that the concept of a European Federation might renew its significance. While deepening integration in key areas like defense, health, and foreign policy will pave the way for more effective EU as local and global actor. Just as in the early days of the European Community, when nations pooled coal and steel within the supranational organization European Coal and Steel Community (Glockner-Rittberger, 2012).

Secondly, the Manifesto underscored the pivotal role of peace and democracy in averting conflicts and ensuring the citizens’ welfare. Peace in Europe is not a given; and it is indispensable for forging a united and prosperous Europe. However, geopolitical tensions, regional crises, and autocratic and terrorist threats still test the continent’s security. Thus, upholding democratic values and fostering unity among European nations remain crucial for peace and stability. There cannot be peace without rule of law. European-style democracy is not merely a political system; it embodies a set of values, principles, and rights safeguarding well-being and freedom. But again: without the rule of law, democracy is also vacuous. It is from freedom that peace and democracy are achieved, not the other way around. See, for example, the accession of some former Warsaw Pact countries to the European Community in 2004: only under conditions of freedom they were able to develop a modern economy and liberal democracy, thus true peace, and welfare.

Solidarity is emphasized in the Manifesto as a vital principle binding the peoples of Europe together and it continues to resonate in today’s European political discourse. Solidarity – an ethical guideline and element of integration – is a hidden principle of federalist liberalism: the better-off helps the weaker – not only out of a spirit of charity, but because it may be in its interest to deal with partners in the best conditions to cooperate. Effective solidarity transcends national divisions. A unified response from EU member states, solidarity is also sharing responsibility in the current challenges. It encompasses respecting human rights, but it is also pivotal in the economic sphere as well, fostering also growth, dignity, and prosperity.

The Ventotene Manifesto advocated for a European identity rooted in shared values, cultures, and a common historical legacy. Federalist liberalism would preach that fostering European identity might be an answer to rising nationalism. The concept of European identity is not necessarily at odds with the idea of nationhood and national identity. It offers a pathway to a united yet open and uncertain future, complementing – and not substituting – national identities. It offers a shared platform where diverse European cultures and traditions coexist, fostering mutual enrichment and collaboration. While the European identity has been and still is object of debate (Wallace-Strømsnes, 2008), the European identity is an identity among other global identities. It is on this common ground that European states came together and federated; and today it needs further integration via a new European governance model (Kaplan, 2018).

A fifth element is a governance system grounded in democratic principles and transparency. Amid ongoing critiques of EU bureaucracy, the Manifesto – again – offers valuable perspectives on this. The transparency of European institutions cannot only be a matter of fact but must also be perceived by the population (Brandsma, 2019, Font-Pérez-Durán, 2022). Such a governance framework would prioritize European citizens’ democratic representation and their interests, ensuring that European-level decisions resonate with people’s interests and values. Transparency empowers citizens with access to information and involve them in decision-making processes, expanding their rights, bolstering the legitimacy and efficacy of European institutions to get the new European governance more efficient and accountable.

Today the Manifesto underscores the significance of a free and open society, a fundamental framework cherishing individual freedom, market economy, and the rule of law. The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism. Spinelli and Rossi could not have imagined today’s EU, which has made huge strides from post-World War Two Europe, but they wanted a transnational and social, open, and transparent European federalist movement.

The Manifesto stands as a symbol of the quest for a European identity anchored in cooperation, unity, and solidarity. Federalist liberalism not only represents a perfect synthesis between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism, but it might reinvigorate the current EU. Spinelli and Rossi envisioned a federation as the output of a new governance. However, the realization of this project has been gradual, and the journey remains unfinished. The Ventotene Manifesto is not only a historical reference point, but also a source of inspiration and a call to action for who believe in the European project. It is a reminder of the need to overcome national divisions and to work together to enhance a united, free, and prosperous Europe. It offers both a history lesson and a roadmap for the future. Its federalist viewpoint, rooted in liberal and democratic principles, is still valid today for us to recognize the compatibility of cooperation and freedom.


 

References

Brandsma, Gijs J. (2019). “Transparency of EU informal trilogues through public feedback in the European Parliament: promise unfulfilled.” Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 26, Issue 10, pp. 1464-1483, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2018.1528295 

Coudenhove-Kalergi, Richard Nicolaus. (1997 [1923]). Pan-Europa. Un grande progetto per l’Europa unita. Rimini: Il Cerchio Iniziative Editoriali.

D’Auria, Matthew. (2011). “The Ventotene manifesto: The crisis of the nation state and the political identity of Europe.” In: Spiering, Menno; Wintle, Michael (Ed.). European identity and the second world war. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Font, Nuria; Pérez-Durán, Ixchel. (2022). “Legislative Transparency in the European Parliament: Disclosing Legislators’ Meetings with Interest Groups.” Journal of Comon Market Studies. Volume 61, Issue 2, pp. 379-296, 10.1111/jcms.13371.

Glockner, Iris; Rittberger, Berthold. (2012). “The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Defence Community (EDC) Treaties.” In: Laursen, Fin (Ed.). Designing the European Union. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kaplan, Yılmaz (2018). “(Re)considering sovereignty in the European integration process.” Asian Journal of German and European Studies. Volume 3, Issue 1, DOI: 10.1186/s40856-017-0023-4.

Roberts, Kenneth M. (2022). “Populism and Polarization in Comparative Perspective: Constitutive, Spatial and Institutional Dimensions.” Government and Opposition. Volume 57, Issue 4, pp. 680-702, DOI: 10.1017/gov.2021.14.

Schimmelfennig, Frank; Leuffen, Dirk; De Vries, Caterine. E. (2023). “Differentiated integration in the European Union: Institutional effects, public opinion, and alternative flexibility arrangements.” European Union Politics. Volume 24, Issue 1, pp. 3-20, DOI: 10.1177/14651165221119083.

Schmidt, Vivien A. (2016). “The ‘new’ EU governance: ‘new’ intergovernmentalism versus ‘new’ supranationalism plus ‘new’ parliamentarism.” Les Cahiers du Cevipol. Volume 5, pp. 5-31.

Spinelli, Altiero; Rossi, Ernesto. (2006 [1944]). Il Manifesto di Ventotene. Milan: Mondadori.

Vayssière, Bertrand. (2005). “Le manifeste de Ventotene (1941) : acte de naissance du fédéralisme européen.” Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains. Volume 217, Issue 1, pp. 69-76, DOI: 10.3917/gmcc.217.0069.

Wallace, Claire; Strømsnes, Kristin. (2008). “Introduction: European Identities.” Perspectives on European Politics and Society. Volume 9, Issue 4, pp. 378-380, DOI: 10.1080/15705850802416762 

The demonstration "Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, calls for the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving the FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections 

Please cite as:

Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat & Smith, Chloe. (2024). “Use of Informal Sharia Law for Civilizational Populist Mobilization in the 2024 Indonesian Elections.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0035   

 

Abstract

The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia. Its religious and political blueprints have been a challenge to the elites in power. In 2017 and 2019, it was involved in the contest of electoral politics to fight against the elites by implementing the populist politics that tends to undermine the democratic process. As a result, it was banned in 2020 but re-established a year later. In 2024 elections, it supports for Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar to compete against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD. The findings suggest that by applying the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI instrumentalizes the informal religious law to support its political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of “sharia,” which gives the FPI’s activists and its wider audience only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. We arguably state that the informal religious law can contribute to the process of Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

By Hasnan BachtiarKainat Shakil Chloe Smith

Introduction

The Defenders Front of Islam or the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is an Islamist civilizational populist movement in Indonesia (Barton et al., 2021; Yilmaz et al., 2022). It was born on August 17, 1998, in Jakarta when the country was undergoing political reform and transition from authoritarian to democracy. The FPI emerged as an Islamist movement that upholds the mission of fighting against immorality such as thuggery, prostitution, alcohols, drugs, gambling, and other street evils, while other Muslim organizations did not spread the Islamic messages in this level (Facal, 2020). In addition, when immorality tended to increase crime during the Reformasi, the police were seen as unable to solve the social problem (Jahroni, 2004: 222-227). To carry out its religious mission, the FPI has frequently implemented violent and vigilante methods to ensure the safety of society.

The FPI wants to Islamize state and society. It desires Indonesia to be a modern state based on the Islamic sharia. It’s ideal, similar to that of the Islamist party Masyumi (1943-1960), is to install the Islamist phrases in the first principles of the state, Pancasila. The FPI wants to transform the principle of “Belief in one Almighty God” (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa) to become “Belief in one Almighty God with the obligation to carry out the sharia Islam for its adherents.” In 2002, the FPI attempted to transform (Islamize) constitution, but failed (Wilson, 2015). However, it has maintained its ideal persistently by implementing the Islamization of society. In 2012, its top leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab published his book “Wawasan Kebangsaan Menuju NKRI Bersyariah” (The National State of Mind towards the Shariatized NKRI/Indonesia). This book presents the FPI’s thoughts on Islamist politics, suggesting that the Islamist struggle is crucial to establishing a religious society. Accordingly, some scholars identify the FPI as the Islamist populist movement (Hadiz, 2016; Hadiz and Robison, 2017; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2020). 

The FPI’s Islamist da’wa blueprints have been a challenge to the government. In 2016, the FPI was involved in the cross-class alliances of the populist rally that brought together more than five hundred thousand masses to oust Ahok (a Hakka name for Basuki Tjahaya Purnama) a Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta. At the time, Rizieq was hailed by the populists as their “Grand Imam” (Imam Besar), leading the pure people in their fight against the corrupt elites. As a result, the FPI’s chosen leader, Anies Baswedan had won the chairmanship of the capital in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Bachtiar, 2023a). With Ahok having the backing of President Jokowi, the FPI was also forging a message that the central government is the next target to be overthrown. In the 2019 election, the FPI endorsed Jokowi’s rival, a retired Indonesia special forces general, Prabowo. 

The government banned the FPI in 2020 because of the issue of its relationship with the Islamist extremist groups and its radical campaign to Islamize the republic (Yilmaz et al., 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). In addition, its leader, Rizieq was imprisoned for violating the health quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic, although he was released on parole in July 2022. Since then, the police have continued to prohibit the FPI’s political actions both in the public sphere and the cyber space. In January 2021, however, the neo-FPI was reborn, changing its name to the Front of Islamic Brotherhood or Front Persaudaraan Islam (FPI) (Tsauro & Taufiq, 2023; Taufiq & Tsauro, 2024). In this new form, Rizieq handed over leadership to his son-in-law, a young and charismatic Muslim preacher, Muhammad Husein al-Attas. In the 2024 Indonesian elections, the FPI backed Anies to run as one of the presidential candidates. Even after its dissolution, the FPI still can play a crucial role in the country’s electoral politics. 

This paper aims to analyze the role of the FPI in the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia. We argue that by implementing the Islamist civilizational populism, the FPI is instrumentalizing the informal religious law to support its populist political mobilization. It emphasizes the legal-centric perspective of sharia, which gives the FPI’s supporters and the public only one imperative option to solve the problem: join in the populism. It is in line with the populist promise that populism is the only solution to the crises. The subsequent section discusses the theory of Islamist civilizational populism and informal religious law. It is followed by the context of the 2024 elections in Indonesia, the FPI’s Islamist civilizational populism, and the FPI’s instrumentalization of the informal religious law in its Islamist civilizational populist mobilization. 

Islamist Civilizational Populism and Informal Religious Law

The mass demonstration “Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on December 18, 2020, demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and an investigation into the shooting incident involving FPI members. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti.

Populism, theoretically, is non-monolithic. There are many definitions of it. In this paper, however, we use the minimal definition of populism that is developed further by Yilmaz and Morieson (2023) which includes not only the vertical element of populism but also its horizontal element so-called civilizationism as a thicker ideology that contributes to the populist identification of ‘self’ and ‘the other.’ They define civilizational populism as a set of ideas that collectively hold that politics must serve the people’s general will, and that “society is ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ who collaborate with the ‘dangerous others’ belonging to other civilizations and who pose a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2023: 4). 

In civilizational populism, the role of religion is crucial. It is because civilizationism highly frequently includes religious aspects such as particularly informal religious law (Yilmaz, 2022). It is the law that the religious society has implemented in an informal way beyond the legal system of the state. Accordingly, we define this informal religious law “as a legal entity outside the formal legal system of a state, and the people of that state uphold and respect this law as it governs all aspects of their lives.” In the context of Muslim society, this informal religious law can be sharia and the other legal entities derived from it such as fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and fatwa (Islamic legal opinion), as the sharia is considered the most significant source of guidance for the lives of Muslims (Yilmaz, 2022: 20). Sharia also contributes significantly to shaping the legal centric perspective among Muslims (Said, 1994).  

The Context of the 2024 Elections in Indonesia

There are three pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the 2024 elections in Indonesia. The first is Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), while the second and the third are Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming Raka and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD respectively. 

In the 2019 elections, the FPI supported Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno to compete against Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin. At that time, Prabowo-Sandi was defeated. However, after the FPI experienced political difficulties – the dissolution of the organization, the imprisonment of its leader, the death of its six laskars – Prabowo accepted the Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinets. Prabowo was appointed Defense Minister. This led the FPI to perceive Prabowo as betraying the ummah including in the context of the 2024 elections. 

Prabowo’s running mate, Gibran, is the son of Jokowi. Ganjar Pranowo, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), backed Jokowi in both the 2014 and 2019 elections. Mahfud MD, Jokowi’s Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs, has aligned with Ganjar’s candidacy. Despite their prior support for Jokowi’s administration, Ganjar and Mahfud oppose the Prabowo-Gibran ticket because they perceive Jokowi’s endorsement of his son’s candidacy as a bid to extend his political influence (Bachtiar, 2023b).

The FPI’s support for AMIN is strengthened by the political frauds allegedly committed by the Prabowo-Gibran camp, especially through Jokowi’s political power. These include the perpetuation of Jokowi’s political dynasty, legal manipulation by the Constitutional Court, abuse of authority and power as a state official, and vote counting fraud (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b; Slater, 2024).

The FPI’s Islamist Civilizational Populism

The FPI is an Islamist civilizational populist movement that is considered still influential in shaping the political dynamics of the Indonesia’s 2024 election. This movement plays a crucial role in supporting one of the pairs of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN), who are competing with Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD, and mainly Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka. 

Although all the candidates tend to build their image as pro-diversity nationalists, the FPI helps promote AMIN as the pious leaders of the ummah. The FPI’s image-building of AMIN purposes at retaining the Islamist voters and attracting the public attention, as most of the country’s population is Muslim. 

By supporting AMIN, the FPI produces Islamist civilizational populist narratives and rhetoric that guarantee its populist identification of “the self” and “the other” to distinguish those who are on the side of the ummah from those who are not. Accordingly, the FPI defines certain boundaries between those who can be identified as Islamist civilizational populists and those who are their adversaries. 

The FPI perceives that AMIN’s opponents are its populist enemies. They are the other electoral candidates that have been supported by “corrupt elites.” The FPI directs its identification towards Ganjar-Mahfud, Prabowo-Gibran, and their backers. Ganjar-Mahfud has been proposed by the winning political party in the last election, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), which is also a political force that recommended the banning of the FPI. Meanwhile, Prabowo-Gibran has been supported by incumbent president Jokowi, who backed Ahok, the FPI’s most hated political figure in the 2017 gubernatorial election (Yilmaz et al., 2024a; Yilmaz et al., 2024b). 

The two enemies of the FPI, the PDIP politicians and Jokowi, had been working together in the context of the 2019 elections. The FPI perceives them as the corrupt elites who have invited foreign powers such as the West and China to participate in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources (Yilmaz et al., 2022). Those powers, as the FPI claimed, are categorized as the dangerous others. 

The FPI’s view of the corrupt elites and its civilizational enemies is reflected in a statement by one of its leaders, Munarman: “Currently, we are witnessing that those who are in power, are those who are anti-Islam, anti-Islamic teachings, anti-Muslims, and even accuse the teachings of Islam of being a lie. In terms of global geopolitics, we should not hope for anyone, because it is precisely the power of the White Wolf (the West) that has been a place of dependence for compradors, foreign accomplices. Indonesia has been in contact with the White Wolf. Now the compradors are also accomplices of the Red Dragon (China)” (Munarman, 2016). 

Since then, as well as in the context of the 2024 elections, according to the FPI, the elites have involved the Muslim ummah’s civilizational enemies (the dangerous others) in the social, cultural, political, and economic destructiveness, primarily in a way of undermining the ummah’s general will. The FPI claims that because of the civilizational threats of foreign forces, the ummah have remained marginalized with no access to economic resources or social welfare.

FPI’s Instrumentalization of the Informal Religious Law in Its Islamist Civilizational Populist Mobilization 

The Grand Imam of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Habib Rizieq Shihab, upon his arrival in Jakarta on November 10, 2020. Photo: Angga Budhiyanto.

In its mission to combat perceived threats against the ummah, the FPI actively urges its activists and the public to participate in its populist agenda. The FPI frames this mission as a religious obligation, asserting that it is incumbent (wajib) upon Muslims to engage in it. We contend that the FPI strategically utilizes informal religious laws such as sharia, fiqh, and fatwa to ensure the success of its Islamist populist mobilization efforts.

The FPI employs informal religious law through three primary methods: Firstly, it implements a legal-centric perspective in applying its Islamist doctrine of “commanding good and forbidding evil” (amar ma’ruf nahi munkar), particularly in its populist political struggle. Additionally, the FPI mobilizes the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in electing leaders, often based on outcomes from deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ijtima’ Ulama. Lastly, the FPI rallies its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

First, the FPI perceives politics as the arena for its religious struggle in which this Islamist civilizational populist movement must implement its Islamist doctrine of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. This doctrine urges Muslims to command good and at the same time to forbid evil. It is rooted in the Islamic scripture, Surah Ali Imran verse 104, “And let there be among you a group of people who call to virtue, commanding the good and forbidding the evil; they are the fortunate ones.” Other verses such as Ali Imran 110 and 114, Al-Araf 157, Al-Taubah 71, Al-Haj 41, and Al-Luqman 17 substantively also emphasize this doctrine. According to the FPI’s top leader, Rizieq Shihab, the level of obligation to implement amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is fardu ‘ain (individual obligation) for those in authority, and fardu kifayah(communal obligation) for those who are not (Shihab, 2024). When the authority undermines his or her obligation, however, it becomes the duty of everyone in the Muslim community, including the FPI, to conduct the amar ma’ruf nahi munkar. Therefore, in order to implement it, it is imperative to emphasize the fight against the populist enemies in the context of the electoral politics. 

Second, the FPI trusts the informal religious institution that enables “Islamist” scholars (ulama) from across the country to engage in the collective Islamic legal reasoning (ijtihad) to find a solution to the political problem and select the best leaders from among the available candidates. On November 18, 2023, in the Adz Dzikro Mosque, Sentul, Bogor, West Java, the Ijtima’ Ulama concluded their ijtihad and decided that AMIN was the candidate to vote for (Faktakini, 2023). Rizieq Shihab claims that the result of the Ijtima’ Ulama is based on the Islamic practice of deliberative consultation (musyawarah) which is commanded by God. At length, he expresses his thought that: 

“In matters of struggle, including social and political matters, we have upheld musyawarah. First of all, musyawarah is a command from Allah in the Qur’an. Allah says, ‘wa shawirhum fi al-amri,’ inviting them to deliberate on important matters, especially for the benefit of many people. In another verse, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala makes deliberation the identity of the believers. Allah says, ‘wa amruhum shura’ bainahum,’ meaning that the affairs of the believers are discussed among themselves. …So, decisions made by musyawarah, that’s the advantage, Insha Allah, will be much better than personal decisions because many opinions are taken into account. And that’s not all. Decisions made through musyawarah become a shared responsibility. So, even if there are mistakes or shortcomings in the future, we won’t point fingers (not blame anyone). But if it’s a personal decision, it can be pointed at (personally blamed). That’s the advantage of reflection. And musyawarah is because of Allah’s command, if we carry it out, it will be blessed. Well, a blessed decision, God willing, is not wrong. That is why many people have asked me, what is our attitude towards the 2024 presidential elections? I have answered that I am waiting for the decision of the Ijtima’ Ulama,” (Shihab 2023). 

Based on this FPI’s informal religious law, one of its leaders, Hanif Alatas had mobilized the FPI supporters and the public in various religious assemblies across the country. He strongly promoted the Ijtima’ Ulama’s decision to vote for AMIN. He stated that: “Are you ready to follow the command of the ulama? Are you ready to follow the ulama who are highly consistent (istiqamah)? Are you ready to follow the direction of the Ijtima’ Ulama? We obey the Ijtima’ Ulama! 2024, Anies becomes the president. Takbir!!!” (Alatas, 2024). Ultimately, the FPI organized the massive religious gathering (Istighotsah Kubro) at Benyamin Suaeb Stadium, Kemayoran, Central Jakarta on February 8, 2024, to mobilize Islamist masses to vote for AMIN. 

Third, by using the informal religious law, the FPI mobilizes its supporters and the public to fight against its enemies that who are allegedly involved in political fraud. Rizieq Shihab calls on the masses to fight the political fraud that is taking place, while at the same time building mass confidence that the pure ummah can win against Ahok in the 2017 gubernatorial election, despite not being supported by a large political force. According to Rizieq Shihab, the FPI’s resistance to political fraud and confidence in implementing amar ma’ruf nahi munkar is part of an effort to uphold the sharia. He said:

“Well, because of that, if you want AMIN (Anies-Muhaimin) to win, that’s why I invite you, let’s fight fraud. …Don’t be afraid if there are other candidates supported by economic power, political power… We have experience in Jakarta. In Jakarta, when we fought Ahok, what did we have? …Ahok was supported by the President, supported by the Chief of Police, supported by the TNI Commander, supported by all mainstream TV media, supported by major parties, supported by Taipan conglomerates, supported by the Nine Dragons, supported by survey institutions, brothers. … Those who supported Anis at that time were only parties, brother, whose votes were actually not as big as the parties that supported Ahok. Ahok was backed by foreign powers, brother. On paper, Ahok won. But what happened after that? It turned out that God’s will was different. …Allah Subhanahu wa taala still forced Ahok to resign. The Muslims won, brother. Right? Takbir!!! If we obey Allah, we don’t have to worry. ‘Intansurullah, yansurkum.’ If you defend Allah, uphold His law, uphold His sharia, ‘yansurkum,’ surely Allah will win you all this. Allah’s promise is sure to be true, Allah’s promise is impossible to miss, ya Ikhwan!” (Shihab, 2024b). 

The FPI accused the Prabowo-Gibran political carriage of fraud because they are backed by Jokowi who has committed abuses of power as a state official. Gibran, Jokowi’s son, does not actually meet the requirements of the election law to run for vice-president, mainly because he is under 40. As a result, the Prabowo-Gibran political force filed a judicial review with the Constitutional Court to change the age for vice-presidential candidacy. They managed to change this requirement, especially as the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court is Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law. Their success is suspected to have been due to a collusive and nepotistic practice that manipulated the country’s highest judicial system. In addition, according to the FPI, Jokowi used his social, political, and economic resources to support his son. Jokowi ordered his ministers, police and military chiefs and other officials to mobilize the masses to ensure they voted for Prabowo-Gibran. In addition, they (state officials) were also mobilized to distribute social aid to society, which certainly contained certain political messages in favor of Prabowo-Gibran’s victory. 

Conclusion

Despite its disbandment in 2020, the FPI underwent a resurgence as a similar Islamist civilizational populist movement in early 2021, emerging as a significant extra-parliamentary force in Indonesia’s 2024 elections. Endorsing Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar (AMIN) as the presidential and vice-presidential candidates against Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabumin and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD, the FPI positioned itself prominently. Its support for AMIN stems from its perception of the other candidates and their supporters as populist political adversaries. Specifically, the FPI identifies the Prabowo-Gibran political alliance, endorsed by Jokowi, as representing corrupt elites who allegedly align with dangerous external influences, particularly Western powers and China, posing a threat to the ummah’s civilization.

We contend that in mobilizing its supporters during the 2024 elections, the FPI utilized informal religious law, encompassing sharia, fiqh, and fatwa. The FPI employed this legal framework in three keyways: Firstly, it adopted a law-centric approach in applying the principle of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, particularly within its political activism. Secondly, the FPI mobilized the masses by advocating adherence to Sharia principles in selecting leaders, often guided by deliberative consultations (musyawarah) among Ulama during Ijtima’ gatherings. Thirdly, the FPI rallied its supporters and the public to combat alleged political fraud perpetrated by its adversaries.

We also arguably state that the FPI uses informal religious law as an ideological expression that helps its populist mobilization. This has to do with the legalistic nature of sharia law, which has nuances of halal (permissible) and haram(forbidden) or black and white. Furthermore, according to the FPI’s sharia-centric perspective, politics tends to be positioned as a field of da’wah (religious proselytization). Thus, for the FPI, politics must have a religious mission. If there is a concept of Islamic politics, then in this context it is sharia-based populist politics. 

So far, in the case of the FPI in Indonesia, we have seen this as part and parcel of Islamist civilizational populism. However, is this also the case for other civilizational populist movements elsewhere in the world?


 

Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025). 


 

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residential candidate Prabowo Subianto delivers a speech at a campaign event in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 19, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect 

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Please cite as:
Smith, Chloe; Bachtiar, Hasnan; Shakil, Kainat; Morieson, Nicholas & de Groot Heupner, Susan. (2024). “Appealing to a Religiously Defined ‘the People’: How Religion Was Performatively Operationalized in the 2019 and 2024 Election Campaigns of Indonesia’s President-Elect.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 25, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0034   

 

Abstract

Observers widely acknowledged the lack of divisive Islamist populism in Indonesia’s 2024 Presidential Elections. This was in stark contrast to the 2019 elections in which Prabowo Subianto, the case study of this article and new leader of Indonesia, led a campaign that overtly supported Islamist interests and actors, and deepened religio-ethnic tensions in society. Despite this acknowledgement, it remains unclear if religion was still operationalized – albeit differently – in his most recent campaigning efforts. This article therefore seeks to examine if religion was politicized and performed by Prabowo in 2024 and contrast the findings with 2019 to address how and why his instrumentalization of religion varied significantly. Applying a discursive-performative lens, discourse analysis will be used to determine if and how religion featured in a sample of Prabowo Subianto’s speeches (six speeches in total, three from each election campaign). Specifically, this analysis will explore how references to religion and a religious community reflect a) his political goals and b) the political community he is attempting to engage. It will also discuss these findings in the context of contemporary populism studies. 

By Chloe Smith, Hasnan Bachtiar, Kainat Shakil, Nicholas Morieson & Susan de Groot Heupner

Introduction: Religion in Populist Campaigning

Although there has been significant progress in recent years, the study of religious populism in non-Western democratic campaigning remains underdeveloped (Sumiala et al., 2023; Zuquete, 2017; Beuter et al, 2023). This is an important gap to address, because understanding the role of religion in electoral politics is important when religion and religious majoritarianism are tightly entangled in national identity, culture, and society and resulting in an inherently more complex phenomenon (Yabanci, 2020: 93; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). 

Electoral campaigns in these countries may feature both exclusionary populist appeals in which the religiously defined in-group is often used as a juxtaposition with ‘evil’ elites and ‘others’ (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018). What has been examined less, particularly in empirical research, is the politicization of religion to link together and homogenize a range of interests and identities (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001), influence the perception of the leader, and create enthusiasm for their political mission.

Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election – and its winner – provides a fascinating account of the instrumentalization of religion in political campaigning. To better understand Indonesia’s new leader and how he may command over the county’s religio-political space, this article considers Prabowo Subianto’s populist orientation toward Islamism in 2019 and compares it with his use of religion in 2024’s campaign, when Islamist rhetoric was notably absent. This has not yet been addressed adequately, nor supported by empirical research, although the change has been widely observed in political commentaries of the recent election (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024). 

A Brief Note on Indonesia’s Recent Religious-Political Context

In cases of Islamist populism, researchers have found that ‘the people’ are a collectivized identity group (‘pious Muslims’) consisting of a range of Muslim identities and interests that are grouped together and politicized (Susanto, 2019; Hadiz, 2018). In Indonesia, the literature indicates that in recent history, a range of actors have interacted with or influenced religious populism in Indonesia: from politicians and parties, social media influencers and online preachers, through to grassroots movements and organizations (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021; Kayane, 2020; Widian et al., 2022). 

In 2019, Prabowo Subianto constructed his political image, narratives, and performances in response to the socio-political tensions that had been heightening for some time in Indonesia. Although beyond the limitations of this article to explain in detail, it is suffice to note here that polarization in recent years had been exacerbated by various populist and extreme actors who used religion to inflame tensions, push for social and political change, and destabilize conditions for religious minorities (Mietzner, 2020; Widian et al., 2022; Temby, 2019). 

The most notable period of intensification occurred during the ‘anti-Ahok’ mass protest movement, born in the lead up to the 2017 gubernational elections. The then Christian-Chinese governor of Jakarta, Busaki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’) was accused of blasphemy after citing a single verse from the Qur’an, and this shared grievance brought together a range of Islamist actors and many Indonesians in a significant period of populist mobilization (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2018; Jaffrey, 2021: 224-225). Mietzner (2020) notes that Prabowo attached himself to this mobilization event, and incorporated Islamist populism and Islamist actors into his campaigning effort. Operationalizing religious populism in his election campaign, Prabowo became a highly influential player in one of the most divisive political contestations in Indonesia’s history (Ismail & Koh, 2024). 

This article contributes to the developing field of religious populism by studying its manifestation in the discourses and performances of Prabowo Subianto in the last two Indonesian elections (2019 and 2024). In both election cycles, Prabowo makes references to religion and conveys religious meaning to the audience he is seeking support from. Yet, scholars widely agree that in 2019, Prabowo used Islamist populism to further his political agenda, mobilize supporters and exploit religio-ethnic tensions in Indonesia (Mietzner, 2020; Hadiz, 2018; Barton et al., 2021). In 2024 however, observers noted that Prabowo refrained from religious populism’s polarizing and antagonistic accounts of people in society (Ismail & Koh, 2024; Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Rozy, 2024), although there is little written about his broader incorporation – or eradication – of religion in his most recent political performances. 

Equally, by using Indonesia as a case study, this article underlines how religious populism in the socio-political context of more religious societies usually presents quite differently from democracies of the secularized Western variety (Wawrzynski & Marszalek-Kawa, 2022: 2; Falki, 2022: 227).

Methodology

This research employs a deductive qualitative approach, in which the theoretical framework of this paper will guide the analysis of collected data (Widian et al., 2022: 354). Discourse analysis will be used to identify and compare the rhetorical religious elements of a sample of Prabowo’s communications. 

The article will ultimately explore how Prabowo’s political style has pivoted away from an exclusionary religious populist style – and what it can teach us about the under-studied role of religion in electoral campaigning. 

Sample Data Collection

This article will use a sample of Prabowo’s campaign speeches which were selected based on a number of considerations, including: Prabowo discussing his campaign and policies, the length of the speech – longer speeches were favored because they provided more data to analyze, and speeches that occurred shortly (in the three months maximum prior) before the election when a leader is likely to most powerfully perform their political persona. 

Sample 1: Prabowo’s official national speech, ‘Indonesia Menang’ at the Jakarta Convention Center, Jakarta, 2019. 

Sample 2: Opening campaign speech in Kotabaru, Gondokusuman – Yogyakarta, 2019.

Sample 3: Prabowo. CNN Indonesia. Pidato Berapi-Api GBK, 2019. 

Sample 4: Prabowo’s political speech in Stadion Gelora Bandung, Bandung, West Java, on February 8, 2024.

Sample 5:  The People Party for the Progress of Indonesia (Pesta Rakyat untuk Indonesia Maju) in Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) Stadium, Senayan, Jakarta, February 10, 2024. 

Sample 6: Prabowo Subianto’s speech at a volunteer consolidation event at the Pekanbaru Youth Center, Riau, 2024. 

Data Analysis

Each author contributing to this research is familiar with and currently undertaking scholarship into the context of Indonesia and Indonesian politics, and religious populism. Our analyses have been guided by our understanding of the socio-political context these speeches have been presented in. One contributor is a native Indonesian and has assisted in ensuring the integrity of the transcribed and translated speeches. 

The four speeches were read in full several times before selecting the passages that have been used for the following analyses. These passages were selected based on their relationship with key themes of religion, religious populism, and religious association. This process resulted in the identification of certain key narrative themes, which the passages have been categorized under below. 

References to God, Prophet Muhammad, and Religion

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.

In all sets of 2019 and 2024 speeches, Prabowo references Islam as a shared religion with the Indonesian people, and in each case, he opens with an Islamic greeting to the crowd. 

In the 2019 speeches, Prabowo drew attention to his personal affinity with God and religion.  In sample one (2019), he frames his concluding comments by declaring himself “a proud son of the nation and of Islam.” Similarly, in sample two (2019), he greets the crowd and immediately declares himself a Muslim: 

“I pray that Yogyakarta is in a state of health and well-being. As a Muslim, let us send prayers and peace to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, who has enlightened us all.”

Populism often involves the personalization of politics, where voters connect with a political actor and their representation rather than strictly the set of policies and party affiliation they have (Soare, 2017; Weyland, 2017). In the above examples, Prabowo is drawing attention to himself as a Muslim and son of Islam, which supports his attempts at presenting himself as a pious religious figure throughout the 2019 campaign, and as will be demonstrated below, the savior of Indonesia. 

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo demonstrates this personalization again and links his happiness with serving the Indonesian people. He owes this to God for providing him with the opportunity to serve:

“And I invite all my friends to do the same. We are devoted, we serve the state and the nation and the people. And I am already 68 years old. The Almighty has given me too much. I am determined. The rest of my life is for the people of Indonesia. My happiness, my joy, if I can see the wealth of Indonesia returning to the people of Indonesia. I am happy.”

In one of the 2024 sample speeches (sample 4), Prabowo ends his speech with a prayer:

“I close my remarks with my prayer, I pray for the presence of Allah, subhanahu wa taala, God the Great, God the Almighty, who rules all the worlds. It is only to You that we pray, only to You that we ask for help. O Allah, O Lord, give us strength, amen, so that we are strong to receive the mandate from the people of Indonesia, so that we have the ability, wisdom, intelligence, courage, honesty, sincerity to protect the people of Indonesia … O Allah, give us the strength, give us the power to continue to be loyal to the nation and the people of Indonesia, amen. Thank you, O Allah, thank you for everything you have given, thank you for your favor, thank you for all the gifts you have given. Thank you. Wassalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.”

This prayer frames the Prabowo and the audience as collective Muslims who are seeking the right direction for Indonesia from God. While the sincerity of this prayer is not for our judgement, we can comment that religion is politicized to create unity and to frame Prabowo’s seeking of power as a holy and pious mission. 

In sample 6 (2024) Prabowo expresses moral absolutisms of right, wrong and evil to highlight the virtuous path he is on: 

“I got teachings from my ustaz-ustaz, from my kiai-kiai, from my teachers. If you are insulted, if you are mocked, if you are slandered, return it to the almighty. I believe that right is right, wrong is wrong, evil is evil, I continue on the right path, I have no doubt, O God, O Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.”

The Discursive Construction of Crisis, Breakdown, and Threat

The sample speeches show Prabowo constructing a rhetorical crisis to a much greater degree in 2019 than he did in 2024 campaigning. Although these passages are not always inherently related to religion, the analysis will demonstrate how these crises can be used to augment an image of saviorhood by the political actor from ‘evil’ elites, which tends to lean on religious ideals and association. 

A key narrative theme in the 2019 samples is that Indonesia is weak, threatened and at a crucial crossroads for its survival. This is most pronounced in the first sample, in which he shares a tragic story of a farm laborer and father who died by suicide because of the burden of his debts, and of the one in three Indonesian children who are malnourished, the ordinary people who can’t afford to live, and the debt Indonesia keeps accruing on a global scale. In the second sample, Prabowo evocatively claims that “our country is sick” and “Mother Earth is being raped” and “the rights of people are being trampled on.”

This state of crisis is attributed to the “handful of elites in Jakarta” that “do as they please.” Prabowo personalizes this state of crisis such as in sample 2 (2019) when he declares: 

“I speak what’s in my heart. I’m fed up, fed up with the antics of the evil elite in Jakarta. Fed up. Always lying, always lying, lying, lying. Lying to the people.”

Religious populism is often used, as it has been here, to create moral distinctions between the ‘good’ people and the ‘evil’ others (e.g. DeHanas and Shterin, 2018).

The perpetuation of crisis, threat and blame was almost absent in the most recent election. In a significant pivot in 2024, Prabowo became allies with and endorsed by his former opposition President Jokowi, despite Prabowo having spread unfounded rumors about Jokowi secretly being a Chinese Christian who was selling out Indonesia in the former election (Lam, 2023). This consequently saw a change in Prabowo’s rhetoric, in which he stopped performing a state of despair when discussing Indonesia and blaming the political elites and government. For example, in sample 3 (2024), Prabowo claimed that Indonesia will become great and prosperous:

“Brothers and sisters, on the 14th of February, all of us, brothers and sisters, will determine the future of your children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters. We are now at a crossroads. Do we want to improve, do we want to progress, do we want to become a prosperous country, or do we want to become a mediocre country? Ladies and gentlemen, Prabowo Gibran and Koalisi Indonesia Maju, we are determined to continue all the foundations that have been built.”

In sample 4 (2024) Prabowo again optimistically describes Indonesia and the state of the country left by President Jokowi:

“We are also grateful to President Joko Widodo, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, the Indonesian nation is a great nation, not just a great territory, not just a great population, but a great heart, a great soul, a great character, ladies and gentlemen.”

We can see a clear change in Prabowo’s strategy from the above passages, from claiming that Indonesia is facing imminent threats from internal and external factors and urgently needing a leader to save the country and its people, to portraying Indonesia as being on the right track but needing a leader to lead it to greatness.

Prabowo as the Savior of Indonesia

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

Political actors using a populist style generally rely on constructing a state of crisis, and then portraying themselves as the one – perhaps the only one – that can lead the people through the crisis or breakdown (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020). 

When religion is incorporated into this rhetoric, it can enhance and add credibility to these claims by sacralizing the leader (as the ‘savior’) and consequently, their politics take on a transcendent nature (Zuquete, 2017; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021; Yabanci, 2020). Furthermore, when a leader references the majority religion, and appeals to the religious community, they are lending legitimacy and authenticity to their political agenda. We can see this in sample 1 (2019) when Prabowo ends his speech with:

“As a proud son of the nation and of Islam, allow me to proclaim the takbir, ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Independence! Independence!’ ‘Good luck fighting, together for a victorious Indonesia’.”

In this passage, Prabowo is creating a connection between himself (a son of Islam), God and religion of ‘the people’ (Allahu Akbar! God is Greatest!) and Indonesia’s independence (exclaiming and repeating Independence! following the takbir). Prabowo concludes his address in sample 2 (2019) in similar terms:

“Then, after voting, guard the counting until it’s finished. God willing, the people will win, Indonesia will win. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Independence, Independence, Independence. Thank you.”

In sample 3 (2019) Prabowo once again portrays his political career as a sacred mission that has been granted by God. This example highlights his perceived role as fighting for justice and against those he opposes (the elite government):

“I am grateful. I am grateful. To God Almighty. God is great. Thank you, God. You gave me the opportunity. To defend the people. Danio. You gave me a chance. With these noble figures. You gave me a chance. To stand up for truth and justice. Thank you, Lord. You gave me the opportunity. To fight against the budget of wrath. To fight against injustice. To fight against leaders who deceive their own people.”

Interestingly, while Prabowo’s 2024 speeches did not construct a vision of Indonesia in crisis like they did in 2019, the most pronounced instance of Prabowo performing as the savior of Indonesia came from one of the 2024 campaign speeches (sample 3). In this example, Prabowo narrates to the crowd: 

“Ladies and gentlemen, from the young age of 18, I have pledged that I am ready to die for the nation and people of Indonesia. Ladies and gentlemen, my ustaz, my kiai, taught me, ‘Prabowo, as a Muslim, before you spend your last breath, you must say two sentences of shahada.’ And I have said it in my life, because I should have been called by God. It turns out that God still gives, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala still gives me breath, still gives me strength, still gives me health. That means I have to fulfil my duty to the nation and the people of Indonesia. And I, at this moment, after I have risked my life for decades for this republic, I am not willing to still see poor people in Indonesia.” 

In this passage, Prabowo describes his political career as a sacred mission. Claiming that he is ready to die for the nation to fulfil this religious duty from God, Prabowo is making a passionate appeal to the emotions of the audience.  

This is an interesting finding. It is quite evident that Prabowo was operationalizing exclusionary religious populism in 2019 to engage with the surging popularity of Islamist sentiment at the time. Yet in 2024, the above examples highlight Prabowo performatively and discursively communicating his religious identity and appealing to the religious identity of his audience. 

Support for Islamist Actors and Collectives

Across the two election cycles, Prabowo expressed his support for very different political and social actors. In 2019 Prabowo clearly signaled to and supported to Islamist influences in Indonesian society. In sample 2 (2019) for example, Prabowo directly endorses the National Movement to Guard Ulama’s Religious Edicts (GNPF Uluma) and the populist Islamist group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI):

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you GNPF, thank you 212, thank you FPI. They want to accuse you of being radical. I say you are not radical. Why, do they want to pit Islam against Nationalism? Why do they want to pit Islam against Pancasila? Islamic leaders who participated in the birth of Pancasila, ladies and gentlemen.”

This quote demonstrates how Prabowo aligned himself with Islamist groups and movements that were widely acknowledged as accelerating religio-ethnic tensions and hostilities in Indonesian society, particularly against ethnic Chinese Christians. However, in this passage, Prabowo is implying that ‘they’ (the ‘others’) are responsible for these tensions by pitting Islam (Islamists) against the state and its ideology. Later in the speech, he directly places himself in the Islamist camp, stating: 

“To say we are radical Islamists is an overstatement; we respect and protect all religions, all ethnic groups, and ethnicities.”

Although Prabowo is attempting to portray his mission as one of inclusivity, in this same statement he is also drawing attention to his association with the populist Islamist movement and the figures attached to it. As pointed out above, these figures are known to work against various types of pluralism in society. 

In sample 3 (2019), Prabowo once again casts a blurry shadow of his position towards Islamism, which likely reflects an attempt to appeal to a broader support base. We also note an attempt to minimize negative perceptions of the Islamist actors he has associated with:

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am with Sandiaga Uno. We have no intention. We have no intention. Apart from working, serving, and devoting to all the people of Indonesia. Some say Prabowo-Sandi, the Coalition of Indonesia Adil Makmur, will change the Pancasila state. Lies! We will establish a khilafah state. Lies! This I say is slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. Cruel slander. But it doesn’t sell. The Indonesian people will not be affected, brothers and sisters. That’s right. That’s right. Our Ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, always teach that Indonesian Islam is Islam rahmatan lil alamin. Our Islam, peaceful Islam.”

By the 2024 election, Prabowo had publicly cut all ties with Islamist figures and instead allied himself with more moderate religious figures and organizations, including the leadership of one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024; Lam, 2023). As demonstrated in earlier passages analyzed, he redirected his support to the mainstream and became a vocal supporter of his predecessor – and former opponent – President Jokowi. 

Calling for Unity and Inclusivity

Instead of the polarizing religious rhetoric Prabowo became known for in his 2019 campaigning, 2024 saw the leader operationalize religion to strengthen his new political agenda of unity and inclusion. For instance, in sample 3 (2024), he claimed:

“Prabowo, Prabowo, Prabowo, ladies and gentlemen, our ustadz-ustadz, our kiai-kiai, our religious leaders, teach us, religious people, pious people, you can’t demonize others, you can’t insult others, you can’t slander others, you can’t fight against each other, right, ladies and gentlemen…”

Prabowo is still displaying a people-centeredness here, and addressing those who follow and study Islam. Religion here becomes a driver for Prabowo’s new agenda for the de-polarization of Indonesian society (Arifianto & Budiatri, 2024). In sample 4 (2024), Prabowo expresses a similar desire and need for peace and the unification of the Indonesian people, although he steers away from using religious justifications:

“The condition is that we must get along, we must unite, we must be peaceful, we must not fight anymore, we must not divide, we must not suspect each other, demonize each other, ridicule each other, slander each other. No, we must unite so that we become a great country, our people prosper, we eliminate poverty from the land of Indonesia, ladies, and gentlemen.”

In sample 4 (2024) we also see Prabowo making a rhetorical effort to include the ethnic Chinese Christians he had vilified in the past. Although staying away from religious categorization, he stated:

“Firstly, I would like to congratulate all Muslims for celebrating the great day of Isra Mikraj, and also to wish our brothers and sisters of Chinese ethnicity who are celebrating the Lunar New Year. If I am not mistaken, today is exactly the Lunar New Year for the Chinese ethnic group, ladies, and gentlemen.”

These samples are a clear demonstration of Prabowo’s decision to move away from polarizing and antagonistic discourses and performances. There are several reasons why he has changed his strategy (Yilmaz et al., 2024 discuss these in their recent work) but this discourse analysis has also demonstrated that he continues to rely on the mobilizing and legitimizing power of religion in addressing and collectivizing ‘the people’ and connecting his political agenda with the beliefs and culture of the majority religion. 

Concluding Remarks and Future Research

Whether or not Prabowo will return to a religious populist style that antagonizes ‘elites’ and ‘others’ and aligns itself with Islamist actors and ideals cannot yet be determined. What we can identify is that his political style in the most recent election was distinctly flavored by a characteristically populist effort to appeal to ‘the people,’ achieved by communicative strategies that sought the approval of various segments of society (see Yilmaz et al., 2024). Most relevant to this article was Prabowo’s use of religious rhetoric which, as this discourse analysis highlighted, continues to play a central role in his campaign speeches and efforts and showed a distinct effort to appeal to a (shared) collective Muslim identity. With recent polling showing that religious affiliations and identities continue to inform how many Indonesians vote (Chaplin & Jurdi, 2024), this undoubtedly contributed to his electoral success. 

Ultimately, we note a shift from Islamist mobilization to a mobilization directed towards Indonesian Muslims. Like other politicized religions, Islamist ideals are often far removed from the religion it is associated with. Islamist movements and parties have developed their ideologies based on a range of factors such as the political, institutional, and historical legacies of colonialism and nation-building, Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism, and in response to authoritarian regimes (Cesari, 2021). 


 

Funding: We acknowledge that this research is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) the Discovery Project – DP220100829, titled “Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation: Civilisationism in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan” (2022-2025).


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Pericles Funeral Oration on old Greece 50 drachma (1955) banknote. Famous historical speech of Pericles at the end of first year of the Peloponnesian War. Photo: Shutterstock.

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By Christo Pretorius

It’s hard to miss the stark warnings from a variety of sources about the dangers of populist leaders and how democracy is currently on decline around the world (Freedom House, 2024; Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2022; Pengelly, 2022). It would perhaps surprise many that, what we consider to be current contemporary issues are not necessarily new, and we can draw from the past a rich collection of political discourse and historical conflict. 

The term “Democracy” originates from the Ancient Greek world, derived from the Greek words demos, meaning ‘people,’ and kratos, meaning ‘rule’ (Kofi, 2015). In the Classical Period of Ancient Greek history, various city-states adopted different forms of government, often influenced by local and foreign circumstances. By the 4th Century, there was a general consensus on three main types of political systems: autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. As the Greek statesman Aeschines pointed out, “Autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws” (Aeschines, 1.4). Similarly, Aristotle writes his views on the different systems: ‘…The deviations from these are as follows: from kingship, tyranny; From aristocracy, oligarchy; from constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy, which looks to the interests of the ruler; oligarchy looks to the interests of the wealthy; and democracy to the interests of the poor: none of these looks to the common good of the people as a whole’ (Aristotle, Pol., 1279b4). 

This passage raises an interesting question that is worth exploring – what political rights did the average person have under these different systems of government? For the purpose of this article, three aspects closely related to political freedoms will be investigated: Political participation, legal equality, and social mobility. Political participation ties into the ideas of freedom of speech, and the means for individuals to make changes to the way they are governed; Social mobility would indicate whether individuals have the ability to achieve a greater political status within the state; Legal equality would allow us to use the rule of law as a measure of political freedom. 

For optimal analysis, this article is divided into two parts. The first part will contextualize the three different government systems, drawing from case examples within the Ancient Aegean. This will be particularly helpful for readers who might not be familiar with Ancient Greece. The second part of this article will then do a cross-comparative study focusing on the three afore mentioned factors, before a conclusion can be made on which system allowed for the greatest amount of individual choice and freedom in the public sphere. The risk with doing an analysis such as this is the danger of over generalization. As such, to the extent that the sources allow, each political system will have a case study state, all found within the same period of time – namely democratic Athens, monarchical Macedonia, and the oligarchic Boeotian Confederation. 

Athenian Democracy 

Ancient Athens has provided modern scholars a wealth of archaeological and literary sources that allow us to better understand how a highly developed ‘radical’ democratic system in the ancient world functioned (Leppin, 2013). Chief among these sources is Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, a late 4th century work detailing the history and development of city-state’s political system (Aristotle, Const. Ath.). The Athenian government consisted of three primary institutions which were supported by numerous smaller ones of lesser importance (Blackwell, 2003). As a result of the reforms of the Athenian statesman Pericles in the 5th century, most of the political power in the state was given to what was known as the ‘Assembly of the Demos.’ This institution consisted of Athenian males over the age of 18 and gave every participant the right to discuss and vote on decrees that pertained to every aspect of Athenian life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 27.1/41.2; Dem. 15.1). In the sources we have examples where we can see the Assembly voting on everything from whether or not to go to war (Dem. 15.4), to the laws governing the proper qualifications of ferry-boat captains (Aeschin. 3.158). In theory this institution represented the core of Athenian democracy. 

‘The Council of 500’ is the second of the three main institutions, and represented the full-time government of Athens (Blackwell, 2003). It was made up of 500 citizens, 50 from each of the ten tribes, or demes, delineated by the Athenian lawmaker Cleisthenes in the 6th century (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.3). Importantly, these demes were created to encourage a new political social group where individuals were not designated by family names, but officially used their deme as a surname both in public and private life (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 21.4/28.3). Upon reaching the age of eighteen, Athenian male citizens were enrolled on a deme list, and had the opportunity to participate for one year as a member of the Council. From Aristotle it is inferred that there was an expectation for individuals to serve at least once in their lifetime, and provisions were in place that prohibited individuals from serving on the Council more than twice (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 42.1/43.2/62.3). 

The final institution discussed is the People’s Court. This was the primary judicial body in Ancient Athens and had elaborate mechanisms to ensure complete randomness in juror selection for both civic and domestic cases (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 64-69). The jurors themselves were selected from Athenian citizens over the age of 30 and had the requirement that they not be in debt or disenfranchised (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 63.3). Most courts consisted of 500 jurors, but when the need arose, two courts could be combined to have 1,000 jurors, with the most serious cases being brought before the maximum of 1,500 (Aristotle, Const. Ath. 68). 

On the surface level, one can make the assessment that Athenian democracy strove to involve nearly all Athenian male citizens within every aspect of civic life, with different checks and balance mechanisms in place to ensure an element of randomness in both judicial and political office selection.

Hellenistic Kingship 

While Athenian Democracy boasted a high level of citizen participation, kingship represented its polar opposite. Macedonian kingship, and similar authoritarian regimes in the successor states to Alexander the Great’s short -lived empire, are the best examples of these autocratic states. Arthur Eckstein (2009: 249) highlights that ruler legitimacy in these kingdoms relied heavily on conquest and military governance, with institutions that reflected this fact. A royal court acted as the central hub for governance headed by the king himself and his philoi, or ‘friends,’ who would manage both the military and administrative affairs of the state (Eckstein, 2009: 250). These philoi seemed to have been from minor noble houses, high-ranking military officials or experts drawn from within the kingdom or abroad (Weber, 2009: 86). Within this court culture, a web of personal relationships maintained a balance of power between the philoi and the monarch. Gregor Weber (2009: 87) demonstrates in his article that during the reign of King Philip II, he had virtually monopolized all power within the court without much opposition, employing ‘each man according to his abilities, as the occasion demanded.’ 

In relation to Macedonia’s legal system, there are very few sources that we can use to construct a clear picture of their judicial institutions. In Plutarch’s account on the life of Alexander we find him mention: ‘[Alexander] would spend the day in hunting, or administering justice, or arranging his military affairs, or reading’ (Plut. Alex. 23.2). The Roman historian Quntius Curtius Rufus highlights: ‘In accordance with the ancient custom of the Macedonians, the king conducted the inquiry into criminal cases, and the army passed judgement – in time of peace it was a duty of the common people – and the power of the king availed to nothing’ (Curt. 6.8.25). Modern historian Joseph Roisman (2012: 133) presents that, as a result of the lack of sources, modern scholarship on the topic is divided into two camps – with one using examples from Alexander’s life, such as Plutarch, as evidence of the Macedonian king’s role as the supreme legal authority within the state, whilst others draw from Rufus’ account that while kings acted as judges, they would still heed the verdict of an assembly. 

Oligarchy in Ancient Greece 

Unlike Democracy and Autocracy which has been subject to extensive investigation by scholars, ancient oligarchic regimes have not received the same amount of attention due to the scarcity of sources and the greater interest in the alternatives. Of the work that has been written on oligarchies, the primary focus of debate has been defining the line which separates a democracy from an oligarchy (Simonton, 2017; Leppin, 2013). 

Aristotle indicates to us that oligarchies share similarities to democracies, as they are ruled by the majority, but a key difference is that a democracy can be defined where the ‘free are sovereign,’ and in an oligarchy ‘when the rich and more well born are few and sovereign’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1290b). He continues to say that these oligarchic states are democratic in nature, and thus share the similar institutions with democratic states, but ‘may be administered in an oligarchic fashion’ (Aristot. Pol. 4.1295a). 

The Oxyrhynchus Historian’s Boeotian Constitution supports Aristotle’s claims and gives us a rare glimpse into the political institutions of an oligarchic system. Boeotia consisted of ten sovereign states, or eleven district wards, that each contributed individuals to the central government – The Boule (Council) (Oxyrhynchus Historian, Boeotian Constitution XI.2-4). In the text it is mentioned that each city had a local government which consisted of four smaller boulai. Decisions were passed unanimously, and only landed individuals with a certain undisclosed amount of land could partake in these councils. Unlike the Athenian government, the Boeotian Confederation’s central government did not pay individuals for participation in civic life, but rather the text highlights that ‘The wards provided the magistrates in this way, and together with each [magistrate] they supplied sixty members of the central Boule and paid their expenses themselves.’

Matthew Simonton (2013: 82-83), who has provided the most comprehensive study of oligarchies in the last few years, comments that the Boeotian system of local governance displays an ‘anxiety’ of the oligarchs that larger meetings could result in a ‘mob mentality,’ and thus by rotating oligarchs in and out, ‘the oligarchs figured out a way to be active citizens all of the time… while avoiding the problem of large, chaotic meetings’ that one finds in democracies. 

An important aspect within oligarchic regimes was the need for the elite to regulate each other’s political influence and power, lest the one group, family or individual becomes too powerful and assumes autocratic control. Thus, the adoption of democratic institutions with checks and balances helped oligarchs regulate each other. Hartmut Leppin (2013: 202)highlights that one thesis on Greek oligarchies is that they were ‘mostly restrictive democracies, with a variously limited citizen body.’ 

Although we do not have concrete evidence for how an oligarchic legal system worked, one prominent theory is that oligarchs empowered officials to settle disputes for them. Xenophon indicates this in his Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, where the Spartans employed Ephors as independent judges that could settle legal disputes by enforcing fines, stripping individuals from serving as a magistrate, and even have the authority to imprison individuals (Xen. Const. Lac. 8). However, Xenophon later comments that these ephors do not allow elected officials to rule however they want as they do in other cities, which contradicts Leppin’s findings by making them unique to Sparta (Xen. Const. Lac. 10.3). 

When it came to the relationship between the ruling oligarchs and the ordinary person, the oligarchs had a higher legal standing within the state, yet Simonton (2013:120) provides ample evidence to suggest that regulations were put in place to limit the power oligarchs had by imposing higher fines in some areas on an oligarch, should they abuse their position against the common person. Of course, in practice, the adherence to these regulations varied, and there are some examples of oligarchic regimes collapsing due to the abuse of legal authority – a lesson for other Greek city-states on why oligarchic power had to be controlled for the survival of their authority, best summarized by Isocrates as: ‘oligarchies as well as the others—have the longest life when they best serve the masses’ (Isocrates, 2.16).

Political Agency 

Turning to the comparative analysis of the three discussed political systems, ordinary individuals had little to no say over how they were ruled within Macedonia and/or other Hellenistic kingdoms, that is, unless they managed to usurp the throne through military means. Becoming one of the king’s philoi was the only way one could gain some form of political agency, but unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much political freedom these philoi actually had, since the sources do not indicate whether or not Macedonia could be considered a constitutional monarchy or an outright autocracy (King, 2010). Weber (2009: 88-89) presents an interesting argument that the interdependence between king and the aristocracy meant that mutual cooperation was necessary, and thus competing interests had to be balanced between the king himself, and the groups that would form within the court from likeminded nobles seeking to push their agenda (See also Plut. Alex. 47). 

We do know greater political agency was afforded to individuals within democratic and oligarchic city-states, yet restrictions still applied. Notably, it was universal across all city-states that women were not permitted to partake in public life (Katz, 1992). Slaves were another group without political agency, who had little to no rights at all within any state (Cuffel, 1966). Therefore, political life was dominated by men. Within oligarchies these men were either wealthy, fulfilled some legal requirement, owned land, or some combination of these three factors. 

Whereas in Athens, participation in public life was based on citizenship and age. Aristotle gives us a clearer insight into how these different citizenship statuses apply, highlighting that in some oligarchies foreigners were permitted to partake in politics, as the only excluding factor was not being wealthy and owning land. In democracies citizen-women bore citizen-children, and in some instances this citizenship status would pass onto a child even if the father was a slave (Aristot. Pol. 3.1278a). 

At the time of Aristotle’s work, he mentions that foreigners, known as metics in Athens, were excluded from political affairs due to lack of citizenship, but James Watson (2010) makes a compelling argument that in practice the granting of citizenship to metics was not as clear cut. In his article, he proposes that the granting of citizenship status depended on the demes themselves when creating their citizenship lists, with some taking a hardline anti-immigrant stance, whilst others granted citizenship to metics up until the mid-5th century. This date coincides with the citizenship reforms of the prominent Athenian stateman Pericles, changing the laws so that citizenship was only conferred to children whose mother and father both were Athenians (Aristot. Const. Ath. 26.3). Unique to Athens was payment for public duties, which was also introduced in the mid-5th century, and allowed those living further away from the city, and with lesser financial means, to participate in all the democratic institutions (Aristot. Const. Ath. 62.2; Podes, 1993: 499). 

Of the three systems, Athens actively attempted to involve the greatest number of individuals to participate within civic life, and although the system was exclusively dominated by free men of Athenian birth, they had a much greater say in how they were governed compared to individuals found in oligarchies and Macedonia.

Social Mobility 

In this article, social mobility ties into the concept of achieving greater political agency and examines the barriers that existed in each separate government form. Democratic Athens once again afforded the greatest amount of political agency to the largest amount of people, especially when considering the existence of the Assembly, which allowed citizens from various economic backgrounds to partake in politics. The only real barrier to participation was monetary reasons, but we see a clear attempt to solve this problem with the aforementioned payment for attendance to the Assembly – which was increased over time from one obol to three (Aristot. Const. Ath. 41.3). 

The Macedonian kingdom offered little to no real means for political advancement within its autocratic system, rather it was the whim of the king that decided whether you would be permitted to the court. In seeking to tie his conquered territories closer to his kingdom, Philip displays the willingness to incorporate foreigners into his court, a trend that would be followed by Alexander during his conquest of Persia (Polyb. 8.10; Arr. An. 3.16.41). The aristocratic class themselves were drawn from local and foreign nobles and leaders. Service in the military would allow another avenue for individuals to get closer to the court, but ultimately there would only ever be one king. Unfortunately, it is once again hard to comment on Greek oligarchies without drawing from multiple sources. In theory, individuals could be drawn into the oligarchic class through any number of means depending on the system of election in place. Andrew Alwine (2018) preformed a cross-oligarchic survey and found that in many ways oligarchic systems of election resembled democratic systems – which is perhaps unsurprising given that previously it was highlighted that many of these oligarchies share close characteristics with democratic states. The drawing of lots, a small electorate council that weighs the ‘virtues’ of individuals, and having a polis-wide election where citizens write down the names of three men ‘regarded in all respects as the best’, are but some of the ways that oligarchic regimes maintained their number and power (Alwine, 2018: 248-251).

Legal Systems 

Although we cannot be certain of the characteristics of the Macedonian legal system, we do know that the king played a large role. We can assume that in a means to maintain a balance of power and the status quo, kings would attempt to be fair in judgement, lest it would disrupt their ability to effectively rule. An anecdote from Plutarch supports this, as Philip II fell asleep during his judgement of one Machaetas, who proceeded to appeal the judgement to the king because of the unfair trial (Plut. Moral. 178-179). Although the verdict wasn’t changed, Philip decided to pay the fine, thus maintaining the authority of his judgement, but acting ‘morally’ in the dispensing of justice. Similarly, Plutarch also reports that Alexander fined his friends whom he caught gambling illegally, a minor but important example that Macedonian kings had to dispense perceived justice in a fair manner (Plut. Moral. 181d). 

Fair and unbiased justice was just as important in oligarchies, particularly considering their precarious political position. Although Alwine (2018) is critical of applying Sparta’s ephors to other city-states, he does argue that oligarchies either had top-down regulations, often with the oligarchic class regulating itself, or had an external judge to settle legal disputes. Prolonged civil strife within the oligarchic class nearly always threatened to break out into civil wars, and thus strong legal regulations were needed to prevent not only oligarchs from abusing each other, but also the demos themselves. Simonton (2017) demonstrates exactly this in chapter 6 of his book, highlighting the need to uphold a strong legal system between the oligarchic class and the demos, and an even stronger legal system between oligarchs, lest the entire system collapses into a democracy. 

Contrasting this, the Athenian legal system didn’t rely on an independent or controlled judiciary, rather they relied on an extensive and complicated system built on randomness and a large number or judge-jurors. Aristotle goes into extensive detail on how legal procedures took place in Athens, but from it we can see three important factors: A large number of citizens make up what we could equate to a modern-day jury, who would all pass verdict on the case anonymously; Jurors, randomly selected after a complicated process, did not know which case they would sit in on until the same day; The jurors were all paid a salary (Aristot. Const. Ath.). These systems all allowed for an unbiased, and hopefully fair trial that was difficult to tamper with. 

Conclusion 

Of the three government forms looked at, Athenian democracy appears to give the greatest political freedoms to its citizens. Although not perfect, as no government form ever is, Athenian democracy allowed citizens to have the greatest say in how they were governed, giving them necessary legal and economic protections to do so. One can see why modern scholars define Athens as having a ‘radical’ democracy, as actions such as changing the surnames of citizens to incorporate the name of their deme, having a highly complex jury selection system, and even paying individuals for public service, were all radical ideas when compared to the oligarchic systems of other city-states and kingdoms such as Macedonia. 


References

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Putin-Jinping-Modi

The Rise of Authoritarian Civilizational Populism in Turkey, India, Russia and China

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Please cite as:
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2024). “The Rise of Authoritarian Civilizational Populism in Turkey, India, Russia and China.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0033  

 

Abstract

This paper comparatively analyses the phenomenon of civilizationalism within the discourse of authoritarian populism in four distinct political contexts: Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India under Narendra Modi, China under Xi Jinping, and Russia under Vladimir Putin. We find that “authoritarian civilizational populism” has become a prominent feature in the discourses of leaders and ruling parties across China, Russia, India, and Turkey, serving as a multifunctional tool to construct national identity, delegitimize domestic opposition, and challenge Western hegemony. Across these nations, ‘the West’ is uniformly depicted as a civilizational ‘other’ that subaltern peoples must overcome to rejuvenate their respective civilizations. Also, civilizationalist discourses serve as a legitimizing tool for domestic authoritarianism and aggressive foreign policies. We also find while religion plays a central role in distinguishing ‘the people’ from ‘others’ in India and Turkey, and in grounding the cultural identity of ethnic Russians in Russia, China’s officially atheistic state utilizes a more syncretistic approach, emphasizing traditional beliefs while marginalizing ‘foreign’ religions perceived as threats to the Communist Party’s ideology. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

The 21st century witnesses the rise of authoritarian regimes that claim to speak, not merely for citizens of their own nations, but for a broader transnational ‘people’ bound together through the common bonds of civilization. In Russia – where elections are held but opposition candidates regularly prevented from running and, in some cases, imprisoned and murdered – Vladimir Putin portrays his nation as a multi-cultural empire and a civilization deeply at odds with the liberal West. Putin himself claims to uniquely interpret the will of the Russian people, and to be their champion in a dangerous world dominated by the United States, a nation he claims that desires nothing more than the erasure of Russia’s traditional Christian values.

In China, since coming to power in 2013, Xi Jinping has portrayed himself as a simple man of the people fighting the corruption of Communist Party ‘princelings’ and ‘tigers,’ and moreover as a fatherly figure dedicated to protecting the Chinese people from both internal and external threats. Key to understanding China under Xi’s rule is his claim to be rejuvenating the great Chinese nation (or alternatively ‘race’), a nation that, according to Xi, incorporates so-called overseas Chinese and excludes some Chinese citizens, particularly Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.  

In semi-democratic yet increasingly authoritarian Turkey and India, ruling populist leaders claim that their respective nations are contemporary manifestations of great religion-defined civilizations, and that the key to making their nations great is to return to the principles and values that made their respective civilizations powerful. At the same time, populist leaders portray certain religious and ethnic minorities as obstacles on the road to national and civilizational rejuvenation. 

There is thus an intrinsic link between populism and civilizationalism in the respective discourses of ruling populists in China, India, Russia, and Turkey, insofar as the leader claims to represent the will of the people and therefore be above petty checks and balances on their power and democratic norms such as observing term limits, and further claim that ‘the people’ are not merely contained within the nation, but incorporate all peoples who belong to Chinese, Hindu, Russian (Christian Orthodox), and Ottoman (Islamic) civilization respectively. 

In this article, then, we examine civilizationalism in authoritarian populism in four polities: Turkey and India, where authoritarian populism is emerging, and China and Russia, which have long been authoritarian but more recently turned toward populism under Xi and Putin respectively. 

Populism and Authoritarianism

We may not ordinarily think of populism as a phenomenon occurring in non-democratic societies, or itself a non-democratic or at least non-electoral democratic phenomenon. However, since scholars began to identify political parties, movements, and leaders as ‘populist,’ authoritarian leaders and regimes have been identified as ‘populist.’ For example, Isaiah Berlin (1967: 14), reflecting on what he heard from other scholars, at the famous 1967 LSE populism conference admits that there exists a form of populism that “believes in using elites for the purpose of a non-elitist society,” and a type of populist “who has a ferocious contempt for his clients, the kind of doctor who has profound contempt for the character of the patient whom he is going to cure by violent means which the patient will certainly resist, but which will have to be applied to him in some very coercive fashion,” and who is in this way “on the whole ideologically nearer to an elitist, Fascist, Communist etc. ideology than he is to what might be called the central core of populism.” 

Authoritarian populism was later discussed by Dix (1985), who found it in Latin American parties such as the National Popular Alliance in Columbia, and in Peronism in Argentina. Dix argued that it was possible to discern ‘democratic populism’ from ‘authoritarian populism.’ Authoritarian populism was led by military and/or the upper classes, drew support not from intellectuals or organized labour, but rather from the great mass of people. Moreover, it “mildly anti-imperialist” and was dependent on a single leader and the “leader’s myth.” Democratic populism was supported by intellectuals and organized labour, had less of a need for a single god-like leader, and possessed a strong ideology that was “well-articulated” (Dix, 1985: 47). 

The concept of authoritarian populism fell largely into disuse outside of Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the concept has re-emerged and is today used to refer to “political phenomena in hybrid regimes and emerging democracies that share the core tenets of populism (namely, the construction of “the people”) while describing idiosyncratic trajectories distinct from that of populism in fully realized Western democracies (Guan & Yang, 2021). Mamonova (2019: 562), for example, argues that authoritarian populism combines “a coercive, disciplinary state, a rhetoric of national interests, populist unity between ‘the people’ and an authoritarian leader, nostalgia for ‘past glories’ and confrontations with ‘others’ at home and/or abroad.”

Other scholars, although observing key differences between populisms argue that all populisms are “susceptible to authoritarian tendencies over time,” a problem that “becomes apparent and radical when a populist movement takes state power and must navigate groups of influence among classes and balance the two basic and often contradictory state functions of capital accumulation and political legitimacy (McKay & Colque, 2021). Be this as it may, it remains possible to differentiate between democratic populism and authoritarian populism, and the latter is now an increasingly important concept in political science. For example, Guan and Yang (2021) observe that both Mamonova (2019) and Oliker (2017) “utilized the core definitions of authoritarian populism to deconstruct the popular support of the current Putin regime; namely, a powerful state, authoritarian leadership, nostalgia for past glories, and a rhetoric of “us versus them.” The Communist Party of China, led by the increasingly powerfull Xi Jinping, has also been described as ‘authoritarian populist’ (Tang, 2016), and indeed populism has a long history in China, rooted in Maoism if not in earlier rebellions of ‘the people’ against elites.

Based on Mamonova’s (2019) definition of authoritarian populism, and bearing in mind the tendency of populists to turn authoritarian once in power, it is possible to surmise that once democratic India and Turkey are in the process of turning toward authoritarian populism – a process that might be reversed – and that China and Russia are led by authoritarian populist regimes. 

However, we argue that something else important unites these populisms in Turkey, India, China, and Russia: civilizationalism, or the belief that there are multiple world civilizations with incompatible values, and which often clash with one another (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023a; Yilmaz & Morieson 2023b). We have previously defined civilizational populism as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022: 19; 2023a: 5), a definition we apply here.  

Civilizationalism is a component, though one not always recognized, of the authoritarian populisms of India, Turkey, Russia, and China. This is not merely because Russia and China, in particular, have sometimes been described as ‘civilization states,’ and at times wish to be perceived in this manner (Bajpai, 2024; Blackburn, 2021; Therborn, 2021; Acharya, 2020). Rather, it is because the type of authoritarian populism practised in each respective polity draws on nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of ‘our’ civilization, and on claims that to become great again ‘our’ nation must return to the values of this golden age, to justify itself and because they each apply a civilizational categorization of peoples in order to determine ingroup from outgroup, and ‘the people’ from the ‘elite,’ or the betrayers of ‘our’ civilization. 

Turkey

President Erdogan greeted the citizens who showed great interest after the Friday prayer in Istanbul, Turkey on April 14, 2019. Photo: Mehmet Ali Poyraz.

Perhaps the most studied example of civilizationalism in authoritarian populism is the President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023c; Uzer, 2020; Hazir, 2022). The AKP – under the guise of liberating ‘the people’ from elite misrule – set about dismantling Kemalist control over institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy and military, and following this installed their own supporters and allies within them. Çınar (2018) makes an interesting observation, noting that even in the first decade of its rule, the AKP possessed a civilizational perspective on international relations, and framed “Turkey’s integration with the EU in terms of a ‘reconciliation of civilizations’” (see also Bashirov & Yilmaz, 2020). In this way, the AKP “had from the very beginning identified Turkey with an unnamed non-Western civilization, but without explicitly rejecting the liberal political norms of European democracy” (Çınar, 2018).  

A turning point came in 2013 when Erdogan began to lose popular support and AKP rule was challenged by mass protests. “When young people began to protest against a development planned for Gezi Park in Istanbul,” Erdogan “crushed the protests with violent force and demonized the protestors as anti-Muslim” and working with Western interests to subjugate Turkey (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023a). And even greater turning point came in 2016 when a mysterious military coup attempt, plotted (according to the AKP and its allies) by the Gulen Movement – an ally (2002-2012) of Erdogan turned opponent – failed to remove Erdogan from power (Tas, 2018). In response, AKP officials claimed that the movement was not the sole mastermind behind the coup, but that the United States and broader Western world was ultimately responsible (Kotsev & Dyer, 2016). 

Then, the AKP has increasingly implemented a strategy described by Yilmaz and Bashirov (2018: 1812) as “electoral authoritarianism as the electoral system, neopatrimonialism as the economic system, populism as the political strategy, and Islamism as the political ideology” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018: 1812). This strategy also portrayed Turkey as “the legitimate inheritor of Ottoman legacies and power, the leader of the Islamic world, and the protector of Palestine” (Hintz, 2018: 37, 113). As his government pivoted toward Islamism, Erdogan began to present himself as the leader of all Muslims globally in their fight against the West, and in this way transnationalized and externalized his populism, making ‘the West’ the ultimate ‘elite’ and all Sunni Muslims the downtrodden ‘people’ requiring a champion to defend their interests (Yilmaz & Demir, 2023). As part of this strategy, the AKP attempts to construct a new ‘desired citizen,’ termed “Homo Erdoganistus” by Yilmaz (2021: 165), and described by him as “a practicing Sunni Muslim, believes in absolute authority, sees the Ottoman rule as the greatest era, believes their social purpose is to spread Islam in the public sphere, to provide aid to and deepen ties with Muslim and former Ottoman peoples and to regain Ottoman glory” (Yilmaz, 2021: 165).

Erdogan’s civilizational restoration efforts resulted in the politicizing of Turkish foreign policy by constructing foreign threats (Taş, 2022a; 2022b). Turkey’s foreign policy efforts are justified on the basis that Turkey is heir to the Ottoman legacy and thus the leader of the ummah, and therefore ought to act to ‘defend’ Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa (Dogan, 2020; Özkan, 2015). 

The AKP’s foreign and domestic policies thus reflect its civilizational populism. Erdogan and his party justify growing authoritarianism through claims that their marginalization of rivals and religious minorities as necessary to ‘protect’ the ummah from Western threats to Turkey and Islam, and as part of a civilization restoration project that promises to rejuvenate Ottoman civilization. Equally, they legitimize their bellicosity and imperialism abroad through claims that Erdogan is the leader of the global ‘ummah’ and Turkey heir to the Ottoman Empire and thus responsible for protecting the global ummah from Western aggression.

India

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

Following their election victory in 2014, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set about transforming India, de-secularizing and Hinduizing the nation, removing checks and balances on government power, replacing the old secular Congress Party-aligned ‘elite’ from the bureaucracy with BJP supporters and allies, and reaching out to Hindus globally to create closer ties between them and India’s government and people. The result is a less democratic, less plural, and more authoritarian and aggressively ‘Hindu’ India.

BJP’s ideology, Hindutva, proposes that India belongs to the Hindu people, who are defined in ethnic and cultural terms rather than as followers of a particular religious code. Hindutva defines “Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land” (Ahmad, 2007). 

Leidig (2020) argues that “Hindutva was not truly ‘mainstreamed’ until the [2014] election victory of the BJP and current prime minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s populism and ability to create a mass movement are based on exploiting ressentiment and anger toward the Hindu people’s historical oppressors (Muslims, the British) and promising to revive and rejuvenate Hindu civilization (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019). Modi styled himself as a man of the people, the son of a chai wallah, and a pious Hindu. Moreover, Modi won power by promising to end the allegedly corrupt role of the secular Congress Party, to fast-track India’s economic development, and to govern in the interest of ‘the people’ (Saleem, 2021; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019). Modi’s conception of ‘the people’ did not include certain non-Hindu groups, including Muslims – 200 millions of whom live in India. Indeed, the party regards Muslims and secularists, in particular, as threats to their civilizational rejuvenation project (Saleem, 2021; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019; Tepe & Chekirova, 2022).

Perceived as a threat to Hindu cultural hegemony on the basis that they belong to a foreign civilization that once dominated the Hindu majority, the BJP and their allies in the Hindutva movement encourage Hindus to fear and despise Muslims, demonizing them through accusations that they are waging “Jihad” against Hindus, including a ‘love Jihad’ in which Muslim men supposedly marry Hindu women to forcefully convert them to Islam, and for “spreading the coronavirus, for buying land, for selling vegetables (“Corona Jihad,” “Land Jihad,” “Vegetable Seller Jihad”) (Kaul, 2023). Secularists, too, have suffered under the BJP’s authoritarian populism, particularly perceived members of the old ‘elite’ (Ellis-Petersen, 2023).

The BJP conflates “westernized Indian elites and foreign others” (Hulu, 2022), who together pose a “collaborative threat to ‘the people’” and stand in the way of ‘the realization of a strong and monolithic Hindu identity” (Wojczewski, 2019; Plagemann & Destradi, 2019). The belief that Western ideas should be purged from India led the BJP to “saffronize” the foreign service, a process in which India’s political institutions are refashioned “to reflect [Hindu] majoritarian ideals” and civilizationalism, forcing ‘elite’ diplomats to either abandoned their attachments to ‘foreign’ ideas such as secularism and pluralism and conform to Hindutva ideals or leave the service (Huju, 2022: 423). 

Journalists who dare to criticize Modi’s government have also been attacked by the BJP. The party has increasingly sought to intimidate domestic and international media operating in India, including the BBC, which the BJP accused of having a “colonial mindset” (The Guardian, 2023). Thus, journalists are portrayed as a part of a cultural ‘elite,’ or in the case of Muslim journalists as a dangerous ‘other’ that is either opposed to Hindu nationalism or insufficiently supportive of Modi’s civilization restoration project and are therefore subjected to campaigns of abuse intended to silence them. These acts are legitimized – as in many other cases – by the BJP’s Hindu Nationalist ideology, and the party’s claims that Muslims and secularists are preventing the nation from restoring itself to its former glory. 

The BJP’s civilizational populism thus helps the party to frame its opponents as belonging to threatening foreign civilizations – whether Islam or the neo-colonial West, or even China – and to portray Modi as a protective and powerful leader who will stand up for the interests of Hindu ethnic Indians globally and within India. 

Russia

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attended a ceremony celebrating the 1025 anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus in Kiev, Ukraine on July, 27, 2013. Photo: Shutterstock.

Since 2012, the Putin regime in Russia has increasingly sought to identify the nation as a civilization-state (Blackburn, 2021; Marten, 2014; Teper, 2015). Putin portrays Russia as a state that is also heir to two multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires (i.e. the Russian Empire and Soviet Union) that accommodated minorities. Moreover, he portrays Russia as a civilization distinct from the Western civilization, yet not wholly Eastern. Putin’s imagined Russia is multicultural, but not liberal, conservative in its values, respectful of all religions and cultures within its boundaries, but faces implacable hostility from the liberal West. The liberal West is Russia’s key enemy, especially insofar as it is bent on pushing liberal values onto Russia and invading its sphere of influence, for example by expanding NATO to incorporate former Soviet territories and previously neutral nations. 

Although there is debate over whether Putin ought to be called a populist, even critics of labelling Putin a populist admit that he at times performs as a populist. For example, March (2023), who considers it misleading to call Putin a populist, admits that the Russian President uses populist rhetoric when he wishes to present himself – most often disingenuously – as a ‘man of the people’ fighting corrupt elites, and in order to draw support from different elements within Russian society who share little but a common resentment towards the oligarchs (March, 2023). Putin also portrayed himself – like other populists – as the savior of the nation and its people, and as a powerful, masculine leader who would restore Russia’s prestige following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Eksi & Wood, 2019).

As Western liberal democracy became increasingly cited by Putin as the enemy of the Russian people and their traditional Orthodox Christian culture, so too did the notion that Russia was separate from the West – and perhaps its own particular civilization – become an important element in Putin’s populist discourse. Once Putin had established himself in power and destroyed the influence of his oligarchic enemies (he permitted, of course, the existence of tamed oligarchs who supported his rule), he leaned heavily on a new populist discourse: dividing society between authentic Russians and the pro-Western liberals who sought to undermine traditional culture and impose Western culture on the Russian people. In a related development, Blackburn (2021) observes a turn in Putin discourse in 2012, after which the Russian president became enamored with the notion of Russia as a ‘civilization state’ distinct from the West, and that possesses certain values that are inherently at odds with Western liberal values (Novitskaya, 2017; Edenborg, 2019). As a result, “Russian foreign policy was recalibrated” to portray Russia not as “a potential partner of the West,” as it had been previously, but as “an independent, revisionist Eurasian power” (Blackburn, 2021; Newton, 2010; Trenin, 2015). Moreover, “concepts of civilizations in competition and multipolarity were soon promoted to explain this new direction” (Blackburn, 2021; Verkhovsky & Pain 2012; Pain, 2016; Laruelle, 2017; Ponarin & Komin, 2018).

Putin’s ‘state-civilization’ thus encourages Russians to feel a kinship with one another “without forced Russification or reduction of ethnic and cultural diversity” (Blackburn, 2021) and loyalty toward the state and Putin, and to perceive this unity and loyalty as part of Russia’s traditional values and indeed part of its imperial and Soviet History (despite many examples to the contrary, and in which minorities were persecuted). The ’state-civilization’ discourse is useful for Putin and is easily incorporated into his wider populist discourse. Putin’s rhetoric on the Russia-Ukraine war provides a demonstration of Putin’s populist use of the state-civilization discourse. In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Shortly before the war, Putin claimed that Ukraine was part of Russia, and that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people” with “spiritual” and “civilizational ties” (Putin, 2021).  Explaining this assertion, Putin (2021) looked back at the history of Slavic peoples and claimed that “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik Dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. …The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.’”

In 2023, Putin gave a speech to the Valdai discussion club specifically on the concept of civilization and took questions from the audience on the topic. It is very revealing of Putin’s thoughts on the matter, and why he believes civilization-states will determine the political future of the globe (Putin, 2023). According to Putin, “relying on your civilization is a necessary condition for success in the modern world” insofar as “humanity is not moving towards fragmentation into rivalling segments, a new confrontation of blocs, whatever their motives, or a soulless universalism of a new globalization. On the contrary, the world is on its way to a synergy of civilization-states, large spaces, communities identifying as such” (Putin, 2023). Rejecting any notion of universal values, Putin claimed that “civilization is not a universal construct, one for all – there is no such thing. Each civilization is different, each is culturally self-sufficient, drawing on its own history and traditions for ideological principles and values” (Putin, 2023). 

Putin portrays himself as a defender of Russian civilization and the Russian people. At the same time, he portrays the West as the manipular of Ukrainian elites, and an increasingly godless and decadent society that not only turned its back on its traditional Christian values but refuses to respect other civilizations. Portraying ‘the people’ as ‘pure’ is a part of populism, and Putin’s populism is no different to other populisms in this respect, even as its focus on portraying Russia as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious civilization respectful of other civilizations and of the diverse peoples within its borders – with the ethnic Russian Orthodox Christian people as its core, defining group – and lack of anti-immigration rhetoric sets it apart from similar right-wing populisms in Europe and North America. 

China

President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China on May 9, 2016. Photo: Gil Corzo.

Scholars have observed how Chinese conceptions of democracy have often been essentially populist, insofar as if the government is perceived to serve the will or interests of the people it is classed as democratic, regardless of whether elections are held. Populist understandings of democracy are so ingrained in Chinese, some scholars argue, that even the pro-democracy campaigners of the 1980s conceived of democracy largely in a populist manner and were less interested in holding elections than in forcing the government to serve the authentic interests of the people. Scholars have also identified two key forms of populism operating in China. Both incorporate nationalism (Li, 2021; Miao, 2020; Guo, 2018, Eaton & Müller, 2024) and grievances related to China’s growing economic inequality (Eaton & Müller, 2024; Li, 2021; Miao, 2020; Guan & Yang, 2021). However, according to Guan and Yang (2021) a key difference between populisms in China lies in their relationship to the government. One type of populism, they argue (Guan & Yang, 2021) is essentially top-down and “pro-system” and presents the CCP as the people’s champion and defender against their enemies, while another is “anti-system,” largely online, and is the product of anger toward the CCP’s due to the party’s corruption and the economic inequality its permits to increase. 

Eaton and Müller (2024) point out that other scholars have also come to a similar conclusion that multiple populisms operate in China, including He & Broersma (2021: 3015) who argue that a form of ‘classical communist populism’ …coexists with an online “bottom-up populism” which ‘highlights antagonism between the people and corrupt elites’.” Undoubtedly, the most pervasive and important form of populism in China is the top-down, pro-system form associated with Xi Jinping, who presents himself as a man of the people fighting a corrupt elite within the party, but also as a loyal Communist Party member fighting on behalf of the entire Chinese people – globally – and against American hegemony.

Populism is not new to China. Indeed, some scholars refer to Communist China as a society dominated by “populist authoritarianism” (Tang, 2016). Under Mao’s long rule (1949-1976) populist conceptions of democracy were employed alongside a cult of personality centered on Mao, which presented him as the Great Helmsman (Chinese: 伟大的舵手; pinyin: Wěidà de duòshǒu) who had the unique ability to unite the Chinese people and govern them accordance with their interests. Mao’s political legitimacy was thus not conferred on him via elections, but rather through his ability to know the will of the people and fight for their interests against the Chinese ‘elite’ (e.g. landowners, businesspeople, Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) leaders and supporters, educated people in cities). Mao, of course, was following an authoritarian populist model set by Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, who similarly argued that legitimacy was conferred upon their regimes not through elections but insofar as they represented the interests of ‘the people,’ (e.g. the proletariat, intellectuals who supported the revolution) and sought to eliminate or re-educate their ‘elite’ enemies (i.e. White Russians, landowners, the merchant class, Kulaks, business people). These authoritarian populists sought to discipline their societies and educate ‘the people’ to become good citizens in a workers’ state, often using violent coercion to achieve these goals. Mao’s acts of coercion during the Great Leap Forward and the chaotic violence he unleashed during the Cultural Revolution – a form of top-down populist mobilization – are extreme examples of the violence he encouraged in order to ‘complete’ his revolution.  

Mao described the ‘new’ form of democracy he was creating in China as a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” Mao’s concept is inherently populist, insofar as in his people’s democratic dictatorship the people live in a democracy (i.e. the government does the will of the people), but the ‘others’ live in a dictatorship in which they are subject to violence and extreme forms of discipline unless they accept the dictatorship of the people. Of course, the people in Mao’s China did not directly rule. Rather, as in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party substituted itself for ‘the people’ and then a single leader – Mao – substituted himself for the Communist Party, essentially ruling as a dictator although always in the name of the people.

Following Mao’s death and a brief leadership struggle, Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader and – among his many economic and political reforms – sought to ensure that no future party leader could establish a personality cult and rule with arbitrary power, that the educated and merchant class ‘elites’ repressed by Mao would now be encouraged to become entrepreneurs in the new capitalist China, and that a kind of deliberate democracy might exist within the Communist Party in order to prevent leaders from making foolish decisions. Deng might be understood as attempting to turn China away from authoritarian populism and towards a kind of authoritarian, meritocratic, and development focused technocracy ruled by a ‘wise’ elite in which – to use his famous dictum – it didn’t matter whether a cat was black or white, only whether it could catch mice. However, Tang (2016) argues that the CCP has remained as a “populist authoritarian” party due to its Mao era concept of the “mass line” (群众路线), an organizational and ideological principle that insists that the CCP must listen to ‘the people,’ pool their wisdom, and formulate theories and then policies based on their demands (Lin, 2006: 142, 144, 147). The ‘mass line’ insists to the party leaders that the people, although inarticulate, have innate wisdom that must be listened to and to which the party must attend, an idea which Shils (1956: 101) identified in populist discourses when he observed that populism was “tinged” with the idea that in certain respects the people were superior to their rulers.

Although in the Deng era the ‘mass line’ ideology was de-emphasized, under Xi Jinping’s leadership the concept has returned to prominence, and the CCP has arguably returned to authoritarian populist rule. Indeed, while Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao conformed largely to the rules set in place by Deng and governed as authoritarian technocrats, Xi Jinping has in certain respects re-oriented China towards authoritarian populism while increasing emphasis on the civilizational identity of the Chinese ‘people’ and their opponents. Under Xi’s rule, according to Guan and Yang (2021: 463), the ‘mass line’ has grown in importance, and now serves a discourse that “glorifies the contribution of ordinary people to modern Chinese history in order to create a unified ‘great Chinese identity’.” 

The return of the mass line is part of a wider return to authoritarian populism under the rule of Xi Jinping since 2013. Following an internal election which saw him become CCP General Secretary and national leader in 2013, Xi declared the importance of the ‘mass line’ and his intention to listen to ‘the people’ and represent their interests. Xi presented himself as a man of the people from humble beginnings (despite his own father being a high-ranking CCP official, albeit one who fell afoul of the regime and was sent down to the countryside to live as a peasant) and who would fight against ‘elites’ within the CCP in order to protect the people.

For example, as national leader, Xi demanded the “purification” of the CCP, often interpreted as an attack on the extravagance of the hedonistic and corrupt party ‘elite.’ Xi himself called for party members to live more Spartan lifestyles, and punished thousands party officials who were seen to be wasting public money or acting corruptly and illegally. In this way, Xi appeared to be sincerely fighting against their avarice of the ‘elite’ that had gained power during the post-Mao period and attempting to return the nation to the authoritarian populist ‘democracy’ it had been under Mao. 

Xi increasingly gained power within the CCP by presenting himself as the people’s savior and his enemies within the party as ‘tigers’ such as Bo Xilai alleged to have illegitimately gained power and who did not serve the interests of ‘the people.’ Although it may appear that Xi was sincere in his attempts to end avarice and corruption, he appears to be corrupt himself, and he largely targeted opponents and rivals within the CCP, ignoring the corruption of his allies. Thus, populism was thus a useful means through which Xi could establish himself in power and destroy potential political rivals from within his own party. 

A key element of Xi’s populism is the increased emphasis he places on restoring Chinese civilization and the Chinese (Han) people to their rightful place at the center of world affairs. Indeed, as we shall see, Xi’s civilizational narrative has a populist element insofar as he portrays himself and the CCP as rejuvenating the Chinese people via an agenda that stresses the long civilizational history of the Chinese people, the superiority of this tradition to the far newer civilization of the West, and amid claims that the West is waging a civilizational war on China by refusing to permit China’s peaceful rise to hegemon in Asia. In this narrative the Chinese people are the Han people globally and tolerated minorities within China’s borders, and the enemy ‘elites’ are largely external, and consist of the United States, the broader West, and Japan – or the global powers that support American hegemony and try to keep China from displacing the United States as global hegemon. The civilization narrative not only defines the character of the Chinese people and their global enemies, but it legitimizes Xi’s authoritarianism at home and his bellicosity abroad, insofar as he portrays himself as the democratic instrument of the will of the Chinese people, and his repression of domestic minority groups and aggression toward foreign nations as necessary for China’s civilizational rejuvenation and to defend the Chinese people from the hostile West and Japan.

The CCP has a complex relationship with China’s cultural heritage, and with what we might call ‘Chinese civilization.’ As historian C. P. Fitzgerald (1977) observed, although Mao transformed China by destroying not merely the capitalist republican regime and its nationalist (Kuomintang) government, but also by attempted to destroy the element of Chinese culture which he thought most pernicious: Confucianism. Thus Mao, according to Fitzgerald (1971: 483), was not aiming to destroy Chinese civilization and culture (wen hua) – elements of which he admired. At the same time, Mao encouraged archaeological excavations which he used to glorify Chinese civilization and show that Communists were not indifferent to art and beauty (Fitzgerald, 1971: 489) and “shared the opinion of the mass of Chinese that the long duration and continuity of Chinese civilization, proved by its magnificent and unbroken historical records, was a clear proof of superiority” (Fitzgerald, 1971: 490-491). 

The revival and rehabilitation of Confucianism following Mao’s death and accelerating and transforming into a civilizational ethos under Xi, is perhaps a demonstration of the failure of Mao’s attacks on Confucianism, as is, perhaps, Samuel P. Huntington’s description of China belonging to “Confucian civilization” (Huntington, 1993). Deng Xiaoping and his successors, recognizing the failure of Maoism to develop China, turned the nation sharply away from Maoism and drew on Confucianism and its focus on social harmony, order and tradition in order to construct a new national ideology, which later became known as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Where Mao though that Chinese civilization had fallen low due to the backward-looking nature of Confucianism, Deng saw positive things in Confucianism. Indeed, Prosekov (2018) describes – arguably in a somewhat exaggerated manner – contemporary China as “a socialist state in which Marxism-Leninism as an ideology is harmoniously combined with the traditional philosophical doctrine – Confucianism.” The ‘new’ Confucianism became part of the identity of the Chinese people, binding them to China’s grand history and, to a degree, also provided them with a moral system – something lacking in Maoism. Instead of marking a radical break, Deng’s and his successors’ adding of Confucianism into Chinese state ideology meant the Communist revolution became another development of Chinese civilization, one which would ensure China would again be a powerful state. 

Under Xi, the term “has undergone both a promotion and a facelift” insofar as Xi stresses “the uniqueness of the Chinese civilization and the notion of proud nation framework-building” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). The spiritual civilization Xi is building is uniquely Chinese. He dismisses Western values as non-universal and thus unsuitable for China (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). Thus, Xi’s concept of ‘spiritual civilization’ represents an attempt to contribute an indigenous Chinese alternative to Western liberal democracy and capitalism and mixes traditional culture (especially ideas drawn from Confucianism) “with Socialist ethos-in-transition, known as the Socialist core value outlook (shehui hexin jiazhiguan)” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018).  

In a narrative that demonstrates Xi’s ability “to adopt traditional culture,” borrowing “the Confucian family-country parallel” and merging it into Chinese socialism, he claims that in order to construct this “spiritual civilization” the Chinese people, according to Xi, must have “faith” so that China may have “hope” and that this faith and hope will lead to the nation possessing great “power” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). Global power can thus only “be achieved by constructing a spiritual civilization, spreading ‘excellent Chinese traditional culture’ (Zhongguo youxiu chuantong wenhua) and core Socialist values” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018).

This is just one example of a trend occurring under Xi’s leadership of the CCP, namely, the growing emphasis placed on the long history of Chinese civilization, the invocation of its “five thousand years of continuous civilization,” and the inherently civil and cultured (wenming) nature of its people in order to counter the notion that China is “backward and undeveloped” (Brown & Bērziņa-Čerenkova, 2018). The notion of five thousand unbroken years of history is useful for Xi insofar as it proves that Chinese civilization is superior to all others due to its longevity. It also legitimizes the CCP by portraying the party as leading Chinese people – and thus Chinese civilization – toward the zenith of its power and influence. Equally, by describing China as a civilization and not merely a nation-state, Xi is able to include all Han people globally within China. The Chinese diaspora has been very important post-Mao to China’s economic development. However, Xi also seeks to mobilize Han Chinese globally to intimidate China’s critics, to commit acts of espionage, and to influence foreign governments.

China’s development and increasing international influence – and at times bellicosity – is framed in civilizational terms by Xi, and as ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’ (i.e. the Han people). However, Xi Jinping does not discuss at length, as in the manner of Putin, the nature of civilizations and the exact nature of Chinese civilization. Rather, he discusses the importance of “harmony” between civilizations and criticizes the West for not respecting civilizational differences and behaving in an antagonistic manner toward China (Xinhua, 2021). Moreover, Xi warns that conflict will ensue if the United States and its allies (i.e., the West and Japan) intervene should China invade Taiwan, and he encourages the Chinese people to resist “foreign, imperialist influence.” Xi, thus, tells the Chinese people that they are in a civilizational conflict with the West in which China is the rising power determined to break free of constraints and take back a central role of global affairs and reunite the two Chinas (i.e. the PRC and Taiwan) and the West – particularly the United States – is attempting to prevent China’s rise to regional if not global hegemon. 

Like Putin, Xi does not consider China only the property of a single ethnic group. China’s occupation of Tibet was justified on the basis that the region was part of historical Chinese civilization, and that therefore by invading the territory China was liberating Tibetans (Sen, 1951: 112). If Tibetans do not wish to be part of China, the CCP perceives their acts of rebellion as illegitimate insofar as their lands are an intrinsic part of China. Ethnic minorities that seek independence are punished by the CCP, which moves large numbers of Han Chinese into those regions in an attempt to make the inhabitants a minority and the Han the majority, and in the case of Xinjiang province, through large-scale so-called re-education campaigns sometimes involving concentration camps. 

Conclusion

The notion that the world can be divided into several distinct civilizations, and that these civilizations often clash with each other due to possessing opposing values, is present in the discourses of authoritarian populists in non-democratic China and Russia, as well as in competitive authoritarian India and Turkey. Civilizationalism is, therefore, a key element in state discourses in the two largest nations on earth (China and India), in major power Russia, and regional power Turkey, where it plays several important roles.

First, civilizationalism helps authoritarian populists to construct a ‘people’ and their ‘elite’ enemies, as well as ‘dangerous others.’ We find that religion plays an important but not always decisive role in civilizational populist identity making. In Turkey and India, religion plays the key role in distinguishing ‘the people’ from ‘others,’ but also from the domestic secular ‘elites’ who abandoned the authentic religion of their civilization and allied themselves with foreigners, and thus betrayed ‘the people.’ Although Putin claims that Russian is a multi-religious civilization, Russian Orthodoxy is a key element in the cultural identification of ‘the core people of Russian civilization,’ the ethnic Russians. In China, where the state is officially atheist, the typically syncretistic beliefs of the Chinese people are tolerated insofar as they are considered traditional and indigenous to China, Confucianism (not a religion per se, but an ideology that condones Daoist and Chinese folk religion, religious worship) is encouraged, and ‘foreign’ religions Islam and Christianity, along with religious movements perceived to be hostile toward the CCP and/or communism, marginalized and sometimes outlawed. 

In all cases ‘the West’ is considered a civilizational ‘other’ and it is only in India where the domestic Muslim population is the ultimate ‘other’ rather than the West. The West represents, in the international sphere, the ‘elite’ power that the subaltern peoples must overcome in order to return their respective civilizations to greatness. Thus, we witness the formation of a loose alliance among non-liberal, predominantly non-Western regimes. They assert that supposed ‘universal values’ are actually specific Western values, arguing that concepts such as liberalism and cosmopolitanism are ill-suited for non-Western societies. They contend that the adoption of these values by non-Western societies inhibits the revitalization of non-Western civilizations. Consequently, we observe Erdogan advocating for a ‘war of liberation’ against the dominant West, while China and Russia seek to challenge Western liberal hegemony wherever possible. Indeed, leaders such as Putin, Xi, Modi, and Erdogan aspire to liberate their societies from ‘universal values’ and to revive the values that historically empowered their respective civilizations.

Second, civilizational populist discourses are used by authoritarian leaders to legitimize authoritarianism at home and bellicosity abroad. In Modi’s India, the repression of Muslims is framed as necessary to protect Hindu cultural and political hegemony, and the removing of the old secular elite is framed as decolonization, and thus the liberating of Hindus from Western imperialism, an act that allegedly leaves Hindus free to restore the greatness of Hindu civilization. 

In Xi’s China, minorities and dissidents are ‘re-educated’ in brutal conditions, and neighboring countries are threatened with China’s military might, to defend Han-Chinese cultural hegemony and to rejuvenate Chinese civilization, including the recovery of territories supposedly possessed by China during its imperial period, and before the so-called century of humiliation. Non-Chinese religions are suppressed and depicted as foreign imperialist impositions on China or as non-indigenous and therefore inferior forms of state organization.

Putin’s repression of sexual minorities and his invasion of Ukraine are presented by the Russian leader as necessary acts to protect the Russian people from ‘the West’ and its corrosive liberal ideology. Erdogan portrays repression of dissidents, people associated with the Gulen Movement, and marginalization of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and the old secular-nationalist (Kemalist) governing elite as necessary to protect Turkey from the foreign and domestic forces that wish to dismember the nation and to “liberate” the nation from Western ideologies and return it to the greatness of the Ottoman period by embracing Islamist nationalism.  

Finally, of the four leaders discussed in this article, only Putin explicitly challenges the nation-state paradigm, while the others merely conflate state and civilization and remain nationalist. Moreover, only Putin speaks at length about the concept of civilization states, which he alone claims will dominate the future of global politics. Be this as it may, the fact that regimes in India, Russia, Turkey, and China, use authoritarian civilizational populist discourses – discourses that are inherently anti-Western and anti-liberal – tell important things about the shape global politics is likely to take in the future. The rise of authoritarian regimes using civilizational populist discourses suggests that the concept of universal values is likely to come under further pressure, as non-Western civilization states or nation states that also identify as heirs to particular civilizations, increasingly challenge Western hegemony and liberal democratic norms both domestically and in the international sphere. The close relationship between China and Russia suggests a joint front of two authoritarian and civilizational populist regimes against a shared enemy: The liberal democratic West.


 

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


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The Contested Relevance of “Populism” in Politics, Law, and Mass Mobilization

Populism – a term frequently used in the media, politics, law, as well as in academia in social sciences and political science studies – aims to describe a particular concept, ideology, and strategy to explain mechanisms closely related to democracy and the far-right and far-left as well as extremism. Populism is often referred to as a comprehensive and flexible term. But where strictly does it come from, and how is it still relevant? 

By Katharina Diebold

Populism has changed massively in its conceptualization and methodology over the last 50 years. However, mainly because of its recent popularity and academic discourse, a vast range of criticism from researchers, politicians and media emerged. To make sense of this development, this article will outline different waves of populism and analyze its general relevance today. This will be followed by explaining scientific and political criticisms of populism. Lastly, the specific relevance of populism in the fields of law and activism will be investigated. 

Development of “Populism” 

Populism experienced multiple waves of development methodologically and content-wise. In the late 19th century, the term populism was already used within party politics by the People’s Party in North America and the Narodniki in Russia (Akkerman, 2003). In the following, the term was introduced to the French discourse and party system in the 1920s (Allcock, 1971). No particular political party claimed populism as an exclusive description or characterizing element of their party as such at the beginning of the term’s expansion (Canovan, 1981). This contributed to the broad and multi-faceted development of populism. 

The first wave was characterized by a conference set up by the London School of Economics in 1967, where scholars specifically met to define the phenomenon (Allcock, 1971; Ionescu & Gellner, 1969). This research then further developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The focus was the determination of a unifying underlying unity of a definition. However, the contradicting emergence of populism, including the Narodniki in imperial Russia; nondemocratic regimes, such as Latin America’s postwar autocracies; interwar peasant movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements in Africa made it difficult to find one specific definition (Ionescu & Gellner, 1969; MacRae, 1969). According to Ionescu & Gellner (1969), the focus was pro-democratic, nondemocratic, and anti-liberal political populism. 

The second wave of populism constitutes “classical populism” and started its development in the 1970s and 1980s, pushed by scholars in Latin America. This research study mainly investigated socio-economic reasons for mass political movements and why lower social classes participated in populist movements (Germani, 1978). Malloy (1977) explained that such research resulted in the modernization theory, which describes that populism is used as a tool to get the urban working and middle class active within politics. Contrary, Cardoso & Faletto (1979) investigated the developing structural Marxist theory, describing populism as a multiclass political movement. Criticism about this scholarly work is that the findings are very context-specific and incomparable (Germani, 1978). 

The third wave, developing as a reaction to classical populism, uses neoliberal populism, which defines politicians implementing neoliberal policies but still gaining a lot of popular support. Blaikie (2000) says that this research was mainly focused on Latin America. Scholars also call this phenomenon “neo-populism” (Roberts, 1995). Lastly, the fourth wave of populism research in recent years focused on the concept of populist “zeitgeist” and Western democracies, particularly political parties, institutions and parliamentary systems and social conditions that increase populism (Mudde, 2004). 

Turning from its development to its current relevance, Stavrakakis (2017) found that populism and its research gave valuable insight into how populism frames and constructs realities and discourses, which is crucial for politics, journalism, and academia. Additionally, populism studies and the knowledge about those mechanisms can help detect, analyze and discredit fascist and anti-democratic as well as illegitimate behavior of political parties and shape the critical thinking and mindsets of populations (Hammersley, 2021). Moving from critical engagement with fascist and anti-democratic movements towards climate movements, Meyer (2024) discovered significant influence of populist social movements on climate policies. This means that populist mechanisms of movements mobilizing for climate protection can have an influence in shaping and creating climate policy (Meyer, 2024). 

Criticism on “Populism” 

When we look at relevant criticism of populism, a vast range of methodological and content-specific critiques can be identified. One of them is the unspecified empirical spectrum of populism, also known as the Summun Genus Problem. It refers to the issue that no inclusive class (unit or entity) of the matter needs to be studied. It makes comparison within the concept of populism difficult (Pappas, 2016).

Secondly, the lack of historical and cultural context specificity can be problematic since it makes comparisons difficult. Populism is such a context-specific and time-specific phenomenon that conceptualizing and narrowing down the definition is challenging (Pappas, 2016; Gerring & Barresi, 2003). Thirdly, there is a lack of essentialism since, throughout the diverse definitions and frameworks of populism, no concrete “essence” of populism has been identified yet. Thus, a consistent pattern to measure and investigate populism is missing (Taggart, 2000). 

Additionally, conceptual stretching is an issue since it expands the boundaries of a concept so much that the concept becomes too undefined and vague. The term has become too flexible and loose, and people misuse it (Pappas, 2016; Canovan, 1981). Moreover, populism has an unclear negative contrasting pole, making conceptualization and definition even harder. If a concept can identify a clear negative antidote, the meaning of this concept is more straightforward to establish. According to Aslanidis (2015), the reasons already mentioned above, and the lack of a clear negative pole all contribute to the difficulty of differentiating populism from other related concepts. 

The sixth criticism is degreeism, as populism is difficult to quantify a certain degree of, as definition and conceptualization are lacking (Sartori, 1984). Thus, when looking at populism, it is hard to pinpoint exactly which action or behavior would constitute which kind of level or degree of populism (Aslanidis, 2015). 

Furthermore, an empirical operationalization must be included, which is necessary for laying out conditions to verify the concept (Sartori, 1970). Elster (1993) claims that populism neglects micro-mechanisms, including charismatic leadership and symbolic framing, which could help better understand the concept of populism in its existing form and future developments. 

To add on to that, populism shows poor data and inattention to crucial cases, which means that the data conducted can lead to poor, meaningless results because of the loose framework and contextual specificity. In the following, such data then impacts the meaning and power of the theory created. It has to be pointed out that researchers sometimes tend to study and focus on a subfield in the realm of populism that is more familiar and relatively easy rather than unknown. This can create a particular case selection bias, influencing what is researched and what is not (Sartori, 1970). 

Research by Sartori (1970) and Canovan (1981) shows that populism also does not allow for normative indeterminacy. Many scholars believe that populism is a rather negative symptom of political democracy, especially in conjunction with democracy and social mobilization. This can potentially negatively impact research (Stengel, 2019). 

Consequently, the political argument against populism and its research is, that it is dangerous to categorically claim populism as a negative or dangerous concept, which happens partly within its research (Stengel, 2019). It generalizes the nuances of populism, increases polarization and tension between parties and neglects the positive impacts of populism on critical thinking, mass mobilization and political participation (Stengel, 2019). Mudde & Kaltwasser (2012) suggest that populism tends to be used as a buzzword in recent years. Moreover, scholars such as Dean & Maiguasca (2020) indicate that populism should re-orient itself since the party sustains existing relations of power and ideology through its discourse (including its scholarly discourse).

Activism and Law: Relevance

Even though research suggests such a vast range of criticism regarding populism and its studies, this exact gap and un-specificity in the literature shows that more research should be done. The question of the positive effects of populism has not been researched enough yet. Since the research focused partly on the negative effects of populism conducted by authoritarian regimes, the focus should shift towards positive examples of populism, significantly beyond Europe and the Western world. An example could be Japanese populism, which can be identified as more liberal than its Western counterparts. Local politicians call for more liberal-democratic reforms to challenge the “conservative elite” (Miyazawa, 2008; Fahey et al., 2021).

Furthermore, research should pay attention to left-wing populism as well. We can also see, specifically when we look at law, mass mobilization, and democratization, that populism can have an immense positive impact on legal systems, legislation, politicians, and society. Scientifically, research studies of populism help significantly improve studies about democracy and the process of democratization on a theoretical and empirical level (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). 

Examples of populism influencing legislation positively or negatively can be found regarding climate policy and the alteration of criminal codes. Recent climate policies were specifically affected by mass movements using populist narratives (Dean & Maiguashca, 2020). Concretely, Lockwood & Lockwood (2022) found that right-wing populist parties have significant influence on climate and renewable energy policies in OECD countries. Another example is the Chilean criminal code, which was massively impacted by penal populism, where politicians compete about tougher prison sentences in the media (Acuña, 2023; Aslanidis, 2015).

This shows that populism can improve the communication of crucial messages towards the public and can mobilize them to take action in the following. Meyer (2024) found that populism can help convey messages against the elite and big corporations. Matus (2023) supports this claim by showing that populism can help to delineate and adjudge where there should be limits and where not regarding the development and changes regarding imprisonment and legal systems, such as in Chile. 

Conclusion

To conclude, populism and its research are still fundamentally crucial for today’s society, especially in law, politics, activism, and academia. However, populism and its studies should aim to understand specific mechanisms and fill in the gaps of certain incomprehensive developments. More research should be done on the positive impacts of populism and left-wing populism. Scholars should not be afraid to research populism because it is a flexible term, but they should be aware of its implications. 


 

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