PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses during Inauguration Ceremony of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre on December 29, 2015 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Shutterstock.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja Ali M. (2022). “The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0016

 

Abstract

Pakistan’s democracy has a turbulent political history. In the seven decades since its creation, the country has faced four military-led dictatorships and another two decades under indirect military rule. Given this political trend, authoritarianism is not a novel phenomenon in the country. Digital authoritarianism, however, is a relatively new domain of oppression. This paper looks at how a political party in power and the “establishment” (military elite and its civilian collaborators) have been increasingly controlling digital mediums as well as weaponizing cyberspace. This dual control and usage allow for growing digital authoritarianism.

Using the case study of Islamist civilizational populist Imran Khan’s government (2018-2022) and its collaboration with the military establishment in enforcing digital authoritarianism, this article provides a four levels of assessment of internet governance in Pakistan: 1. whole network level, 2. sub-network level, 3. proxy level, and 4. user level. In addition, the role of Khan’s political party’s Islamist civilizational populist outlook in contributing to authoritarianism is also discussed. A lot of censorship happens around the ideas of protecting Islam and Pakistan’s Muslim identity. Thus, Pakistan’s digital space is oppressive where ideas of religion, ontological insecurity, and nationalism are weaponized to legitimize the state’s growing authoritarianism.  

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja Ali M. Saleem

Introduction

Digital technologies have had a constant and rapid influence on the way the world operates in the 21st century. These technologies have changed the way individuals connect socially, participate in public debates and political discourse, and organize and mobilize for social change (Brown, Guskin, & Mitchell, 2012). Many of the upheavals from this century have shown the potential of digital tools to create social change in oppressive regimes, economic crises, occupation, conflict, and displacement. For example, social media has been stressed as a tool for citizen journalism in the contemporary era. Moreover, digital space has allowed new sorts of personal and public connections to emerge during the COVID-19 situation, especially regarding physical distance.

Despite the interest and optimism in the digital domain providing chances to construct better futures and just societies, the hazards and constraints remain immense (Al-Ali, 2020). Autocratic governments have used cyberspace to increase their influence. In addition, social media have become breeding grounds for the growing distrust between citizens and state institutions. Even in advanced consolidated democracies, cyberspace has been used to polarize, promoting radical solutions, thus undermining democracy. For instance, in the United States (US) the ascent of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, the US presidential election campaign was a ‘rebellion’ against the mainstream politics of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The erosion of trust in the established party power structures paved the way for these two “outsiders” to almost take control of the two parties. Social media played a pivotal role in garnering support for these leaders. Social media has been central to the advance of populist right-wing and neo-fascism. Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and many others could not have won elections without the skillful use of social media in their campaigns. Paradoxically, however, social media is critical to mainstreaming the populist and radical left such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. All these leaders are sustained by an active cyberspace where radical ideas were floated and popularized to eventually trickle down to generate real life political outcomes.

Pakistan is no exception to this global trend of increased politicization of cyberspace. While it remains a country where internet access is unevenly distributed, it is also one of the countries where the internet is comparatively cheap (Baluch and Musyani, 2020). Its huge population means that despite a small user base, the sheer number of users with access results in millions of users of the internet and allied services. It is speculated that between 2021 and 2022 alone some 22 million new users of the internet emerged in the country and at present only 36.5 percent of its population has access to the facility (Digital, 2022). While the internet was politically a largely irrelevant place, in recent years it has gained new significance in the country’s politics. The post-pandemic trends given in the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Report 2021 indicate that coronavirus has resulted in an expansion of internet availability and usage where household ownership of mobile connections as well as internet subscriptions has seen unprecedented growth (PTA, 2021).

Imran Khan’s party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – Pakistan’s Justice Movement), has used an active online presence to sway young voters, more than half of the country’s population, to secure electoral victory (Jahangir, 2020). The military establishment has also increased its presence on the internet and has been constantly engaged in monitoring and harassment of individuals of susceptible loyalty in its eyes (Rehman, 2020). Both these entities combined also use cyberspace to promote their narratives. Between 2018 and early 2022, the PTI led by Imran Khan (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), in a close relationship with the establishment, used authoritarian tactics, jailed critics on fake cases, pressurized judiciary, passed laws to curtail usage, and increased monitoring of social media (PTA, 2021: 13). It also used social media to promote majoritarian civilizational populist narratives on issues of critical importance. So, while PTI’s stance today appears democratic and against the military’s role in politics, it still wants the military to interfere and support it as the military did from 2017 to 2021 (Zehra, 2022).

Our paper focuses on this politically symbiotic relationship between a political party and the military elite in Pakistan to examine its use and abuse of online space. We try to navigate the landscape by exploring the means through which cyberspace has been reclaimed by these actors and weaponized against political opposition and civil society. The paper also examines how pre-existing socio-political issues such as a weak democratic setup, an interventionist military, civilizational populism, and majoritarianism have aided the growing cyber authoritarianism. To carry out our analysis we use a layered approach to explore the levels of authoritarianism. These are rooted in the framework used by (Howard, et al., 2011) which looks at four levels: full network, sub-network, proxies, and network nodes.

Political Context

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

The Civilizational Populist Party – Imran Khan’s PTI 

‘Civilizational populism’ is “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, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b). Established in 1996 by Pakistan’s leading and beloved sportsman, Imran Khan (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a), the PTI (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) is an Islamist civilizational populist party.

Initially there was no clear ideology of the party as both left-wing and right-wing elements found a home in the PTI. Anti-corruption was the sole slogan but there was no solid plan on how to achieve this objective. The PTI was a party that was formed by a person, who belonged to the elite, spending all his adult life outside Pakistan, and marrying a very wealthy British aristocrat, who thought people should vote for him because he was a brilliant cricketer and philanthropist (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). During the 1990s, Pakistan’s economy nosedived as the two leading parties, the PPP and the PMLN, fought with each other. The military, although formally out of politics, played the moderator and kingmaker. In 1999, the military formally took over for the fourth time in Pakistan’s history. General Musharraf was leading an economy moving towards default in the early 2000s when the 9/11 attacks saved his military regime. In response to his prompt support for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, billions of dollars of aid came to Pakistan. Pakistan became a significant partner of the United States, but it also resulted in a colossal cost to the Pakistani economy and society as terrorism increased. The country became a breeding ground for violence and mixed with corrupt leadership, the cause of human development was long forgotten.

Imran Khan initially supported Musharraf and his coup. He even supported Musharraf’s farcical referendum and tried to negotiate a deal with him to be installed as a Prime Minister. In the early years of the party, Khan’s advocacy for social welfare and his philanthropic activities earned him a modest following. But Musharraf knew Khan was not that popular, so he rejected the deal. Khan was already a critic of Musharraf’s policies, so this became the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Khan, from then onwards, became the most vociferous critic of Musharraf’s support for the war on terror, even supporting the Taliban against Musharraf and the US (Findlay, 2021). Khan’s support for the Taliban resonated with the masses who resented the US’s historical role in Pakistan, Palestine, and the Arab world. The Iraq War further destroyed the sympathy that the US had after 9/11 in some sections of Pakistan’s population. Khan and other PTI leaders used these issues to showcase the inability of the current military and political figures to feel the “pain” of the common citizens.

In the 2000s and early parts of 2010s, Khan used the growing cable television networks to increase his visibility. A lone man discussing the moral and national implications of American drone attacks on Pakistani soil, a sympathizer of the Taliban (framing them as decolonizers), calling out on corruption and promising social and political change garnered him considerable attention but he still could not become a popular leader (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). His party was just a small bunch of admirers. Despite his controversial positions on issues and untarnished political background, the PTI never became a significant player in politics until 2011 when the military decided to collaborate with him, and he dropped his anti-army stance (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz & Saleem, 2022). Two years of strong support from the military resulted in PTI’s first win in the 2013 general elections. The party won its first majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) by allying with right-wing political parties in 2013. Other political parties noticed and declared that PTI’s rise was not entirely organic as it gained favorable support from the establishment. Despite its mediocre performance in KP, PTI’s Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) combined with religious rhetoric and the strong support of the military and the judiciary, which removed and disqualified PM Nawaz Sharif for life, led it to become the party with the most seats in the National Assembly (NA) in 2018 general elections.

During its three-and-a-half years in power at the federal level, the party enjoyed a close relationship with the military until the relations went bitter in late 2021. During this small period of close collaboration of the civil government and the military, digital authoritarianism increased at all levels. While violence on the streets, rooted in political, ethnic, and religious differences, was nothing new, there was uncommon aggression towards those who opposed the highhandedness of the government or the military or voiced concern in online space. The issue of hundreds of Balochs and Pashtuns, who were abducted and incarcerated by the intelligence agencies without any legal authority and declared “missing persons” remained unaddressed by the government and judiciary. Self-censorship and legal laws to curtail cyber freedoms were ensnared at an unprecedented level (discussed below). PTI justified these measures as means of preserving the national security and morality of the youth. Ironically, the same laws that the PTI government framed during its tenure are now being used by the military to harass pro-PTI voices since Khan’s exit from office in April 2022 (Naseer, 2022).

Khan’s civilizational populism, which instrumentalizes religion, was a big factor in promoting digital authoritarianism during his premiership. Like other populist leaders and their parties, Khan and the PTI believed that no one could legitimately criticize them. All criticism of Khan and the PTI was illegal, biased, and against the nation and so should be stopped and punished by any means possible. This was, of course, the classic justification of authoritarian populism. Second, PTI’s vision and campaign slogan was the recreation of the state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina that Prophet Muhammad established in Central Arabia in the seventh century) in Pakistan. This not only attracted people to the PTI but also made PTI and Khan holy figures on a divine mission. Unsurprisingly, in a society like Pakistan where religion is important, those opposed to this divine mission were condemned, subjected to all kinds of hatred, and their rights to speech, expression, and movement were deniable. Hence, both populism and religious-oriented politics, allowed the PTI to execute and justify digital and non-digital authoritarianism.

An important part of the PTI civilizational populist toolkit is misogyny. Misogyny is common to numerous populist parties and leaders as well as religious conservatives. Whether it is Trump and the Republican Party or Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), misogyny is regularly employed and is popular among the party activists. Khan has promoted numerous misogynistic ideas during his premiership, including linking violence against women to their conduct and dress, and the PTI has vigorously defended his reprehensible statement. He has also made sexist remarks against female politicians of other parties and used sexual innuendos against male opposition figures (The Express Tribune, 2022). In an interview when he was asked, “You were also quoted as saying that the practice of women wearing veils ‘is to stop temptation, not every man has willpower’ (Daily Pakistan, 2021). You said on increasing vulgarity, will have consequences, and you were accused of rape victim blaming. How do you respond to that?” Imran Khan replied, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men unless they’re robots. I mean it is common sense.” Khan has also spoken regularly against pornography using religious edicts which, unsurprisingly, helps in justifying digital censorship (Daily Pakistan, 2021).

The deadly nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not limited to Pakistan (now see in detail Yilmaz et al., 2022). In India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, one can see similar dynamics. It does not matter whether the country is Muslim-majority or Hindu-majority, rich or poor, long-established democracy or a recent fragile democracy, the nexus between religious populism and digital authoritarianism is popular and successful (Yilmaz et al., 2022).

Guard of Honor Battalion of the Pakistan Army, during the official ceremony at the Aiwan-e-Sadr Presidential Palace of the President of Pakistan in Islamabad on November 3, 2015. Photo: Mirko Kuzmanovic.

The Authoritarian Institution: Establishment

The “establishment” is a name that has been given to the top brass of the Pakistani military which has a long history of interference, controlling, and shaping Pakistani politics. Out of 75 years of Pakistan’s history, the military has directly ruled the country for 33 years. Even when the military is not ruling directly, it shapes the political landscape informally. The “kingmakers” have misused and abused their position by turning the military from a security force to not only a political entity but also the biggest business conglomerate in Pakistan that sells dairy products, meat, textiles, fertilizers, cement, land, houses, natural gas, oil, etc. The military also has universities, medical and engineering colleges, a sugar mill, and a bank.

The Pakistani military has not simply imposed repeated periods of dictatorships but with each successive phase of military dictatorships, the social and political fabric of the country has been redefined under authoritarianism. For instance, the early dictators such as Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan were instrumental in stifling the political growth of various forms in Pakistan. Ayub Khan’s policies side-lined the unifying and democratic figure of Fatima Jinnah and normalized the suppression of political forces and election rigging. Combined both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan’s hijacking of politics and hostility towards the Bengali population led to a civil war which turned into a Bengali massacre by the Pakistan military resulting in the country losing East Pakistan and its transition into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Later, General Zia-ul-Haq also abused his power by not only dissolving assemblies and imposing martial law, but he also hanged former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a dubious trial. The decade that followed led to the unprecedented integration of military officials into politics and civil bureaucracy. Politically, Zia-ul-Haq experimented with the Islamization of society, mainstreamed religious right-wing into politics, and groomed a new generation of right-wing political parties to counter existing political opposition in society. After Zia-ul-Haq’s death, democracy returned but the military never left politics. It continued to manage politics until, as mentioned earlier, General Pervez Musharraf imposed the fourth martial law in 1999. Much like his predecessors, he disregarded the political, civil, and human rights of the Pakistanis for nearly another decade.

The establishment’s position as the ‘apex’ institution, with no accountability, has culminated in a culture of oppression and violence. The military’s spying agency the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has unchecked power to surveil citizens and its power has led to countless cases of disappearances and deaths of political activists. Described as working for the ‘national’ interest, over the years, ISI and the military have expanded their ‘security-driven’ narrative to cyberspace. They have been directly involved in shaping policy to support their intrusive and unlawful oppression of citizens. The agency is also responsible for using online space to popularize fear of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Indian’ fake news and threats which it calls “fifth generation warfare”. Overall, the military’s authoritarian attributes and legacy have found themselves replicating in cyberspace.

While most people know that ISI conducts electronic surveillance and even Prime Minister Imran Khan has acknowledged that his phone may also be compromised, the ISI has no legal authority to establish an extensive, broad range surveillance system and monitor thousands of people. The role of the military can be gauged from the fact that often a retired military general is appointed as Chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The current PTA Chairman is retired Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa. Previously, in the mid-2000s Major General Shahzada Alam Malik was the Chairman of PTA (PTA 2021). Furthermore, the military also oversees a major portion of telecom/mobile operations in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan through the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public sector company under Pakistani military supervision (PTA, 2019: 21).

When an authoritarian force is combined with an Islamist civilizational populist it becomes a breeding ground for gross violations of human rights. This union while short-lived was quite a dark period for democracy in Pakistan. While the PTI is out of power, the legacy of digital authoritarianism and cyber oppression it left behind is now being weaponized against it by the very the establishment the PTI worked with while in power.

Context of Cyber Space in Pakistan

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

 

Under such circumstances to no one’s surprise, Freedom House rates the country as “partly free,” giving it a score of 37 out of 100 (Freedom House, 2021). Pakistan not only has a low score, but it is also losing ground, particularly after 2018, when it had a score of 43. Since then, it had an election and a government that was generally perceived to have been greatly influenced by the military. The situation is considerably worse with respect to internet freedoms, which are even more restricted. The Freedom House gives it a score of only 26 out of a possible 100 points, and it is classified as “not free.” (Freedom House, 2021). The score is based on three factors of internet freedom. Pakistan received only 6 points out of a possible 25 points for “obstacles to access,” 13 points out of a possible 35 points for “content limitations,” and 7 points out of a possible 40 points for “violation of user rights.” Once again, one can see the declining trend in action (Freedom House, 2021). The figures provided by Freedom House mirror the reality of online and off space in Pakistan.

The future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall is bleak in Pakistan as new regulations and allied bills have further increased the control of the government on the internet and social media. The military chief, General Qamar Bajwa warned the “internal enemies” and declared, “we will have to deal strictly with some internal elements spreading chaos.” General Bajwa further said:  “It is a moment of reflection for all of us that some people are being used by anti-state elements. This is called hybrid or fifth-generation war. Its purpose is to make Pakistan’s roots hollow and damage the country’s unity. InshAllah, we will never let these negative objectives succeed.” (Dawn, 2021).

On the other hand, while still in power, Khan warned the nation, particularly the youth of the ‘vices’ of the internet and promised to ‘protect them.’ In one of his meetings, he urged for ‘character building’ of the youth and warned against the vices of the cyber world “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online.” (Jamal, 2021).

While Imran Khan constantly portrayed the internet as a den of vice and as a national security issue (Geo News, 2022) his party has used the space in the most effective way. PTI’s media cell is one of the most organized on the internet and has used the platform to propagate its narratives, troll opposition and critics as well as shaped social media trends (Khalid, 2022; see details in the four levels of analysis section below).

The PTI government and the establishment supported each other in the violation of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression granted by the 1973 Pakistani Constitution. The key internet governance institution in Pakistan is the PTA and it draws most of its powers from the PTA (Re-organization) (Amendment) Act, 2006. The legal framework is designed in such a way that PTA can itself or allow others to monitor, record, and survey all kinds of electronic communications. All kinds of electronic communications come under its purview as it is the regulatory body of the telecommunication sector in Pakistan. There is little transparency or accountability in the process. Thus, PTA has become a means of surveilling and shaping cyberspace. Pressures to curb ‘terrorism’ has led the military to push elected governments to pass laws such as The Fair Trial Act, 2013 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. While on the surface this legislation is to prevent cybercrime, in reality, it enables further documentation and enhances the state’s capability to legally surveil. However, despite its reach, legalized surveillance is only a small part of state surveillance. Civilian and intelligence agencies, working outside the legal sphere, use surveillance of the citizenry for what they call “national interest.”

The last few years have seen a spike in cyber authoritarianism in Pakistan as both the PTI government and the military have used formal laws as well as illegal powers. Civil and political rights have taken a backseat as increased censorship and authoritarianism have prevailed. People have been abducted with no due process or legal authority because of their online activism or other ‘crimes.’

Four Levels of Analysis of Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

The following four level of analysis of digital authoritarianism was first developed and used by (Howard, et al., 2011).

Full Network Level Governance

Internet shutdowns in cities, regions, or in the whole country are not uncommon in Pakistan but, despite PTA being the enforcer of these bans, its annual reports give no information about these shutdowns.

There are three types of full network shutdowns in Pakistan. Most common internet shutdowns are on prominent days in Pakistan’s official calendar. Internet is not available on religious and national holidays as security agencies and the government believes there is a likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. So, almost every year, there is an internet shutdown in specific cities on significant holidays. Second, there are long-term regional shutdowns in areas mired in an insurgency. Areas in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces suffer internet blackouts for weeks or more. The final type of internet shutdown is less related to political protests. These happen for a few hours or a day when the government tries to stifle a political protest. The reason given for the internet shutdown is again a terrorist threat, but the actual reason is more likely political. These short terms shutdowns are mostly done to stop mobilization as opposed to long term shutdowns in Balochistan and KP which are usually disciplinary mechanisms.

Full network internet shutdowns in Pakistan first began in 2005-2006 but became common in Pakistan after 2011. Most often, it is the military intelligence agencies that ask for internet shutdowns as no evidence is asked from them. The actual process is that the ISI, Military Intelligence, or the civilian Intelligence Bureau asks the Ministry of Interior for an internet shutdown due to a viable threat. The National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) in the Ministry then deliberates and usually, it requests the PTA to enforce the shutdown. The PTA then orders the internet service providers and telecom operators to shut down their internet operations. Unfortunately, the decision to shut down the internet is totally bureaucratic and there is no judicial or parliamentary input in it. Even post-facto accountability of the intelligence agencies or the NCMC is absent.

Pakistan is a poor developing country with a huge young population of more than a hundred million. There is a dire need to provide employment to this young population and internet and communication technologies (ICTs) can help. The Pakistani state has launched “Digital Pakistan” to tap young talent. Regular internet shutdowns, however, stifle ICT employment and disrupt communications, resulting in huge losses. The national exchequer lost an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) in 2012 due to internet shutdowns in Pakistan during Eid, and another 500 million rupees in 2012 due to outages during Ashura (Wagner, 2018).

Sub-Network or Website Level Governance

Censorship at the website level is widespread in Pakistan. The censorship is done using section 37(2) of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), 2016. The federal government notified new “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards), Rules 2021” in October 2021. In the 2021 annual report of PTA, following the information given about banned or blocked websites:

Category

Websites blocked

Decency and Morality

903,074

Glory of Islam

77,692

Sectarian & Hate Speech

40,365

Defense of Pakistan

36,820

Proxy

10,219

Contempt of Court

8,673

Defamation/ Impersonation

7,690

Miscellaneous

6,562

Total

1,091,095

Source: PTA 2021

According to PTA 2019 Report, more than 824,000 websites were banned since the PTA’s establishment. If we compare it with 2021 figures, it shows a more than 30 percent increase in the last two years, showing a great expansion in surveillance and punitive action (PTA 2019). Religion plays a major role in digital authoritarianism in Pakistan. Islam is used to justify a large number of internet curbs by the government. In the PTA 2021 Report, the highest number of websites banned (903,074 – 82 percent) was because of “Decency and Morality” which is linked to Islam. The second highest number of websites banned (77,692 – 7 percent) was for “Glory of Islam.” The third highest number of websites banned (40,365 – 3.6 percent) were banned for Sectarian/Hate Speech, which is again related to Islam. Hence, around 93 percent of the websites banned are because of religious reasons one way or the other.

Proxy or Corporation Level Governance

Social media companies and other communication firms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc. are major sources of information. They are called intermediaries as they host the content of individuals, businesses, groups, etc. Individuals and groups upload content to intermediaries and intermediaries allow it to be viewed by the world without prior screening. These intermediaries can only survive if they have legal immunity, and most countries give legal immunity to these firms.

The young generation does not get their news and information about what’s happenings in the world or in their particular sector from newspapers or cable news, they rely on social media. Therefore, anyone who is concerned about controlling access to information or manipulating information must manage and rein in intermediaries. Hence, the PTI and the military also made sure to strengthen the PTA to threaten, penalize, and ban the operations of intermediaries.

In October 2020, the PTI government came up with new restrictive rules, called the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content, 2020, for intermediaries. The justification for these restrictive rules was the proliferation of fake news and the threat to the privacy of ordinary Pakistanis but the reality was quite different. Under these new rules, the government did not remove the legal immunity of the intermediaries, but it tried to force them to accept orders regarding restricting their content based on local laws/culture and providing user data to the government whenever the government deems the content illegal. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies are threatened with closure. Pakistan has a long history of banning intermediaries. For instance, YouTube was banned in Pakistan from September 2012 to early 2016 after it refused to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie “Innocence of Muslims.” More recently, in April 2021, all major social media companies were banned for a few hours because of the protests of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan, a religious militant political party. The PTA also banned and then lifted the ban on TikTok several times in 2021.

The new rules were so restrictive that Dawn, the most respected English newspaper in Pakistan, published a scathing editorial: “That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.” (Dawn, 2020).

But the PTI government was not deterred by any national or international criticism. In February 2022, just before its removal, the PTI government came up with another draconian law to restrict digital freedom. It promulgated an ordinance that amended the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to make online criticism of government authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense. The offense was made non-bailable, with harsh punishment, increasing the fines and imprisonment up to five years. The courts were also ordered to decide the cases within six months and send monthly reports on proceedings.

Later, this amendment was declared unconstitutional by Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court. The irony is that since its removal from office, it’s the PTI that is protesting and criticizing the military online, resulting in its repression by authorities. Imran Khan and his party leadership should be thanking the Islamabad High Court as they would have been facing even more repression, if the PECA amendment, initiated and defended by them in courts, was still law of the land.

Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Network-Node or Individual Level Governance

Years of true civilian rule in Pakistan have been rare. Authoritarian states need surveillance to survive so surveillance has been part and parcel of a Pakistanis’ life. As internet and communication technologies became available and popular in Pakistan, the state also increased its capabilities of electronic surveillance. After 9/11, during the “War on Terror,” US assistance augmented and modernized Pakistan’s surveillance architecture. This was a disastrous development for the people of Pakistan as the authoritarian state traced critical citizens using this new surveillance system and abducted, incarcerated, and tortured them. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, feminists, etc. all suffer at the hands of the authoritarian state.

Mehvish Ahmad and Rabia Mehmood have detailed the effects of surveillance: “Social media surveillance of critics of state policies has resulted in targeting of groups through infiltration, content monitoring, and interception, and has resulted in enforced disappearances, torture, arrests, interrogations, and confiscation of digital devices of those summoned by authorities. More indirect methods to censor dissent have also been taken into use: Pakistan has banned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and websites run by religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities in part using surveillance technologies that allow them to uncover the details of administrators and moderators. Through this regulation of online spaces, it has allowed some groups— for instance, pro-army propagandists or far-right Islamist extremists active on social media—to enjoy more space than others, effectively allowing the former to violently challenge journalists, political workers, dissidents, and others from rivalling factions.” (Ahmad & Mehmood, 2017).

The PTI populist government, with the encouragement and support of the military, has arrested, jailed, and beaten people for speaking against Imran Khan, the military, or Islam. People have been charged and even sentenced to death for speaking against Islam. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court sentenced three men to death in the first case of cyber blasphemy (Asad, 2021). The case is under appeal but even an acquittal by superior courts will not save the victims as anyone accused of blasphemy is always under threat in Pakistan. Political criticism was repressed. In June 2019, Waleed Butt, a young leader of the PMLN party, was arrested for posting derogatory content against the judiciary, Imran Khan, and the military.

Journalists are particularly under threat if they criticize the military or Imran Khan. In September 2020, journalist Asad Ali Toor was arrested for using “derogatory language” against the military. After he was released in November, he was attacked at his home by suspected military intelligence agencies in 2021. In September 2020, journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested (later released) for his social media posts against the military, and a sedition case was filed against journalist Absar Alam for Twitter posts. In April 2021, Absar was shot near his home and the police investigation of the murder attempt led to no arrests. Later, in an official meeting, PTI information minister Fawad Chaudhry denied Absar Alam and Asad Toor are journalists, thereby denying attacks on them are linked to their online writing and YouTube videos. Also in April, Sarmad Sultan, a social media activist went missing and his Twitter account was also taken down temporarily. He was released after outrage and a campaign on social media.

Women journalists critical of the PTI party and government suffered extreme online harassment. Gharidah Farooqi, Benazir Shah, and Asma Shirazi were victims of a targeted campaign led by PTI ministers and officeholders. As explained above, Imran Khan himself appears to be a misogynist and this helps in making the PTI particularly offensive towards women.

Conclusion

While the PTI is no longer in power, its cyberspace legislation has further enhanced the dominance of the military. In a karmic manner, the digital authoritarian laws legitimized by Islamist civilizational populism and created & used by the Imran Khan’s PTI government are today being used against pro-PTI voices as arrests based on social media posts are being carried out.

Military dominance and authoritarianism have been part of Pakistan’s history since the late 1950s. The establishment has a strong tradition of undemocratic, illegal, and unconstitutional behavior. While political parties change, the establishment has remained a constant and has grown in its authoritarian activities. It co-opts civil government to create an environment where fears of immorality and national security justify the introduction of draconian cyber laws, their heavy-handed enforcement. However, over the recent years, the military has gathered unparalleled power. Using religion and a security-driven national narrative, it has maintained its grasp on Pakistani society and politics. These conditions are now being replicated in cyberspace as well. The level of surveillance, blackouts, and control that are exerted by this institution is troubling for not only the future of cyberspace in Pakistan but also the country’s chances of moving towards true democratic ideals.

Under a new series of laws between 2018 and 2022, the old frameworks have been revised to make room for more control over cyberspace which has resultantly turned into a highly surveilled and shrinking space for dissenting voices. When faith and national security narratives are used in combination, it convinces the masses of the necessity of authoritarianism. In addition, in a country like Pakistan, the establishment has no checks and balances on it which allows it for extrajudicial measures and activities in cyberspace. In such an environment, many critics have been forced into voluntary self-censorship and self-exile, while those still in Pakistan face grave consequences.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not unique to Pakistan. As mentioned above, the same dynamics can be seen elsewhere such as India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. While the military is an essential and crucial element in the rise of the PTI-led civilizational populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan, its role is non-existent in India and Malaysia, and in the case of Turkey, the military was initially working against the rise of religious populism. Therefore, one can conclude that civilizational populism is not dependent on military support.


References

— (2020). “Digital surveillance.” Dawn, October 16, 2020, https://www.dawn.com/news/1585329 (accessed November 24, 2022).

— (2021). “Men are not robots!’ – PM Imran speaks about impact of women wearing ‘very few clothes.” Daily Pakistan. June 21, 2021, https://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/21-Jun-2021/men-are-not-robots-pm-imran-speaks-about-impact-of-women-wearing-very-few-clothes (accessed November 24, 2022).

— (2021). “Pakistani armed forces equipped to fight all external and internal threats: Army chief.” Dawn. September 6, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1644854 (accessed November 24, 2022).

— (2022). “Pakistan.” Digital 2022. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2022-pakistan (accessed November 24, 2022).

— (2022). “Highlights of PM Imran Khan launches National Security Policy’s public version.” Geo News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FwxZGv98Zs (accessed November 24, 2022).

— (2022). “Misogyny v selective criticism: Imran Khan’s sexist remarks about Maryam Nawaz divide Twitter.” The Express Tribune. May 21, 2022. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2357646/misogyny-v-selective-criticism-imran-khans-sexist-remarks-about-maryam-nawaz-divide-twitter (accessed November 24, 2022).

Al-Ali, N. (2020). “Covid-19 and feminism in the Global South: Challenges, initiatives and dilemmas.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 27(4), 333-347.

Asad, Malik. (2021). “In a first, three get death for ‘cyberspace blasphemy’.” Dawn, January 9,  2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1600504/in-a-first-three-get-death-for-cyberspace-blasphemy (accessed November 24, 2022).

Baloch, Shah Meer and Zafar Musyani. (2020). “Pakistan’s Great Digital Divide.” The Diplomat, 8 July 2020,https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/pakistans-great-digital-divide/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Baloch, Shah Meer. (2019). “Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown.” The Diplomat. March 25, 2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/balochistans-great-internet-shutdown/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Brown, H., Guskin, E. & Mitchell, A. (2012). “The role of social media in the Arab uprisings.” Pew Research Center, 28.

Findlay, Stephanie. (2021). “A win for Pakistan’: Imran Khan gambles on Taliban ties, Financial Times. September 29, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/257853d9-acb6-432b-92d4-a1b45335a388 (accessed November 24, 2022).

Howard, Philip N.; Agarwal, Sheetal D. & Hussain, Muzammil M. (2011). “The Dictators’ Digital Dilemma: When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks?” Issues in Technology Innovation. Number 13. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/10_dictators_digital_network.pdf (accessed November 24, 2022).

Jahangir, Ramsha. (2020). “Life in PTI’s Social Media Bubble.” The Dawn. August 16, 2020, https://www.dawn.com/news/1574529 (accessed November 24, 2022).

Jamal, Sana. (2021). “Pakistan: PM calls for effective mechanism to block online obscene material.” Gulf News. October 22, 2021. https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/pakistan-pm-calls-for-effective-mechanism-to-block-online-obscene-material-1.83136108 (accessed November 24, 2022).

Khan, S. A. (2021). “Internet and Social Media Blackouts Are Hurting Businesses in        Pakistan.” The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/internet-and-social-media-blackouts-are-hurting-businesses-in-pakistan/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Khalid, Imran. (2022). “The PTI brand– a case study.” Pakistan Today. June 10, 2022. https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2022/06/10/the-pti-brand-a-case-study/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Naseer, Tahir. (2022). “IHC orders FIA to stop harassing PTI’s activists, workers.” Dawn. April 14, 2022. https://www.dawn.com/news/1684985 (accessed November 24, 2022).

Purdon, L.; Ashraf, A., & Wagner, B. (2015). “Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns, Case Study Telenor Pakistan.” Institute for Human Rights and Business. Case Study 13. https://www.ihrb.org/uploads/reports/2015-09%2C_IHRB_Report%2C_Security_v_Access_-_The_Impact_of_Mobile_Network_Shutdowns.pdf (accessed November 24, 2022).

Rehman, Abdul. (2020). “Pakistan’s Government and Military Are Crushing Dissent on Social Media.” The Diplomat. March 11, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/pakistans-government-and-military-are-crushing-dissent-on-social-media/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Shakil, K. & Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Civilisationism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan.” Religions12(9), 777. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090777

Wagner, Ben. (2018). “Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan.” International Journal of Communication. 12: 3917–3938.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions 2022, 13, 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022b). “Civilizational Populism Around the World.” Populism & Politics.European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 31, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0012

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja Ali. (2022). “Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 1, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021a). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0006

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021b). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS)https://doi.org/10.55271/op0004 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Saleem, Raja Ali; Pargoo, Mahmoud; Shukri, Syaza & Idznursham, Ismail. (2022). “Religious Populism, Cyberspace and Digital Authoritarianism in Asia: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey.” Think Tank Report. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS, Brussels).  https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0001

Zehra, Ailia. (2022). “PTI’s Anti-Army Tirade Has Nothing to Do With Civilian Supremacy.” Friday Times. April 15, 2022. https://www.thefridaytimes.com/2022/04/15/ptis-anti-army-tirade-has-nothing-to-do-with-civilian-supremacy/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participate in the debate over Brazil in Sao Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In search of a healthy political space in Brazil after fervid presidential election 

Brazil’s last elections unmasked a polarized society who condemns former president Jair Bolsonaro for the major exploiting of the Amazonas and his insensitivity attitudes towards the pandemic and those who see Bolsonaro and the newly elected president Lula da Silva as a corrupt leader. It will require a healthy space to coexist both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  

By Teresa Calandri*

On the 2nd of October Brazil elected Lula da Silva as its president, defeating Jair Bolsonaro on the second-round election. The results were impressively close: Lula won with 50.9 percent of the votes, against Bolsonaro holding 49.1 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the majority of the Congress remains of Bolsonaro’s party (Gual, 2022).  Brazil is the largest democracy and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America (Roy, 2022). So, what does this result mean for Brazil in the broader global context and in Latin America? 

Jair Bolsonaro who represents the right-wing party is a retired military officer. As a defender of the military regime of 1964-1985, Bolsonaro’s policies are inspired by his conservative ideology. For instance, he is against the same-sex marriage and abortion rights. His policies about the pandemic made Brazil one of the worst countries in the world in preventing the multitude of the pandemic related deaths (Filho & Feil, 2021). Resembling Trump’s anti-scientific rhetoric about Covid, Bolsonaro called the virus a ‘little flu’ and encouraged Brazilians to not get vaccinated, dismissing the validity of vaccinations to the people (Phillips, 2022). His denial in the magnitude and severity of the pandemic contributed to the death of 700,000 Brazilians. When he was questioned about the number of deaths, he simply replied ‘So what? What do you want me to do?’ Such a cold-blooded and harsh rhetoric is common amongst radical right populists that in their speech exclude groups such as immigrants, minorities etc (Farias et al., 2022). 

His opponent and successor, Lula da Silva, is a representative of the left-wing Worker’s Party who condemned the military regime in Brazil. He was President of Brazil twice, leading the country from 2003 till 2010. His main objective now is to protect the environment and develop new public policies to promote respecting Indigenous peoples, minorities, women’s and LGBT rights (de Almeida, 2005). In his early years in politics, his discourse was based on fighting against poverty and broader social inequalities that is endemic in Brazil and many other Latin American countries (de Almeida, 2005). During his mandate (2003-2011), he introduced several social policies to combat inequalities. For instance, his ‘Programa Bolsa Família’ (PBF) donated cash to families in need (Outlook, 2022). While progress was made in the social and economic fields, allegations of corruption began to arouse (Outlook, 2022).

The long-lasting tension between the two leaders was also evident in the debate held two days before the elections where the candidates pointed finger at each other. Bolsonaro said that his rival should be rather in prison and not in presidency competition. This was to remind the Brazilian people of the ‘Operation Car Wash’ where Lula da Silva was convicted for bribery in 2017. He started serving prison for the 12-year corruption sentence and while serving, he appealed (Phillips, 2019). Although the charges against da Silva for corruption and money laundering have since been annulled, the decision was based on the lack of jurisdiction of the Court that convicted him in the first place. The ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Therefore, the question of whether he is guilty of corruption or not has never been answered. Even today Lula is seen as a corrupt leader by those who oppose him (Watson, 2021).

In candidacy discussion, Lula described his rival’s mandate as the period in which the major exploitation of the Amazonas took place. This was a central argument in Lula’s campaign and in his victory speech, as he pronounced ‘Let’s fight for zero deforestation. The planet needs the Amazon alive.’ The Amazonas is not just any other forest in the world, but it is considered the ‘lungs of the planet,’ (BBC, 2013). Among many other world leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated da Silva and expressed that he was looking forward to working together ‘to advance shared priorities – like protecting the environment.’ The government of Norway expressed that they would resume financial aid – which was discontinued in 2019 – to help Brazil combat deforestation (Villegas & Kaplan, 2022). These reactions reflect how much international support Lula da Silva has gained, particularly due to this environmental crisis. Da Silva’s policies also encompass the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples who have been living there for centuries. 

Now going back to the results, the impact of the small difference in votes between such antagonistic candidates will be reflected in the next four years of mandate. Although a left-wing president will lead Brazil, the conservative right holds the majority in both the upper and lower houses in Congress. Furthermore, between these new legislators, many of the ministers that served during the Bolsonaro’s mandate were also re-elected – amongst them the former environment minister (Nugent, 2022). 

A fundamental pillar of Lula’s campaign, such as the protection of the Amazonas, could end up being just a promise while the environment continues being in danger. Although it will not be an easy task for Lula da Silva to govern with no majority in the legislative power, it may provide an interesting opportunity to demonstrate that both parties can reach an understanding and fight for what is best for the people and natural resources of Brazil. It would even revive the words that Lula da Silva gave in his winning speech as he called Brazilians to reunite again, by saying:‘There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.’ It seems that to protect the ‘lungs of the earth’ it would require a better domestic and international control mechanisms preventing corruption and offering a healthy space for both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  


(*) Teresa Calandri is a lawyer and graduate of Public International Law from Utrecht University, specialized in International Human Rights Law. Her master thesis examined why media pluralism is fundamental for every democracy and how it is regulated in international law. Her research was based on a comparative study between European States. 


References

— (2013). “Amazon: Lungs of the planet.” BBC. February 26, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20130226-amazon-lungs-of-the-planet (accessed on November 9, 2022).

— (2022). “Brazil Election: Who Is Lula Da Silva, The Leftist Former President Who Defeated Jair Bolsonaro?” Outlook.October 31, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/international/brazil-election-who-is-lula-da-silva-the-leftist-former-president-who-defeated-jair-bolsonaro-news-233773 (accessed on November 23, 2022). The conditions for receiving the PBF were vaccination of children, pregnant women, education for children, avoiding child labour.

de Almeida, Maria Hermínia Tavares. (2005). ‘The social policies of Lula’s administration.” Novos estud- CEBRAP, vol 1, 1, 6.

Farias, Deborah Barros Leal; Casarões, Guilherme & Magalhães, David. (2022). “Radical Right Populism and the Politics of Cruelty: The Case of Covid-19 in Brazil Under President Bolsonaro.” Global Studies Quarterly, 1, 2. This type of speech in shared with Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, both belonging to radical right populisms.

Filho, Alfredo Saad & Feil, Fernanda. (2021). “Covid-19 in Brazil: how Jair Bolsonaro created a calamity.” King’s College University. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/covid-19-in-brazil-how-jair-bolsonaro-created-a-calamity (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Gual, Joan Royo. (2022). “El bolsonarismo exhibe su fortaleza y el Congreso de Brasil seguirá con mayoría conservadora.” El Pais. October 3, 2022. https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-10-03/el-bolsonarismo-exhibe-su-fortaleza-y-el-congreso-de-brasil-seguira-con-mayoria-conservadora.html (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Nugent, Ciara. (2022). “How Lula Won the Most Crucial Election in Brazil for Decades.” Time Magazine. November 2, 2022. https://time.com/6226269/how-lula-won-brazil-election/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Phillips, Tom. (2019). “Brazil’s former president Lula walks free from prison after supreme court ruling.” The Guardian.November 8, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/08/lula-brazil-released-prison-supreme-court-ruling (accessed November 23, 2022). 

Phillips, Tom. (2022). “Police call for Bolsonaro to be charged for spreading Covid misinformation.” The Guardian. August 18, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/18/jair-bolsonaro-covid-misinformation-charge-brazil-police (accessed on November 23, 2022).

Roy, Diana. (2022). “Brazil’s Global Ambitions.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 19, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/brazils-global-ambitions (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Villegas, Paulina & Kaplan, Sarah. (2022). “Lula vowed to safeguard the Amazon. After Bolsonaro, it won’t be easy.” The Washington Post. October 31, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/31/lula-brazil-amazon/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Watson, Katy. (2021). “Lula: Brazil ex-president’s corruption convictions annulled.” BBC News. March 9, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56326389 (accessed on November 9, 2022). 

Iranian woman standing in middle of Iranian protests for equal rights for women. Burning headscarves in protest against the government. Illustration: Digital Asset Art.

Mahsa Amini: Women’s bodily autonomy in the context of Islamism and far-right populism

Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.

By Hafza Girdap

Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.

The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).

Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.

Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”

While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).

However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.

On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.

Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.

In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces.  This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose. 


References

Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.

Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.

A group of people carry a boat by hand for the disappearance of the port due to rising sea levels due to climate change in Kutubdia, Bangladesh in July 2009. Photo: Salva Campillo.

Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis? 

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations. One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources.

By Jake Moran*

As COP27 enters its second week in Egypt, stark warnings from world leaders have put climate refugees at the top of the agenda. Last week, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley issued her prediction that the number of people displaced by climate change internationally will swell to 1 billion by 2050 (Mottley, in Greenfield, et al., 2022). The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold across its borders and on its seas, as multiple conflicts in the Middle East forced millions to flee their homes. 

In this article, I consider whether a similar chain of events could unravel from the destruction caused by climate change in the region and recommend greater international governance of refugee populations if this occurs. This enquiry forms the prelude to the subsequent article, in which I assess how climate-induced migration could produce a new frontier of far-right populism in Europe.

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014a). One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources (also known as a Malthusian crisis) (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b).

Reports by the Pentagon in 2003 and Christian Aid in 2007 cited the case of water scarcity caused by drought in Darfur, Sudan, which caused an outbreak of conflict in 2003. The reports further predict that such conflicts will continue as climate change pushes temperatures higher in arid regions (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b). More recently, studies have pointed to the role of climate change in sparking the uprising in Syria in 2011, as prolonged droughts caused by rising temperatures devastated rural agriculture and forced populations to migrate into cities (Abel, et al., 2019; Gleick, 2014; Kelley et al., 2015). It was partly the lack of resources in urban areas to accommodate these rural populations that resulted in anti-government protests that sparked the war, and the case of Syria is often talked of as a blueprint which future climate-induced conflicts could spring from. 

However, these examples do not demonstrate a causal link between climate change and conflict (Abel, et al., 2019). Rather, climate change played a role in exacerbating existing socio-economic conditions which can lead to conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Readdressing the case study of Syria, while rising temperatures caused prolonged droughts, scarcity of water and agricultural destruction, climate change was not the only variable involved in this chain of events. The droughts took place against the backdrop of years of neglect by the Syrian government, which managed farming poorly and increased irrigation of agricultural lands, leaving these communities far more susceptible to droughts made worse by climate change (Abel, et al., 2019; Kelley, et al., 2015). 

Indeed, other authors highlight examples of resource scarcity caused by climate change that did not result in conflict but rather greater regional and community cooperation to manage these resources (Brown et al., 2007; Witsenburg and Roba, 2007 in Harmann, 2010). So, while climate change will result in greater resource scarcity for countries which are most vulnerable to its effects, it is the relationship these resources have with other socio-economic factors including government policies and demographic pressures (Abel, et al., 2019) which could provide the conditions necessary to induce conflict, as demonstrated in the case of the Syrian conflict.

With regards to the enquiry of this article, the literature establishes a pathway to understanding how climate change can spark conflict under certain pressures and that this will become more likely as the effects of climate change worsen. It is, thus, conceivable that in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc. that climate change will pose a greater threat and increase the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

While I am cautious to avoid establishing a causal link between climate change, conflict and forced migration, especially given the criticisms made of the ‘neo-Malthusian’ narrative around ‘failed states’ being uniquely susceptible to climate-induced conflict (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014b), the next section of this article will demonstrate how conflict in the regions most affected by climate change—Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries—are likely to produce a growing refugee population as the effects of climate change in this region worsen.

Destination: Europe. Will Climate-Afflicted Refugees Migrate to Europe?

11 years after the Syrian Civil War began (European Commission, 2021), refugees are entering Europe at an unprecedented rate. The growing number of small boat crossings to the UK from France, and the increased settling of Syrian as well as Afghan refugees, demonstrate that Europe remains a focal destination for refugees coming from the MENA region. So, if the next chapter of the climate crisis is indeed a story of conflict and migration in the most vulnerable regions of the world, will Europe become host to an even greater population of refugees? To answer this question, this section will examine how conflict and migration have already played out in Europe.

What became known as the Refugee Crisis in Europe, began in 2015, when around 868,000 refugees arrived in the year’s second half—almost six times the refugees who arrived in the first half of the year (UNHCR, 2018 in Torres, 2022). Indeed, conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere had already contributed to a rise in refugees from the MENA region, but the influx from the Syrian Civil War pushed that number to its peak, as Syrian refugees came to represent the largest group of asylees in Europe (Petillo, 2021). Most entered by either land or sea through EU border countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Macedonia. Many went onward to France, Sweden and Germany, the latter of which received more asylum claims in 2015 (BBC News, 2016).

Europe is a destination for refugees fleeing from MENA, not least because of its geographical proximity to the region and ease of access, but also because of its relative wealth, social services, stability and scale of economic opportunity. All these factors make Europe an appealing place to start a new life (Kings College London, 2015). Further still, language plays a crucial role in the decision of many refugees to migrate to Europe, especially in the context of former colonial countries, where speaking the language of their former colonists—mainly French or English—allows migrants to integrate and find employment quicker. Displaced people also often have family or relationships with other refugees that have already fled to Europe and seek to follow them for reasons of support or familiarity.

So, does the previous wave of refugees which escalated due to the Syrian war and Europe’s relative attractiveness, mean that this is bound to be repeated as the climate crisis increases conflict and migration in the MENA region? I argue that this is likely.

It is certainly true that not all migration attributed to climate change will be bound for Europe. Mobility within countries affected by climate change is already predicted to be the main route taken by populations displaced by climate change (USA for UNHCR, 2021). This means that the brunt of refugees may not enter Europe at all. Instead, they are more likely to move to towns and cities within their home countries where surviving economically without relying on climate-afflicted sectors like agriculture is possible (Chung, et al., 2022). Additionally, countries within the region received a greater number of refugees than Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular Turkey and Lebanon (Cockburn, 2015). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the majority of refugees affected by climate change in this region will migrate to Europe.

However, the plight of refugees fleeing from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have all produced a sizeable upturn in the refugee population migrating to Europe. The story of Syria shows just how far refugees from the MENA region will travel in search of safety. Numbers of small boat crossings to the UK from France are at an all-time high with most refugees coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria (Home Office, 2022). So, while refugees affected by climate change will migrate within their own countries and to neighbouring ones, the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis and persistence of refugees migrating from the MENA countries to Europe today, clearly indicates that any future conflict or devastating climate event will likely result in an upsurge of refugees migrating to Europe for safety. 

Since the entire MENA region will be affected by climate change—and many states (such as Yemen and Afghanistan) are already in a state of conflict, poverty or weak governance, impeding their ability to support vulnerable populations—this increase in refugee numbers will be substantial. 

Conclusion

This article described the tenuous link between climate change, conflict, and migration. While acknowledging that this is not a causal link, it remains to be seen if socio-economic pressures currently experienced by vulnerable countries and regions could be exacerbated by climate change, sparking conflict. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, such conflict is likely to result in a growth of the refugee population migrating to Europe, especially due to its multiple ‘pull’ factors for refugees originating in the climate-vulnerable MENA region.

Therefore, it will be incumbent on the international community to develop a rigid framework of governance to manage this new population of refugees displaced by climate-induced conflicts and share responsibility for the burden on each European country and region. Doing so will be crucial for humanitarian reasons, especially given the role that Europe has had historically in causing climate change and avoiding the chaos of 2015 which resulted in unnecessary suffering for refugees. I will discuss the establishment of this framework in future writing.

The findings of this article form the basis of my next piece: assessing whether the increase in refugees displaced by climate change will result in a surge of far-right populism. In this subsequent article, I will argue that failing to support regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change is likely to produce a new wave of populism in Europe.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2016). “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.” BBC News. Marc 4, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911 (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

— (2018). “Refugee situations — Mediterranean situation: Operational portal.” UNHCR,http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean#_ga=1 (accessed on November 15, 2022).

— (2021). “How climate change impacts refugees and displaced communities.” USA for UNHCR. September 21, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/how-climate-change-impacts-refugees-and-displaced-communities/ (accessed on November 8, 2022). 

— (2021). “Overall figures of immigrants in European society.” European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#RefugeesinEurope (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

— (2022). “Factsheet: Small boat crossings since July 2022.” Home Office. London: GOV.UK.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022 (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Abel, G.A.; Brottrager, Michael; Cuaresma, Jesus Crespo; Muttarak, Raya. (2019). “Climate, conflict and forced migration.” Global Environmental Change. 54(1), pp. 239-249.

Brown, O; Hammill A. & McLeman, R. (2007). “Climate change as the new security threat: implications for Africa.” International Affairs. 83(6), pp.1141–1154.

Chung, J, et al. (2022). “Climate mobilities into cities: A systematic review of literature from 2011 to 2022.” Urban Climate. 45(1), pp. 101-252.

Cockburn, P. (2015). “Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?” The Independent. September 7, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/refugee-crisis-where-are-all-these-people-coming-from-and-why-10490425.html (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

Gleick, P.H. (2014). “Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria.” Weather Climate Society. 6(3), pp. 331-340.

Hartmann, B.H. (2010). “Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse.” Journal of International Development. 22(2), pp. 233-246.

Kelley, S.K, et al. (2015). “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.” PNAS. 112(11), pp. 3241-3246.

King S College London. (2015). “Why do refugees and migrants come to Europe, and what must be done to ease the crisis?” The Telegraph. September 4, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11845205/Why-do-refugees-and-migrants-come-to-Europe-and-what-must-be-done-to-ease-the-crisis.html (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Mottley, M. (2022). “Barbados PM launches blistering attack on rich nations at Cop27 climate talks.” The Guardian. November 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/barbados-pm-mia-mottley-launches-blistering-attack-on-rich-nations-at-cop27-climate-talks (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Petillo, K. (2021). “Out of place: Why Europe needs a new refugee policy.” ECFR. February 4, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/article/out-of-place-why-europe-needs-a-new-refugee-policy/ (accessed on November 11, 2022).

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014a). “Beyond scarcity: Rethinking water, climate change and conflict in the Sudans.” Global Environmental Change. 29(1), pp. 360-370.

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014b). “Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict and Security.” Geopolitics. 19(1), pp. 747-756.

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy.October 26, 2022. pp.102-323. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Witsenburg K. & Roba, AW. (2007). “The use and management of water sources in Kenya’s drylands: Is there a link between scarcity and violent conflicts?” In: Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa. Derman, B.; Odgaard, R, & Sjaastad, E. (eds). James Currey: Oxford.

Then-presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walks among supporters on Augusta Street at São Paulo on the eve of the Brazillian election on October 1, 2022. Photo: Yuri Murakami.

Culture wars in a fragmented Brazil, a guide to understanding what happened in Brazilian election

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. Brazil is a country without communicating vessels. If the social situation will not escalate into civil war and Lula da Silva takes office within the (minimum) regular functioning of institutions, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. However, the challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts.  

By João Ferreira Dias*

Francis Fukuyama (2018) discussed how resentment became the wood for the fireworks of populist radical right parties amid the rise of identity politics. While the left abandoned the material struggle for better work conditions, adopting the so-called woke post-material agenda, focusing on the specific feelings of oppression felt by the minorities groups, the right followed the same path, moving from a liberal market agenda – based on the demand for “less state” in the market – to a nativist agenda (Zúquete, 2018) based on the intersection of whiteness (race), nationalist, religious moral and the resentment of being left behind from rural areas and an urban working class that experienced a gradual loss of earnings. The combination of those elements was crucial for Brexit and Trump’s election (Mondon & Winter, 2019). 

So, the struggle between a globalist left and a nativist right frame what is called “culture wars.” The concept borrowed from the German dispute between Bismarck and the Catholic Church in the 19th century (kulturkampf) is related to a dispute about nonnegotiable conceptions embodied in cultural and moral spheres such as abortion, sexual rights, racism, and the place of religion in daily politics, educational and public affairs (Hunter, 1992). This has all to do with the Brazilian political situation and the last two presidential elections. 

Two Brazil and Country of the Future (That Never Came)

Stefan Zweig once called Brazil “the country of the future.” Alongside racial equality – there named racial democracy – that future never came. Brazil remains a promise, part of a fulfilled growth in the BRICS promise. This is not due to capitalism as a global exploitation system (Christian, 2019). Brazil is a country that does not know or trust each other, a country of deep contrasts, barely connected by the nationalism of Vargas’ authoritarian regime, the development impetus of President Kubitschek and the modern and integrative vision of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. 

Despite Cardoso’s efforts, Brazil remained a giant with clay feet, with a significant part of its population remaining in a fragile situation, like those described in Jorge Amado’s novels. The dispossessed that Collor de Mello tried to galvanize against the “marajás” (maharajas) returned through Lula da Silva, electing a president who linked the workers’ struggle to business guarantees and was caught up in the corruption plot, a reality endemic in Brazil. 

The zeitgeist, populism, was essential in 2018’s Brazilian elections (Reno, 2020; Tamaki & Fuks, 2020). Brazil elects a compulsorily retired military man, nostalgic for the military dictatorship, whose hero, Brilhante Ustra, was the greatest torturer of that period. The President’s name is Jair Messias (meaning Messiah) Bolsonaro, a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro between 1991 and 2018, with no relevant political work, famous for sleeping during Senate debates. His discourse of hatred of Northeasterners – a collective figure that in the popular imagination represents laziness – blacks, homosexuals, the arts and culture, and the left, combined with a campaign of disinformation and fake news (Maranhão Filhos et. al., 2018). like never experienced, was essential for his election. Still, as a candidate and then as President, Bolsonaro divided the country like never before. Under the guise of the fight against corruption, which he managed to portray as an “invention” of Lula da Silva’s party, were wrapped up post-material issues that formed the culture warswhich determined not only his election but the election of Donald Trump, from which the Bolsonaro team (essentially commanded by the latter’s sons) drew inspiration. Thus, a Christian moral wave, especially evangelical, swept the country against abortion, “gender ideology,” and “cultural Marxism.” The struggle between a progressive, black activist, feminist, LGBT+ country and a country linked to white supremacy, the heritage of the colonels, historical racial privileges, and a conservative morality gained centrality (Stefanoni, 2018).

The Evangelical Factor 

Streets of favela Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 30, 2015. Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas.

Culture wars have been the core of Brazilian politics since 2018. To understand what is at stake, one needs to understand the role of religion in Brazilian society and the combination of evangelical spiritual combat (Da Silva, 2007) alongside white medium-class supremacy/privileges. 

The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888 did not solve any structural problems in Brazilian society, remaining a place of coloniality (Quijano, 1997). The Constitution of 1824, in the advent of the republican era, was erected in an intellectual atmosphere of biological and cultural racism; disposing of that African heritage thus presents a danger to social development, contaminating from bottom to top. Therefore, taking advance of the scientific perspective of the time, the marginalization and persecution of African descendants and their cultures were established via the law. We can still see it in Law nº 6.001 of 1973 concerning the native status, typified as a minor that may be emancipated. The decades of 1930 and 1940 were intense in religious persecution against Afro-Brazilian religions, with the Catholic Church taking a position, defending a circumstance of spiritual combat against them, from 1950 to 1970 (Ferreira Dias, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in 1960, Canadian pastor Robert McAlister arrived in Rio de Janeiro and founded the New Life Church, the first neo-evangelical church in Brazil. His target was the low classes from the favelas. However, he realized that Afro-Brazilian religions were deeply disseminated among them. Contrary to the Catholic church, which defended the illusion of those religions and their “fake gods” and entities, McAlister adopted a different and effective strategy. While recognizing their power, he places the source of their strength in the Devil. Thus, their god (Orisha, Vodun, Inkice) and their entities are no longer a delusion of primitive thought but the manifestation of the Devil, evil forces that must be fought. 

From there to today, spiritual combat gained visibility and increased severely. In some locations in Brazil, the adherence to these neo-evangelical churches is 100 per cent. Pastors became powerful and wealthy via the theology of prosperity, which advocated that whatever is given to the church and the pastor will be doubled (Gabatz, 2013). They bought television channels and newspapers; they created a chain of power from local communities to the Parliament. The most preeminent of these Churches is the Universal of Bishop Edir Macedo. With time, they created an Altar Gladiators army devoted to fighting Afro-Brazilian religions and practitioners. Religious terrorism became part of daily life in Brazil, with the support of relevant politicians (Santos, 2012). 

Culture wars against the globalist left, classified as cultural Marxist, reached their apogee with Bolsonaro’s candidacy in 2018, with his evangelical agenda against minorities’ rights, universities, democracy, and the rule of law (Ferreira Dias, 2020). 

Lulas Reelection and What Comes Next 

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. It is a country without communicating vessels. The Senate remains strongly Bolsonarist. São Paulo elects, and Rio de Janeiro re-elects, governors of the same tendency, with Haddad, Lula’s potential successor losing in São Paulo territory and running out of political capital for the future. 

Despite Lula’s victory in court, the narrative of the president-bandit prevails among the white, evangelical, and middle-class electorate. Suspicions of corruption, militia formation and human rights violations in the Bolsonaro do not demobilize his highly-regimented electorate. Once again, Brazil is an adapted copy of the US. Even though Lula has the support of moderate evangelicals and much of the economic and business elite, a fact that makes any fantasy of Venezuelization of the country (which never occurred) impossible, the truth is that the cultural battle against the so-called “cultural Marxism” in favor of an evangelical hyper moral and class rights alienates the Bolsonarist electorate, which survives well without Bolsonaro, since he is an ancient historical and social product that has always been alive in Brazil. 

Predictably, the pro-Bolsonaro popular militia is taking the streets, claiming electoral fraud, and asking the army to take control of the country. Meanwhile, some of the world’s top leaders have rushed to recognize Lula’s victory, signaling that he is the desired interlocutor. The same happened with figures close to Bolsonaro, such as the governor of São Paulo. The transition is underway peacefully after Bolsonaro realized that he would not have desired civilian support nor from the military. The Head of the Civil House, Ciro Nogueira, the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes (great ideologue of neoliberalism in Bolsonaro’s government) and Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s Vice President and man of the center-right, have started the transition process. Democratic institutions seem stable and secure. 

Nevertheless, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. Lula will need to (i) establish agreements that allow him to govern, which seems possible with the enlargement of his political platform, (ii) be impolite, (iii) purge the party of corruption, (iv) find mechanisms to combat poverty and violence, (v) restore the rights of minorities that have been suspended, without making this his cultural agenda, (vi) correct the social and state asymmetries in the best possible way, aiming at a continuous process of balance and approximation of the country, (vii) prepare the succession by encouraging the other parties to find democratic and qualified cadres that guarantee a healthy political alternation without a populist and cultural war approach. The challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts. 


 

(*) João Ferreira Dias is a researcher at the Centre for International Studies – ISCTE, Lisbon, in the Research Group Institutions, Governance and International Relations. He is conducting research on culture wars, politics of identity and fundamental rights. PhD in African Studies (2016). PhD candidate in International Studies (2021-). Columnist. https://linktr.ee/joaoferreiradias


 

References

Christian, Michelle. (2019). “A global critical race and racism framework: Racial entanglements and deep and malleable whiteness.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5.2: 169-185.

Da Silva, Vagner Gonçalves. (2007). “Neopentecostalismo e religiões afro-brasileiras: Significados do ataque aos símbolos da herança religiosa africana no Brasil contemporâneo.” Mana, 13: 207-236.

De Albuquerque Maranhão Filho, Eduardo Meinberg; Coelho, Fernanda Marina Feitosa & Dias, Tainah Biela. (2018). “Fake news acima de tudo, fake news acima de todos: Bolsonaro e o ‘kit gay’, ‘ideologia de gênero’ e fim da ‘família tradicional’.” Correlatio, 17.2: 65-90.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2020). “O Messias já chegou e livrará “as pessoas de bem” dos corruptos: messianismo político e legitimação popular, os casos Bolsonaro e André Ventura.” Polis, 2.2: 49-60.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2019). “’Chuta que é macumba’: o percurso histórico-legal da perseguição às religiões afro-brasileiras.” Sankofa. Revista de História da África e de Estudos da Diáspora Africana, 22: 39-62.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2018). Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

GABATZ, Celso. (2013). “Manifestações religiosas contemporâneas: os desafios e as implicações da teologia da prosperidade no Brasil.” Revista Semina,12.1: s.p. 

Hunter, James Davison. (1992). Culture wars: The struggle to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. Avalon Publishing.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron. (2019). “Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States.” Identities, 26.5: 510-528. 

Quijano, Aníbal. (1997). “Coloniality of power in Latin America.” Anuario Mariateguiano, 9.9: 113-121. 

Renno, Lucio R. (2020). “The Bolsonaro voter: issue positions and vote choice in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections.” Latin American Politics and Society, 62.4: 1-23.

Santos, Milene Cristina. (2012). O proselitismo religioso entre a liberdade de expressão e o discurso de ódio: a” guerra santa” do neopentecostalismo contra as religiões afro-brasileiras. MA Thesis. Universidade de Brasília. 

Stefanoni, Pablo. (2018). “Biblia, buey y bala… recargados: Jair Bolsonaro, la ola conservadora en Brasil y América Latina.” Nueva Sociedad, 278: 4-11.

Tamaki, Eduardo Ryo & Fuks, Mario (2020). “Populism in Brazil’s 2018 general elections: An analysis of Bolsonaro’s campaign speeches.” Lua Nova: Revista de Cultura e Política, 109: 103-127.

Zúquete, José Pedro. (2018). The identitarians: The movement against globalism and Islam in Europe. University of Notre Dame Press. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud party. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Civilizational populist Netanyahu’s election victory and rise of Religious Zionist Party in Israel

Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. The government will be dominated by parties of the center-right and far-right including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. Even if the new coalition government collapses within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

In one of the most consequential elections in Israel’s history, Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. 

While the previous government was made up of parties from across the political spectrum, the new government will be dominated by centre-right and far-right parties, including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. The right-wing bloc led by right-wing civilizational populist Netanyahu (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022a) is expected to win 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with Likud winning more than 30 seats and Shas and United Torah Judaism together winning a further 20 seats (Parker & Rubin, 2022). The right-wing populist, ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party also had a particularly good election result. Indeed, if party leader Aryeh Dery was worried that it might lose voters to the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), he was entirely incorrect, as his party won at least 8 seats and got back into the governing coalition (Haaretz, 2022).

Much of the post-election media commentary has focused, perhaps surprisingly, not on the return of Netanyahu but on the rapid rise of the Religious Zionist Party, which emerged as the third largest party in the Knesset, winning as many as 15 seats. What, then, is the Religious Zionist Party? The Religious Zionist Party is a far-right, religious nationalist group created in 2021 when three parties, the Betzalel Smotrich-led National Union/Revival Party, the Itamar Ben-Gvir-led Jewish Power party, and the far smaller Noam party, “formally headed by Avi Maoz but whose real leader was Rabbi Zvi Tao,” merged to form a single party (Hermann, 2022). It must also be said that Netanyahu played an important role in creating the RZP. Desirous of new coalition partners, Netanyahu is said to have personally convinced Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to join forces and form a party capable of winning enough votes to receive representation in the Knesset (Hermann, 2022). Netanyahu’s plan paid off in the November 2022 Israeli elections when the RZP helped propel Netanyahu back into the Prime Minister’s office. 

Itamar Ben Gvir, speaking in election conference at Ale Zahav in Samaria/Isreal on September 9, 2019. Photo: Barak Shacked.

Some commentators have speculated that the RZP’s rise, while seemingly advantageous to Netanyahu, could pose long-term problems for both his government and Israel. RZP leaders – particularly Itamar Ben-Gvir, have a history of political extremism, which may cause alarm among Israel’s allies, including the United States. Equally, it is not yet known whether Netanyahu’s coalition can remain intact without Likud agreeing to some of RZP’s more extreme demands, some of which may prove unpopular with the broader Israeli public. For example, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described ‘proud homophobe’, wholly represents these extremisms. Among other things, he co-founded an NGO which initiates legal action against Arab construction activities in the West Bank and Israel; told developers in Israel that they should not sell their property to non-Jews; suggested that Arab and Jewish women ought to be separated in different maternity facilities; and expressed regret that Ben Gurion did not expel the entire Arab population from Israel (Gilholy, 2022).

The other key RZP leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has “described Israeli-Arabs as enemies of both Jews and the Israeli state,” once belonged to the now banned violent extreme-right Kach Party, and has “advocated the expulsion of Arab-Israelis who ‘are not loyal’ to the state” (Gilholy, 2022). Additionally, his party supports the deportation of “Arab extremists” regardless of citizenship, including Party Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the Neturei Karta Jewish antizionist sect, and calls for the annexation of the West Bank by Israel (Gilholy, 2022). The RZP furthermore calls for greater government support for Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, including the “authorization of 70 West Bank outposts, which it calls ‘young communities’, either as new settlements or as neighborhoods of existing ones” (Gilholy, 2022). While Netanyahu is no stranger to controversy, even he might be concerned about the extremism of the RZP, a party Likud now relies upon to hold government. 

What, then, do these election results tell us about Israeli politics and society, and the direction they are heading? Perhaps the first key takeaway from the result is that it conforms to the long-term pattern of Israeli politics in which right-wing parties grow stronger over time, while the left has become progressively weaker. Much of the growth of right-wing power in Israel is due to the success of Likud, the largest right-wing party, and its growing domination of Israeli politics since 1977 when it defeated the ruling Labor Party for the first time (Porat & Filc, 2022). Since the 2000s, Likud has rarely been out of government, and Netanyahu has proven himself to be his generation’s most successful Israeli politician, transforming the Israeli political landscape and reducing the once powerful Israeli Left into a shadow of itself. Yet Likud is not the only right-wing party to have experienced great electoral successes at the expense of left-wing parties. The minority Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of Israel, neglected by Labor and often living in economic hardship, have increasingly turned away from Labor and toward right-wing religious parties which are dedicated to increasing Sephardi and Mizrahi representation in Israeli politics and society, such as the right-wing populist Shas (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022b). 

The election results also indicate that right-wing populism remains a powerful force in Israel. Since its populist turn in the 1990s under the leadership of Netanyahu, Likud has used a populist-nationalist discourse through which Israeli society finds itself divided between ‘the people’ (understood as Jewish people who have faced two millennia or more of persecution and now have a homeland they must defend at all costs), ‘elites’ (left-wing parties, academics, activists, and journalists who oppose Likud’s right-wing populism and in doing so allegedly weaken Israel), and ‘dangerous others’ (especially Arab Muslims, whom Netanyahu portrays as intruders in the land of Israel) (Prota & Filc, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022c). 

Likud’s key coalition partner Shas is another example of the rise of right-wing populism in Israel. However, Shas divides Israeli society somewhat more narrowly than Likud, finding a divide between the corrupt secular ‘elites,’ ‘dangerous others’ in which they include LGBTQ+ Israelis, and the virtuous ‘people’ of Israel the party claims to represent. This final group is comprised of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as the authentic people of Israel, and as an “oppressed” people who – with Shas’ help – will one day restore Sephardic culture to “its former glory” (Shalev, 2019).

Another important lesson we might take away from the election result is recognizing the growing influence of religious parties in Israel. It is interesting to observe how, unlike Western Europe and North America, Israelis are growing more – not less – religious. This is reflected in “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness,” which “points to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). Thus, in Netanyahu’s Israel, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). According to Netanyahu, the secular parties of the left are “detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” and should therefore be considered traitorous and illegitimate (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Furthermore, the rise of religious populist and religious nationalist parties, including United Torah Judaism, The Jewish Home, Noam, Shas, and now the Religious Zionist Party, indicates a growing desire among many Israelis for a non-secular Israel in which Jewish belief and practice dominate while other religions are marginalized. Part of the reason for the rise of religious parties is the nation’s changing demographics. Once dominated by secular European Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom survived the horrors of the Holocaust, today’s Israel has an ever-increasing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population which rarely votes for left-wing parties. By 2040, it is predicted that one in four Israelis will be Haredi, largely due to the exceptionally large number of children produced by the majority of Haredi Jewish families (Maltz, 2022). As the number of Haredi Jews increases, it is likely that the right-wing religious parties they typically support will increase their share of Knesset seats and become more significant political actors in Israel. 

Finally, the election results suggest that there will be no return to the ‘peace process,’ nor will there be a Palestinian state in the near future. This, perhaps, hardly bears writing. Indeed, the election results signal a crushing defeat for the Israeli Left and for Israelis who desire a secular state, peace with the Palestinians, and a viable Palestinian state. 

At the same time, this does not mean that the new government has a stable coalition. Rather, there is good reason to think that, should the more extreme RZP demands not be met by the Likud-led government, Ben-Gvir may quit the government, forcing Netanyahu to find another coalition partner or face fresh elections. Yet even if the new government were to collapse within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics identified in this article. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli Left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time and increasingly hostile towards non-Jewish people living in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. 


 

References

Gilholy, Georgia L. (2022). “Who are Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and why are they so controversial?” The Jewish Chronicle. November 2, 2022. https://www.thejc.com/news/israel/who-are-itamar-ben-gvir-and-bezalel-smotrich-and-why-are-they-so-controversial-2IHXvSOfGUAzqJqqclk170 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Hermann, Tamar. (2022). “The Religions Zionist Sector at Bay.” Religions, 13, no. 2: 178. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020178

Maltz, Judy. (2022). “Nearly One in Four Jews Will Be ultra-Orthodox by 2040, New Study Says.” Haaretz. May 3, 2002. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/2022-05-03/ty-article/.premium/nearly-one-in-four-jews-will-be-ultra-orthodox-by-2040-new-study-says/00000180-98a2-dab4-a187-9babda7e0000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Rabinowitz, Aaron. (2022). “Shas relives days of glory: UTJ sticks with its base.” Haaretz. November 3, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/2022-11-03/ty-article/.premium/shas-relives-days-of-glory-utj-sticks-with-its-base/00000184-39fe-dfd0-a9a7-3dfeee910000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Parker, Claire & Rubin, Shira. (2022). “Israeli results show a Netanyahu comeback powered by the far right.” The Washington Post. November 2, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/02/israel-election-results-netanyahu-coalition/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions, 13, no. 11: 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022b). “Religious populism in Israel: The case of Shas.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 30, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0011

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022c). “Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0015

Porat, B. Guy & Filc, Dani. (2020). “Remember to be Jewish: Religious Populism in Israel.” Politics and Religion. 1-24. doi:10.1017/S1755048320000681

Rogenhofer, M. Julius. & Panievsky, Ayala. (2020). “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel.” Democratization.  Vol. 27, no. 8, 1394-1412. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135 

Shalev, Shivanne. (2019). “Israel’s Ultra-orthodox Parties Explained.” Israel Policy Forum. February 21, 2019. https://israelpolicyforum.org/2019/02/21/israels-ultra-orthodox-parties-explained/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva participates in meetings with women during his pre-candidacy for the presidency of the Brazil in São Paulo on October 3, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

Lula is back! Third time lucky or will his return lead to the revival of Bolsonaro?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. However, he has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting key challenges facing the country. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite narratives that still dominate public political debate in Brazil. 

By Nicole McLean*

On Sunday 30th October, former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), defeated far-right incumbent President, Jair Bolsonaro, to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. It was a tight race, with Lula one stride ahead receiving 50.9 percent of votes and Bolsonaro close behind with 49.1 percent. Despite the socialist’s victory, Lula’s third term in office will no doubt be his toughest. It will be extremely difficult to govern a country that is completely divided. 

Twelve years has passed since Lula last held the presidency. During this time, the country’s greatest corruption scandal came to light under his party, the Workers’ Party (PT), giving birth to a fierce wave of right-wing populism, nationalism, and ultra-conservatism. 

Lula’s strategy was to create a ‘frente ampla’ – a vast front of support. He managed to bring together previous rivals from all sides of politics to overcome Bolsonaro. In perhaps his most tactical move, Lula secured former Governor of São Paulo and former leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, as his Vice President. This shocked many because Alckmin was a strong critic of Lula and the PT during the investigations into the sprawling corruption allegations. Despite all the lengths that the opposition parties went to in order to topple the Far Right, Lula only managed to win by the tightest of margins. Bolsonarism is far from over. 

Bolsonarism Has Spread Across Brazil Despite Lula’s Victory

In the first round of the elections on 2nd October, Bolsonaro’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), elected 99 deputies from across Brazil. This is almost double the 52 deputies elected to his party in 2018 and can be attributed to the growth in nationalism, social conservatism and, particularly, Evangelicalism. 

The federal deputy to receive the most votes (over 1.4 million) in all of Brazil was the highly conservative and religious 26-year-old Nikolas Ferreira from the state of Minas Gerais. The most voted female federal deputy was conservative and nationalist Carla Zambelli, who was re-elected in São Paulo receiving 12 times more votes than she did in 2018. Both Ferreira and Zambelli were elected to the PL party and are fierce advocates of Bolsonaro, using their various social media accounts as media vehicles to disseminate pro-Bolsonaro propaganda (McLean, 2022). They received immense public support at the polls for their role as political propagandists promoting Bolsonaro, more so than for their own policy ideas. 

The state of São Paulo even elected a Carioca (person from Rio de Janeiro) as Governor, Tarcísio de Freitas who is a conservative neoliberal, over the progressive candidate, Fernando Haddad. Economic freedom and social conservatism are clearly valued more than place of origin in the state that is home to South America’s largest metropolis. To ensure the Far Right does not return to power, Lula needs to listen and respond to conservative views.   

Lula Must Address Concerns of Conservatives to Overcome Far Right

If Lula fails to address the concerns of conservatives, Bolsonaro could revive his political career in four years’ time.Bolsonaristas (supporters of Bolsonaro) are for the most part ultra-conservative and are primarily concerned with the family and traditional values. Lula needs to find ways to portray his party’s progressivism that do not alienate and marginalise conservatives. There must be space in the public sphere for multiple voices and opinions along the political spectrum that are debated in a constructive manner. Otherwise, segments of society risk experiencing social marginalisation, particularly when traditional values are no longer reflected in elite discourse (Gidron & Hall, 2019: 7). 

In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption and anti-elite agenda. The far-right President’s anti-elitism targeted the cultural establishment including the media, arts, and education institutions. His dissent was expressed through a discourse of us, “the good citizens,” versus them, “the corrupt elite,” and was populist in nature. The separation of society into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, where good rivals against evil, is a typical trait of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 6). What Brazil urgently needs now is to unite as one, and not be divided into two separate camps, to overcome the severe polarisation that plagues society. 

Another feature of Bolsonarism is nationalism. Certain views of deforestation in the Amazon are a good representation of this. Silvia Nobre Waiãpi, an indigenous woman, ex-army officer and proud supporter of Bolsonaro, was elected federal deputy in the northern state of Amapá for the PL party. She believes that efforts to curb deforestation in the Amazon prevent inhabitants from cultivating and making money off their land. To Silvia, these efforts are North American ideals that are intended to keep people poor. She calls for freedom to make economic profit off the land. 

During the previous PT governments, between 2004 and 2012, deforestation declined in the Amazon and law enforcement was central to reducing illegal logging (Tacconi et al., 2019). These were efforts to half climate change and were supported by the Amazon Fund, to which foreign countries make performance-based payments to the Brazilian government for reducing deforestation. Under the Bolsonaro government, the idea of what the Amazon needed protecting from changed from deforestation to international interference. Addressing these nationalist views, focusing specifically on the people living in the Amazon as well as on property and land rights, should be front and centre of Lula’s mission to stop illegal deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

Lula has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting these challenges. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite values of the Brazilian public. 


 

(*) Dr Nicole McLean holds a joint-PhD from The University of Melbourne (Faculty of Arts) and University of São Paulo (Faculty of Law). Her thesis analysed the major protest movements of the Brazilian New Right and their impact on the formation of different right-wing publics. As such, Dr McLean’s interdisciplinary study covered the fields of political science, anthropology, sociology, social media and law. McLean is the author of the book entitled Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right which was published in 2022. 


 

References 

Gidron, N. & Hall, P. (2019). “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration.” Comparative Political Studies, 53 (7), 1027–1059. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414019879947

McLean, N. (2022). Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right. Palgrave Studies in Populisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-4379-9  

Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C., R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 

Tacconi, L., Rodrigues, R. J., Maryudi, A. (2019). “Law enforcement and deforestation: Lessons for Indonesia from Brazil.” Forest Policy and Economics108 (101943), 1389–9341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2019.05.029

Illegal deforestation to make land for agriculture and cattle pasture in Para, Brazil.

A pivotal election: Reversing Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental legacy?

The policies of far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy, have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. On Sunday, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. He pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. However, even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 

By Heidi Hart

Photographer Sebastião Salgado, known for his sweeping black-and-white images of Earth’s plains, mountains, ice sheets, and sites of environmental destruction, recently spoke out about the presidential election in Brazil. Citing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s “brutal” policies against the environment (and Brazil’s own people, with staggering numbers of Covid-19 deaths), Salgado noted that “[t]he government has massively destroyed the Amazon rainforest, without respecting indigenous communities and other minorities” (The Limited Times, 2022). Salgado himself, together with his wife Lelia, have been actively reforesting degraded land in Aimores in Brazil for the past 20 years. Restoring 2.7 million trees and 293 varieties of plant species in 555 acres as part of the Instituto Terra project, the couple and over 70 employees offer hope in a country where Bolsonaro’s policies have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. 

That hope became a larger reality on Sunday, as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro, who (as of this writing) has not yet conceded. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest,” (Lula, Twitter, 2022).

Brazil’s elected President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participated in the debate over Brazil in São Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In the close runoff election, police blockades in Lula-supporting northeastern parts of Brazil led to fears of voter suppression, but a tense Sunday yielded to jubilant celebrations in the streets. Despite a prison term for corruption (later annulled), Lula will return to office and has pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. During his previous terms, Amazon deforestation fell by 43.7 percent (2003-2006) and 52.3 percent (2006-2010), while under Bolsonaro, the rate of deforestation increased by 72 percent in favor of “Amazon development serving as a key policy plank” (Freedman, 2022). 

Deforestation in Brazil is nothing new. In the western area of Rondônia, for example, the rate of clearing has been especially rapid: “4,200 square kilometers cleared by 1978; 30,000 by 1988; and 53,300 by 1998” and by 2003, “an estimated 67,764 square kilometers of rainforest—an area larger than the state of West Virginia” (NASA Earth Observatory, 2009). Sounding alarms about the large-scale efforts to push back the rainforest using legal and illegal roads, encroachment by small farmers, and eventually large cattle operations, Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change founded in 2009 was an attempt to place checks on this rampant destruction. But policy and practice diverged: deforestation rose 215 percent in 2014-15, while official government reports at the Paris climate talks in 2015 placed that rate at only 16 percent (Redy, 2016: 4).  

Enter Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist leader who has claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy. Even before he took office in January 2019, Brazil reneged on its offer to host the 25th United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change in November 2018 (Viscidi and Graham, 2019). By 2020, resulting from changes to the Brazilian Forest Code in 2012 and further loosening of environmental enforcement after Bolsonaro’s rise to power, deforestation in the Amazon rose to the highest rate in a decade, to 182 percent above the climate target established by the National Policy on Climate Change in 2009 (Anderson, 2021: 144). 

In the first half of 2022, the rate of “slashing and burning to raze the jungle” rose 11 percent beyond the past year’s record to a record high of “4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles)” (Freitas, 2022). This rate of destruction not only depletes biodiversity and carbon-absorbing tree cover but also raises the risk of wildfires during the dry season, with respiratory threats as a result, and increases the spread of disease due to habitat loss, releasing of pathogens, and favorable conditions for mosquitoes (Kaminsky, 2020). 

In a still fiercely divided country, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to reverse the trend of deforestation, massive fires, and attacks on Indigenous communities, but during the election season he performed poorly (not surprisingly) in logging and palm oil regions such as Roraima (Cowie, Costa, and Prado, 2022). Brazil still faces economic crisis and related social stresses after its mismanaged Covid response, and as Bolsonaro’s party still rules Congress, its support of the cattle industry will make policy reversals difficult (Jones, 2022). How effective Lula’s presidency will be in restoring what has become, in some areas, a carbon source rather than a sink – a tipping point that has ripple effects in accelerating global heating (Knutson, 2021) – is still an open question. 

As climate policy advocate Christiana Figueres has noted, “We have brought our natural world to several perilous brinks from which it may not be able to recover on its own. It is like an elastic band that stretches and contracts normally but if stretched too far will snap” (Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, 2020: 72-73).

At this point in the inexorable global heating trajectory, adaptation, and mitigation, at least, are still possible. In his 2017 handbook for ameliorative climate strategies, Drawdown (referring to bringing carbon back to Earth, with more optimism for “reversing” global warming than sounds workable today), Paul Hawken describes several ways humans can help to restore some level of tropical forest health. These include “mosaic” restoration, which combines forest and agricultural land; releasing land from “non-forest use” to “let a young forest rise up on its own, following a course of natural regeneration and succession,” with protective strategies to mitigate fire risk; and the more aggressive approach of removing invasive plant species and planting native seedlings in their place (Hawken, 2017: 115-116). 

Though governmental policy is crucial to these practices, especially in fraught countries like Brazil, where regulatory agencies have been weakened under Bolsonaro, Hawken notes that “[r]estoration cannot be done in the halls of power alone” and requires local, collaborative efforts (116). Reforestation projects such as Sebastião Salgado’s will continue to make a difference. At the same time, the next several years will be a crucial period for Lula’s administration to listen to Indigenous communities while enforcing environmental policies to block illegal logging and to regulate commercial farming and mining. Even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 


References

Anderson, Liana. (2021). “The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade.” In: Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 5, February 2021, 144-145.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage. 

Hawken, Paul. (Ed.) (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kaminsky, Valéria; Ellwanger, Joel Henrique; Kulmann-Leal, Bruna and Valverde, Jacqueline. (2020). “Beyond diversity loss and climate change: Impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health.” In: Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 92 (1), DOI 10.1590/0001-3765202020191375.

Photo: Melinda Nagy.

ECPS Youth Seminars – From Trance to Identity Rock: Music and Far-right Manipulation

Date/Time: Monday, November 14, 2022 / 18:00 (CET)

Click here to register!

Moderator

Celia Miray Yesil

Speaker

Dr Heidi Hart

This talk will explore the wide range of musical genres and styles used in populist and particularly far-right propaganda in European context. From feel-good folk songs appealing to young people in Germany to nationalist mehter band music in Turkey and “identity rock” and political chants in Italy, musical forms that appeal to a sense of belonging, heritage, and ressentiment are especially powerful when they hook into embodied cultural associations. Dr Heidi Hart will illustrate the phenomenon of “entrainment” or rhythmic synchronization between body and sound, as well as culturally dependent forms of sonic association that take on new ideological meanings in a world veering toward authoritarianism. Because music can reach the body more directly than text by itself, it is an effective tool for manipulation, especially among young people who are still forming a sense of purpose and identity.

Dr Heidi Hart is an arts researcher based in Denmark and in North Carolina, US. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in German Studies from Duke University (2016). Her research focus ranges from ideology in words and music to sound and music in environmental art. She has published monographs on Hanns Eisler’s activist art songs and on music in climate-crisis narrative, as well as numerous articles on sound in environmental art, film, and literature. Her book Climate Thanatology was published in August 2022. Dr Hart serves as an Art and Humanities Research Fellow at SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen and as a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow in the Environment & Climate sector of the European Center for Populism Studies. In 2022-23 she will complete the research project, “Instruments of Repair,” with Crawford Foundation funding through the Centre for Intermedial and Multimodal Studies, Linnaeus University, Sweden.

Celia Miray Yesil is a master’s student of International Political Economy at Warwick University. Her undergraduate degree was in European Politics at King’s College London, where she studied the historical background of Europe in the global context. Miray is interested in the impact of far-right populism on foreign policy, the political language of populist leaders, and its political economy.

Click here to register!

Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is greeted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on October 20, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The losers are winning in Sweden thanks to the Sweden Democrats

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics.

By Anders Hellström*

On October 17, 2022, Ulf Kristersson, party leader of Moderaterna, became Sweden’s Prime Minister. He will lead a coalition government, which apart from his own party consists of the Christian Democratic party and the LiberalsThe losers (in terms of electoral support) can govern thanks to the support of the Sweden Democrats (SD), founded in 1989 by members of the white Aryan movement, the far-right music industry, and neo-Nazism. In this commentary, I will present three arguments behind why this government took office: 1. Crisis framing; 2. Credibility; and 3. Original versus copy.

From Pariah to Mainstream Party

This rather remarkable journey from the murky shadows of the far right as a pariah party to now become a kingmaker in Swedish politics can thus be understood as sign of populist normalcy, according to Cas Mudde (2019). In short, the mainstream has become extreme.

In 2010, the SD crossed the parliamentary threshold, and its members were seated in the Swedish parliament. Since then, the party’s support has continued to increase. After the 2022 elections, the SD has become kingmaker in Swedish politics. The process of normalization has gone on for decades and is clearly not a new phenomenon, when the SD is now the largest opposition party. What were refuted as extremist views on immigration yesterday have become accepted as mainstream ideas today –common-sense knowledge shared by much of the public, by respectable mainstream politicians, and by editorial writers.

According to Mudde (2019), despite their many differences and failure to communicate a joint common message, the populist parties and movements could be seen before as normal pathologies and normal counter-reactions. Following Mudde’s genealogy of the development of far-right parties in Europe, the advent of the current wave follows from the eruption of three crises that the far-right parties, electorally, have profited from (ibid: 20). These are the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Great Recession of 2008, and the refugee crisis of 2015.

The Swedish National Elections of 2022

Let us begin by returning to the national elections Sweden held on September 11 of this year.

According to the editors on a volume about the mainstream right and the populist wave, Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2021:11) explained that the mainstream right — although divided between liberals, conservatives, and Christian democrats — hold two main attributes in common: 1. all inequalities in society are natural; and 2. defending existing norms and values is intrinsic to a liberal democratic society. 

Moderaterna (19.1 percent of the vote, down 0.74 percent from the last election) adheres to liberal economic policies and usually rallies against high taxes and — in their view — too much public spending. Additionally, the party also espouses conservative values of national defence and the family. Their emphasis in the election campaign was centred on “law and order” — frequently associated with immigration — and investments in nuclear energy. The Christian Democratic party (5.34 percent of the vote, down 0.98 percent) has, traditionally, focused on social welfare. The third party in the government coalition, Liberalerna (4.61 percent of the vote, down 0.88 percent), is internally split between a fraction propagating for high levels of foreign aid (similar to the Christian Democrats), protecting the right to asylum, and generally progressive ideas against a faction who wants to replace the Social Democrats at any costs. The latter fraction won. 

Bale & Kaltwasser (2021: 1) begin their book on the mainstream right in crisis by noting that Social Democracy is in decline, while the populist radical right has gained a massive amount of electoral support, especially following the refugee crisis of 2015. While the second assertion is at least partly right (I will return to this later), the first statement does not apply to the Swedish national elections of 2022. The Social Democrats became by far the largest party, with 30.33 percent of all electoral votes (up 2.07 percent from the 2018 elections). 

This is confusing. How is it possible that the losing parties are now going to run the country? The answer lies in the results from the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD) who won 20.54% of the vote (up 3.01%) — fewer votes than the Social Democrats but more than Moderaterna. The SD will not take part in the government but is part of Kristersson’s winning team and supports him as the new prime minister.

In the negotiations, the SD was successful at having their own policies elevated into governmental policies (specifically through the Tidö agreement) without having assigned seats in the new government. For instance, foreign aid will decrease, there will no longer be a special department devoted to environmental issues, the quota of refugees to Sweden will decrease from 6400 annually to 900, repatriation programs for immigrants will be encouraged, family re-unification will become harder, and a wage demand will be introduced to limit labour migration. Immigrants also risk expulsion if they misbehave and do not live up to Swedish norms. All these proposals can be found in the election manifesto of the SD and will now become official governmental policies. 

Jimmie Åkesson is Happy

SD Leader Jimmie Åkesson is happy. He should be. He appears to have attained a golden seat: not being part of the government but having achieved almost all his party’s political goals without having to take full responsibility for the consequences. The party can remain a radical underdog; at the same time, it can have most of its policies implemented by other parties. Jimmie Åkesson leads, but Ulf Kristersson will be ultimately responsible. 

How did this happen? Of course, we cannot foretell the results yet without resorting to speculation. But we can look at what has happened in other countries. Not being part of the government has been detrimental to the Danish People’s Party (currently 3 percent at the polls). Being part of the government has been detrimental to Italy’s Matteo Salvini (party leader of the League), who was deputy minister and interior minister; his party won only 8.9 percent in recent parliamentary elections, clearly beaten by the newly elected prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose party Brothers of Italy won approximately 25 percent of the votes. Salvini was in the previous Italian government, whereas Meloni was not. What we learn from this, is that it can be good or bad for a far-right party to be in the government.

Reasons for the Electoral Outcome

We do not know what will happen in the future in terms of electoral support for the SD. But I will now present three reasons for why the SD has continued to gain electoral support.

First: The political agenda centred around gang violence and fuel prices. Even if the crime rate in many categories has declined according to statistics presented by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, the number of murders has increased significantly. More policemen and tougher stances on law and order have been suggested by almost all the parties. If it was depicted as extreme to link this development to immigration and integration ten years ago, it is seen as rather mainstream today. This emphasis on law and order — rather than on the climate crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, NATO, or the illegitimate Russian invasion of Ukraine– has most benefitted the SD. 

Second: When Ulf Kristersson says that the SD was right and warns the Swedish people of the lethal consequences of a generous immigration policy, he also says that a vote for the SD is a credible option. And though other parties now mimic his tone, why should voters prefer the copy over the original? 

Three: As mentioned before, all parties present in the new coalition government experienced electoral losses in 2022. Ulf Kristersson, for instance, could have focused on more traditional mainstream right views, like the economy, but he did not. Instead, he continuously linked deplorable murder rates with immigration. When Ulf Kristersson barks, Jimmie Åkesson gains votes. 

Hope on the Horizon

It is easy and perhaps also understandable to become puzzled and dispirited about the recent political developments in Sweden. But I would say that there are several reasons to hope

First, a lot of things have changed. Sweden does not look the same today as it did in the past. Society is dynamic and this requires continuous reflection, as well as reconceptualization of the analytical instruments and categories needed for studying contemporary European societies. What became apparent– not least with the refugee crisis of 2015– was the rise of both progressive and regressive forces (Bevelander & Hellström 2019), which cling on to meta narratives of both nostalgia and hope (Norocel et. al 2020). 

This isn’t the first-time events have changed values. The resistance to value changes in post-Industrial societies, as a result of the 1968 student protests, was labelled by Ignazi (1992) as the “silent counter-revolution,” which he associated with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and la novelle droite (the new right) in France in the early 1970s.[1]

Second, the crisis, which dominated the electoral campaign in 2022, was based on law and order and the link between criminality and immigration. This link became normal to voters. The climate crisis has attracted massive global attention. In an election campaign, there is only space for one crisis at a time. This brings forward an important lesson: there are several latent crises that might or might not erupt as the crisis in a future election. Empirically, there are many examples of latent movements in Swedish society that want to help refugees to integrate into their new home country (Bevelander & Hellström, 2019). There are examples of countries hostile to immigrants—like Poland—that have become more accepting towards refugees from Ukraine. Additionally, there are today many more companies who would like to invest in fossil-free fuel. According to Margaret Canovan (2005), across history, the “people” has been used as an authority in reserve– “an authority to be drawn on in an emergency…” (ibid: 20).

Third, does the new immigration policy mean a veritable paradigm shift in Swedish politics? The end of Swedish exceptionalism? Maybe – but maybe not. The new policies still need to live up to signed international treaties, such as the Paris agreement and respect the universal and individual right to seek asylum.

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party (which, at the time of writing faces expulsion from the liberal group in the European parliament due to collaboration with the SD) in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics. What is important to remember is that the future is not set in stone, though. A deeper investigation of progressive elements in civil society shows that there are several emancipatory initiatives and potential latent crises that might pop up and become the crisis in future elections.


 

(*) Anders Hellström is an associate professor in political science and a senior lecturer in IMER. He is an affiliated member of the research institute Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University. His research interests include discourse theory and representation of migration, populism, and nationalism. He has published widely in academic journals, such as Government and Opposition, Journal of International Migration and Integration, and Ethnicities. His most recent article is “Populism as Mythology of the People: Anti-Immigration Claims in the Swedish Socially Conservative Online Newspaper Samtiden from 2016 to 2019” (forthcoming 2022) and will be made available to open access. His most recent monograph is Trust Us: Reproducing the Nation and the Scandinavian Nationalist parties. His most recent anthology is Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration in Europe together with Ov. Cristian Norocel and Martin Bak-Jørgensen.



References

Bale, Tim. & Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. (eds). (2021). Riding the Populist Wave: Europé’s mainstream right in crisis.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapters

Bevelander, Pieter & Hellström, Anders. (2019). “Pro- And Anti-Migrant Mobilizations in Polarized Sweden.” In: Rea, A., Martinello, M, Mazzola, A. and Meuleman, B. (eds.) The refugee reception crisis in Europe: Polarized Opinions and Mobilizations. Bruxelles: Éditions de l´Université de Bruxelles (available open access). 

Canovan, Margaret. (2005). The People. Cambridge: Polity.

Ignazi, Pierro. (1992). “The Silent counter-revolution: Hypotheses on the emergence of extreme right-wing parties in Europe.” European Journal of Political Research 22. 

Mudde, Cas. (2019). The Far Right Today

Norocel, Ov Cristian; Hellström, Anders & Bak Jørgensen, Martin. (2020). Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration. Cham: Springer (available open access).


[1] Bale and Kaltwasser (2021) provide further elaboration on the silent-counter revolution and the various manifestations of both reactions and counter reactions to this in different countries.