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

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

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

By Imdat Oner*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Likud Transformed into Extreme Radical Right-wing Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion Is Instrumental for Likud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Right Populists in Europe are Strong Allies to Likud

Professor Dani Filc.

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

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

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

Clerical Fascism Supports Colonization of Occupied Palestinian Territories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

DOWNLOAD PDF

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



Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Bulent Kenes

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Authoritarianism and Information Controls in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Instruments and Surveillance Methods to Monitor and Control Cyberspace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKtrolls 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AKbots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hackers

Photo: Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


References

— (2014). “The right to privacy in Turkey.” Privacy International. https://privacyinternational.org/sites/default/files/2017–12/UPR_Turkey_0.pdf

— (2014). “Cihan Haber Ajansı’ndan ‘siber saldırı’ açıklaması.” Haber Turk. March 30, 2014. https://www.haberturk.com/medya/haber/934450-cihan-haber-ajansindan-siber-saldiri-aciklamasi (accessed on November 2, 2023).

— (2015). “Cihan haber ajansını kim hacledi, olay iddia.” Internet Haber. June 7, 2015. https://www.internethaber.com/cihan-haber-ajansini-kim-hacledi-olay-iddia-793015h.htm (accessed on November 2, 2023).

— (2016). “Zaman newspaper: Seized Turkish daily ‘now pro-government’.” BBC. March 6, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35739547 (accessed on May 11, 2023).

— (2016). “Turkish Ministers Accuse Twitter of Plotting against Erdoğan,” Hurriyet Daily News. March 30, 2016. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-ministers-accuse-twitter-of-plotting-against-erdogan–97106 (accessed on May 11, 2023).

— (2018). “Turkish Hacktivist Group Ayyildiz Tim Hijack U.S. Journalist Social Media Account In Support Of Erdogan.” Space Watchhttps://spacewatch.global/2018/08/turkish-hacktivist-group-ayyildiz-tim-hijack-u-s-journalist-social-media-account-in-support-of-erdogan/ (accessed on November 1, 2023).

— (2018). “Bad Traffic: Sandvine’s Packet Logic devices used to deploy government spyware in Turkey and redirect Egyptian users to affiliate ads?” CitizenLab. March 9, 2018. https://citizenlab.ca/2018/03/bad-traffic-sandvines-packetlogic-devices-deploy-government-spyware-turkey-syria/ (accessed on May 18, 2023).

Bellut, Daniel. (2021). “Turkish government increases pressure on social media.” DW. September 9, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/turkish-government-increases-pressure-on-social-media/a-59134848 (accessed on May 15, 2023).

— (2018). “Alert: Finfisher changes tactics to hoot critics.” AccessNow.

— (2018). “#TrollTracker: Journalist Doxxed by American Far Right,” DFRLab, Medium (blog), June 17, 2018. https://medium.com/dfrlab/trolltracker-journalist-doxxed-by-american-far-right-7881f9c20a16 (accessed on May 11, 2023).

— (2020). “Disclosing networks of state-linked information operations we’ve removed,” Twitter Safety, June 12, 2020. https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/information-operations-june-2020 (accessed on May 13, 2023).

— (2021). “Registrations open for Hack Istanbul 2021 contest.” Hurriyet Daily News. May 6, 2021. https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/registrations-open-for-hack-istanbul-2021-contest-164490 (accessed on November 2, 2023).

— (2021). “Cyber Intelligence Contest.” The Digital Transformation of the Presidency.https://cbddo.gov.tr/projects/4726/cyberintelligencecontest/ (accessed on November 2, 2023).

— (2023). “13 detained ahead of elections over defamation alleged by former presidential candidate,” Turkish Minute, May 13, 2023. https://www.turkishminute.com/2023/05/13/13-detained-ahead-of-elections-over-defamation-alleged-by-former-presidential-candidate/ (accessed on May 13, 2023).

— (2023a). “Kılıçdaroğlu says Erdoğan gov’t hired foreign hackers for online campaign against him.” Turkish Minute. May 5, 2023. https://www.turkishminute.com/2023/05/05/kilicdaroglu-says-erdogan-govt-hired-foreign-hackers-for-online-campaign-against-him/ (accessed on November 1, 2023).

— (2023). “Turkey’s Control of the Internet Threatens Election.” Human Rights Watch (HRW). May 10, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/05/10/turkeys-control-internet-threatens-election (accessed on May 12, 2023).

— (2023a). “Questions and Answers: Turkey’s Control of the Internet and the Upcoming Election.” Human Rights Watch (HRW). May 10, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/05/10/questions-and-answers-turkeys-control-internet-and-upcoming-election#_Toc134065370 (accessed on October 29, 2023).

Akyildiz, Emir. (2014). “TİB ve Telekom saldırıyı seyretti.” Haber Vesaire. March 31, 2014. https://www.habervesaire.com/039-tib-ve-telekom-saldiriyi-seyretti-039/ (accessed on November 2, 2023).

Benedictus, Leo. (2016). “Invasion of the troll armies: from Russian Trump supporters to Turkish state stooges,” The Guardian, November 6, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/nov/06/troll-armies-social-media-trump-russian(accessed on May 13, 2023).

Bimber, Bruce and Homero Gil de Zúñiga. (2020). “The Unedited Public Sphere.” New Media and Society 22: 700–15.

Briar, Narîn. (2020). “Negligent Social Media Platforms Breeding Grounds for Turkish Nationalism, Hate Speech,” The Armenian Weekly, October 29, 2020. https://armenianweekly.com/2020/10/29/negligent-social-media-platforms-breeding-grounds-for-turkish-nationalism-hate-speech/ (accessed on May 18, 2023).

Brown, H.; E. Guskin & A. Mitchell. (2012). “The role of social media in the Arab uprisings.” Pew Research Center28.

Bulur, Sertac. (2022). “EGM: Mayıs’ta 145 milyon tweet paylaşılan hesapların yüzde 23’ü bot hesap.” Anadolu Ajansı. June 7, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/gundem/egm-mayista-145-milyon-tweet-paylasilan-hesaplarin-yuzde-23u-bot-hesap/2607433 (accessed on October 23, 2023). 

Bulut E. & E. Yoruk. (2017). “Digital populism: Trolls and political polarization of Twitter in Turkey,” International Journal of Communication. 11: 4093–4117.

Cimpanu, Catalin. (2016). “Turkey Wants to Build Army of Hackers.” Bleeping Computer. December 30, 2016. https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/government/turkey-wants-to-build-army-of-hackers/ (accessed on November 2, 2023).

Diamond, Larry. (2021). “Rebooting Democracy.” Journal of Democracy. 32: 179–83;

Dragu, Tiberiu & Yonatan Lupu. (2021). “Digital authoritarianism and the future of human rights.” International Organization. 75(4), 991-1017;

Ebert H. & T. Maurer. (2013). “Contested cyberspace and rising powers,” Third World Quarterly. 34(6), 1054–1074. doi:10.1080/01436597.2013.802502.

Eldem, Tuba. (2020). “The Governance of Turkey’s Cyberspace: Between Cyber Security and Information Security.” International Journal of Public Administration. Vol. 43, No. 5, 452–465 https://doi.org/10.1080/01900692.2019.1680689

Elmas, Tugrulcan. (2023). “Analyzing Activity and Suspension Patterns of Twitter Bots Attacking Turkish Twitter Trends by a Longitudinal Dataset.” ArXiv. April 16, 2023. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2304.07907.pdf

Goud, Naveen. (2018). “Turkey hackers sneak into social media accounts of US Journalists.” Cyber Security Insiders. https://www.cybersecurity-insiders.com/turkey-hackers-sneak-into-social-media-accounts-of-us-journalists/ (accessed on November 1, 2023).

Grossman, Shelby; Fazil Alp Akis, Ayça Alemdaroğlu, Josh A. Goldstein & Katie Jonsson. (2020). “Political Retweet Rings and Compromised Accounts: A Twitter Influence Operation Linked to the Youth Wing of Turkey’s Ruling Party,” Stanford Internet Observatory, June 11, 2020.

Hern, Alex. (2017). “Twitter accounts tweet swastikas and pro-Erdoğan support in massive hack.” The Guardian. March 15, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/15/twitter-turkey-accounts-hack-tweet-swastikas-pro-erdogan (accessed on November 1, 2023).

Howells, Laura and Laura A. Henry. (2021). “Varieties of Digital Authoritarianism: Analyzing Russia’s Approach to Internet.” Governance Communist and Post-Communist Studies. 54: 1–27.

Hull, Justina. (2023). “Turkiskt hackerforum manar till attacker mot svenska banker.” SVT. January 27, 2023. https://www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/turkiskt-hackerforum-manar-till-attacker-mot-sverige (accessed on November 1, 2023).

Karataş, Duygu & Erkan Saka. (2017). “Online political trolling in the context of post-Gezi social media in Turkey.” International Journal of Digital Television. (2017). Volume 8 Number 3. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.8.3.383_1 

Kocer, Suncem. (2015). “From the ‘Worst Menace to Societies’ to the ‘Robot Lobby’: A Semantic Views of Turkish Political Rhetoric on Social Media.” In: Lemi Baruh & Banu Baybars Hawks (Eds.). New Media Politics: Rethinking Activism and National Security in Cyberspace Account. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Lapowsky, Issie. (2015). “Why Twitter Is Finally Taking a Stand against Trolls,” Wired, April 21, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/04/twitter-abuse/ (accessed on May 11, 2023).

Morozov, Evgeny. (2012). The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs.

O’Donohue, Andrew; Max Hoffman & Alan Makovsky. (2020). “Turkey’s Changing Media Landscape.” CAP. June 10, 2020. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/turkeys-changing-media-landscape/ (accessed on May 18, 2023).

Ozturk, Ozgur. (2013) “Gezi olaylarının Twitter kullanıcı sayısını arttırdı.” Hürriyet, December 8, 2013. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gezi-olaylarinin-twitter-kullanici-sayisini-arttirdi-25306778 (accessed on May 14, 2023).

Paganini, Pierluigi. (2016). “Which Are Principal Cities Hostages of Malicious Botnets?” Security Affairs. October 6, 2016. https://securityaffairs.co/wordpress/51968/reports/botnets-geography.html (accessed on May 11, 2023);

Polyakova, Anna & Chris Meserole. (2019). “Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese models,” Policy Brief, Democracy and Disorder Series. Washington, DC: Brookings. 1-22.

Saka, Erkan. (2021). “Networks of Political Trolling in Turkey after the Consolidation of Power Under the Presidency” (pp. 240-255). In: Digital Hate. The Global Conjuncture of Extreme Speech. Indiana University Press. https://iupress.org/9780253059253/digital-hate/

Sherman, Justin. (2021). “Digital Authoritarianism and Implications for US National Security,” The Cyber Defense Review. 6:1. 107- 118.

Skold, Henrik. (2023). “Turkiska hackergruppens nya hot: Då släpper vi känslig data om svenskar.” SVT. Februari 1, 2023. https://www.svt.se/nyheter/utrikes/efter-koran-branningen-och-nato-turkiska-hackergruppens-nya-hot-da-slapper-vi-kanslig-data-om-svenskar (accessed on November 1, 2023).

Souli, Sarah. (2018). “Turkey’s band of pro-Erdoğan hackers keep trolling Europe.” Vice. March 17, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en/article/wj7enx/turkeys-band-of-pro-erdogan-hackers-keep-trolling-europe (accessed on November 1, 2023).

Soylu, Ragip. (2023). “Turkey elections: Thousands of Russian Twitter accounts reactivated in Turkish.” Middle East Eye. April 18, 2023. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-elections-thousands-russian-speaking-accounts-activated-twitter (accessed on October 17, 2023).

Sozeri, Ceren. (2016).“Trol gazeteciliği.” Evrensel, September 18, 2016. https://www.evrensel.net/yazi/77506/trol-gazeteciligi (accessed on May 11, 2023).

Tartanoglu, Sinan. (2016). “Muhtar İstihbarat Teşkilatı [Muhtar Intelligence Agency],” Cumhuriyet. December 23, 2016. http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/siyaset/649959/Muhtar_istihbarat_Teskilati.html (accessed on May 18, 2023).

Timucin, Fatma. (2021). 8-Bit Iron Fist: Digital Authoritarianism in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes: The Cases of Turkey and Hungary. (Master’s thesis, Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey, 2021). https://research.sabanciuniv.edu/42417/ (accessed on May 11, 2023).

Topak, Ozgün E. (2019). “The authoritarian surveillant assemblage: Authoritarian state surveillance in Turkey.” Security Dialogue. 50: 454–72.

Tucker, Joshua A.; Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá. (2017). “From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media and Democracy.” Journal of Democracy. 28: 46–59.

Unker, Pelin. (2023). “Twitter’da beş gündem etiketinden biri sahte.” DW Turkce. May 12, 2023. https://www.dwturkce.com/tr/twitterda-seçim-manipülasyonu-beş-gündem-etiketinden-biri-sahte/a-65345776 (accessed on October 17, 2023).

Varnalı K. and V. Görgülü. (2015). “A social influence perspective on expressive political participation in Twitter: The case of #occupyGezi.” Information, Communication & Society. 18(1): 1–16.

Yanardagoglu, Eylem. (2018). “Communication as Political Action: Gezi Park and Online Content Producer.” In: Alternative Media in Contemporary Turkey: Sustainability, Activism, and Resistance. Murat Akser & Victoria McCollum (eds.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Yeşil, Bilge. (2016). Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Yesil, Bilge; Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee. (2017). “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance.” Internet Policy Observatory. February 28, 2017. https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22 (accessed on May 11, 2023).

Zagidullin, Marat; Aziz, Nergis and Kozhakhmet, Sanat. (2021). “Government policies and attitudes to social media use among users in Turkey: The role of awareness of policies, political involvement, online trust, and party identification.” Technology in Societyhttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2021.101708

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Religion in Democratic Polities of the Global South.” In: Ihsan Yilmaz (eds.), Digital Authoritarianism and Its Religious Legitimization: The Cases of Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Fan Yang. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Religious Populism in Turkey.” In: Ihsan Yilmaz (eds.) Digital Authoritarianism and Its Religious Legitimization: The Cases of Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Galib Bashirov. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: Emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly 39: 1812–30.

Anies Baswedan seen talking to students of an Islamic boarding school in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 30, 2023. Photo: Marcelino Stefanus.

Indonesian Islamist populism and Anies Baswedan

DOWNLOAD PDF

Bachtiar, Hasnan. (2023). “Indonesian Islamist populism and Anies Baswedan.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 9, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0025



Abstract

Anies Baswedan emerges as a pivotal figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, notably for his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in the criminalization of Ahok’s blasphemy case. His influence has fueled the rise of Islamist populism in the post-reform democratization era. Anies’s recent announcement as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate for the 2024 election positions him against Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto. This article scrutinizes Anies’s prospects in the 2024 presidential election, exploring whether he continues to employ identity politics and Islamist ideologies to attack political opponents and what his overall stance is regarding Islamist populism. It raises pertinent questions about the impact of these developments on Indonesian democracy, pondering whether the looming challenges will culminate in storms or pave the way for clearer skies in the nation’s democratic landscape.

By Hasnan Bachtiar*

Scholarly discourse on the future of democracy in Indonesia frequently paints a grim picture, characterized by regression (Hadiz, 2017; Warburton & Aspinall, 2019; Aspinall & Mietzner, 2019). Thomas P. Power (2018) even confidently highlights the emergence of authoritarian tendencies within the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration in response to a conservative shift and the concurrent rise of Islamist populism that threatens his authority. Jokowi’s argument revolves around the notion that economic development necessitates social and political stability, akin to the approach adopted during the Suharto regime. In the name of stability, that era witnessed the emergence of the ‘Reformasi 1998’ political style and people power, ultimately leading to the downfall of authoritarianism. However, the contemporary global context presents additional challenges, as countries worldwide grapple with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, as economic recovery seemed promising, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict further exacerbated the global economic crisis. Consequently, the government shifted its focus from economic development to crisis management. To safeguard the success of Jokowi’s development initiatives, diverse strategies have been employed to secure investment programs, including the contentious Omnibus Act, designed to offer added protection to investors (Mahy, 2022). These laws, which are imperfect and often detrimental to the populace, have faced critical opposition, particularly from people involved in populist movements. This unfolding situation occurs within a complex political landscape marked by the influence of oligarchic actors and persistent corruption. Consequently, the government has engaged in various negotiations, formed coalitions, and employed repression tactics tailored to the specific context, resulting in limited access to freedom for individuals and interest groups.

This intricate process also implicates various political actors and Islamist populism. Notably, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have swallowed bitter pills and faced government bans due to their perceived threat to state ideology and security. Both Islamist populist movements espouse anti-diversity and anti-minority religious ideologies. The FPI is further entangled in acts of intolerance, religious-based persecution, intimidation, often accompanied by violence and vigilantism. Its existence poses a challenge to democracy, albeit its dissolution raises concerns of repressive measures.

Anies Baswedan emerges as a key figure in Indonesian Islamist populism, propelled by his role in defeating Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (a.k.a. Ahok) in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election and his involvement in Ahok’s blasphemy case (Mietzner and Muhtadi, 2018). He is a catalyst for the rise of Islamist populism, which has found particular expression in the post-reform democratization. Anies has been announced as the National Democratic Party’s (Nasdem) presidential candidate, poised to challenge Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto in the 2024 presidential election (Shafira, 2022). This article delves into Anies’s prospects in the 2024 election, examining whether he still employs identity politics exploiting emotions and Islamist ideology to attack his political opponents, while also assessing his overall attitude towards Islamist populism. Ultimately, this article contemplates whether the looming clouds over Indonesian democracy will lead to rainstorms or yield clear skies.

Who is Anies Baswedan?

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan spoke about data on people infected with the Corona virus in City Hall on March 23, 2020 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Wulandari Wulandari.

Anies Baswedan, born on May 7, 1969, in Kuningan, West Java, is the son of Rasyid Baswedan (father) and Aliyah Rasyid (mother). Notably, he is the grandson of Abdurrahman Baswedan, a national hero, Masyumi figure, populist, and leader of a political movement that harnessed the power of Arab descendants to fight for Indonesian independence (Siallagan, 2022).

He commenced his undergraduate studies in economics at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, in 1995. Two years later, he completed his master’s degree in International Economic and Security Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, US. In 2005, he obtained his PhD in the field of politics from Northern Illinois University, with a thesis entitled “Regional Autonomy and Patterns of Democracy in Indonesia.”

Armed with this impressive academic background, Anies embarked on a teaching career at Paramadina University. This institution, guided by Indonesia’s esteemed figure of pluralism and tolerance, Nurcholish Madjid, instilled the values of virtue in higher education. Anies excelled in his role, ultimately becoming the most influential figure on campus. He served as the university’s rector and initiated the ‘Indonesia Mengajar’ program, renowned for inviting top volunteers from across the nation and deploying them to the farthest and most remote areas to serve as teachers in foundational schools.

Subsequently, Anies was appointed as the Minister of Education and Culture in Jokowi’s cabinet, although his tenure was interrupted by a reshuffle. Nevertheless, his career continued to flourish. He contested the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election, securing victory over the incumbent Governor Ahok and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY), the son of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Leveraging his experience as the head of the capital, Anies emerged as a presidential candidate for the 2024 election under the Nasdem party ticket.

Anies and the 2024 Presidential Election 

Poster in Yogyakarta, Indonesia supporting Anies Baswedan to become president on September 1, 2023. Photo: Mbah Purwo.

Anies could be portrayed as one of the intellectual actors who mobilized Islamist populism in the lead-up to the 2016 gubernatorial election and the 2019 presidential elections. He is often characterized as a figure involved in the intricate realm of politics, where space is provided for intolerant and discriminatory political actions. By employing the identity politics of Islamism, he advocated for the general will of the Muslim majority to stand against an unjust ruling regime. His political maneuvers were shaped by invoking the religious primordialism of the Islamist masses in their struggle against corrupt elites.

However, people tend to overlook his role as a political spokesperson for Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election (Akuntono 2014). He stood by Jokowi’s side and eventually assumed a prominent position in the cabinet, serving as Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture. In this context, Anies was aligned with the same political group that presents itself as the defender of diversity. Nevertheless, his political shift in 2016 led to a significant victory as the Governor of Jakarta, alongside his deputy, Sandiaga Uno. In 2019, he threw his support behind Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, who were challenging Jokowi’s presidency. Despite their eventual defeat, both eventually found a place in Jokowi’s cabinet, as Minister of Defense and Minister of Tourism respectively.

As we approach the 2024 election, Anies’s electability has surged. According to Drone Emprit data, which analyzes the frequency of certain political figures’ names on Twitter using the keyword “Anies Baswedan,” he is the most discussed figure among the public (Rahman, 2022). However, it’s essential to assess what proportion of voters and Twitter users actively engage in campaign-related discussions, debates, and political discourse. Similarly, in polls conducted by various institutions, Anies consistently secures a place in the top three positions, competing with Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo. With strong electability, Anies has been nominated as a presidential candidate by the Nasdem party.

Naturally, announcing his candidacy early, before other candidates are officially revealed, carries risks, particularly concerning the formation of coalitions with other parties. Currently, Nasdem is in a coalition with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Awakening Party (PKB). However, their former partner, the Democratic Party (Demokrat), withdrew from the coalition, feeling betrayed when Anies was instead paired with PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar as the vice-presidential candidate. The Democratic Party advocates for Anies to be paired with AHY.

Without the Democratic Party in the Anies-Muhaimin coalition, it appears to have surpassed the parliamentary threshold of 25 percent based on previous votes in the House of Representatives (DPR). Nasdem holds 10.26 percent of the seats in the DPR, PKS holds 8.7 percent, and PKB holds 10.09 percent (Huda, 2023). Their combined coalition share reaches 29.05 percent. In contrast, their rival Ganjar, under the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) umbrella, commands 22.26 percent support and is backed by the United Development Party (PPP), which holds 3.30 percent (totaling 25.56 percent). Meanwhile, Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) has 13.57 percent support, with backing from Golongan Karya (Golkar) at 14.78 percent, the National Mandate Party (PAN) at 7.65 percent, and the Democratic Party at 9.39 percent (totaling 45.39 percent).

Currently, Anies’s political coalition holds a higher percentage of DPR seats than Ganjar’s coalition but still falls significantly short of Prabowo’s alliance. If Anies is able to win the vote in the first phase of the election, the political map may change. Anies faces a challenging path forward, as does his political coalition. The Anies-Muhaimin coalition is expected to secure substantial votes from followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. PKB, a political party founded by prominent NU figure Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), plays a pivotal role in this regard. Interestingly, during the NU’s centenary celebrations in Sidoarjo on February 7, 2023, numerous state officials associated with the PDIP were prominently featured. Concurrently, Muhaimin Iskandar, with a ‘Nahdliyyin’ (NU follower) background, appeared to be absent. However, there was a so-called PKB-ization of the NU, a party with a large mass that he wrested from its founder Gus Dur.

With all these complexities, Anies still has a chance to win the battle against Ganjar and Prabowo, provided he secures the votes in Jakarta, West Java, and a substantial number of votes in East Java. To secure the major voting pockets, he needs to convince the parties that have endorsed him. On September 27, he met with the FPI’s Grand Imam, Rizieq Shihab, in an attempt to secure the support of the Islamist populist group. Concurrently, the leader of the NU, KH Yahya Cholil Staquf, declared that he would never support a political coalition that included religious groups threatening the nation’s unity.

Anies is making efforts to convince his Islamist populist followers that he won’t betray them, emphasizing pluralism, kindness to minorities, and opening doors to Chinese conglomerates and oligarchs—a formidable and almost impossible task. This is what was discussed during Anies’s interview with ABC News (2023). He asserted that his work in Jakarta demonstrates his leadership for all, characterized by non-discrimination, non-intolerance, and service to people regardless of their backgrounds.

It will be a gamble for him, unless he adopts a pragmatic approach to secure his political position first, recognizing that in the political arena in a political battle, betrayal can be both normal and tolerable. His experience with Jokowi has enabled him to counteract Islamist populism and mitigate the trend toward religious conservatism.

Anies’ Political Maneuver and Islamist Populism

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

The greatest fear of a nation whose motto is unity in diversity is disintegration. The possibility of disintegration can result from fragmentation. Social fragmentation within society encourages the sharpening of differences, ultimately leading to various social and political frictions. Frictions that escape government control can escalate into conflicts. This becomes a serious problem when not adequately and properly managed. The problem is that Indonesia has faced significant polarization in electoral politics, particularly exacerbated when religious symbols, especially Islam as the majority religion, become embroiled.

In 2016, a year seen as preparatory for the 2019 realpolitik contest, religious symbols indisputably became a catalyst for intense social and political polarization. During the Jakarta gubernatorial election, incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, known as Ahok, faced off against Anies Baswedan. This contest sadly involved the influence of identity politics (Islamism) and a substantial mobilization of supporters for Anies. Ahok faced accusations of blasphemy and was ultimately sentenced to prison. His supposed blasphemy occurred when he criticized political figures who invoked Surat al-Maidah in their election campaigns, aiming to expose the use of religion for political gain. In response, Anies, as part of a broader strategy, mobilized Islamist populism to protest against his political opponent, orchestrating a large-scale mass action known as Islamist populism.

In this context, populism assumes the form of resistance to Ahok, who is perceived as a political symbol aligning with corrupt ruling elites. These elites are viewed as corrupt because populists argue they often disregard or violate the general will of the people. Ahok, a political figure belonging to both religious and racial minorities (Christian and Chinese), is seen as a powerful minority who has not favored the Muslim majority. He stands accused of undermining justice and the welfare of the people from the perspective of Anies’ group.

Therefore, the populism unfolding is primarily characterized by criticism, resistance, the struggle of the majority (Muslims and the oppressed) against an elite minority (Ahok) seen as oppressors, foreign lackeys, servitors of the West and China, and a perceived threat to the development of the ummah’s civilization (Yilmaz, Morieson & Bachtiar, 2022). In this narrative, realpolitik actors like Anies are portrayed as champions of Muslim civilization, with Anies even being likened to Abu Bakar al-Shiddiq (a friend of the Prophet Muhammad), a figure described as patient, wise, and possessing good leadership qualities (Kumparan, 2017). This form of populism typically exploits rhetoric centered on civilization, which starkly contrasts ‘us’ with ‘them,’ emphasizing cultural and religious differences (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023).

Following Ahok’s defeat, Anies assumed the influential position of ‘Jakarta 1,’ symbolizing the capital’s most prominent figure. However, Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), faced a different fate. He became a target of the government, accused of being an intellectual actor of Islamist populism posing a threat to national security. In 2016, he managed to mobilize masses from cross-class alliances to enter the political arena against the corrupt elites and others. He then fled to Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to Indonesia, he was arrested for organizing a mass rally during the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in the shooting of his six supporters by the police and the banning of the FPI.

Upon his release on parole, Rizieq Shihab reconnected with Anies. In a baptism-like ceremony, in the presence of Rizieq Shihab’s recitation congregation, Anies was hailed as a leader who had fulfilled his promise as a governor favoring Muslims (Kumparan, 2022). He was contrasted with typical political figures who often renege on their commitments once in power. Rizieq asserted that Anies was different and deemed him a potential candidate for the presidency in Indonesia’s 2024 election, indicating that Anies had become the preferred choice of Islamist populists. However, as of October 2023, the Islamist populist movement has shown no signs of emerging as a large-scale political maneuver involving mass mobilizations.

Anies was respectfully dismissed by President Joko Widodo on October 16, 2022, based on Presidential Decree No. 100/P of 2022. Since then, Anies has begun mobilizing political forces to secure victory in the forthcoming 2024 presidential election. On October 3, 2022, Anies was officially declared a presidential candidate by Nasdem’s leader, Surya Paloh. When asked why Anies Baswedan was chosen, Surya Paloh responded, “Why not? He is the best,” during a press conference at the Nasdem Tower in Jakarta (Savitri, 2022). Additionally, before party officials, Surya Paloh emphasized, “There is no time for us to think and give intolerant thoughts, tolerance is for those who give tolerance. True nationalism, true national thoughts are associated with attitudes that are full of tolerance and that is what Nasdem is fighting for,” (Savitri, 2022).

Subsequently, other parties, including PKS, PKB, and Demokrat, initially voiced their support for Anies, although Demokrat later withdrew. It’s worth noting that Nasdem had previously aligned itself with the victorious PDIP. This means that Nasdem’s stance opposes the Islamist populist movement. In contrast, PKS favors populism and had disassociated from the coalition with Gerindra, the party of another presidential candidate, Prabowo. This shift toward emphasizing tolerance and nationalism, as opposed to Islamist populism’s rhetoric, is indicative of Anies’ evolving political maneuvering style. Nasdem’s expectation is for Anies to win the battle by winning the sympathy of voters outside the Islamist populist group. This does not mean that voters from Islamist populist circles or those who sympathize with identity politics of Islam should be ignored. The goal is for these voters to rally behind Anies rather than Prabowo.

Previously, both Anies and Prabowo had employed Islamist populism as a tool to challenge the ruling government, whether it was Ahok or Jokowi. However, shortly after Prabowo’s defeat in the 2019 presidential election, he accepted Jokowi’s offer to join his cabinet, assuming the pivotal role of Minister of Defense. While this move may have appeared rational, it somewhat eroded the trust of Islamist populist groups in Prabowo. Consequently, these groups shifted their support from Prabowo to Anies. With the additional votes from a diverse electorate less concerned with identity politics, Anies has a chance to outperform Ganjar. The Islamic populist movement may continue to play a role in Anies’ political strategy, albeit with a reduced emphasis on Islamist identity politics, if not its complete elimination.

The change in Anies’ political maneuvering style is evident in an interview with Solo Pos. When asked, “Can Pak Anies ensure that he will be a leader for all Indonesian people when he becomes president?” Anies responded, “I have worked in Jakarta for five years. Can you show me Anies’ policies that are intolerant, discriminatory, not inclusive, that reflect partisan views? So don’t ask about the future, because anyone can boast in front of you. Ask about the track record. …I can show you that in Jakarta we have the best democracy index, the best tolerance… even in cohesiveness (also the best). This is based on a study by Nanyang Technological University. In Jakarta there is no polarization, there is cohesiveness. Where is the polarization? On social media. There is no polarization in the community,” (Baswedan 2023).

Clearly, Anies’ real identity still remains uncertain. He may indeed be a pluralist, but it is also possible that he is ideologically aligned with staunch defenders of Islamism. As an academic and the rector of Paramadina University, a campus influenced by the progressive Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, Anies understands the importance of fostering Indonesian pluralism. However, in politics, ideologies can change and adapt to serve one’s political interests. What the public can comprehend in this context is an adherence to an ideology that advances personal political ambitions. Anies’ moderation of Islamism, his role as a defender of diversity, and his efforts toward a more pro-equality, anti-discrimination, and tolerant form of Islamism may be driven by pragmatic political considerations rather than a fundamental shift to democratic post-Islamism, as proposed by Asef Bayat (2013). What is certain is that his ultimate goal appears to be securing practical political victories.

Conclusion

The public views Anies Baswedan not only as a potential presidential candidate but also as a prominent figure who played a crucial role in the Islamist populist movement during his bid for the governor’s seat in the Jakarta gubernatorial election. He was a central figure in the process that led to Ahok’s imprisonment, a symbol of political elites from religious and ethnic minority backgrounds. However, as the 2024 election draws near, Anies’ style of political maneuvering has undergone a transformation. Acting upon the advice of Nasdem, the party that endorsed him as a presidential candidate, Anies now presents himself as a figure committed to upholding the values of equality, tolerance, and nationalism.

In his recent article titled “Meluruskan Jalan, Menghadirkan Keadilan (Straightening the Path, Presenting Justice)” in Kompas (February 17, 2023), Anies expressed, “The essence of democracy is to provide equal space for all. Presenting legal certainty and security by guaranteeing the rights of citizens, especially safe spaces for women, children, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and marginalized groups. … healthy democracy and legal equality that will drive equitable economic progress. Economic progress without the prospect of social justice will feel false.”

This change allows us to consider the post-Islamist thesis with an optimistic tone. Through Anies, the political style of Islamist populism appears to be evolving into a more democratic form. Anies presents himself as a democratic Muslim. Nevertheless, the post-Islamism thesis has faced significant criticism, particularly because Islamist figures, parties, and social and political movements have rarely advocated for substantive democratization. In this context, post-Islamism often seems more like a political expression that embraces democracy while engaging in Machiavellian political pragmatism that may disregard religious morality. In essence, it can employ various means, including instrumentalizing religion, to attain and maintain the status quo.

However, political reality unfolds dynamically. It is this dynamism that offers an opportunity for the development of a vibrant democracy, as argued by Dan Slater (2023). His thesis is, of course, far more optimistic than Thomas P. Power’s (2018) diagnosis and similar views, emphasizing that Islamist populism and state authoritarianism can lead to a regression of democracy in the country. We shall see—will Anies emerge victorious? And if he does and has to lead all ethnic groups, will he continue to present himself as a Pancasilaist or will he adopt a more populist approach, catering primarily to the majority?

The extent of these political shifts remains uncertain. Will it be as Kartini (2014) suggested, “Habis gelap terbitlah terang (Out of darkness comes light),” or will the darkness, as Power (2018) and his associates fear, usher in a continued regression of democracy? Nevertheless, Anies (2023) expressed in his article that “State administrators need to be humble, avoiding monopolization of the truth, and instead, providing comfortable spaces for citizens to come together and participate.” If he assumes the role of a state administrator, will he monopolize the truth as he did when aligning with Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist populist figures against Ahok? The future trajectory of Indonesian politics will provide answers to these questions.


 

(*) Hasnan Bachtiar is a lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM), Indonesia. Additionally, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Burwood, Australia.


 

References 

— (2017). “Anies-Sandi Ibaratkan Mereka seperti Abu Bakar dan Usman.” Kumparan. February 10, 2017. https://kumparan.com/kumparannews/anies-sandi-ibaratkan-mereka-seperti-abu-bakar-dan-usman/full (accessed on October 8, 2023).

— (2022). “Habib Rizieq ke Anies: Terima Kasih Telah Pimpin Jakarta dengan Baik.” Kumparan. October 22, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTHZ7S-3mJs (accessed on October 8, 2023).

— (2023). “Why Anies Baswedan has been gaining traction in Indonesia’s Presidential race.” ABC News. March 8, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wmyhU_ysMY (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Akuntono, I. (2014). “Anies Baswedan Jadi Jubir Tim Pemenangan Jokowi-JK.” Kompas. May 23, 2023. https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2014/05/23/1625573/Anies.Baswedan.Jadi.Jubir.Tim.Pemenangan.Jokowi-JK (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Baswedan, A. (2023). “Meluruskan Jalan Menghadirkan Keadilan.” Kompas. February 17, 2023. https://www.kompas.id/baca/opini/2023/02/16/meluruskan-jalan-menghadirkan-keadilan (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Baswedan, A. (2023). “Anies Bapak Politik Identitas?” Interview with Solo Pos. YouTube. January 14, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bjp0J0lg5U8 (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Bayat, A. (2013). Post-Islamism: the changing faces of political Islam. Asef Bayat (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Huda, Mas Alamil. (2023). “Peta Kekuatan Koalisi Setelah Demokrat Dukung Prabowo.” Republika. September 18, 2023. https://visual.republika.co.id/berita/s16ggy487/peta-kekuatan-koalisi-setelah-demokrat-dukung-prabowo (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Kartini & Coté, J. (2014). Kartini: The complete writings 1898-1904. 1st ed. Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Publishing.

Mahy, P. (2022) Indonesia’s Omnibus Law on Job Creation: Legal Hierarchy and Responses to Judicial Review in the Labour Cluster of Amendments. Asian journal of comparative law. [Online] 17 (1), 51–75.

Mietzner, M. & Muhtadi, B. (2018). “Explaining the 2016 Islamist Mobilisation in Indonesia: Religious Intolerance, Militant Groups and the Politics of Accommodation.” Asian Studies Review. [Online] 42 (3), 479–497.

Power, Thomas P. (2018). “Jokowi’s authoritarian turn and Indonesia’s democratic decline.” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, 54(3), 307-338. https://doi.org/10.1080/00074918.2018.1549918

Rahman, A. (2022). “Popularitas Tokoh Politik di Indonesia.” Drone Emprit. December 9, 2022. https://pers.droneemprit.id/popularitas-tokoh-politik-di-indonesia-3/ (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Safitri, E. (2022). “Pernyataan Lengkap Surya Paloh Umumkan Anies Capres NasDem 2024.” Detik. October 03, 2022. https://news.detik.com/pemilu/d-6325867/pernyataan-lengkap-surya-paloh-umumkan-anies-capres-nasdem-2024 (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Shafira, I.D. (2022). “Partai NasDem Resmi Usung Anies Baswedan Capres 2024.” Tempo. October 03, 2022.https://nasional.tempo.co/read/1641007/partai-nasdem-resmi-usung-anies-baswedan-capres-2024 (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Siallagan, A. (2022). “Profil Anies Baswedan, Mulai dari Pendidikan dan Jabatan Mentereng.” Kompas. September 23, 2022. https://www.kompas.com/edu/read/2022/09/23/090036671/profil-anies-baswedan-mulai-dari-pendidikan-dan-jabatan-mentereng?page=all (accessed on October 8, 2023).

Slater, D. (2023). “What Indonesian Democracy Can Teach the World.” Journal of Democracy, 34(1), 95-109. doi:10.1353/jod.2023.0006.

Yilmaz, I.; Morieson, N. & Bachtiar, H. (2022). “Civilizational Populism in Indonesia: The Case of Front Pembela Islam (FPI).” Religions (Basel, Switzerland ). 13 (12), 1208–.

Illustration: Shutterstock / Skorzewiak.

Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs)

DOWNLOAD PDF

Please cite as:

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs).” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). September 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0024a

 

Abstract

In this paper, we introduce the concept of “Strategic Digital Information Operations” (SDIOs), discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and suggest avenues for new research. We argue that the concept of the SDIOs presents a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. While the literature has examined the military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as emotive political mobilization, intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences. 

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh* and Galib Bashirov**

Introduction

In recent years, the convergence of the digital realm and political sphere has created a dynamic environment where a wide range of state and non-state actors try to leverage digital platforms to pursue their political goals. This trend includes diverse cases, spanning from the continual targeting of autonomous media establishments in nations like Egypt and Turkey to the deliberate manipulation of electoral processes in democratic countries such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), while also extending its reach to include extremist groups such as ISIS who use digital platforms for their propaganda endeavours (see Ingram, 2015; Theohary, 2011). These “Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs),” as we call them here, refer to efforts by state and non-state actors to manipulate public opinion as well as individual and collective emotions by using digital technologies to change how people relate and respond to events in the world. As such, SDIOs involve deliberate alteration of the information environment by social and political actors to serve their interests.

We use this term – SDIOs – because it combines several facets of digital manipulation at both national and international levels. “Information Operations” is a term social media companies like Facebook have adopted to describe organized communicative activities that attempt to circulate problematically inaccurate or deceptive information on their platforms. These activities are strategic because rather than being purely communicative, they are driven by the political objectives of state and non-state actors (see Starbird et al., 2019; Hatch, 2019). We add the concept ‘digital’ to emphasize the distinction between the old ways of information operations and the new ones that operate almost specifically in the digital realm and use much more sophisticated tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and algorithmic models to disseminate information. Of course, some aspects of digital information operations have been carried over from the non-digital environments that have been mastered over the past century. Nonetheless, the affordances of the digital environment have provided not only radically new and sophisticated tools but also an opportunity for much wider dissemination and reach for strategic information operations. 

The SDIOs involve various tactics used by political groups who try to shape the online environment in their favour. Their goal is to control the flow of information, where politics and social actions meet. We note that these tactics can cross borders between countries: these operations don’t just target people within a country; they also aim to reach people in other nations. In this article, we briefly discuss the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explain the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and present venues for new research.  

Tactics and Practices of SDIOs

As researchers started to examine the many ways in which state actors have tried to manipulate domestic and foreign public opinion in their favour, disinformation has become the main focus of their analysis with an emphasis on spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Various forms of disinformation have been used in order to create doubt and confusion among the consumers of malign content. Spreading conspiracy theories makes people doubt the truth, which weakens trust in social and political institutions. Moreover, sharing fake news or other fabricated stories weaves a web of lies that shapes what people think. While the latter has certainly been effective in manipulating public opinion, observers have noted recently a shift in emphasis from disinformation to more sophisticated and less discernable means of manipulation. 

The aforementioned shift has taken place due to the growing awareness of the fake news and lies in digital environments on the part of both users and digital platforms. As platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have increased their clampdown on such content and as users have become more capable in spotting them, state and non-state actors have moved to more sophisticated means of digital manipulation where content is carefully designed to change how people see things. For example, instead of outright lies or fake news, strategic actors have started to spread half-truths that create a specific version of events by conveying only part of the truth (Iwuoha, 2021). Moreover, these actors have made massive investments on smart public relations messages and clever advertisements to prop up their messages. An important tactical goal has become not simply to deceive the audience but more so to ‘flood’ the information space with not just false, but also distracting, irrelevant, and even worthless pieces of information with the help of trolls and bots, hired social media consultants and influencers, as well as genuine followers and believers (Mir et al., 2022). 

For example, observers noted how a prominent strategy of the Chinese domestic propaganda is to ‘drown out’ dissident voices through incessant propagation of the government messaging, a campaign called ‘positive energy’ (Chen et al., 2021). The Orwellian campaign involved not only the use of a massive influencer and troll army to promote government messaging but also the forceful testimony of the Uyghur people. In one instance for example, seven people of Uighur descent were brought to a press conference to share their stories of “positive energy” and made-up hype against China to disprove allegations of mistreatment by the Chinese government (Mason, 2022). As such, SDIOs encompass all these tactics and practices rather than merely focusing on means of disinformation that have so far dominated the research into digital manipulation. It also shows the ability of SDIOs to adapt and change over time based on the operational context. While disinformation through direct messages remains a consistent approach, actors increasingly move towards using subtler tactics to create distractions and cause confusion among their audience, which weakens the basis of well-informed political discussions. For example, the Egyptian government has flooded the information space with the news of the ‘electricity surplus’ and the future of Egypt as ‘an electricity carrier for Europe’ amidst an ongoing economic crisis in the country that has left millions of Egyptians without access to reliable electricity (Dawoud, 2023). 

At the heart of discussions about strategic digital information operations lies the creation of narratives carefully designed to connect with their intended audiences. These narratives aren’t random; instead, they’re tailored to match how the recipients think. The interaction between these narratives and their audiences involves psychology, culture, and emotions. How the audience reacts depends not only on how convincing the content is, but also on their existing beliefs, biases, and cultural contexts (Bakir and McStay, 2018). While some people might approach these narratives with doubt, others could be drawn into self-reinforcing cycles, giving in to confirmation bias and manipulation. This back-and-forth underlines the close link between creators and consumers of strategic narratives in the digital era.

Among the many narrative tropes that SDIOs use, we want to note the increasing role ascribed to historical and religious notions to influence public opinion and political discussions. SDIOs mix past grievances and religious beliefs to make their stories more impactful and believable. Bringing up old injustices can stir up strong patriotic feelings or strengthen shared memories. At the same time, using religious stories can tap into deeply held beliefs, making people think there is divine approval or a connection to common values. This blend of history and religion makes their stories powerful and emotional, making them more effective. In Turkey, for example, the state authorities have disseminated victimhood narratives that largely rested on conspiracy theories and half-truths in order to legitimize their rule and quash dissent (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022). Research has noted that Islamic religious ideas and the reconstructed history of the Ottoman collapse have been strategically inserted into such narratives to elevate their influence among the Turkish masses (Yilmaz and Albayrak, 2021; Yilmaz and Demir, 2023).

Finally, it’s important to stress that these information operations aren’t always coordinated by automated bots or pre-planned campaigns. Sometimes, they happen naturally through implicit coordination among various participants, which makes the situation even more complex. Starbird et al.’s (2020) research demonstrates that online information operations involve active participation by human actors. The messages these operations spread are disseminated by utilizing online communities and various sources of information. As such SDIOs can be ‘cooperative’ endeavours in that they do not always rely on mere “bots” and “trolls,” but also encompass the contribution of online crowds (both knowingly and unknowingly) in the propagation of false information and political propaganda. For example, during the Russian information operations in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential elections, agents of the Internet Research Agency (RU-IRA) based in St. Petersburg worked together through the operation of more than 3.000 accounts that presented themselves as people and organizations belonging to the American political spectrum (such as the Black Lives Matter and the Patriotic Journalist Network). While undertaking such ‘orchestrated’ activity, the RU-IRA also managed to integrate organic communities by impersonating activists within those online communities, building networks within those communities, and even directly contacting ‘real’ activists. In some cases, RU-IRA agents directly collaborated with activists to organize physical protests in the US (see Walker, 2017).      

Goals of SDIOs

Illustration: Shutterstock.

 

SDIOs span both national and international contexts, targeting domestic and foreign audiences through an array of tactics to achieve the political goals of their organizers. Looking at the domestic realm, SDIOs have influenced the functioning of the government and social and political institutions. In many instances, authoritarian governments use digital platforms to influence individuals’ opinions through stories, emotions, and viewpoints that are carefully designed to resonate with specific groups of the population. Their toolkit includes a range of elements, such as conspiracy theories that legitimize a government policy or deflect attention from a government failure, or that create doubt on the arguments of the opposition parties and social actors. Governments may also present narratives where they portray themselves as victims, manipulate facts, and spread distorted statements. For example, in Egypt, the government’s digital narratives have portrayed independent media outlets as agents of Western conspiracies designed to infiltrate and destroy the Egyptian social and political fabric. Similarly, the civilian presidential candidates against President Sisi have been labelled Western puppets created to destabilize Egypt (Michaelson, 2018). In China, the CCP government has used media management platforms such as iiMedia to control public opinion, including providing early warnings for ‘negative’ public opinions and helping guide the promotion of ‘positive energy’ online (Laskai, 2019). 

It must also be noted that these narratives, particularly those that employ victimhood tropes, are strategically employed to trigger various emotions among the masses. In Turkey, for example, the Erdogan regime has consistently abused a victimhood claim that rested mainly on the already-existing emotions of the masses such as envy, disgust, humiliation, hatred, anxiety, and anger (Yilmaz, 2021). These emotions are triggered and aroused by government elites as well as government-controlled media in order to legitimize the Erdogan regime’s authoritarian rule and deflect attention from its failures (see Yilmaz, 2021; Tokdogan, 2019). 

While both sets of actors pursue political goals through digital manipulation, there are certain differences between state and non-state actors when it comes to utilizing the SDIOs. On the one hand, the state actors tend to be well-resourced and possess good infrastructure of human and technological capital. They tend to have access to a range of digital tools to be used in domestic and foreign contexts, whether to silence the critics and legitimize their rule at home or destabilize their adversaries and extend their geopolitical influence abroad. They tend to carefully plan campaigns to infiltrate foreign information systems, reshape stories, and generate social conflicts, all of which take long-term thinking and strategic foresight. On the other hand, non-state actors, including hacktivist groups and extremist organizations, may lack resources but they tend to be more adaptable to new environments. They use digital platforms to promote their causes, attract supporters, and amplify their voices. These players manoeuvre through the digital world with agility, reflecting the changing nature of the medium.

Research has noted the implications of information operations for democratization as authoritarian and populist governments have leveraged digital media’s features to advance their political objectives. The calculated manipulation of digital platforms by these actors serves as a conduit for amplifying narratives that bolster their policies, worldviews, and perspectives. Authoritarian governments utilize digital censorship and surveillance to suppress dissenting voices and exert control over digital narratives. Populist leaders, in turn, harness the immediacy and interactive nature of social media to establish direct, emotional connections with their constituents, bypassing traditional gatekeepers (Perloff, 2021). By capitalizing on the resonance of online platforms, these actors perpetuate narratives that exploit societal grievances, positioning themselves as advocates for the marginalized while vilifying opposing viewpoints (Postill, 2018).

A Specific, International SDIO: Sharp Power

SDIOs undergo a transformation into tools of geopolitical orchestration and influence projection. In this context, digital strategies manifest as instruments designed to strike a chord with international audiences. They sow seeds of social and political division in target countries that perpetrators try to destabilize. These efforts generate support for both domestic and foreign policy objectives of the perpetrators, often exceeding the boundaries of the conventional notion of soft power and giving rise to what is termed “sharp power” (Walker, 2018). This variant of influence extends beyond the benign strategies commonly associated with “soft power,” taking on a more coercive character where “it seeks to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environment” (Walker, 2018: 12; Fisher, 2020; Elshaw and Alimardani, 2021). 

The emergence of “sharp power” has denoted a significant shift in the dynamics of external influence, as digital platforms are being used to coercively reshape geopolitical interactions between major powers such as the US, China, and Russia, as well as middle powers such as Australia, Turkey, and Egypt. For example, over the last decade, Australia, its public authorities, media entities, and civil society organizations have been systematically targeted by Chinese sharp power operations that included lavish donations to campaigns of useful political candidates, harassment of journalists, and spying on Chinese students in university campuses (The Economist, 2017). 

Social Impacts of SDIOs

The study of strategic information operations is not new as scholars noted the US and Soviet attempts at influencing each other’s information environment since the start of the Cold War (see Martin, 1982). Nonetheless, we note that the strategic information operations have been used mostly in two fields of study: military influence and social media analysis, with the political science literature mostly discussing the elements of the concept without fully operationalizing it. 

On the one hand, scholars working within military studies have rightly pointed out the strategic reasoning of information operations for international politics (see Rattray, 2001; Kania and Costello, 2018). For example, Kania and Costello (2018: 105) showed how the creation of the Strategic Support Force within the Chinese army structure was aimed at “dominance in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain,” thus generating synergy among these three domains, and building capacity for strategic information operations. States have also been manipulating the information environment to influence the internal affairs of their adversaries for decades. This has led to discussion of information operations as a potential threat to national security and stability (Hatch, 2019). 

On the other hand, those working on social media analysis have tried to explain how these information operations have been carried out in social media environments. Researchers have identified technical means through which sophisticated tools of manipulation have been put in place in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that led to the spread of dis/misinformation (see Starbird et al., 2019). Among other things, this literature has also helped us to understand why certain pieces of information resonate with users and generate a response (such as those that are more surreal, exaggerated, impressive, emotional, persuasive, clickbait, and shocking images tend to generate better results).

The political science literature has noted various ways in which specific forms of mis/disinformation have affected political discussions in mostly democratic countries without utilizing the SDIOs as an umbrella term. In democratic contexts, the rapid dissemination of misinformation and divisive narratives poses a substantial threat, corroding informed decision-making and hindering the robust exchange of ideas. Trust, a cornerstone of functional democracies, becomes fragile as manipulation proliferates, eroding institutional credibility and undermining the fundamental tenets of democratic governance. For example, in the US, the Russian information operations around the 2016 Presidential Elections targeted key political institutions such as the political parties, the Congress, and the Constitutional Court through hacking, manipulative messaging, and social media campaigns, leading to erosion of trust among American citizens on these institutions (see Benkler et al., 2018).

While the literature covered such issues, we note that social aspects have not received as much discussion so far. We have seen that the SDIOs create significant social impact in terms of social cohesion, polarization, intergroup relations, and radicalization just to name a few. However, the literature’s discussion of these concepts has been limited to technical or political aspects. For example, when the literature examines polarization, they either try to demonstrate how these operations polarize the discourse on the internet, or they focus on political polarization (e.g. between the left and the right, or the majority and the minorities) (e.g., Howard et al., 2018; Neyazi, 2020) while overlooking the wider societal polarization and corruption. Moreover, we need further investigations into how social media platforms amplify the impact of information operations on group dynamics, specifically, whether the content on social media exacerbates polarization and reinforces group identities. This is premised on the fact that the impact of SDIOs extends beyond individual psychology, permeating the collective fabric of societies and democratic institutions. By exploiting digital platforms, these operations can foster polarization, exacerbate existing divisions, and undermine the foundations of social cohesion.

Impacts of SDIOs on Individual and Collective Emotions

Illustration: Shutterstock / Vchal.

 

In the context of social issues, an important underexplored aspect is the emotional dimension. The SDIOs aim to provoke a wide range of emotions among their targets, including negative, positive, and ambivalent feelings. They aim to generate these emotional responses to achieve various political goals such as gaining support for their political causes, undermining opposing groups, eroding trust in society, marginalizing minority groups, and making people question the credibility of independent media outlets. These operations are usually planned to trigger specific emotional reactions that align with the intentions of the perpetrators. For example, Ghanem et al. (2020) found that the propagation of fake news in social media aims to manipulate the feelings of readers “by using extreme positive and negative emotions, triggering a sense of ‘calmness’ to confuse the readers and enforce a feeling of confidence.” However, we need further research to understand how such emotional responses generate social impacts such as intergroup resentment, xenophobic fear, and anger, potentially leading to societal dissent and upheaval. Conversely, positive emotions like empathy and camaraderie can foster social unity and rally support around social causes. Therefore, the strategic coordination of emotional experiences stands as an important dimension of SDIOs that needs further research.

The final underexplored area we want to emphasize pertains to the content of strategic narratives, including the social and political reasons behind their resonance within target societies. For example, in addition to the content of conspiracy narratives, new research needs to identify why and how certain narratives work in specific social contexts and not in others. Research needs to investigate how historical events, cultural norms, and collective memories shape the reception and resonance of strategic narratives. For instance, narratives that invoke historical grievances might gain traction in societies with unresolved historical conflicts. Further research can explore how strategic narratives tap into individuals’ sense of identity and belonging. Narratives that align with or reinforce a group’s identity can gain more resonance, as they validate existing beliefs and foster a sense of unity. 

Conclusion

In this paper, we introduced the concept of the Strategic Digital Information Operations (SDIOs), discussed the tactics and practices of the SDIOs, explained the main political goals of state and non-state actors in engaging with SDIOs at home and abroad, and presented avenues for new research. We highlighted that the concept of the SDIOs present a useful framework to discuss all forms of digital manipulation at both domestic and international levels organized by either state or non-state actors. We noted that while the literature has examined military-political impacts of the SDIOs, we still don’t know much about societal issues that the SDIOs influence such as intergroup relations, social cohesion, trust, and emotional resonance among target audiences. 

Understanding how audiences perceive and react forms the foundation for generating effective countermeasures against the harmful impacts of SDIOs. Initiatives aimed at promoting digital literacy, critical thinking, and the ability to discern media authenticity will empower individuals to navigate the potentially deceptive terrain of manipulated information. Additionally, creating transparency and accountability in algorithms that digital platforms use and rely on, along with dedicated fact-checking initiatives, will enhance the tools necessary to distinguish between truth and deceit. Furthermore, collaborative efforts involving governments, technology companies, and civil society entities can serve as a strong defense against the corrosive effects of manipulation, safeguarding the integrity of democratic discourse and the informed participation of citizens.

Finally, we note that the examination of SDIOs demands a comprehensive range of methodologies that arise from various disciplines including, quantitative and qualitative analysis that aims at revealing patterns of engagement and shifts in emotions, tracing the pathways of information dissemination, and mapping the networks of influence. Ethnographic investigations that delve into the personal experiences of participants can provide a human-centred perspective, showing the psychological, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of manipulation. Effective collaboration among technology experts, academic scholars, and policymakers can foster a deeper understanding of digital operations work and generate influence. 


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


(*) Dr. Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Professor Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(**) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


References

— (2017). “How China’s “sharp power” is muting criticism abroad.” The Economist, December 14, 2017. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/12/14/how-chinas-sharp-power-is-muting-criticism-abroad

Bakir, V. & McStay, A. (2018). “Fake news and the economy of emotions: Problems, causes, solutions.” Digital Journalism6(2), 154-175.

Benkler, Y., Faris, R. & Roberts, H. (2018). Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. Oxford University Press.

Chen, X., Valdovinos Kaye, D. B. & Zeng, J. (2021). “#PositiveEnergy Douyin: Constructing “playful patriotism” in a Chinese short-video application.” Chinese Journal of Communication14(1), 97-117.

Dawoud, Khaled. (2023). “Power cuts in Egypt: A political liability for Sisi ahead of the upcoming elections.” Middle East Institutehttps://www.mei.edu/publications/power-cuts-egypt-political-liability-sisi-ahead-upcoming-elections(accessed on September 8, 2023).

Elswah, M. & Alimardani, M. (2021). “Propaganda Chimera: Unpacking the Iranian Perception Information Operations in the Arab World.” Open Information Science5(1), 163-174.

Fisher, A. (2020). Manufacturing Dissent: The Subtle Ways International Propaganda Shapes Our Politics (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

Ghanem, B., Rosso, P., & Rangel, F. (2020). “An emotional analysis of false information in social media and news articles.” ACM Transactions on Internet Technology (TOIT)20(2), 1-18.

Hatch, B. (2019). “The future of strategic information and cyber-enabled information operations.” Journal of Strategic Security12(4), 69-89.

Howard, P. N., Ganesh, B., Liotsiou, D., Kelly, J. & François, C. (2018). “The IRA, social media and political polarization in the United States, 2012-2018.” Project on Computational Propaganda. https://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/93/2018/12/The-IRA-Social-Media-and-Political-Polarization.pdf  

Ingram, H. J. (2015). “The strategic logic of Islamic State information operations.” Australian Journal of International Affairs69(6), 729-752.

Iwuoha, V. C. (2020). “‘Fake News’ and ‘Half-truths’ in the Framings of Boko Haram Narrative: Implications on International Counterterrorism Responses.” The International Journal of Intelligence, Security, and Public Affairs22(2), 82-103.

Kania, E. B., & Costello, J. K. (2018). “The strategic support force and the future of Chinese information operations.” The Cyber Defense Review3(1), 105-122.

Martin, L. J. (1982). “Disinformation: An instrumentality in the propaganda arsenal.” Political Communication2(1), 47-64. 

Mason, Max. (2022). “The price of propaganda: Inside Beijing’s mission to drown out dissent.” AFR. December 6, 2022. https://www.afr.com/technology/the-price-of-propaganda-inside-beijing-s-mission-to-drown-out-dissent-20220905-p5bfdv (accessed on September 8, 2023).

Michaelson, Ruth. (2018). “’No puppet’: last challenger in Egypt’s election says he’s more than a veneer of democracy.” The Guardian. March 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/20/egypts-ghad-party-leader-makes-discreet-bid-for-presidency (accessed on September 8, 2023).

Mir, Asfandyar, Tamar Mitts and Paul Staniland. (2022). “Political Coalitions and Social Media: Evidence from Pakistan.” Perspectives on Politics, 1-20.

Neyazi, T. A. (2020). “Digital propaganda, political bots and polarized politics in India.” Asian Journal of Communication30(1), 39-57.

Perloff, R. M. (2021). The dynamics of political communication: Media and politics in a digital age. Routledge.

Postill, J. (2018). “Populism and social media: a global perspective.” Media, culture & society40(5), 754-765.

Rattray, G. J. (2001). Strategic warfare in cyberspace. MIT press.

Starbird, K., Arif, A. & Wilson, T. (2019). “Disinformation as collaborative work: Surfacing the participatory nature of strategic information operations.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction3(CSCW), 1-26.

Theohary, C. A. (2011). Terrorist use of the internet: Information operations in cyberspace. Diane Publishing.

Tokdoğan, N. (2020). “Reading politics through emotions: Ontological ressentiment as the emotional basis of current politics in Turkey.” Nations and Nationalism26(2), 388-406.

Walker, C. (2018). “What Is ‘Sharp Power’?” Journal of Democracy29, 9.

Walker, S. (2017). “Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election.” The Guardian. October 17, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/17/russian-troll-factory-activistsprotests-us-election (accessed on September 8, 2023).

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

Yilmaz, I. & Albayrak, I. (2021). “Instrumentalization of Religious Conspiracy Theories in Politics of Victimhood: Narrative of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs.” Religions12(10), 841.

Yilmaz, I. & Demir, M. (2023). “Manufacturing the Ummah: Turkey’s transnational populism and construction of the people globally.” Third World Quarterly44(2), 320-336. 

Yilmaz, I. & Shipoli, E. (2022). “Use of past collective traumas, fear and conspiracy theories for securitization of the opposition and authoritarianisation: the Turkish case.” Democratization, 29(2), 320-336.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan

DOWNLOAD PDF

Ahmed, Zahid Shahab; Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 20, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0042

 

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

 

By Zahid Shahab Ahmed*,  Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh** and Galib Bashirov***

Executive Summary

With the Pakistani government implementing rules and regulations to control the online sphere, particularly through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), digital authoritarianism has emerged as a significant governance tool in the country. Concerns have been raised regarding potential abuses stemming from the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the extensive monitoring authority granted to intelligence services. However, despite the rise of digital authoritarianism, a countervailing force exists. Pakistan’s judiciary has displayed resistance, and the nation boasts a robust civil society that includes human rights organizations focusing on digital rights. These groups express concerns regarding data security, privacy regulations, and the internet access of marginalized communities. This study aims to examine the dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and evaluate the role of civil society organizations in promoting and protecting digital rights.

Initially, communications in Pakistan were governed by colonial-era legislation, such as the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act of 1996 and the Telegraph Act of 1885. The Fair Trial Act of 2013 enabled the extensive collection of evidence through monitoring. These regulations, coupled with the absence of a comprehensive digital governance bill, have facilitated continuous online surveillance. Pakistan has witnessed remarkable growth in internet penetration, with approximately one-third of the population now having internet access.

In 2016, Pakistan introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to address internet governance. The act imposes severe penalties for various offences, including hacking, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. However, concerns have been raised regarding issues such as misuse, limitations on expressive rights, and privacy violations. PECA grants increased authority to institutions like the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance and prosecution. The PTA possesses extensive powers to block and remove content, often justifying these actions based on the grounds of promoting vulgarity or corrupting the youth. Social media companies are also required to comply with specific regulations.

Pakistan benefits from a strong network of civil society organizations that actively collaborate with international counterparts to raise awareness about digital rights. Within Pakistan, several prominent organizations are dedicated to advocating for digital rights, internet freedom, privacy, and digital literacy.

The Digital Rights Foundation is a notable non-profit organization that focuses on promoting digital rights and addressing issues such as online harassment, data security, freedom of speech, and women’s digital rights. They conduct research, provide legal support, and deliver training and awareness programs on digital security.

Bolo Bhi is another civil society organization committed to internet freedom, digital security, and open access to information. Alongside policy advocacy, research, and digital literacy initiatives, they raise public awareness about internet censorship, surveillance, and privacy concerns.

Media Matters for Democracy is a group that works on freedom of expression, digital rights, and media development in Pakistan. Through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building initiatives, they strive to enhance online civic spaces, promote digital literacy, and safeguard digital rights.

The Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan, a research project, offers policy recommendations on issues such as data privacy, monitoring, and censorship. They track and analyse internet governance challenges in Pakistan.

Privacy International, a global organization, advocates for privacy rights and opposes intrusive monitoring practices, including in Pakistan.

These civil society organizations play crucial roles in promoting and safeguarding digital rights in Pakistan, both through local advocacy efforts and international collaborations. These organizations actively engage in research, lobbying, and capacity-building initiatives to interact with politicians, raise public awareness, and protect digital rights in Pakistan. They also address the issue of inadequate internet access, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Their initiatives serve as a reminder of the significance of inclusive policies, digital literacy programs, bridging the digital divide, and ensuring that technological advancements are guided by human rights principles.

By conducting research, these organizations generate valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities related to digital rights in Pakistan. They utilize this research to advocate for policies that protect individuals’ online freedoms and privacy. Through lobbying efforts, they aim to influence policymakers and lawmakers, urging them to enact laws and regulations that promote digital rights and address concerns regarding internet access, privacy, and surveillance. Capacity-building initiatives undertaken by these organizations involve educating individuals and communities about digital rights, empowering them to understand their rights and navigate the online world safely. These efforts are particularly vital in rural and underserved areas, where access to information and digital literacy may be limited. The organizations’ commitment to addressing the digital divide highlights the importance of ensuring equal and affordable internet access for all citizens, regardless of their geographical location or socioeconomic status. Furthermore, these organizations emphasize the need for human rights principles to underpin technological advancements. They advocate for a responsible and ethical approach to digital development, wherein individual privacy, freedom of expression, and other fundamental rights are respected and protected.

Policy Implications

– The ambiguous definitions of cybercrime within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) give rise to concerns regarding potential abuses and violations of privacy. To address these issues and ensure the protection of individual rights, it is imperative for the government to undertake a thorough review and modification of the Act. This review should involve establishing precise definitions for cybercrimes and implementing stringent regulations governing the collection, storage, and utilization of personal data. Additionally, robust data protection laws need to be put in place to safeguard the privacy of individuals.

– Given the wide-ranging monitoring authority granted to intelligence services under PECA, there is a pressing need for stronger supervision and accountability mechanisms. To prevent the potential abuse of surveillance powers and protect individual rights, it is crucial to establish independent authorities tasked with overseeing and regulating the operations of intelligence services. Transparency and accountability should be prioritized through regular audits and reporting procedures, ensuring that the actions of these services align with legal and ethical standards. By implementing robust oversight measures, we can safeguard against potential abuses and maintain the balance between security concerns and individual privacy rights.

– The resilience displayed by the judiciary in Pakistan against digital authoritarianism is commendable. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of enhancing judicial independence and equipping courts with the necessary tools to effectively address matters related to digital rights. To enhance the judiciary’s understanding of the complexities involved, it is crucial to implement judicial training programs focused on technology and digital issues. These training initiatives can provide judges with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the intricacies of digital matters and make informed decisions. By bolstering judicial comprehension in this field, the judiciary’s ability to uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan can be strengthened.

– The government should prioritize initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide and improving internet access, especially in rural and underserved areas. This requires making substantial investments in infrastructure development, expanding broadband availability, and reducing internet service costs. Additionally, implementing digital literacy programs is crucial to equip individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital realm securely and effectively. By addressing these issues, the government can empower marginalized communities, bridge the digital gap, and create equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the digital age.

– Civil society groups in Pakistan are at the forefront of promoting digital rights. Recognizing their expertise and advocacy efforts, the government should actively engage with these organizations and seek their advice and insights in formulating rules and regulations. Collaborating with civil society groups allows for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing the diverse issues and viewpoints related to digital rights. By fostering meaningful dialogue and incorporating the perspectives of various stakeholders, the government can develop more effective policies that uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan.

– Extensive public awareness campaigns are essential to educate the public about their digital rights, emphasizing the importance of online privacy and security. These awareness efforts should be inclusive, targeting various social groups, with a particular focus on marginalized communities. The aim is to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to protect their personal information online, recognize potential risks, and take appropriate legal action if their rights are violated. By empowering people with this information, we can foster a safer and more informed digital environment, ensuring that individuals are aware of their rights and can actively safeguard their online privacy and security.

– Pakistan should actively engage in international forums and collaborate with other nations to establish best practices and standards in addressing digital rights issues, recognizing the global nature of these challenges. By participating in these forums, Pakistan can benefit from shared knowledge and experiences, leading to more effective approaches in protecting digital rights. Collaborating with organizations like Privacy International can be instrumental in leveraging their expertise and assistance to strengthen privacy rights and oppose intrusive surveillance practices. By working together on an international scale, Pakistan can contribute to the development of robust frameworks for digital rights protection and ensure that privacy and individual freedoms are upheld in the digital realm.


 

Introduction

Policemen stand guard to avoid any untoward incident at Kati Pahari road as security has been tightened in city due to violence on July 06, 2011 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political landscape has been profoundly shaped by its historical trajectory, which has been marred by violence, religious divisions, and an intricate struggle for identity. The country has faced challenges in establishing a stable democracy, with periods of military dictatorship undermining democratic processes. Governance issues, such as limited freedom of the press, restricted right to protest, and interference from the military establishment, have cast a shadow on Pakistan’s democratic credentials. Furthermore, the rise of digital authoritarianism has added a new dimension to the country’s political landscape.

To govern the digital sphere, the government has implemented laws and regulations, with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) serving as foundational legislation. However, concerns arise from the ambiguous definitions of cybercrime in PECA, and the extensive surveillance powers granted to civil and military intelligence agencies, raising the potential for abuse of power. The state has invested in technological capabilities for online monitoring, including web monitoring systems and social media monitoring cells. This digital surveillance infrastructure, combined with the expanded role of state institutions, reinforces the government’s control over cyberspace and its citizens’ privacy.

While digital authoritarianism is on the rise, characterized by increased surveillance, internet shutdowns, and restrictions on dissent, there exists a counterbalancing force. Pakistan’s judiciary has demonstrated resistance to encroachments on digital rights, and a robust civil society, including human rights organizations focusing on digital rights, actively advocates for the protection of digital rights in the country. These organizations voice concerns regarding data protection and privacy laws, as well as advocating for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized populations in regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

This report aims to delve into the various dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and examine the role of civil society organizations in promoting and safeguarding digital rights within the country.

Pakistan is a country that has seen violence and brutality since its formation in 1947. Following World War II, the British Raj withdrew from the Indian Subcontinent, creating independent states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, leading to millions of people migrating across the newly created borders between India and Pakistan. The Great Partition became the largest mass migration event of the twentieth century, but it was also marred by violent hate crimes based on faith, resulting in mass murder, mob lynching, looting, and rape of citizens on both sides of the borders (Talbot, 2009; Menon, 2012; Khan, 2017).

In addition to its traumatic inception, Pakistan has constantly struggled with its identity as a young nation-state. Despite being a ‘Muslim’ state, Pakistan at the time of its creation hosted a 23 percent population of non-Muslims, which has dwindled to 4 percent at present, and newly independent India did and still houses millions of Muslims (Mehfooz, 2021). Adding to this, the 1971 civil war led to the separation of East Pakistan from the union resulting in the creation of Bangladesh (Hossain, 2021, 2018). This breakdown of the idea of ‘a land for Muslims’ since its formation has been in jeopardy. Another interesting part is that while Pakistan was championed as a homeland for Muslims, legally it remains a highly colonial-inspired state in terms of its laws and constitution (Yilmaz, 2016). While it does use Sharia’s guiding principles to form laws, it remains democratic and not purely ‘Islamic’ in its legal and governance aspects (Yilmaz, 2016). This for many hard-line clerics and right-wing groups has added to the identity crises. The exclusive emphasis during its creation on the idea of a ‘land for Muslims’ and the later paradoxes has taken the shape of an ontological crisis for the country. Its foundation of a ‘Muslim land for Muslims’ over the year has been jolted. This existentialist crisis has led to various forms of political and social turmoil in the country for the last seven decades.  

While Pakistan remains a democracy, its track record is tarnished by several military authoritarian regimes. The country has spent decades under four different military dictatorships, one of which took place during 1969-1971, under General Yahya Khan, when Pakistan was facing a civil war in East Pakistan (Sheikh and Ahmed, 2020). The latest military rule was that of General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. While the 2008 general elections have paved the wave for a successive period of democracy the country’s ranking on democratic measures and indexes has remained murky (see Table 1). Various issues such as the lack of freedom of the press, barring the right to protest, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and gag order on media are a few of the issues apart from poor governance. The military referred to as “the establishment” regularly interferes with democratic processes in the country (Shafqat, 2019). Due to its closeness to the military establishment, Imran Khan’s government during 2018-2022 was called a hybrid regime and similar is the case now under the government-led Pakistan Democratic Movement.  

Table 1 Overview of Democracy in Pakistan
The Freedom House (2023)  Overall score 37/100 Political Rights 15/40
Civil Liberties 22/60
Democracy Index (2022) Overall score 4.13/10 Electoral process and pluralism 5.67/10
Functioning of government 5/10
Political participation 2.78/10
Political culture 2.5/10
Civil liberties 4.71/10
Human Freedom Index (2022) Overall rank 146 out of 165 countries  Personal freedom 5.2/10
Human freedom 5.44/10
Economic freedom 6.03/10
Reporters Without Borders
World Press Freedom Index (2023)
Rank 150 out of 180 countriesScore is 39.95 Political indicator rank 139/180
Economic indicator 136/180
Legislative indicator 130/180
Social indicator 140/180
Security indicator 176/180

Data sources: (FH 2023; RWB 2023; FI 2022; Economist 2022)

In addition to these troubles, the country has been facing waves of home-grown terrorism and mushroom growth in far-right vigilantism from right-wing Islamist groups since the early 2000s. Despite successive military operations and some ‘peace building’ efforts the year 2023 marks the return of radical Islamists (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other armed groups) in various areas of the country which results in numerous violent incidents such as conflicts with security forces or targeting civilians by suicide bombing (Jadoon, 2021). Similarly, radical Islamic groups, in both urban and rural areas have spread a culture of vigilantism or ‘mob justice’ where vandalism, physical attacks on people and at times mob lynching have become common practice to show discontent over blasphemous comments by international leaders, local politicians and many times average citizens accused of blasphemy (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022). In addition, targeting non-Muslims and sectarian minorities in the name of ‘protection of Islam’ these violent mobs has resulted in deaths, vandalism of worship places and loss of property of the victim’s (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022).     

The overview of the country’s current political situation is quite grim. During this chaos surrounding poor governance, a tradition of authoritarianism, military interference, radicalization and disregard of human rights, the country has become a fertile ground for digital authoritarianism as well. Since the late 2000s and through the 2010s the state has replicated its oppressive tactics on the online realm as well. The last section of this report presents the history and current situation of digital authoritarianism.  

Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Photo: Natanael Ginting.

The way modern humans interact with information has been fundamentally transformed by the Internet. Nowadays, anyone with a secure connection to the World Wide Web has access to a wealth of information that is freely and readily available. However, this easy access to information has led to an increasing demand for internet governance (Kurbalija, 2016), which refers to the creation and management of rules, policies, and practices in the digital realm. How internet governance is carried out varies from country to country. For example, in India, internet blackouts are commonly employed to suppress protests against the government, thereby violating citizens’ right to protest (Momen and Das, 2021). Yang and Muller’s research on China’s internet censorship demonstrates how authoritarian governments can shape public opinion and quell potential resistance through cyberspace governance. Even in Western democracies, internet governance has sparked significant debates, particularly concerning the state’s surveillance of citizens (Zajko, 2016). Despite concerns about overreaching internet governance, its implementation is justifiable as it helps combat hate speech online, restricts access to child pornography, and flags other potential criminal activities (Kurbalija, 2016). There are also various institutions involved in shaping the internet governance framework, including state institutions, telecommunication companies, international organizations, digital businesses such as social media giants, and civil society.

Pakistan is governed under the 1973 Constitution. Under this legal document, Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to privacy to its citizens (GOP, 2012).  The concept of “privacy of the home” in the article is extended and interpreted to digital communications. However, in the article, the freedom or right to privacy is subject to law under various circumstances, which means this freedom is not absolute. In addition, before the advent of the internet, the colonial law Telegraph Act from 1885 and the colonial-inspired Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, of 1996 governed the communication (PTA, 2023). Both Acts under clauses allowed for mass surveillance over the telephone and other forms of communication. Even before 2016, when the first law to govern digital space came into being, the Fair Trial Act, 2013 allows for the mass gathering of surveillance evidence of the accused which has enabled a culture of mass surveillance in the country. The country’s roots in colonial laws, which was itself authoritarian and its continued use of surveillance through successive laws ensured that even without a digital governance bill, their plenty of room for constantly monitoring online activities. 

It is also important to understand who uses the internet in Pakistan, so it is clear who are the ones most impacted by a host of new laws and programs designed for the internet governance in Pakistan. In 2005, the internet penetration rate was 6.3 percent but it almost tripled to 15.51 percent in 2017 and was  36.7 percent at the start of 2023 (Kemp, 2023). While this rate might be lower than the global South it is a significant number as over 87.35 million Pakistanis use the internet and, nearly 4.4 million people started using the internet just between 2022 and 2023 (Kemp, 2023). This exponential growth can be explained by not only the increase in the presence of the facility but also by the fact that during the last census, conducted in 2017, nearly 40 percent of Pakistani citizens are under the age of 14 years (UNDP, 2019). This census also indicates a youth dividend in the country saying that “64 percent of the nation is younger than 30 and 29 percent of Pakistanis are between 15 and 29” (UNDP, 2019). This youth bulge can be responsible for an increased appetite for intent consumption. Despite the rapid increase in internet unsafe, it is important to remember that two-thirds of the population does not have access to the internet (Kemp, 2023). Despite this gap, over the last decade, the government has focused its energy on extending its governance to the digital realm. 

It is also important to note that Islamist elements enshrined by political parties in power along with the “establishment” (military involved in the politics of the country) also reflect in digital governance. While it is common to use cyber tools to curb freedom of speech of civilian protests and political opposition, it has also become common practice to justify closing websites such as Wikipedia and platforms such as Facebook and YouTube out of respect for “Islamic values and sentiments” (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). For instance, former Prime Minster Imran Khan has openly advocated for banning content he deems “dangerous” for Muslim youth’s consumption. He said, “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). Khan is not alone as various other political parties have a history of banning social media platforms because of accusation of publishing “blasphemous” content. This practice of banning websites or issuing them ultimatums to remove blasphemous content has been set in motion since the first ban of Wikipedia in 2010 (Zaccaro, 2023). At the same time, the establishment has been using its public relations agency, Inter-Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), to let citizens know of the bangers of “foreign” content in online space. They term this a “fifth generation warfare” which is propagated by the alleged “Jewish lobby,” “India” and other “foreign powers” to hurt and misguide Pakistani citizens (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). To curb this “fifth generation warfare” the ISPR has mixed jingoism with Islamist jihadist ideals to ensure that the public remains “safe” from these influences on online platforms. In such an eco-system, the state actively targets political opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, through its vast web of cyber governance which makes the state activities digital authoritarian. 

Digital Governance 

In 2014, the government of Pakistan addressed internet governance by developing a legal framework. This resulted in the creation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which aimed to combat the misuse of electronic media and technology. The Act was passed by the Pakistani parliament in August 2016 and became effective in November of the same year. Pakistan, like many other countries, experienced a significant increase in the use of electronic media and technology. While these developments brought numerous benefits, they also posed challenges such as cybercrime, extremist propaganda, and hate speech on the internet. The PECA was formulated to tackle these challenges and establish a legal structure for addressing cybercrime while safeguarding the rights of citizens in the digital realm.

The Act encompasses a wide range of offences, including hacking, identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. It imposes strict penalties for those found guilty of committing such crimes. It is important to note that at the time, Pakistan was dealing with severe terrorism issues, and the PECA was presented as a vital measure for counterterrorism efforts. This context played a significant role in its swift approval within approximately a year and a half of the draft bill being presented in the National Parliament. However, critics have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse, the impact on freedom of expression, and the privacy implications of the Act. Some argue that it could be used to suppress dissenting voices and restrict access to information (Aziz, 2022). Criticisms also focus on the Act’s vague definitions of offences, lack of oversight, and accountability in its implementation.

PECA includes several key components of internet governance. It grants increased authority to public institutions such as the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance, data collection, and prosecution. The PTA has broad powers under Section 37 of PECA to block and remove content based on ambiguous criteria, often justifying these actions by claiming certain platforms promote “vulgarity” or “corruption of youth.” Additionally, the Act requires social media companies operating in Pakistan to comply with the law and remove any unlawful content within 24 hours of being notified by authorities. Failure to do so can result in significant fines. The government has also mandated these companies to establish local offices in Pakistan and appoint designated representatives to collaborate with law enforcement agencies.

Pakistan has invested resources to strengthen its control over the use of digital technologies in the country. PECA established a comprehensive legal framework for identifying and addressing electronic crimes, including methods for investigation, prosecution, and adjudication. Some articles of the Act specifically focus on terrorism-related online material, including hate speech. While the implementation of PECA is viewed by the state as a crucial step in counterterrorism efforts, its controversial aspects and potential impact on freedom of expression have raised concerns. Nonetheless, the Act received unanimous approval in both the Senate and the National Assembly, as all political stakeholders recognized the significance of counterterrorism measures.

Since 2016, Pakistan has created a host of laws and amendments to existing laws to specifically govern cyberspace. The foundational law which governs cyberspace is called the Prevention Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). According to Section 21 (d) of this legislation, “Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or transmits any information which cultivates, entices or induces a natural person to engage in a sexually explicit act, through an information system to harm a natural person or his reputation, or to take revenge, or to create hatred or to blackmail, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both” (GOP, 2016, 11). While on the surface the law seems a needed measure to curb cybercrime has cyberbullying, hacking and a tool to curb child pornography rings as well as a means to combat terrorism, it is quite ambiguous in its definition of a “cybercrime” which makes it rampart available for abuse in the hands of the oppressive state apparatus (Shad, 2022). 

In addition to being vague, the laws grant the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) unrested powers when it comes to surveillance on social media as well as grant the permission to retain data and seize digital tools (GOP, 2016). This law has paved the way for the state to heavily invest in technology to govern cyberspace. For instance, in 2018 the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) purchase a “web monitoring system” from Sandvine which uses DPI technology (Ali & Jahangir, 2019). Again, the hands of FIA and the military-operated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been used to carry out mass surveillance of anyone deemed a threat via well-established social media monitoring cells as a means to counter “threats” and “terrorists” (Pasha, 2017). 

In addition to legal measures, the state has redefined the role of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The agency is a national database, but its role has been expanded. In a shocking revelation in a WikiLeaks document, biometric data of Pakistani citizens from NADRA was provided to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and National Security Agency (NSA) to investigate “terrorists” (Digital Rights Foundation, 2022). In 2016 and 2018, various ‘safe city projects’ were launched in Islamabad and Lahore, respectively. These projects were part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) which ushered in a new wave of collaboration between the two countries. The safe city projects were built on a loan from the Export–Import Bank of China and featured a collaboration between Huawei, National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and Arup which installed mass surveillance devices to track criminal activities but also record citizens’ movements via cameras, vehicle number plate tracking, tracing telecommunication communication, drone footage, facial recognition software, etc. (Ahmed, 2021). 

Again, while these efforts are showcased as means to curb crime, there has been little proof of this. For instance, in Islamabad, the crime rate rose by 33 percent in 2016, a year after the system was implemented and the country’s national crime rate rose by 11 percent by 2018 (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). The surveillance system aids the state in mass monitoring citizen activities which often targets political and social opposition from both political and non-political resistance groups.

In addition to laws and technologies to aid cyber governance, the state has showcased a history of blocking internet access to maintain “law and order” since the early 2010s. The PTA has been the manager of this domain where it often restricts internet access at certain times and in specific regions. One of the most frequent justifications for this action is curbing terrorism. For instance, during religious gatherings (e.g., Ashura for the Shi’as) and political demonstrations, internet shutdowns have become a norm in the main law and order  (Kamran, 2017). These shutdowns are quite often targeted to remove the spread of information regarding political opposition. While in power, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) used the same mechanism to curb online coverage rallies by its political opposition the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PLM-N), now out of power, PTI gatherings in Lahore are victim to internet blackouts in the same manner (Raza, 2023).

Examples of Digital Authoritarianism 

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

One of the most prominent examples of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan is showcased via its banning and blocking of content on the internet. As discussed, the most prominent reason for this gaging is the need to protect people from blasphemous or false information. YouTube was banned between 2012-2016 in the country when a video surfaced mocking Prophet Muhammad (Wilkers, 2016). Similarly, TikTok was also banned on two separate occasions, in 2020 and 2021, for “immorality and obscenity in the country” for a few days each time (Masood, 2020). PTA has also banned Twitter several times over the last ten years for various periods in years 2012 and 2021 and all times it was banned because of the spread of sacrilegious content (Verma, 2021; Reuters, 2012).  

In addition to gaging websites, internet blackouts are a routine procedure. Historically internet shutdowns were usually put in place to stop terrorist activities on days of religious significance when people gathered in mass such as the processions at Ashura, rallies of Eid Milad-un-Nabi, (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) or events where people gathered for mass payers such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha. However, these have now expanded to the government using these bans to target the opposition. For instance, in 2021 former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to give a talk at an event called Asma Jahangir Conference. Due to a self-imposed exile, Sharif took part in the event via an online address which was blacked out via a targeted internet shutdown since the politician voiced his discontent with the establishment and the then-ruling PTI-led government (The News, 2021a). Conversely, in 2023, with PTI out of power, the former opposition formed an alliance government and in May 2023 Imran Khan was arrested for not appearing in several court cases. After this arrest mass protests by PTI supporters sprang across major cities in the provinces of Punjab and KP (Mao, 2023). This led to a blanket internet shutdown to curb protests for over four days (Mao, 2023). In addition, internet blockage is quite a routine matter in Western Pakistan in regions of Swat, FATA, adjoining areas, and parts of Baluchistan where military security forces regularly clash with terrorist groups ranging from separatist groups to jihadist factions (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). 

Internet surveillance has also peaked in Pakistan and the Pakistan military has been the major stakeholder involved in this process. In 2021, a bill was passed ensuring anyone who abused the military could face jail time and hefty fines (Abbasi, 2021). This bill has been instrumental in expanding surveillance on “anti-state” activities and punishing the accused. In May 2023, PTI protesters led to the rioting of public property, which resulted in the Prime Minster promising that “all technology available” would be used to punish vandals or some Ministers have been calling them “terrorists” (Sharif, 2023). Similarly, after the unrest calmed down, various videos have surfaced showcasing security forces and agencies using surveillance data to target peaceful protestors as well (Haq, 2022). 

Furthermore, the use of technology for national security purposes has also been employed to suppress dissent, creating another dimension to the issue. The state’s overwhelming focus on national security, particularly in countering terrorism, has resulted in neglecting its responsibilities under domestic laws, as well as international agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Despite frequent incidents of data breaches and scandals involving the unauthorized release of audio and video recordings of influential political figures, judges, and journalists, there are no laws in place to safeguard against the collection of personal data and protect privacy. Civil society organizations in Pakistan have expressed concerns regarding the increasing surveillance of both the public and specific individuals such as journalists, politicians, and human rights activists (PI, 2015). They view these measures as infringements on the right to privacy. Intelligence agencies like the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with other authorities overseeing safe city projects, have enhanced their surveillance capabilities by establishing social media monitoring cells (Ahmed, 2021; Azeem, 2019; Yousafzai, 2023). While legal provisions permit digital surveillance for counterterrorism purposes such as blocking hate speech content, it appears that the state is utilizing its expanded surveillance capacity to suppress dissent (Aziz, 2022; Rehman, 2020).

Safe cities employ video cameras and other digital technologies to monitor and identify suspicious activities. Although safe cities encompass various ICT capabilities used in urban areas, the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ goes beyond that of ‘Safe Cities.’ The notion of Smart Cities involves providing internet connectivity and may progress to include electronic payment options for essential services and AI-controlled monitoring devices. Smart cities utilize technologies like high-speed communication networks, sensors, and mobile apps to enhance service delivery, improve mobility and connectivity, stimulate the digital economy, and overall enhance the well-being of citizens (Muggah, 2021; Goulding, 2019). To achieve this, vast amounts of data are leveraged to optimize various city functions, such as utilities, services, traffic management, and pollution control. The rapid expansion of smart city infrastructures globally has sparked controversy due to concerns over the widespread collection, retention, and manipulation of personal data by entities ranging from law enforcement agencies to private enterprises.

In Pakistan, successive administrations have collaborated closely with China to develop secure city infrastructure across urban areas. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), headquartered in Lahore, is a well-known initiative in this regard. With over 6,000 cameras and sensors installed at more than 1,500 locations in Lahore, the Punjab Police, with assistance from the PSCA, can manage traffic, combat crime, and respond to emergencies (Malik, 2022). Notably, Huawei from China has been responsible for constructing all secure city systems in Pakistan. The first safe city system in Islamabad was completed in 2016 through collaboration between the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan and Huawei, with funding from China’s EX-IM Bank (Hong, 2022). Another safe city system was established in Lahore in 2018, with Huawei leading the construction and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and UK-based multinational firm Arup providing consultancy and technical support (Ahmed, 2021).

The safe city infrastructure gathers information across several categories, including personal data, vehicle and traffic data, criminal profiles, crime statistics, and parking information. Given the past instances of data breaches within the NADRA database, experts have raised concerns about data security risks. In 2019, several CCTV camera images from Lahore were posted online, featuring inappropriate sexual content (Azeem, 2019). Pakistan’s safe city surveillance systems incorporate facial recognition, artificial intelligence, vehicle number plate tracking, dedicated telecommunication networks, data centers, drones, mobile applications, and intelligent transportation systems.

The effectiveness of Huawei’s safe city infrastructure in reducing urban crime has been subject to debate. Huawei has claimed in a questionable presentation that its safe city solutions significantly reduce crime, increase case clearance rates, shorten emergency response times, and enhance citizen satisfaction. However, investigations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have indicated that these claims have been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). In Islamabad, the crime rate continues to grow and there was an increase of 141.2 percent recorded from 2021 to 2022 (Azeem, 2022). Participants in research studies have expressed skepticism, stating that they have not witnessed any positive outcomes or reduction in crime rates because of the safe city projects. A local journalist shared the following views: “For example, in Islamabad, we see that more than 2,200 cameras are installed in only one city. But if we talk about Lahore city there are more than 6,000 cameras installed. They enable the government to monitor the movement of people. They claim that they have installed them to control the law and security situation in cities and to control the crime rate in Pakistan, but we have not seen any positive outcome in that regard through a reduction in the crime rate”  (Baloch, 2022).

Despite the state’s justification that safe city projects primarily serve counterterrorism efforts, it is evident that surveillance technology is being selectively employed. While it is used to counter terrorism and publicly release videos of terrorists involved in major attacks, such as the one in Peshawar in 2023, it is also increasingly utilized to target individuals critical of the government, its officials, and state institutions like the army (Gul, 2022). Examples have emerged of facial recognition technology being used to track down and apprehend individuals who verbally attacked government figures (Nadeem, 2022). Numerous cases have been documented where people have been detained by authorities for posting critical comments on social media. In these instances, individuals are subjected to torture and coerced into making public apologies, with videos of their apologies subsequently released on social media platforms (Dawn, 2022a).

The level of surveillance implemented in Pakistan is linked to an authoritarian approach. Surveillance capabilities are being employed for political purposes rather than solely for the defense of the country or public good. Recorded videos obtained through surveillance serve as leverage for those working behind the scenes, allowing them to exert control by capturing and disseminating compromising material (Khan, 2023; Dawn, 2022b). The timing of the video releases is crucial. Detailed records are maintained on important politicians, indicating a potentially illegal and unconstitutional practice that is incompatible with a democratic society. The impact of these authoritarian measures is evident, as journalists increasingly practice self-censorship and exercise caution in their smartphone usage. Awareness of traceability and concerns over the hacking of email and social media accounts have led to heightened vigilance among social media activists, journalists, and political leaders. However, despite the challenges, Pakistanis continue to find ways to express their opinions, often resorting to satire as a means of circumventing restrictions. Notable media personalities, such as Anwar Maqsood, have managed to avoid trouble by indirectly criticizing state institutions.

The judiciary in Pakistan has been a significant source of resistance against the growing digital authoritarianism and digital control measures implemented by the state. This ongoing process involves various legal cases under the PECA, the authority of institutions like the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and concerns related to data protection and privacy. The PECA Amendment of 2022, which primarily aims to criminalize defamation and make it a non-bailable offence, has faced critical scrutiny from local courts. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that expanding PECA’s already extensive provisions on criminal defamation to online statements about government institutions violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Media organizations in Pakistan challenged the PECA Amendment in the Islamabad High Court, where Justice Athar Minallah declared the new legal provisions a violation of freedom of speech as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (Naseer, 2022). The court also instructed the interior ministry to investigate the conduct of the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing due to concerns of power abuse and infringement of individuals’ fundamental rights. Justice Minallah emphasized that no one should fear criticism, particularly in relation to defamation and concerns raised by public officeholders regarding social media attacks. As a result, the FIA closed nearly 7,000 cases, primarily related to defamation.

Civil Society Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan 

In many ways, there are still not enough laws in Pakistan to deal with digital rights, but the pressure is growing on policymakers to pay attention to the issues of privacy and data protection. This is mainly because Pakistan is home to a strong network of civil society organizations that also work closely with relevant international organizations to raise awareness on issues relevant issues, i.e., digital rights. There are several organizations in Pakistan that work for digital rights and strive to protect internet freedom, and privacy, and promote digital literacy. Let us look at some of the prominent organizations in this space in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is a non-profit organization that focuses on the advocacy of digital rights in Pakistan. They work on various issues, including online harassment, data protection, freedom of expression, and women’s digital rights. DRF conducts research, provides legal assistance, and offers digital security training and awareness programs. 

Bolo Bhi is a civil society organization that advocates for open access to information, digital security, and internet freedom in Pakistan. They engage in policy advocacy, conduct research, and provide digital literacy training. Bolo Bhi also works to raise awareness about online censorship, surveillance, and privacy issues. 

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is a non-profit organization that focuses on media development, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. They work towards promoting online civic spaces, digital literacy, and defending digital rights through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building programs. 

Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) is a research-based initiative that aims to monitor and analyze internet governance issues in Pakistan. They conduct policy research, produce reports, and provide recommendations on topics such as data protection, surveillance, and censorship. iPOP also engages in advocacy efforts to promote a free and open internet. 

Although not based in Pakistan, Privacy International is a global organization that advocates for privacy rights and challenges surveillance practices worldwide. They work with local partners and provide support in the context of Pakistan to raise awareness, carry out research, and advocate for stronger privacy protections. These organizations actively engage with policymakers, raise public awareness, and work towards protecting digital rights in Pakistan through research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities.

Internet Access

Internet connection in Pakistan. llustration Contributor: AlexLMX

With the proliferation of the internet worldwide, several civil society organizations have dedicated their efforts to shed light on the significant issue of inadequate internet access within Pakistan. These organizations aim to amplify the voice of society, urging the government to invest in improving internet access. In this vein, Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A), is a well-known digital rights organization, that seeks to secure digital rights and freedom of expression for civil liberties. In the end, they organize seminars, workshop training and produce various publications. For example, B4A has published annual reports on internet access in Pakistan (Haque, 2023). The 2022 report shows that there has been some progress in terms of internet access in Pakistan, but the country is still behind many Asian countries. One key finding of the report reveals that despite increased internet penetration, around 15 percent of the population remains without any access, while others face challenges such as slow speeds and inconsistent service, hindering meaningful internet access (Haque, 2023: 5). Pakistan ranks 118th in mobile broadband and 150th in fixed broadband, as per the B4A report (Haque, 2023: 9). The organization also raises concerns about the government’s attempts to restrict the internet and control cyberspace, including filing cases against journalists, activists, and political opponents for expressing unfavorable views on social media and proposing stricter defamation laws to counter dissent. To enhance internet access in Pakistan, B4A provides several important recommendations. These include recognizing fixed broadband as critical infrastructure and developing a national broadband strategy with a fiber plan. Additionally, improving the investment climate and financing options within the digital ecosystem and streamlining government administration are identified as essential actions for expediting implementation.

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is another Pakistani organization focused on media literacy, digital democracy, progressive media, and internet regulation. They also work on integrating digital media and journalism technologies and creating sustainable initiatives in the media-tech sector. They provide several online free courses in different subjects. For example, their course “understanding citizen journalism” includes 54 lessons and “Digital Disinformation and Journalistic Responsibilities” encompasses 82 lessons (Arsalan, 2023; Khan, Mindeel and Shaukat, 2023). Also, this organization publish research investigations and policy papers. In one of their comprehensive reports, titled “Connecting the disconnected: mapping in digital access in Pakistan,” MMfD highlights that approximately 52.79 percent of Pakistan’s population, equivalent to 116 million people, has access to some form of internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 7). However, the report suggests that despite high tele density indicating cellular service connectivity for nearly 88 percent of the population, there remains a significant gap in internet access, particularly in mobile and broadband services across most parts of the country (Kamra et al., 2022: 16). Accordingly, the number of broadband subscribers stands at 116 million, 3G/4G mobile internet subscriptions at 113 million, and basic telephon subscribers at 2 million, representing only 1.14 percent of the total population (Kamra et al., 2022: 17). This reveals that over 47 percent of the population remains disconnected from the internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 25). 

The report stresses that various factors contribute to this gap, with disparities evident between urban and rural areas. The available data does not offer a breakdown based on rural/urban or gender demographics, which are significant barriers to internet connectivity. They also argue that the COVID-19 lockdown further exacerbated these disparities, with individuals in peripheral and rural areas facing challenges due to limited infrastructure, while low-income communities struggled to afford smartphones and internet connections. The organization advocates for ensuring that human and social justice values drive technical development and use in Pakistan by providing some key recommendations. They emphasize the need for policies and regulations related to internet access to follow a rights-respecting model. Also, it is underlined that a core focus should be bridging the digital divide across class, gender, age, and geography as well as increasing digital literacy. In addition, they urge the government to make the Internet economy inclusive, address the need for online social norms, and empower individuals to shape their futures. Finally, the report emphasizes that building robust, secure, and resilient networks is crucial (Kamra et al., 2022).

Moreover, the efforts of civil society organizations to advocate for internet access are evident in various initiatives. One significant area of concern raised by these organizations is the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, issued in 2020. In terms of the obstacles of this law to internet access, a report published by DRF argued that these rules violate fundamental and constitutional rights, particularly Articles 14 and 19. The analysis emphasizes that these regulations impede the free movement of data, creating artificial barriers to information sharing and hindering global communication. Additionally, they exacerbate the lack of accessibility and affordability of internet connectivity for individuals and businesses. This issue is particularly detrimental as reducing connectivity costs is vital for expanding economic opportunities, promoting the digital economy, and generating wealth in Pakistan (DRF, 2020b).

Bolo Bhi, another digital rights organization, has also expressed concerns about the Citizen Protection laws, highlighting their attempt to gain jurisdiction over social networking platforms and access data. Their objective extends beyond content restriction to encompass accessing communication content and filtering technology. Bolo Bhi points out aspirations to establish local offices and data servers for unrestricted data access, which has been a recurring theme in previous attempts (Bolo Bhi, 2020).

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s leading independent human rights body, advocates for internet access and freedom of expression as fundamental human rights in their reports. In a collaborative study titled ‘Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Pakistan: A Legislative Review,’ released in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in March 2022, the HRCP called for a reassessment of the existing legislative framework, which still reflects policing strategies from the colonial era. Regarding internet access, the report proposes granting unrestricted media and digital access during assemblies, promoting freedom of speech and movement, rather than imposing content-based restrictions or blocking routes (HRCP, 2020).

It should also be noted that addressing the significant digital divide in Pakistani society is one of the key challenges in internet access. While limited access to technology is commonly associated with the digital divide, factors such as poverty, illiteracy, lack of computer literacy, and language barriers contribute to this issue in Pakistan. In response, the Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) takes concrete actions beyond workshops and reports. According to their website, they provide computers, communication equipment, software, and training to tackle the digital divide. The organization reports that most low-income households in the country find themselves on the disadvantaged side of the digital and knowledge divide. Consequently, their ability to participate effectively in the knowledge society remains significantly underdeveloped and underutilized. This situation puts these households at risk of further marginalization in a knowledge-driven society, where access to and utilization of information technology are just a fraction of the broader challenges they face (IPOP, 2023).

By and large, civil society organizations play a crucial role in advocating for improved internet access and reducing the digital divide in Pakistan. These organizations act as catalysts for change by advocating for policies and initiatives that promote equitable access to technology and bridge the gap between different segments of society. As discussed above, civil society organizations raise awareness about the importance of internet access as a fundamental right and a driver of socio-economic development. They highlight the disparities in access and the barriers faced by marginalized communities, such as low-income households, women, and rural populations. By bringing these issues to the forefront, civil society organizations can create a sense of urgency among policymakers and stakeholders to address the digital divide and make internet access more inclusive. 

Moreover, civil society organizations actively engage in research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities to promote digital literacy and skills development. They organize workshops, training programs, and awareness campaigns to empower individuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape. By enhancing digital literacy, these organizations enable individuals to fully participate in the digital age, access online opportunities, and leverage technology for personal and professional growth. 

Eventually, civil society organizations play a critical role in monitoring and influencing policy development and implementation. They provide expert analysis, recommendations, and feedback on laws, regulations, and initiatives related to internet access and digital rights. Through their engagement with government agencies, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders, these organizations attempt to ensure that policies are inclusive, rights-based, and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

Privacy

Privacy is an essential aspect of individuals’ rights, encompassing their ability to maintain control over personal information, safeguard it from unauthorized access, and prevent unwanted intrusions. In Pakistan, the right to privacy is constitutionally protected under Article 14, which upholds individuals’ dignity and personal autonomy. However, despite this recognition, several challenges hinder people in Pakistan from effectively protecting their privacy, particularly in cyberspace.

One key challenge is the limited digital literacy among most of the population. In response, civil society organizations play a crucial role in educating the public through campaigns, seminars, research publications, policy reports, workshops, and awareness programs. For example, DRF has published a report, titled “Young People and Privacy in Online Space”, which aims to raise concern about the privacy of youth in cyberspace (DRF, 2021b). The report acknowledges that despite the ongoing increase in the number of young people users on the internet, and particularly social media, they face insufficient protection and have limited awareness of their privacy rights. The organization suggests that young generations recognize the gendered nature of online harm, particularly impacting women. Therefore, the report emphasizes that it is crucial to foster collaboration to enhance legal frameworks and establish effective mechanisms to safeguard young people’s rights. DRF has also published privacy-related reports that provide up-to-date information regarding digital privacy. They include ‘How to keep your social media secure and anonymous,’ ‘Understand cyber-harassment,’ ‘What to do when there is a privacy breach?’, ‘Protect against viruses and malware’ and ‘Two-factor authentication’ (DRF, 2020a). 

Another privacy concern in Pakistan stems from the government surveillance system, which has advanced in recent years. In this vein, civil society organizations and activists in Pakistan have been advocating for stronger digital privacy protections. They have called for greater transparency in government surveillance activities, improvements in data protection practices, and the need for comprehensive privacy legislation aligned with international standards. In 2019, Bolo Bhi raised concerns about the Web Monitoring System (WMS) deployed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The WMS aims to monitor and control internet traffic for commercial and security purposes. However, the organization underlined that the lack of safeguards and judicial oversight raises concerns about the potential misuse of surveillance capabilities (BoloBhi, 2019). Bolo Bhi urged the government to take concrete steps to demonstrate the veracity and reliability of its claims that the WMS will not restrict internet freedom. Moreover, the director of this civil society organization suggested that transparency regarding the technology provider, Sandvine Inc, and its security audit is crucial. Public accountability and corporate responsibility should be upheld to align with international principles of human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy (BoloBhi 2019). 

Digital Rights Monitor, a project under MMfD, has attempted to contribute to improving digital privacy in Pakistan. They have produced a series of videos, titled ‘Privacy-in-Law: Legal Framework of Digital Privacy Laws in Pakistan’ (Kamran, 2019). These videos provide information about the enacted laws that protect citizens’ privacy and assess their implementation in Pakistan. The videos cover important legislation such as the ‘NADRA Ordinance, 2000,’ ‘The Investigation for Fair Trial Act, 2013,’ ‘The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996,’ and the ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA).’ They seek to uncover the details of the laws that are aimed at framing data security regulations, regulating law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ power to investigate criminal cases, and countering increasing crime originating from cyberspace.

Bytes for All (B4A) has also been active in highlighting the importance of privacy in the virtual world. In 2020, the organization published a report titled, ‘The Scope of Privacy Commission in Pakistan,’ which strongly advocated for the establishment of an independent and autonomous Privacy Commission free from political or executive influence (Raza and Baloch, 2020). This commission is deemed essential for protecting citizens’ digital data and providing redressal for privacy-related violations. B4A has also conducted personal training sessions on digital privacy and raised public awareness by addressing topics such as the ‘Dangers of Digital Surveillance’ (Raza and Baloch, 2020). To enhance online privacy in Pakistan, digital rights advocates in this organization, have put forth several recommendations for the government to consider. These recommendations can be summarized as follows (Baloch and Qammar, 2020):

– Revise laws to limit intelligence agencies’ powers in intercepting digital communications and private data of journalists and human rights defenders.

– Define clear criteria for digital surveillance in the context of national security and counterterrorism.

– Cease mass digital surveillance on citizens.

– Promote encrypted communications for the safety of vulnerable groups.

– Include secure communications training in public sector education, especially in journalism and law.

– Respect citizens’ right to privacy, especially journalists and human rights defenders, to strengthen democracy, freedom of speech, and information access.

Civil society organizations actively participate in policy discussions and provide valuable input during the development of privacy-related laws and regulations. They bring the perspectives and concerns of the public to the attention of policymakers, advocating for privacy-focused policies that strike a balance between security and individual rights. Their involvement aims to assess to what extent the government measures align with the principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy. In Pakistan, with the new wave of internet penetration, particularly among young generations, the effort of civil society organizations is essential for fostering a privacy-conscious society and holding governments accountable for protecting individuals’ digital privacy rights. Through their persistent advocacy, these organizations can contribute to a more informed and balanced policy-making process. They provide expertise and recommendations based on research and analysis, offering practical solutions that protect privacy rights while addressing security challenges. Their efforts underscore the importance of privacy as a fundamental right, even in the face of increasing surveillance measures.

Data Protection

Illustration Contributor:
PX Media.

Data protection entails safeguarding personal information against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. It encompasses obtaining consent, employing data for specific purposes, minimizing data collection, ensuring accuracy, implementing security measures, respecting individual rights, and safeguarding data during transfers. Upholding privacy and cultivating trust with individuals is both a legal and ethical obligation. While data protection and privacy are closely related, they carry distinct meanings. Data protection focuses on safeguarding personal information, whereas privacy centers on maintaining control over one’s personal life and information. Data protection ensures the secure handling of data, while privacy encompasses broader aspects of personal autonomy and limiting unwarranted intrusion.

Currently, Pakistan lacks comprehensive legislation specifically governing the processing of personal data. However, like the privacy domain, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) serves as a legal framework to address electronic crimes and unauthorized access to personal data. Under PECA, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) has established the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021, granting the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the authority to remove or block access to information systems (Rehman, 2022). The Personal Data Protection Bill 2021, which is awaiting enactment, will become the primary legislation regulating the processing of personal data in Pakistan. It will apply to individuals and entities that control, process, or authorize the processing of personal data within the country.

Digital rights organizations have actively campaigned for data protection in Pakistan. The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), for instance, has been proactive in providing feedback on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB). They have submitted various reports to the government to enhance the bill to align with international standards. The organization, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), has identified several persistent issues in the bill since 2018 that must be addressed to align with global data protection standards and privacy rights. According to DRF, concerns have been raised regarding the broad powers granted to the Federal Government, which could lead to self-interested interpretation and evasion of regulation. They have also expressed concerns about the lack of independence of the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP), as it remains under the administrative control of the Federal Government, compromising its autonomy and failing to meet international standards (DRF, 2021a).

DRF has stressed that the requirement for ‘critical personal data’ to be processed within Pakistani servers is impractical and akin to data localization, which could hinder business operations and investment. Ambiguities exist in terms like ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’ without clear definitions, granting the government wide discretion in implementing the law. DRF highlights that the bill also lacks provisions addressing emerging technologies such as automated decision-making and artificial intelligence, necessitating further elaboration and the inclusion of non-discrimination safeguards. DRF emphasizes the need for specific language, defined terms, and adequate safeguards to ensure that the law aligns with legislative intent and effectively protects digital rights.

In addition, B4A Pakistan has published at least 13 comprehensive reports on data protection in Pakistan. These reports encompass various aspects, including submissions to the government for consultation and the creation of training materials. One of their reports, titled ‘Electronic Data Protection in Pakistan,’  provides a thorough analysis of the country’s data protection status and offers key recommendations (Gilani et al., 2017). B4A highlights the concerning absence of data protection legislation in Pakistan, particularly given the increasing volume of citizens’ data being processed daily. Urgent action is required to establish clear and effective data protection laws that meet the demands of the digital era. Failure to do so may lead foreign companies to perceive Pakistan as an unsafe business environment, deterring them from outsourcing their services to the country. B4A provides several recommendations to address these concerns, including (Gilani et al., 2017):

– Amendment to PTA is necessary. The Protection of Privacy Act (PTA) of Pakistan is incompatible with Article 17 of the ICCPR.

– There is an urgent need for an independent authority to oversee data protection compliance.

– A system of accountability for data breaches should be established.

– The Electronic Data Protection Bill of 2005 is not fit for purpose.

– Pakistan should investigate adopting data protection legislation similar to the GDPR.

– Education of citizens about personal data and its value is urgently needed.

– The principle of individual consent for processing data should be included in any new legislation.

– The use of data anonymization mechanisms should be strongly encouraged.

Furthermore, Bolo Bhi has allocated a dedicated section on its website to address issues concerning data protection. The organization actively publishes research-based reports to advocate for the implementation of enhanced legislation in the field of data protection. In one of their reports, they conducted a comparative analysis between the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 in Pakistan and similar laws such as the GDPR, the Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act 2010, the UK’s Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018, and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (Shahani, 2020). The comparison revealed several shortcomings in the draft Bill proposed in Pakistan, including:

– The Authority set up under the draft Bill lacks independence and autonomy.

– The exemptions to the prohibition of processing of ‘personal data’ including ‘sensitive personal data’ are too broad.

– The Bill does not cover intelligence agencies’ collection, storage, and use of data. 

Overall, despite Pakistan’s increasing participation in the digital sphere, the government must move quickly to prioritize data protection due to the country’s rapidly expanding online population. In fact, as Bolo Bhi urged, Pakistan should take note of what other developed nations have to say. The government can take the required actions to strengthen data protection safeguards and ensure the privacy and security of its citizens’ personal information by taking note of successful practices already in place abroad. By enacting effective policies and regulations that adhere to international standards, Pakistan must give priority to the rights and well-being of its citizens in the digital sphere.

As a final point regarding the role of civil society organizations in Pakistan in promoting digital rights, internet access, privacy, and data protection, it should be emphasized that they tirelessly raise awareness about these important issues, attempt to facilitate fruitful dialogue between citizens and policymakers, and actively work towards holding those responsible accountable. Through their diligent work, they hope to greatly contribute to the creation of efficient laws and procedures that uphold the rights of people and promote a safe and welcoming online environment for everyone. To influence decision-makers to meet the requirements of the populace, these organizations offer insightful research-based studies, policy suggestions, workshops, seminars, online and offline training sessions, and periodical audits of internet legislation and privacy rules. Or to put it another way, they try to help.

Conclusion

Pakistan’s historical trajectory has been marked by a series of challenges, including violence, religious divisions, and an ongoing struggle to define its national identity. These factors have significantly shaped the current political landscape of the country. Despite its aspirations to establish a stable democracy, Pakistan has faced recurring periods of military rule, which have undermined democratic processes and institutions.

The governance challenges in Pakistan include limitations on press freedom, restrictions on the right to protest, and interference from the military establishment. These issues have raised concerns about the strength and integrity of Pakistan’s democratic system. Furthermore, the military’s influence has often overshadowed civilian governance, leading to complex power dynamics within the country.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

To enforce digital authoritarianism, the state has invested in advanced technological capabilities for monitoring online communications. This includes the acquisition of web monitoring systems and the establishment of social media monitoring cells. These measures aim to consolidate the state’s control over cyberspace and curtail citizens’ digital privacy.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s democratic fabric is not entirely eroded. In addition to push back from the judiciary, Pakistan has a strong civil society and there are various human rights organizations, including the ones that exclusively focus on digital rights. Human rights organizations, including those specifically focused on digital rights, play a crucial role in advocating for the protection of digital freedoms in Pakistan. These organizations voice concerns about the need for stronger legislation on data protection and privacy and advocate for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized communities in remote regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

By highlighting these concerns and advocating for digital rights, civil society organizations and the judiciary serve as important checks and balances against the encroachment of digital authoritarianism. Their efforts contribute to promoting transparency, accountability, and respect for individual rights in the digital sphere, despite the challenges posed by the current political landscape in Pakistan.


 

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


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. During 2017-19, Dr Ahmed was a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. During 2013-16, he was an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Peace and Stability, National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan. His work focuses on political developments (e.g., democratization, authoritarianism and political Islam), foreign affairs, peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. He has published extensively in leading journals, such as Politics and Religion, Democratization, Asian Studies Review, and Territory, Politics, Governance. He is the author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Role of SAARC (Routledge, 2013). He is a co-author of Iran’s Soft Power in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). Email: zahid.ahmed@deakin.edu.au

(**) Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Prof Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(***) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


 

References 

Abbasi, Kashif. (2021). “NA panel approves bill against intentional disrespect for forces.” Dawn, 8 April. https://www.dawn.com/news/1617040/na-panel-approves-bill-against-intentional-disrespect-for-forces

Ahmed, Nabeel. (2021). “The Promise and Peril of ‘Safe City’ Initiatives in Pakistan.” Digital Rights Monitor.https://digitalrightsmonitor.pk/the-promise-and-peril-of-safe-city-initiatives-in-pakistan/

Arsalan, Muhammad. (2023). “Understanding Citizen Journalism.” Media Matters Pakistan.https://mediamatters.pk/course/understanding-citizen-journalism/

Azeem, Munawar. (2019). “Leaked Safe City images spark concern among citizens.” Dawn, 27 January. https://www.dawn.com/news/1459963

Azeem, Munawar. (2022). “Islamabad sees increase in crime.” Dawn, 8 September. https://www.dawn.com/news/1708963

Aziz, Farieha. (2022). “Targeting dissent through the PECA.” Dawn, 12 December. https://www.dawn.com/news/1725805

Baloch, Haroon. (2022). “Personal communication, 22 October 2022.”

Baloch, Haroon, and Amjad Qammar. (2020). Dangers of digital surveillance. Islamabad: Bytes for All.

BoloBhi. (2019). “Internet surveillance.” https://bolobhi.org/internet-surveillance/

BoloBhi. 2020. “Pakistan’s online censorship regime.” https://bolobhi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Pakistan%E2%80%99s-Online-Censorship-Regime.pdf

Dawn. (2022a). “Ahsan Iqbal says family who heckled him have apologised.” 10 July. https://www.dawn.com/news/1699184

Dawn. (2022b). “Azam Swati breaks down, claims receiving objectionable video featuring him and wife.” 5 November. https://www.dawn.com/news/1719141

DRF. (2020a). “Guidebook on data privacy.” Digital Rights Foundationhttps://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Data-Privacy-Booklet-English.pdf  

DRF. (2020b). Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020: Legal Analysis. Lahore: Digital Rights Foundation.

DRF. (2021a). “Personal data protection bill 2021: Civil society submission to the ministry of information technology and telecommunication.” Digital Rights Foundation. https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/PDPB-2021-Submission-by-DRF.pdf

DRF. (2021b). Young people and privacy in online space. Lahore: Digital Rights Foundation.

Gilani, Umer, Haroon Baloch, Shaheera Jalil Albasit, and Furhan Hussain. (2017). “Electronic Data Protection in Pakistan.” Bytes for All. https://bytesforall.pk/publication/electronic-data-protection-pakistan

GOP. (2012). The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Islamabad: National Assembly of Pakistan, Government of Pakistan.

GOP. (2016). Prevention Electronic Crimes Act. Islamabad: The National Parliament, Government of Pakistan.

Goulding, Peter. (2019). “Safe then Smart: How Do You Know When Your City Is Smart?” Huawei Blog.https://blog.huawei.com/author/petergoulding6545/

Gul, Imtiaz. (2022). “Personal communication, 3 October 2022.”

Haq, Mifrah. (2022). “Pakistan cracks down on netizens amid rare anti-army discourse.” Nikkei Asia, 10 May. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Pakistan-cracks-down-on-netizens-amid-rare-anti-army-discourse

Haque, Jahanzaib. (2023). Pakistan’s Internet Landscape 2022. Islamabad: Byts for All.

Hillman, Jonathan E. and Maesea McCalpin. (2019). “Watching Huawei’s ‘Safe Cities’.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/watching-huaweis-safe-cities

Hong, Caylee. (2022). “’Safe Cities’ in Pakistan: Knowledge Infrastructures, Urban Planning, and the Security State.” Antipode, 54 (5):1476-1496. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12799

Hossain, Naomi. (2018). “The 1970 Bhola cyclone, nationalist politics, and the subsistence crisis contract in Bangladesh.”  Disasters, 42 (1):187-203. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12235

Hossain, Naomi. (2021). “The geopolitics of bare life in 1970s Bangladesh.” Third World Quarterly, 42 (11):2706-2723. doi: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1954902 

HRCP. (2020). “Freedom of peaceful assembly in Pakistan: A legislation review.” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. https://hrcp-web.org/hrcpweb/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/2022-Freedom-of-peaceful-assembly-in-Pakistan.pdf

IPOP. (2023). “Close the digital gap.” Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan. https://ipop.org.pk/close-the-digital-gap/

Jadoon, Amira. (2021). The Evolution and Potential Resurgence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Washington: United States Institute of Peace.

Kamra, Hija, Sadaf Kha, Salwa Ran, Zoya Rehma, and Maria Malik. (2022). Connecting the disconnected: mapping in digital access in Pakistan. Islamabad: Media Matters for Democracy.

Kamran, Hija. (2017). “A Year Without the Internet.” Slate, 21 August. https://slate.com/technology/2017/08/the-internet-has-been-shut-down-in-pakistans-fata-for-more-than-a-year.html

Kamran, Hija. (2019). “Privacy-in-law: Legal framework of digital privacy laws in Pakistan.” Digital Rights Monitorhttps://digitalrightsmonitor.pk/privacy-in-law/

Kemp, Simon. (2023). “Digital 2023: Pakistan.” Data Reportalhttps://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-pakistan#:~:text=There%20were%2087.35%20million%20internet%20users%20in%20Pakistan%20in%20January,percent)%20between%202022%20and%202023

Khan, Iftikhar A. (2023). “FIA told to act against Parvez Elahi after ‘audio leaks’.” Dawn, 17 February. https://www.dawn.com/news/1737565

Khan, Sadaf, Momina Mindeel, and Aroosa Shaukat. (2023). “Digital disinformation and journalistic responsibilities.” Media Matters Pakistan. https://mediamatters.pk/course/digital-disinformation-and-journalistic-responsibilities/

Khan, Yasmin. (2017). The great partition: The making of India and Pakistan. Yale: Yale University Press.

Kurbalija, Jovan. (2016). An introduction to internet governance. Geneva: Diplo Foundation.

Malik, Ahsan. (2022). “Living under smart surveillance.” The News, 16 October. https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/1000237-living-under-smart-surveillance

Mehfooz, Musferah. (2021). “Religious Freedom in Pakistan: A Case Study of Religious Minorities.” Religions, 12 (1):51.

Menon, Jisha. (2012). The performance of nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the memory of partition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Momen, Md Nurul, Harsha S. and Debobrata Das. (2021). “Mediated democracy and internet shutdown in India.” Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 19 (2):222-235. doi: 10.1108/JICES-07-2020-0075 

Muggah, Robert. (2021). “‘Smart’ Cities Are Surveilled Cities.” Foreign Policy, 17 April. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/17/smart-cities-surveillance-privacy-digital-threats-internet-of-things-5g/

Nadeem, Hussain. (2022). “Personal communication, 19 September 2022.”

Naseer, Tahir. (2022). “IHC strikes down PECA ordinance, terms it ‘unconstitutional’.” Dawn, 8 April. https://www.dawn.com/news/1684032/ihc-strikes-down-peca-ordinance-terms-it-unconstitutional

Pasha, Faisal Kamal. (2017). “Govt must block blasphemous content on social media: IHC.” The News, 9 March. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/191191-Govt-must-block-blasphemous-content-on-social-media-IHC

PI. (2015). “Tipping the scales: Security & surveillance in Pakistan.” Privacy International.

PTA. (2023). “Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 along with amendments.” Pakistan Telecommunication Authorityhttps://www.pta.gov.pk/assets/media/pta_act_consolidated_footnotes_11012022.pdf

Raza, Ali. (2023). “PTI rally at Minar-e-Pakistan: Level-playing field doesn’t mean tie my hands, says Imran.” The News, 26 March. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/1054041-tying-my-hands-isn-t-level-playing-field-says-imran

Raza, Talal Mustahsan and Haroon Baloch. (2020). The Scope of Privacy Commission in Pakistan: B4A Report.Islamabad: Bytes for All.

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

Rehman, Shafaq. (2022). “Pakistan – Data protection overview.” Digital Rights Foundationhttps://www.dataguidance.com/notes/pakistan-data-protection-overview

Shafqat, Saeed. (2019). “Pakistan Military: Sustaining Hegemony and Constructing Democracy?” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, 42 (2):20-51.

Shahani, Shumaila Hussain. (2020). “Overview of the comparative analysis.” Bolo Bhi. https://bolobhi.org/comparative-analysis-of-personal-data-protection-bill-2020-with-laws-and-bills-in-the-eu-uk-india-malaysia/

Sharif, Shehbaz. (2023). “Tweet.” https://twitter.com/CMShehbaz/status/1657332222276571137

Sheikh, Md Ziaul Haque and Zahid Shahab Ahmed. (2020). “Military, Authoritarianism and Islam: A Comparative Analysis of Bangladesh and Pakistan.”  Politics and Religion, 13 (2):333-360. doi: 10.1017/S1755048319000440 

Talbot, Ian. (2009). “Partition of India: The Human Dimension.” Cultural and Social History, 6 (4):403-410. doi: 10.2752/147800409X466254.

UNDP. (2019). “Unleashing the potential of a young Pakistan.” United Nations Development Programmehttps://hdr.undp.org/content/unleashing-potential-young-pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2016). Muslim laws, politics and society in modern nation states: Dynamic legal pluralisms in England, Turkey and Pakistan. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2022) “Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. January 23, 2022. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0001

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2023). Digital Authoritarianism and its Religious Legitimization – The Cases of Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yousafzai, Fawad. (2023). “Govt to restart Gwadar Safe City Project with escalated cost.” The Nation, 31 January. https://www.nation.com.pk/31-Jan-2023/govt-to-restart-gwadar-safe-city-project-with-escalated-cost.

Zajko, Mike. (2016). “Telecom Responsibilization: Internet Governance, Surveillance, and New Roles for Intermediaries.” Canadian Journal of Communication, 41 (1):75-93. doi: 10.22230/cjc.2016v41n1a2894

 

DOWNLOAD PDF

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-democratic move targeting judiciary in Tel Aviv on March 11, 2023. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Why does populist Netanyahu seek to reform Israel’s judiciary?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist ideology, anchored in the notion that he embodies the genuine and morally upright voice of the Jewish people in Israel, fuels his resolve to confront institutions that hinder his government’s agenda. From his perspective, entities such as the judiciary that intervene and obstruct the realization of the people’s will become subjects of his critique and endeavors to undermine their autonomy. While his recent declaration of a “pause” on judicial reform may be momentary, it implies that he could recommence his endeavors to restrict judicial independence in the future.

By Nicholas Morieson & Ihsan Yilmaz 

On March 27, 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made an announcement stating that the government would temporarily halt its plans to reform the country’s judiciary. This decision came after a series of escalating anger and protests against the proposed reforms, which have been widely criticized as an attack on the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law.

The proposed legislation, which was introduced by the Likud Party in January 2023, aimed to grant greater control over the judiciary to politicians in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset. If implemented, this legislation would have allowed a majority in the Knesset to overturn decisions made by the Supreme Court on constitutional matters. Additionally, it sought to increase the government’s authority in appointing judges, thus undermining the independence of the judiciary.

The Likud government’s plan provoked outrage from centrist and left-wing parties, which are typically in opposition to Likud. The proposal also sparked massive protests among the Israeli public and drew criticism from members of the judiciary, as well as several foreign governments. For example, in a speech described as “fiery”, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel called the proposed legislation “a fatal blow to democracy” which would give the Likud-led government “almost unrestrained power” and would “weaken constitutional protection over … human rights.”

Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the Deputy Leader of Likud and the Justice Minister, defended the proposed judiciary reforms, arguing that increased government control over the judiciary is necessary because Israeli judges allegedly disregard the will of the people and obstruct the legislative efforts of elected officials. Levin further asserted that the judiciary is undemocratic, stating, “We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us.” In essence, Levin believes that Israeli judges wield excessive power, and Likud’s objective is to curtail this power and restore it to the hands of “the people.” They argue that the judiciary’s perceived overreach interferes with the democratic process, where elected officials should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the citizens.

At the same time, Likud plans to expand the power of the religious, and often conservative, Rabbinical courts, giving them “the power to officiate on civil issues for the first time in 15 years.”

Confronted with widespread anger, opposition within his own party and coalition partners, and concerned that the divisive proposal had set Israeli society “on a dangerous collision course”, Netanyahu decided to delay voting on the legislation and instead seek dialogue with opposition forces. However, in a speech announcing the ‘pause’, Netanyahu was adamant that the reforms were good and necessary and that he would continue to pursue them, saying his party would “not allow anyone to rob the people of its free choice”.

If Likud’s plan to diminish the power of the judiciary is unpopular with voters and has engendered a backlash in the form of mass protests and claims that Netanyahu is tearing up the very fabric of Israel’s constitution and pushing Israel toward “civil war”, why is Netanyahu so adamant that the legislation should, at least in some form, be passed? Some commentators have suggested that Netanyahu’s primary motivation is self-preservation, and a desire to avoid being convicted on corruption charges based on claims he accepted bribes and participated in other forms of criminal conduct. There is likely some truth to this claim. Indeed, Likud has already passed a law preventing the judiciary from declaring Prime Ministers unfit for office. However, Netanyahu is far from the only populist who has sought to diminish the power of the judiciary and centralize power around himself. Indeed, following an election victory, and to cement themselves in power and continue to present themselves as fighting ‘elites’ despite themselves being in government, populists often seek to attack the independence of state institutions, which they accuse of thwarting the will of ‘the people.’ 

For example, Poland’s ruling populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has, since returning to power in 2015, legislated to increase their government’s ability to appoint judges, including to Poland’s Supreme Court. In 2017 the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, was given new powers allowing it to appoint members to the previously independent body, the National Council of the Judiciary that made judicial appointments. The PiS dominated Sejm and then stacked the body with 15 of their own appointees, effectively giving PiS the ability to decide which judges are appointed to the Supreme Court. PiS argued that the new appointees will better represent ‘the people’, and that greater government control over judicial appointments is necessary in order to root out the old “privileged caste” that dominated the judiciary and ignored the will of ‘the people’.

The far-left populist government in Venezuela has also moved to eliminate judicial independence in the name of pursuing a socialist revolution that would ultimately give power to ‘the people’. Hugo Chavez began the process of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters of his regime and suspending unsympathetic judges, a trend continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose policies, according to an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have left “the independence of the justice system …considerably undermined.”  Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan “judicial authorities have participated or been complicit in …abuses”, including “extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances”, crimes enabled by the “lack of judicial independence”.  

Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the concept of a truly independent judiciary has been elusive. However, under the leadership of populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), attempts to diminish the already limited independence of the judiciary have become more pronounced.

One significant event that provided an opportunity for Erdogan and the AKP to assert control over the judiciary was the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, which targeted their government. Taking advantage of the situation, the AKP took steps to remove judges who were perceived as unsympathetic to their agenda. Approximately 4,000 judges who were believed to be aligned with anti-AKP factions within Turkish society were dismissed from their positions following the coup attempt. Simultaneously, the AKP utilized its power to appoint judges who were supportive of the party. This led to a significant influx of pro-AKP judges, with approximately 9,323 new judges and prosecutors recruited between the failed coup and the end of 2020, leading to a bizarre situation in which “at least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less”.

This trend has raised concerns about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. These actions have further eroded the separation of powers and the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy. The rapid appointment of inexperienced judges has fuelled scepticism about their ability to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair and impartial judicial proceedings.

The AKP has since used its control over the judiciary to abuse the judicial system, using it to persecute opponents, often accusing them of terrorism. Indeed, the decline of judicial independence in Turkey has led, according to a Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights report, to “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as the presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again.” The Turkish government defended its actions by claiming that the people removed from the judiciary and those otherwise persecuted “are affiliated with FETO, a terrorist organisation that has infiltrated the civil service over the years”, suggesting that the government was merely protecting the Turkish people from criminal wrongdoers.  

The attacks on judicial independence in Turkey continue to this day and are perpetrated not merely by the AKP, but also by its allies. For example, in March 2023, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli – whose party is a junior member of the coalition government led by the AKP, attacked Turkey’s constitutional court for ruling that the government’s freezing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s bank accounts was unconstitutional. Bahçeli responded to the decision by calling the court “the backyard of the separatist terrorist organization” and claiming it “is not the court of the Turkish nation” insofar as its decision failed to represent the desires of the Turkish people. 

Of course, it is not only populist governments that seek to diminish or eliminate judicial independence. Autocratic regimes of various ideologies often desire control over the courts, while even liberal democracies that emphasize the separation of powers may encounter challenges with governments attempting to influence the judiciary.

A notable example is the United States, where the Supreme Court has long been a political battleground between Republicans and Democrats. The Court has become a focal point for key cultural and social debates, including issues like affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion. During election campaigns, both political parties pledge to appoint justices who align with their party’s ideology, effectively undermining the independence of the judiciary and turning the Supreme Court into a politicized institution.

In many other countries, governments attempt to “pack” the courts with judges who align with their political agenda or take steps to weaken the independence of the judiciary. These actions occur in both autocratic and democratic contexts, reflecting a broader trend where governments seek to consolidate power and influence over key institutions, including the judiciary.

Such attempts to undermine judicial independence have far-reaching implications for the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and the overall health of democratic systems. They raise concerns about the impartiality of court decisions and the potential for politicization of justice.

However, while many different kinds of governments may seek to diminish the independence of the judiciary, populists differ from non-populists in two important ways. First, populists often argue against judicial independence by asserting that a powerful and independent judiciary can hinder the “will of the people.” Populists generally believe that democracy does not solely rely on the right to vote or the protection of minority rights and dissenting voices. Instead, they argue that the majority group, which they perceive as the authentic and morally virtuous people, should hold all power. This can take the form of direct democracy, where decisions are made through plebiscites and referenda, or through a political party and a single leader who claims to understand the will of the people. Populists view judges as an undemocratic group that should be entirely stripped of power if they intervene to strike down government legislation. Populists tend to view judges as obstructing the populist agenda and impeding their ability to enact policies that align with their vision of the “people’s will.” They often criticize judges for being detached from popular sentiment and accuse them of imposing their own biases and ideologies on the legislative process. Populists also argue that the judiciary should not possess the authority to overturn decisions made by elected officials, as they consider it an affront to the principle of majority rule.

Second, once populists have succeeded in winning an election, and especially after winning successive elections, they may find it difficult to portray themselves as fighting against a governing ‘elite’ in the name of ‘the people.’ After winning elections and governing for a significant duration, populists can find it challenging to maintain the image of being outsiders fighting against a governing “elite” on behalf of the people. As they become part of the establishment themselves, it becomes necessary for them to identify new “elites” to position themselves against in order to sustain their populist rhetoric and maintain their appeal as champions of the people.

In this context, the judiciary often becomes a target for populists. Judges, who typically uphold the principles of separation of powers, judicial independence, and the rule of law, are likely to resist populist attempts to bypass legal procedures and override constitutional protections. Being highly educated professionals with a commitment to legal principles, judges may not align with populist parties or support their legislative agenda. Populists and their supporters often perceive judges as part of a cultural “elite” that they view as immoral and disloyal to the ordinary people.

This portrayal of the judiciary as an enemy of the people serves the populist narrative by allowing them to position themselves as the defenders of the “real people” against an alleged “corrupt elite.” By framing the judiciary as part of the elite and presenting themselves as the voices of the people, populists can maintain their outsider status and continue their fight to reclaim power on behalf of their supporters.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister having served in the position for fifteen years, and who is the most significant politician of his generation, the fight to reform Israel’s judiciary – despite its dangers to Israel and the popularity of the Likud led government – thus serves an important purpose. It is no longer easy for Netanyahu to present himself as a populist outsider, having marginalized all left-wing opposition – which Netanyahu and Likud have long portrayed as too sympathetic and indulgent towards the Palestinians – and having served as Prime Minister for almost the entirety of the post-2009 period.  

Pursuing judicial reform helps Netanyahu present himself as a populist fighter struggling against Israel’s unelected ‘elites’ in the name of the people, whom he seeks to protect from outside and internal forces that seek to destroy the Jewish state. Moreover, Likud’s decision to empower religious courts while attacking the independence of the secular courts is a demonstration of their commitment to de-secularizing Israel, and in a sense to create an alternative system of justice to the ‘elite’ dominated secular judiciary.  It is also the logical outcome of his populist ideology and belief that he represents the voice of the authentic and morally good Jewish people of Israel. That rigid populist logic demands that Netanyahu attack bodies and institutions that impede his government’s agenda and which, by doing so, also prevents the people from exercising their will. Thus, Netanyahu’s ‘pause’ on judicial reform may prove to be just that, a pause before he again attempts to diminish judicial independence and the ability of judges to thwart the will of ‘the people’. 

People flooded the streets of Manila to demand justice for all the victims of extrajudicial killings that happened during the time of President Duterte on June 30, 2021. Photo: Santino Quintero.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines

Tusor, Anita. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0041

 

This report is based on the second event of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online on April 27, 2023. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Anita Tusor*

This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 27, 2023. After concluding our “Mapping European Populism” Panel Series, ECPS is moving beyond the borders of Europe and expanding its project to include cases of populism around the world by organizing a new panel series to map global populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of the world. The second panel hosted 4 prominent scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr Paul Kenny, Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University and included the following speakers: Dr Adele Webb, Research Fellow in Democracy and Citizen Engagement at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra; Dr Mark Richard Thompson, Professor of Politics at Department of Asian and International Studies and director of Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong; Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines at Diliman; and Dr. Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio, Assistant Professor at the Department of Science Communication at the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

 

“Populist Are Rather Want to Provide a Mirror to the People”

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populists are rather want to provide a mirror to the people and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views.

Dr Kenny started his introduction with a brief overview of the populist administration in the Philippines. Although Rodrigo Duterte left his office in 2022, he has left a unique legacy in the study of populism and democracy which forces us to question our preconceptions. By any measure and source, Duterte’s six years of presidency was extremely violent. Official figures put the death toll of extrajudicial killings somewhere around 6.000 (FDEA, 2022), while NGOs and human rights organizations, journalists and other civil society monitors put the figure over 20.000 or even closer to 30.000 (Roudabeh and Buenaventura, 2021, ICC, 2023, UN OHCHR, 2022). Among those deaths were a number of journalists whose death coincided with the general erosion of press freedom (Amnesty International, 2022). There was also repression of judicial autonomy with frequent interferences and intimidation of the judiciary, including the deaths of some judges and lawyers. 

Despite this, what you might call a certainly discomforting record, Duterte remained -throughout his term in office- extraordinarily popular. This phenomenon is similar to his predecessors whose popularity didn’t dip after an initial honeymoon period, whether that lasted a few months or a few years, they remained popular. As Dr Kenny pointed out, we could see the same with the chairperson of PDP-Laban: right through to the end of his administration, Duterte’s support remained widespread across different demographics. According to analysis of public opinion data, the former president’s support was generally higher among younger and better educated Filipinos (Kenny and Holmes, 2020). Dr Kenny also noted that, although Duterte was initially more popular among men, this gender gap actually disappeared after the first few months of his administration. 

The Philippine President, famous for his penal populism, was especially popular because of his signature war on drugs and illegal drugs campaigns. This campaign in particular of all the policies of the Duterte government met with extremely high approval; usually up around 90 percent (Ibid.). Nonetheless, his administration was not only popular because of the war on drugs. For instance, despite his public buffoonery on occasions, he attended very carefully to economic matters, especially inflation. Data shows very clearly that his popularity tracks inflation (Reuters, 2018). Whenever it went up, his popularity suffered modest declines and he was very careful to address inflation both on a national and subnational level. Economic issues in general were never far from the mind of Duterte, his pollsters and administrative (Capuno, 2020). 

Professor Kenny has briefly tackled the issue of succession as well, highlighting that Duterte has sought to influence the succession to his chief ally, Senator Bongo, with his daughter Sarah Duterte proposed as vice president. The internal machinations among the elite eventually scuppered these plans with Sarah essentially rejecting this idea. In the end, Duterte was unable to secure his preferred succession. This, in many ways, is the very definition of democracy: an election removed him from office and prevented him from determining who would follow him. So, we had this kind of paradoxical situation, explained Dr Kenny: Duterte was quite illiberal on many key issues, especially around (1) judicial checks on the executive, (2) legislative checks on the executive power, (3) on press freedom and (4) public checks on executive power. Nevertheless, he remained extraordinarily popular, and the regime remained essentially democratic (Kreuzer, 2019). This is a real puzzle. To solve it, Dr Kenny’s own intuition and publications point us towards populism which can perhaps help fill the gap and provide an explanation.

To flag some of the issues that our moderator thought the concept of populism and theories of populism can help us resolve, the first is the fact that Duterte was very much a charismatic leader and individual leader who portrayed his administration as an essentially personalist rule which was sanctified by democratic elections and by popularity. This meant that Duterte had a very limited political organization behind him since he relied extraordinarily on popular support, on direct relationships with the people. Ultimately, in contrast to regular political parties in the West, he couldn’t rely on any guarantees from parties. Consequently, he paid a great deal of attention to public opinion polls, and he was quite sensitive to them.

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populist are rather want to provide a mirror to the people (Panizza, 2005) and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views. Lastly, closing his provocative framing of our second panel on global populism, Dr Kenny has mentioned that although in their lectures, some of our panelists may mention a lot of the negative things that Duterte has done, nevertheless, we have to think about what this means in a democracy, if those negative things including something as disruptive as the war on drugs are actually popular. 

Dr Adele Webb: “Populism, Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the Philippines: From Past to Present”

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Adele Webb from Brisbane who noted that this is an important year for Australians as they vote for a referendum to alter the constitution in recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to represent Indigenous Australians to the parliament and federal government on matters of Indigenous affairs. Moving on to the subject of the panel, which is a different contested landscape, Dr Webb first presented the structure of her lecture on populism in the Philippines. Her speech was organized around three ideas or three findings that are pertinent to our deeper understanding of the populist phenomenon as it manifests in the Philippine context, but which also contributes some closing reflections on how the Philippine case and its dynamics might sharpen our use of the term populism more generally.

According to the first panelist, in thinking about the existence of populism in the Philippines, there are three broad themes that are significant to note. The first is the fact that like many other postcolonial democracies, there are permanent features of the political arena, both in terms of institutions and in terms of voter attitudes that match descriptive representations of populism and the characteristics of the political landscape that provide a favorable political opportunity structure for populist politics. The electoral arena is dominated by moralistic rather than programmatic appeals. In the context of weak parties and the almost total absence of ideologically and ethically driven parties and identities, democratic competitions founded on social cleavages or competing ideas are very rare. Instead, political actors vying for power, foster a sense of symbolic performative vertical accountability between the people and themselves by portraying themselves as the main custodian of public interests and citizen demands. Citizens, for their part, tend to be more tolerant with strong executive power, with limited legislative intervention, desiring quick fixes and decisive actions. And all of this, of course, relates to what scholars have pointed out already that the Philippines is a quintessential case of O’Donnell’s (1994) delegative democracy categorization. Pluralism is weak and the political actors not only use this but reinforce it by talking of a unified people, as if the country needs to have one heart, one soul, one mind and only then can overcome the challenges that it faces. Together these factors provide a fertile ground for populist appeals. 

Nonetheless, Dr Webb reminds us that -while actors that we might describe as populist-, come and go, the resonance and potency of popular sentiment remains. We have witnessed this in the striking consistency in political rhetoric of key presidential figures. The way Corazón Aquino talked about the path to transformation when she was elected following the spectacular deposing of the late Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was at times almost indistinguishable from the way Manuel L. Quezon talked about transformation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Moreover, even the way Marcos himself talked about it. She made herself custodian of the nation and its prosperity, perpetuating the motif of “people’s power” that she spoke not in conservative but in revolutionary terms. “Now the country is back in our hands. Another revolution is about to begin,” she told an audience of workers on Labor Day in 1986. If Marcos had become demonized as the epitome of Philippine moral corruption, Aquino was the opposite, symbolizing everything that was morally good. Despite this division between “good” and “bad,” she stated that “Only the power of a unified people could make it succeed.” 

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

Moving on to her second theme that is noteworthy when considering populism in the Philippine context, Dr Webb discussed the missing factors of populism in the Southeast Asian country, as despite the permanent presence of popular speeches on the political landscape, some things considered integral to the rise of populism elsewhere are largely missing in the Philippines. In European liberal democracies, the rise of populism has gone hand in hand with increasing political polarization. The radicalization of publics and discourse, hyper partisan media that fosters antagonism, together these two phenomena, populism and polarization, are deemed the great threat to the liberal democratic order. In contrast to this, the Philippines stands out as a country with low political polarization. 

Duterte’s popularity took on an almost unique polar nature. It’s not to say that there were no opponents inside and outside Congress, but instead of developing into a coherent anti-populist block, as has been observed elsewhere, Duterte enjoyed an unprecedented cross-class approval that endured his six-year term. There is an important exception to this according to Dr Webb. Before Duterte, whenever the Philippines was invoked in discussions of populism, it was Joseph Estrada who was named. Although he represented a different brand of populism, and he defied all the old, typical Presidents. “The us” and “them” of his highly persuasive, populist performance was based on material grievances, on the deep social inequalities that marks society. He had chains of vertical loyalty but not with the morally pure, unified people but predominantly with the poor. For the first time, populism produced polarization. Both the grand coalition of anti-populist, anti-Estrada movement and those who mobilized in Estrada’s defense, each saw the other as enemy of democracy and themselves as democracies’ true agents. Therefore, if in the long history of politics in the Philippines, this is the exception then how do we understand the grievances and anxieties that have driven populist politics, particularly the authoritarian or illiberal kind of Duterte and Marcos, which uses popular sentiment to legitimize state repression?

The third point made by Dr Adele Webb stated that to understand the resonance of populist appeals, and the logic of populist voters in accepting them, we need to consider their deep historical roots. So, there are novel features of Duterte’s regime that deserves attention, of course, not to mention the victims of his vile war on drugs. Yet, at the same time, if we’re using populism as an analytical concept, we should place his politics in a long view, and we should seek to understand the logics that drive his appeal in historical context. If we don’t historicize our analyses, at least two things are at stake according to the warning of the panelist. The first is if we continue to give too much power to populist actors as if they have made people do things that are simply cruel, that make no sense and have no relationship to the democratic desires. And second, if we don’t historicize, we fail to acknowledge that political attitudes and political institutions are produced by and producers of the conditions of possibility.

Considering Duterte’s platform, Dr Webb points out that it was based around igniting two sources of popular anxiety. The first was related to law and order. The Philippines had become a narco-state, and economic and political stability were impossible if this problem wasn’t eradicated. “It’s going to be a dictatorship,” he warned in a 2015 TV interview. The police and the military were the backbone and his electoral campaign translated into a state sanctioned killing spree. This wasn’t the only anxiety Duterte has inflamed. He was also a populist nationalist, who preyed upon the fragile sovereignty of the post-colonial Philippines. He claimed to embody the Philippines defiance of an unresolved history of colonial subjugation and indignity. The resonance of this was vividly captured when he infamously cursed US President Obama during the press conference in Davao: “I am the president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master, but the Filipino people.” The antagonism here was not between moral citizens versus criminal scum, but the unified and sovereign Filipino people against a malignant foreigner.

This later anxiety, Dr Webb argued, has been mostly ignored. Perhaps because it implicates non-Filipinos. The formal, law and order pitch has gained the most attention. The grotesqueness of the war on drug has proved both hard to watch and hard to look away from. “Many people at the moment are abusing that freedom and doing things which are not good. But we have this one politician, Duterte, whose type of leadership is like Marcos. And many people like that. And if you see Davao right now, it is one of the safest places in the Philippines. For me, if that type of leadership is implemented again, I think it’s much better,” said one of the interviewees of Dr Webb in 2015 showcasing the popularity of penal populism.

Dr Webb tried to make sense of such sentiments by explaining how some have explained it as evidence of lingering authoritarian nostalgia from the Marcos period, while others argued that it is a case of penal populism, in which modest economic growth empowers an expanding middle class, who express their anxiety about criminality and government corruption. While both these explanations bear some truth, both need to be further historicized. As this sentiment predates the post-1986 era. Dr Webb’s research demonstrates that as far as back as the 1940s, a perceived need for discipline was shaping middle class perceptions of what was a legitimate exercise of democratic power. In particular, the type of leadership that was deemed necessary. Moreover, in the late 1950s, Carl Landon noted that the general increase in crime and disorder since the end of the war had led people to say that there’s too much democracy, and that a little less democracy would be better for the country. By the early 1970s, when Marcos declared the resuscitation of Philippine democracy it was only made possible through his strong, autocratic leadership. Newspaper columnists at the time summed up the prevailing mood as the lack of discipline plunged the nation into the depths. It was exactly what the president did. He put a stop to a total lack of discipline. 

The argument that our lecturer has made in her book was that these sentiments reflect a sustained ambivalence towards democracy (Webb, 2022). And that ambivalence in turn has its roots in the paradox of democratic empire that was unleashed on the Philippines by the United States from the turn of the last century. If we want to talk about the electorate’s propensity for patronage politics, then we must talk about Philippine democracy’s founding patron. There is a striking resemblance between the logic of the electorate, the way they look at the way of democratic progress is imagined and the way the US colonial project of benign authoritarianism operated in the Philippines. It was a logic of pursuing national dignity and democratic ideals through the denial of liberty. Acceptance of their rights for the greater good was deemed to be appropriate behavior of the good student of American democratic tutelage. Unlike in other post-colonial contexts, these imperial logics of governance have penetrated the psyche and the imaginings of how democracy works, and they are very difficult to shake. 

Dr Webb has concluded her presentation by making some final remarks about what the complex case of the Philippines means for our understanding of populism more generally. If the logics that drive populism in the Philippines are deeply rooted in colonial history: What if anything, does it have to do with populism elsewhere? Can the term traverse such diverse contexts? It can, according to the research fellow of the University of Canberra, but only if we see populism not as the problem with our political systems, but as a manifestation of grievances with existing institutions of representative democracy. A signal of the failure of regimes to adequately express the political aspirations of people and to give a fact to notions that are supposedly central to our democratic normative ideal: popular sovereignty and constituent power. This is not to defend populism as a model of political change, but to say that if we blame the unsustainability of our democracies on populism, we sideline and ignore the causes of the feelings of alienation that propel it. 

In the Philippines, this is an old story, the institutions of representative democracy were compromised at their conception under a US colonial administration. At its core, the rise of populism is about the failure of institutions of democracy to ever accommodate the constituency, beyond the populist performative realm. In Europe, it’s a more recent phenomenon accelerated by cultural shifts brought about by neoliberalism and the digital transformation of our social lives. But in both places, populist voters conclude that the only way to make the principle of popular sovereignty effective is to delegate power to a strong, usually male and blustering figurehead, whose transgressions of liberal representative institutions, they mostly forgive, due to the lack of alternative means for addressing deep seated structural inequalities. 

Dr Mark Richard Thompson: “Duterte’s ‘Violent Populism’ in Comparative and Historical Perspective”

Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. Duterte’s strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Professor Mark Richard Thompson presented Duterte’s violent populism in a comparative and historical perspective. To begin, he noted that one problem with populism studies is that it is or has often been very Eurocentric. Although the US gets an honorable mention recently and Latin America sneaks in, we must highlight the fact that Latin American populism has been studied for quite a long time. This is an interesting aspect that in recent studies, particularly political science, a lot of the material is drawn from the European cases, therefore paying more attention to the Philippine case is a great initiative.

Dr Thompson started out his presentation by picking up on some of the comments made by Dr Kenny in his introduction, particularly his point about the paradox of democratic illiberalism, and some comments made by Dr Webb about democratic ambivalence and the nationalist component of Duterte’s appeal. The historical components weren’t really emphasized in the second presentation, but that is not to say it has no vital importance. The professor of the City University of Hong Kong first reflected on Dr Webb’s ideas about late colonialism in the Philippines, then gave a brief overview of his presentation, which touched on discussions of Duterte’s misogyny and also about the role of social media, how important it was for the rise of Duterte and his successor, Marcos Jr. 

Dr Thompson emphasized the comparative aspect of Duterte’s populism as it was mentioned in the lecture title. Duterte does seem to reflect the global trends during his presidency, yet the important distinction is that he was the only illiberal populist to instigate mass murder of tens of thousands. By taking a close look at the figures published not just by NGOs, but by the Commission on Human Rights as well. A government agency, which Duterte has tried to defund but his allies in Congress ultimately backed away from this. Furthermore, we can find numbers by an initiative at the University of Philippines and some international groups that have been coming up with databases as well. Ultimately, we can safely talk about up to tens of thousands of murders confirmed by the Philippine government under Duterte, when they went through their declamatory phase when they were proud of the killings, and they propagated it in the media about what they were doing to stop drug criminality – often incriminating debt pushers and small-time drug users. They have only changed this approach after incredible pushback internationally and domestically. Although that didn’t stop the drug war but did lead them to change the counting and obscure the numbers of victims. 

The lecture was continued by highlighting that Duterte is distinctive because he was engaging in mass murder against his own citizens. We can talk about other illiberal populists such as Putin invading Ukraine, but this is different, it was war on the Filipino people. It was a particularly virulent form of illiberalism as it took the aggressive intent of the idea of us versus them. The populist polarity of two deadly extremes. Furthermore, the ‘othering’ was not based on religion, ethnicity, or migration, but it was othering outsiders. It was against the poor because overwhelmingly – with the important exception of the journalists, judges, and the local mayors -, over half of those identified by Duterte’s drug war were actually murdered, most of them had a poor socio-economic background. There were a few high-profile cases of celebrities and even celebrities were killed, but it was overwhelmingly a war against the poor. 

It was urban, poor, young males, they were the main victims. Nonetheless, Duterte won popular support, including among the poor (Kusaka, 2017). Interesting ethnological studies on this phenomenon, as well as, of course, the opinion polls, show us why Duterte is distinctive from the so-called “base populists” like Bolsonaro and Trump. They had highly polarized societies with a very affectionate base that did not care what these characters were up to. Duterte had effectively a vast portion of the population supporting him. Although it is worth pointing out that there’s an increasing discussion about whether Duterte’s support was due to fear. Dr Thompson believes that overwhelmingly it was genuine support even though there was a bit of a fear factor. People, particularly poor people, for obvious reasons were concerned that the drug war might actually affect them.

One framework for understanding Duterte’s policies has been penal populism (Pratt, 2007, Curato, 2016, Kenny and Holmes, 2020). But Dr Thompson warns that crime concerns were limited until Duterte securitized drugs in his 2016 campaign (Quimpo, 2019). Crime, which was the lowest concern, jumps up briefly during Duterte’s campaign from December 2015 to his election, then it goes back down. Inflation, as it was mentioned by Dr Kenny, remains the most important consideration of Filipino people until today. Moreover, according to the lecturer, penal populism has generally been involved with people being arrested and put in jail for a long time and although that did happen in the Philippines, mass arrests, but there were also mass killings, extra judicial killings. These killings were going on and the drug war continued despite growing domestic and international criticism.

In terms of the origins and nature of Duterte’s violent populism, one has to understand how he nationalized it after having it first developed locally in Davao as mayor for a number of terms. Eventually, he became a popular mayor, dealing with the communist insurgency and dealing with high crime rates. Then he came up with a new idea of what can be called “neo-bossism” where instead of intimidating voters, he wooed them by promising to protect the ‘good people’ against ‘drug induced evil.’ So again, populist polarity worked in Duterte’s favor without upsetting voters and attracting them. His messages resonated well, particularly given the failures of what could be called the liberal reformist regime of Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, her successor. The Estrada administration was a bit of an exception, the liberal reformers didn’t like that, and they overthrew Estrada extra-constitutionally. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was Estrada’s successor. She was supposed to be a liberal but turned out to be a very problematic administration. Finally, the son of Benigno Aquino becomes president, and we seem to have this idea of a good reformist fighting against the problems of the corrupt Marcos dictatorship and continuing to undertake reforms for decades. 

This ultimately is seen as an institutional failure, because although the economy was restored after Marcos left behind an economic disaster despite the recent nostalgia for his presidency, growth was restored but it was not widely distributed, and poverty remains very high in the Philippines. Depending on different methods, more than half the Filipinos will tell pollsters that they are poor. Estrada’s populism, which could be called as proletarian populism, was undermined. There were a number of other political figures who ran against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and a movie star Fernando Poe Jr. was disqualified. Furthermore, another major candidate was undermined through what can be called a selective Senate investigation. So, according to Professor Thompson’s explanation, there was an alternative rhetoric, which was certainly less deadly than Duterte’s populism. Duterte has used a similarly repressive repertoire in his failed pandemic response, which can be called “brute force governance” shielding him from responsibility and accountability, as well as deflecting from his obvious governance failures and demonstrating how effective it is as a legitimation strategy. 

Another interesting point our second speaker has made is Duterte’s claim to be a socialist despite harming the poor through his war on drugs and not changing the Philippine economic model that did little good to the poor. He has stated that he would be the country’s first socialist president and started negotiations with the Communist Party when he took office. He also had friendly relations with communist politicians, yet later declared them terrorists and resumed extrajudicial killings against the left. Continuing with his remarks on Duterte’s socialism and economics, Thompson mentioned that Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. What we can see is that Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. The strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Following this, Thompson provided a brief overview of Duterte’s macho populism. He was a misogynist with a hyper masculine display that was seen to demonstrate its authenticity, particularly against the hypocrisy of the old liberal reformers (Encinas-Franco, 2022; Parmanand, 2020; Curato and Ong, 2018). It is important to point out that four of the leading opposition figures Duterte has targeted were women and he went after them very harshly. For daring to challenge the drug war, Senator De Lima was shamed, accused of committing a ‘dual class and gender sin’ and she remains in jail until today on trumped up drug charges. Duterte has also fired his vice president Leni Robredo, who was separately elected in the Philippines, from the cabinet after she criticized the drug war. Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, still faces a number of legal issues and cyber libel cases that were clearly initiated by Duterte’s administration to intimidate the media. Finally Chief Justice Maria Serena was removed after defending judges tagged for drugs. 

In his last point, Professor Thompson focused on the issue of illiberalism. There has been a lot of discussion in the literature about how widespread anti-pluralist views are in the Philippines and support for a strong leader who gets things done unhindered by constraints (Pernia, 2021). Kenny and Holmes (2020) have pointed out that this shows support for illiberal policies not illiberalism generally or the popularity of the drug war. According to Thompson, these studies demonstrate how Duterte could enjoy high popularity and electoral legitimacy despite massive violation of human rights. It also seems to fit the theory of a famous Philippine political scientist Agpalo’s (pangulo theory, 1981) who talks about the preference of Filipinos for strong terms, and would also help explain this nostalgia for the Marcos dictatorship. The latter helped his son, Marcos Jr. to win the 2022 elections and explains why Cory Aquino is now seen as a weak president. Consequently, Dr Thompson states that there is a strong liberal tradition reminding us that Cory Aquino has once unseated Marcos suggesting that the current illiberalism is situational. We also do see that, even if it’s not a coherent opposition movement, there are strong anti-drug and then later anti-terrorism protests in the Philippines. 

To conclude, the lecturer highlighted that Duterte was ahead of the recent illiberal populist curve elected a few months before Trump and a year before Bolsonaro. Albeit there are similar social media ills to be looked at such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. A Facebook executive spoke about one reason why the Philippines has been identified as patient zero is Facebook disinformation. Illiberalism seems to be persisting under Duterte’s successor, Marcos Jr. Although Duterte’s illiberal realignment toward China is now being re-evaluated by the new president under pressure from the US, also by the military and public opinion as well. This marks an interesting shift, yet the main takeaway here is that the Philippines is being an extreme example of the populist dichotomy of ‘the good people’ and ‘criminal others’ used to legitimate mass killings. It was a highly militarized brute force governance by Duterte’s – a democratically legitimated but highly illiberal leader-, who blames ne’er-do-wells for complex social problems facing the country. This strategy has also deflected attention from mass poverty by what Bello (2019) has called “a fascist original.” Finally, the current dominance of illiberalism in Philippine politics has been met by considerable, if not entirely, coherent, liberal pushback, which goes back to a century-old tradition of resolve and the independence movement more generally.

Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco: “Gendered Populism of Dutertismo and Hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics”

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte.

Dr Jean Encinas-Franco talked about gendered populism and hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics. In the lecture’s outline, Dr Encinas-Franco broke down her presentation into four main points: (1) populism, gender and international migration; (2) Duterte as a populist and a brief historical background of Philippine out migration; (3) Duterte’s gendered rhetoric towards migrants; and (4) some concluding remarks. To start with the first point, the third speaker reviewed the literature on gender and populism: There has been a lot of studies linking the two together and, in fact, it has been expanding. Drawing from Saresma (2018: 177), who coined the term ‘gendered populism,’ she refers to the concept, “a simplifying understanding of gender as a ‘natural,’ essentially dichotomous order based on positioning both women and men in hierarchical locations in terms of power.” 

Moving on to introduce international migration to the equation as well, the Professor points out that the literature on gendered populism and migration has a Eurocentric bias, which Dr Thompson referred to a while ago about populist studies in general. If these studies talk about international migration, they usually refer to host states and the usual strategy would be for populists to engage in racism and ‘othering’ of immigrants, coupled with criticism of feminism and privileging the traditional family to protect them from the ‘othered immigrants.’ Some argue in defense of why gender and migration has become very prominent in Europe is that immigration has been a crisis in most countries in Europe. Yet in the Global South, particularly in the Philippines, Philippine labor out migration actually also has a lot of history of crisis situations in which the government had to break its relations with the Coalition of the Willing. 

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s (2016) definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte. In her study, Professor Encinas-Franco traces their support and their fanaticism to Duterte in 2015. 

The context of Philippine labor out migration is such that since 1974, the government has been involved in labor export through the labor code, which institutionalized overseas employment. Today, there are more than 12 million Filipinos abroad in more than 200 countries and territories. Although this data, warns Dr Encinas-Franco, is severely underreported. It has also consistently been the fourth largest remittance recipient country in the world. In 2020 alone, the Filipinos abroad remitted $35 billion dollars to their country of origin. A key characteristic of overseas migration is the feminization of migration in which not only 60 percent of Filipino migrants are women, but a lot of Filipino migrants are also working as so-called feminized domestic workers and caregivers. Moreover, migration scholars also refer to the government as paternalistic. In terms of how they view Filipino migrant women, there are stricter regulations for women migrants’ mobility compared to men, and deployment bans on domestic workers. Nine out of 10 migrant domestic workers are women. On the other hand, there is also a huge bureaucracy to cater to Filipino migrants’ needs. 

Looking at a case study of Duterte’s presidential visit to South Korea in 2018, where he had delivered a three-hour speech. Duterte’s speech has received particularly strong attention from migrant Filipinos in Seoul. Furthermore, this speech has made international headlines because he gave a migrant Filipino woman a kiss. Professor Encinas-Franco has analyzed the speech and its transcript to identify what are the themes that comprise this speech. One central trope was “the protective and angry father.” In his speech, he said that he will protect anyone from destroying his country (referring to drug addicts). Duterte framed his message in a way that makes sense to Filipinos abroad by emphasizing that their children’s welfare is his priority. This resonated very well to migrant Filipinos abroad and, in a sense, it justified violence against fellow Filipinos as extremely necessary. This is just one sample of his rhetoric as a migrant, as a protective and angry father. 

The second trope mentioned by our third speaker was “the Filipino every man.” Duterte has usually dressed in ordinary clothes, not in formal attire. The populist ex-president would also use humor and curses. Remaining relatable but projecting the image of a very powerful man. Dr Encinas-Franco has also noted that in the speech in South Korea, Duterte admitted to having two wives. Although he has to make this moral transgression excusable by saying that there is no such thing as a first family. “We are all first family, we are all workers of the government, working for the Filipino people.” A very symbolic message which certainly resonated very well with Filipino migrants because in this rhetoric, they would feel that they are really part of the nation, that their president really cares for them, and that they don’t mind whether he has two wives. They also don’t mind whether this is some form of a double standard given that he has accused late legislators Senator Lila De Lima of committing adultery.

The third trope explored by our lecturer is that Duterte was a “Ladies’ Man.” Of course, to justify his actions, he has asked for permission to kiss the migrant woman, in fact, he also asked whether the migrant woman had a husband, explained Professor Encinas-Franco. Nevertheless, he presented it as something that’s ordinary and that these people also said that it was just for enjoyment and a part of Filipino culture. Drawing from Mendonca and Caetano (2021: 227) who studied Bolsonaro and said that this is common, Dr Encinas-Franco made parallels between the two populist leaders. The ladies’ man approach is a formula that the voting base of populists do not mind mainly because “it gives new meaning to the authority of the office and the denial of its standard forms.” It means that Duterte is really one with the people. 

The reaction from the Duterte-camp further amplifies and forgives Duterte’s messages. The reason behind this is that they see it as a joke or part of Filipino culture which does not need to be excused or apologized for. This erases and closes any form of resistance because it’s merely a joke. The fact that women were also laughing as seen on the video of the South Korean speech meant compliance to the patriarchy (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005: 848). There were also women, Cabinet Secretaries and Undersecretary from the camp of Duterte who didn’t mind what the party leader did. But what does this make of Duterte’s behavior? It forgives the perpetrator. Moreover, even legislators noted that the president’s behavior was an assault and abuse of power. Notwithstanding, when they look at the Philippines’ good record in terms of gender equality laws, they actually individualize Duterte’s actions and rhetoric. They tend to frame Duterte’s misogynistic actions, rhetoric, and practice as an individual issue, rather than a societal and systemic issue. So, in effect that tells us that it closes resistance.  

In her concluding remarks, Professor Encinas-Franco emphasized that the reason why Duterte’s speech and his rhetoric is so powerful among migrants is that it’s quite different from the usual bureaucratic language that the state employs. The state is very much involved in catering to every migrant’s needs from pre-employment to repatriation, but when in doing so, the state uses bureaucratic or legalized rhetoric, while Duterte’s case is very much personalized. His behavior has also embodied masculine entitlement that is not inherently different from the entitlement inherent in deployment bans and stricter regulations for migrant Filipino women. Finally, Duterte’s populist style was very popular, resonated very well with people from all walks of life and ultimately stifled resistance.

Dr Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio: “Media Populism and Anti-Free Speech in Duterte’s Philippines”

While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights.

In the last contribution, Dr Jefferson Lyndon Ragragio spoke about media populism and anti-free speech on Facebook in the Philippines between 2016 and 2022. Using a more modest approach to his presentation, Dr Ragragio focused on the so-called anti free speech. He argued that part of the political legacy of Duterte’s administration is anti-free speech that characterizes a complicated hybrid of hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that bridges the putative relational ties of the leader and his idealized public. Dr Ragragio has aimed to show how Duterte’s anti free speech thrived within the climate of a network of disinformation, and to some extent affective and emotional politics that collectively spoil the civil consensus on political participation.

Dr Ragragio used the case of the Philippines, a Southeast Asian nation of over 75 million Facebook users regarded as the social media capital of the world to demonstrate his arguments. While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech and democratic movement in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the 2023 report of the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights. The country’s state of press freedom, once regarded as the freest in Southeast Asia, recorded yearly decline from 2017 to 2022, placing the country from 127 to 147 spots (Reporters Without Borders, 2023). So, there are certainly manufacturers or systemic – emerging and even hybridized – factors that contributed to this democratic backsliding. This type of crisis is transnational and global in character, which forces us to reevaluate some of the ways we approach the features of contemporary and digital politics. 

The concept of populism is elusive and understood in many ways, yet the key characteristics of populism, especially the notion of the people are evident in many societies across geographical lines. Some scholars of populism explain that the core element of the term is to speak and act in the name of the people broadly defined, and that this act of representing the people by the leader can be manipulated to construct political identities and political conflicts. Although sharing this observation, Dr Ragragio limited his work in his presentation to using an understanding of populism as a political communication style that uses certain rhetoric, identity, and media to connect with the people: for instance, the disenchanted or the agreed groups, while it also aggravates ‘the other’ centered around elite or the establishment.

This understanding has allowed our speaker to highlight the centrality of rhetoric and style in the communicative expression of mediated populism. In terms of its relationship with disinformation, populism is central if not intrinsic to the evolving practices of networked disinformation or what some call digital propaganda. The multifaceted practices associated with disinformation come in different forms like political trolling and digital black box in the Philippines. 

A cursory look at recent studies on free speech under contemporary populism would show a variety of speeches or brands of speeches used by populist actors. In Duterte’s Philippines, the prominent kind is that of hate speech, which aptly describes the leader’s hostility against the political opposition, including human rights activists, church leaders, and politicians opposing the brutal war on drugs. Duterte’s open hostility against the dominant centuries old Catholic Church and its teachings, something past Philippine presidents didn’t bother to do, is a clear expression of hate speech that dehumanizes and incites discrimination against the perceived ‘other.’ So, some scholars call it extreme speech that broadens the hostile character of hate speech to include culture specific practices and sentiments that resonate with expressions of the digital public. This includes such expressions as remorse and rumors that connect with the imaginations of some segments of the politics. Anti-free speech in Duterte’s Philippines is represented by hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that targets and appeals to different segments of the politics. 

In his presentation, associate professor Ragragio focused on three ways, or three narratives employed under the Duterte administration. (1) The first is the marginalization of the political opposition. (2) Second is the appeal to the notion of family. (3) Third is the appeal to the notion of religion. So, amplifying the label of terrorism in the first narrative, the diehard supporters of Duterte, popularly known as the DDS, orchestrated the supposed anti-elite and nationalist rhetoric of Duterte. DDS is a mobilized yet highly unstructured coalition of individuals and networks that maintain an active presence online, especially on Facebook and YouTube. On YouTube, for instance, it’s no less than the national government’s channel, people’s television network that reports on how DDS members worldwide are gathering to express their continued support for Duterte whose life according to his supporters is endangered by the elite. DDS uses the referee of below one or the color yellow. So, the yellow is a political color associated with another political family, another political clan to target the perceived other. Duterte and his incendiary social media armies were able to signify yellow with political opposition marked with elitism, incompetence and a bogus sense of nationalism.

The second narrative is about the populist notion of family which shows how the strongman yet compassionate brand of the leadership of Duterte is capable of securing the welfare of families, children and future generations. On Facebook, the leader was dramatically referred to as “Father of the Nation,” showing how he managed to spend quality time with family and children, despite his political career. For his online supporters, Duterte epitomizes a strong brand of leadership that can bring back the long-gone discipline expected of every Filipino. A leadership brand that is humane enough to protect the law-abiding populace. In one Facebook photo on Duterte’s page, he is promoting the caring image of the leader, notwithstanding the leaders’ press remarks against women, the clergy, local politicians, and journalists.

The third notion is about the populist notion of religion, which highlights the devout identity of the leader through practices and identification with recognized symbols of fate such as kneeling and praying, showing images of processions, being prayed over by leaders of different churches, -although these leaders come predominantly from the prominent Catholic faith-, and expressions of prayers and aspirations. The religion related posts, conflate facts and fictitious accounts to magnify the pious image of Duterte. Dr Ragragio showcased an edited photo of Duterte kneeling and praying with a comment asking for God’s protection of Duterte to provide an example of his case. Further, posts by other pro-Duterte Facebook pages would also claim that the leader was indeed a gift from God to the Philippines. 

In his speech, the fourth panelist has demonstrated the complicated mix of hateful, banal and light sentiments that target the aspirations of the digital public. The Philippine case showed how we can expand the belligerence and strict binarism typical of political populism. Features that while central to contemporary populism may not fully account for the sophisticated terms of populism and contemporary digital politics at large. Under the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr and Sara Duterte, the anti-free speech honed by the previous administration, presents real world dangers to this day. 

Duterte continues to exhibit closer ties with the church leader, Apollo Quiboloy who is in the wanted list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for crimes including sex trafficking of children, and fraud and coercion. The church leaders’ media, called Sunshine Media Network International, serves as one of the primary media platforms of Duterte and his supporters to attack the ‘others’ including independent media outlets and legitimate foreign bodies like the International Criminal Court. 

In the area of legislation, some of Duterte’s close allies in both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, relentlessly advocate pro-Duterte policies like shielding the leader from investigations into his bloody drug war. Just recently, some lawmakers proposed to upgrade the financial benefits of former presidents, citing solely the case of Duterte. In sum, what we are seeing then is the changing terms of mediated populism that can reform or disable consensus on free speech, one that can disrupt and even redefine our sense of political participation in the digital sphere. Finally, Dr Radragio reminded us to be more attentive to the innovative terms of mediated populism so we can better address the rhetorical, digital and real-world challenges of anti-free speech.


(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.


References

— (2018). “Philippine poll shows biggest ratings slump for Duterte as inflation soars.” Reuters. September 25. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-duterte-idUSKCN1M50MD (accessed on May 20, 2023).

— (2022). “Report on investigated killings in relation to the anti-illegal drug campaign.’ Commission on Human Rights. UN OHCHR. https://chr.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/CHR-National-Report-April-2022-Full-Final.pdf

— (2023). “International Criminal Court’s Philippines Investigation.” Human Rights Watch. February 13. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/02/13/international-criminal-courts-philippines-investigation (accessed on May 20, 2023).

— (2023). “Philippines.” In: 2023 Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders https://rsf.org/en/index (accessed on May 20, 2023).

Agpalo, Remigio E. (1981). “The Philippines: from communal to societal pangulo regime.” Philippine Law Journal 56 (1): 56–98.

Amnesty International. (2022). “Radio journalist killing bears ‘hallmarks of extrajudicial execution’.” Amnesty International. October 4. https://www.amnesty.org.ph/2022/10/radio-journalist-killing-bears-hallmarks-of-eje/ (accessed on May 20, 2023).

Capuno, Joseph J. (2020). “Dutertenomics: Populism, Progress, and Prospects.” Asian Economic Policy Review. 15 (2): 262-279.

Claudio, Lisandro E. (2019). Jose Rizal: Liberalism and the Paradox of Coloniality Cham. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. (2005). “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19 (6 ): 829–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27640853.

Curato, Nicole. (2016). “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. 35 (3): 91–109. https://doi.org/10.1177/186810341603500305

Curato, Nicole and Ong, Jonathan Corpus. (2018). “Who Laughs at a Rape Joke? Illiberal Responsiveness in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.” Ethical Responsiveness and the Politics of Difference. 65: 117-132, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-93958-2_7

Encinas-Franco, Jean. (2022). “The presidential kiss: Duterte’s gendered populism, hypermasculinity, and Filipino migrants.” NORMA. 17(2): 107-123, DOI: 10.1080/18902138.2022.2026107

Evie Papada, David Altman, Fabio Angiolillo, Lisa Gastaldi, Tamara Köhler, Martin Lundstedt,

Natalia Natsika, Marina Nord, Yuko Sato, Felix Wiebrecht, and Staffan I. Lindberg. (2023). “Defiance in the Face of Autocratization.” Democracy Report 2023. University of Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute).

Kenny, Paul D. and Ronald Holmes. (2020). “A New Penal Populism? Rodrigo Duterte, the War on Drugs, and Public Opinion in the Philippines.” Journal of East Asian Studies. 20 (2): 187–205. https://doi.org/10.1017/jea.2020.8.

Kishi, Roudabeh and Tomas Buenaventura. (2021). “The Drug War Rages on in the Philippines: New Data on the Civilian Toll, State Responsibility, and Shifting Geographies of Violence.” ACLED. November 18. https://acleddata.com/2021/11/18/the-drug-war-rages-on-in-the-philippines-new-acled-data-on-the-civilian-toll-state-responsibility-and-shifting-geographies-of-violence/ (accessed on May 20, 2023).

Kruezer, Peter. (2019). “Populism, Executive Assertiveness and Popular Support for Strongman Democracy in The Philippines.” Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. January 17. https://blog.prif.org/2019/01/17/populism-executive-assertiveness-and-popular-support-for-strongman-democracy-in-the-philippines/ (accessed on May 20, 2023).

Kusaka, Wataru. (2017). “Bandit Grabbed the State: Duterte’s Moral Politics.” Philippine Sociological Review. 65: 49–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45014309.

Manlupig, Karlos. (2015). “Duterte Justice: Robbery, Slay Suspect Dead.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. August 21, 2015.

Mendonça, Ricardo F. and Caetano, Renato D. (2021). “Populism as Parody: The Visual Self-Presentation of Jair Bolsonaro on Instagram.” The International Journal of Press/Politics. 26 (1): 210–235. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161220970118

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780804799331

O’Donell, Guillermo A. (1994). “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy. 5 (1): 55-69. doi:10.1353/jod.1994.0010.

Panizza, Francisco. (2005). Populism and the mirror of democracy / edited by Francisco Panizza. Verso.

Parmanand, Sharmila. (2022). “Macho populists versus COVID: Comparing political masculinities.” European Journal of Women’s Studies. 29 (1_suppl): 43S-59S. https://doi.org/10.1177/13505068221092871

Pernia, Ronald A. (2022). “Authoritarian values and institutional trust: Theoretical considerations and evidence from the Philippines.” Asian Journal of Comparative Politics. 7(2): 204–232. https://doi.org/10.1177/2057891121992118

Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency. (2022). “Towards a drug-cleaned Philippines.” Facebook. June 21. https://www.facebook.com/realnumbersph/photos/2215676505280542?_rdc=1&_rdr (accessed on May 20, 2023).

Pratt, John. (2007). Penal populism. Oxford: Routledge.

Quimpo, Nathan Gilbert. (2017). “Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’: The securitization of illegal drugs and the return of national boss rule.” A Duterte reader: Critical essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s early presidency: 145-166.

Saresma, Tuija. (2018). “Gender populism: three cases of Finns party actors’ traditionalist antifeminism.” In: U. Kovala, E. Palonen, M. Ruotsalainen, & T. Saresma (Eds.), Populism on the loose (pp. 177-200). Jyväskylän yliopisto. Nykykulttuurin tutkimuskeskuksen julkaisuja, 122. http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-7401-5

Walden, Bello. (2019). Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far-right. Fernwood Publishing.

Webb, Adele. (2022). Chasing Freedom: The Philippines’ Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence. Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv3029rj1.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watching the August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli.

The short story of Erdogan’s election victory(!)

Erdogan’s primary adversary is no longer the opposition, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.

By Savas Genc*

Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a span of almost 22 years, Turkey recently witnessed an election in which the opposition had a chance of victory for the first time. In a nation grappling with an official inflation rate of approximately 80 percent, opposition leaders united to form an electoral coalition with the aim of securing success in the election. Hinging on the fervor of the masses to bring an end to the Erdogan regime, the opposition parties engaged in lengthy negotiations and crafted policies that pledged a restoration of the parliamentary system. By emphasizing the strengthening of democracy, an independent judiciary, and transparent governance, the opposition diligently conducted extensive public engagements over several months to instill confidence in the electorate.

In various independent international indices, Turkey has steadily witnessed a decline in terms of justice, democracy, media freedom, human rights, and corruption, progressively exhibiting an authoritarian trajectory. The opposition formulated its entire electoral strategy around the backdrop of economic distress, the repatriation of over 4 million Syrian and Afghan migrants, and the disintegration of a modern state along with its liberal democratic institutions. They presented a vision of a democratic system in alignment with European Union (EU) standards, incorporating merit-based recruitment schemes for public positions, and advocating for gradual repatriation of migrants through negotiations with the Assad regime in Syria and the EU. The opposition introduced an election program that was virtually flawless in its technical details and captivated the public with its competent cadre of seasoned politicians and academics.

Discussions on Opposition Candidate

The coalition of six opposition parties, having conducted thorough deliberations on the political and economic agenda to be presented to the electorate, deliberately deferred discussions regarding the presidential candidate during their gatherings for months. This cautious approach was adopted to prevent any potential disintegration of the electoral alliance. The criteria for a viable candidate were well-defined. The candidate would originate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party within the alliance, and would need to garner support from both Kurdish voters and conservative masses. Various opinion polling firms consistently indicated Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, as the candidate who best embodied this criterion.

Recognizing Imamoglu’s growing popularity and his strong prospects of winning the elections, President Erdogan took notice and, having faced defeat in Istanbul twice before, invoked judicial mechanisms. It became evident that Erdogan had exerted influence over the judiciary to impose a political ban on Imamoglu. On the day when the decision on the political ban was announced, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was anticipated to express support for Imamoglu, coincidentally had a scheduled trip to Germany. In the aftermath of the court’s verdict and the subsequent political ban imposed on Imamoglu, Kilicdaroglu, who had been contemplating a presidential candidacy, engaged in discussions of significance over breakfast with prominent figures from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish party with close ties to the center. The Kurdish leaders conveyed their intention to field their own candidate if Kilicdaroglu chose not to run, citing concerns regarding the nationalist background of another potential contender, Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara.

Alliance Reaches a Critical Juncture as Kilicdaroglu Insists on Candidacy

Following Erdogan’s official decision to call early elections in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on February 6, 2023, the opposition alliance initiated meetings with the objective of nominating a joint candidate. Kilicdaroglu successfully advanced the nomination process by offering each of the three smaller parties in the alliance a minimum of 10 parliamentary seats and a ministerial position. However, the Good Party (İYİ Party), which holds the second strongest position in the alliance and does not rely on the CHP’s support in the parliamentary elections, sought to halt this trajectory.

Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party, raised objections to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, citing doubts about his electability. Observing that her concerns were being disregarded, she issued a strongly worded press release announcing their departure from the alliance. This development shattered the hopes of opposition voters. Kilicdaroglu, who had made considerable headway in positioning himself as the preferred candidate for the Kurdish constituency, was taken aback by the fierce reaction of his nationalist partner. In the face of a vehement response from opposition constituents following the dissolution of the alliance, Aksener had no choice but to return to the negotiation table. Reluctantly, she declared their support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, on the condition that the two mayors, Imamoglu and Yavaş, assume the role of vice presidents.

The Electoral Process

Kilicdaroglu embarked on the election with two formidable and popular vice-presidential candidates, resulting in a commendable performance. His campaign maintained a positive tone, refraining from responding to Erdogan’s provocations, while focusing on democratization initiatives. Conversely, Erdogan accused the opposition, which enjoyed Kurdish support, of being linked to terrorism. Employing deep fake videos, he asserted that banned PKK leaders were collaborating with Kilicdaroglu. The masses, initially distancing themselves from Erdogan due to the economic crisis, began to rally behind him again, fueled by concerns over Kilicdaroglu’s security policies. 

The opposition was taken aback when Erdogan secured 49.4 percent of the vote in the first round. Their hopes of outpacing Erdogan and even winning the election outright were drastically altered as they entered the second round with a recalibrated strategy. Kilicdaroglu, in a bid to appeal to nationalist voters, who were crucial for securing their support, made a significant shift by signing a memorandum of understanding with the ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant Zafer Party. However, this move disappointed Kurdish voters and dissuaded their participation in the elections.

The Factors Behind Erdogan’s Re-election

It is widely recognized that Erdogan does not possess the qualities of an intellectual politician. However, his remarkable ability to win elections and retain power for 22 years showcases his prowess as an election-winning machine. Faced with the looming risk of electoral defeat, Erdogan strategically relied on identity politics as his trump card. He tapped into the deeply held sentiments of nationalist and religious conservatives who view the Turkish republic, once controlled by secular elitist forces, as a cherished possession they are unwilling to relinquish. By portraying the opposition as godless, Erdogan positioned himself and his party as the safeguarders of the religious masses’ interests and achievements.

The primary fault line in Turkish politics lies in the clash between secular/modern and conservative/traditionalist voters. Despite the nation grappling with a profound economic crisis, erosion of judicial independence, curtailment of media freedoms, and the failure to address the immigration problem, the broad conservative electorate rallied behind Erdogan’s leadership.

Erdogan’s prospects of securing re-election appeared highly improbable merely a year ago, given the prevailing deep economic crisis, as indicated by numerous opinion polls. However, he resorted to political tactics aimed at enticing voters, including the liquidation of all foreign currency and gold reserves held by the treasury. Additionally, the early retirement law was passed, granting hundreds of thousands of citizens under the age of 50 the right to retire. By increasing the minimum wage above the inflation rate, Erdogan successfully garnered support from the Anatolian masses, where the cost of living is relatively lower. Moreover, Erdogan’s position was bolstered by Russia’s decision to postpone Turkey’s $20 billion natural gas debt until after the elections, while countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia extended billions of dollars in loans to the Erdogan government through swap agreements, further consolidating his position of influence.

Erdogan’s Media Empire: An Unassailable Armada

Erdogan, leveraging his extensive media apparatus, has amassed an overpowering media presence that has transformed into an invincible armada. Through awarding substantial public tenders to crony companies, Erdogan’s administration effectively facilitated the acquisition of nearly all major media outlets in the country. For those private media outlets that could not be directly acquired, coercion tactics were employed to align them with a pro-Erdogan stance. Furthermore, the state broadcaster, TRT, funded by public resources, was fortified by the establishment of numerous television channels. During the electoral process, Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s opponent, was limited to appearing on a modest news channel, while Erdogan enjoyed the privilege of addressing the public for hours on 24 national news channels. Despite Kilicdaroglu’s repeated invitations, Erdogan refrained from engaging in a political debate on-screen, thereby obstructing his opponent’s visibility. By even impeding opposition advertisements on television through financial means, Erdogan effectively isolated Anatolian voters who relied predominantly on TV channels for news, limiting their exposure to a narrow political bubble.

The Election Turnout

In the context of the election, the opposition demonstrated its strength by securing victories in the metropolitan areas. However, Erdogan’s widespread support among the populace in the expansive Anatolian region played a pivotal role in determining the overall outcome. Through the formation of an alliance encompassing Islamist and nationalist elements, Erdogan exceeded expectations by attaining greater voter support. While Erdogan’s AKP party experienced a decline of 8-9 percentage points in votes, those who did not endorse his party redirected their support to other parties within his political alliance. In the second round, Erdogan, who narrowly missed a first-round victory, successfully gained the backing of his nationalist rival, Sinan Ogan.

The performance of Erdogan had a demoralizing effect on opposition voters, as the first-round results starkly diverged from the data projected by various polling companies. This perception of manipulated elections and the belief that their support for the opposition would be ineffectual led to a significant decline in voter participation during the second round. While the first round witnessed an 87 percent turnout, this figure dipped to 85 percent in the subsequent round. Remarkably, Erdogan maintained a 52 percent share of the vote, positioning himself to potentially govern uninterrupted for 27 years, coinciding with the centenary of the republic.

Erdogan employed strategies such as providing employment opportunities to the offspring of his party’s loyal supporters in roles such as teachers, policemen, watchmen, and salaried sergeant specialists in the Turkish army. Additionally, he bolstered the economic well-being of conservative masses by allocating tenders to his senior executives through his construction industry network. As aptly stated by Brezinski, “Just as oil is a decisive factor in Arab countries, the construction sector and real estate investments play a crucial role in Turkish politics.” Erdogan effectively generated jobs and wealth for substantial segments of the population through his wealth-sharing model centered around construction revenues. The masses, concerned about the potential collapse of the established order, disregarded the country’s institutional and economic crises, experiencing upward economic mobility under Erdogan’s leadership.

The Potential Success of the Opposition with a Different Candidate?

The question arises as to whether the opposition would have achieved success had they fielded a different candidate. In this context, it is crucial to examine Kilicdaroglu’s political track record, characterized by 17 prior unsuccessful attempts in general and local elections, during which he never ventured to challenge Erdogan directly as a candidate. Interestingly, Kilicdaroglu, confident in the prospects of his election chances amidst the deepening economic crisis and the earthquake’s impact, exhibited a reluctance to entertain discussions regarding alternative candidates. Seizing upon the political ban imposed on Imamoglu as an opportunity, Kilicdaroglu engaged in strategic deliberations with Kurdish politicians, aiming to obstruct Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, from pursuing candidacy. This particular course of action instigated dissatisfaction among opposition voters.

While it remains true that Yavas hailed from nationalist roots, it was precisely this background that rendered him a potential contender capable of garnering support from protest voters disenchanted with Erdogan. Multiple opinion polls consistently identified Yavas as the candidate most likely to secure victory against Erdogan in the initial round of elections. Yavas, with his history within nationalist parties, would have been well-positioned to effectively counter Erdogan’s accusations of association with “terrorists” and Kurdish support.

It is important to note that definitive assertions regarding Yavas’ victory over Erdogan cannot be made, given Erdogan’s prowess as an election-winning machine and his mobilization of state institutions to this end. However, it is reasonable to suggest that Yavas’ prospects of success would have been considerably higher compared to Kilicdaroglu, irrespective of the ultimate outcome.

The Future of Turkey Following Erdogan’s Re-election

Numerous political analysts and scholars contend that the recent election outcome in Turkey may represent the final opportunity for democratic reform. With another five years of governance ahead and parliamentary support, Erdogan aims to shape the opposition into a force that merely legitimizes his authority, akin to regimes observed in Central Asia.

Considering Erdogan’s advancing age and increasingly evident health concerns, he must also cultivate a new and trustworthy leader to safeguard his family’s political legacy. Similar to practices in Central Asian regimes, he may need to involve one of his sons or sons-in-law in politics, thereby paving the way for a future leadership transition and the preservation of his family’s influence.

In this process, Erdogan’s primary adversary will not be the opposition, which has encountered challenges in securing electoral victories, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. Turkey currently grapples with significant debt, leading to borrowing at prohibitively high interest rates due to its credit default swap (CDS) scores. Although Erdogan managed to stabilize the exchange rate by injecting all available foreign currency reserves into the markets prior to the elections, attracting new investors to the country remains unlikely. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.


 

(*) Dr. Savas Genc completed his doctoral studies at the esteemed University of Heidelberg and has been serving as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg since 2020, supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s PSI program. Prior to this, he held the position of Professor of International Relations in Istanbul, where he also served as an Erasmus Visiting Professor, imparting his knowledge to students at various European universities. Dr. Genc’s academic contributions encompass a wide range of research interests, including directing the “Research Center for Contemporary Civilizations” and leading notable projects such as “The Perception of Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East.”

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

Erdogan’s winning authoritarian populist formula and Turkey’s future

After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad.

By Ihsan Yilmaz 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent electoral victory in Turkey exemplifies the winning formula of populism in deeply divided and polarized societies. His authoritarian populism has effectively tapped into the fears, grievances, nostalgia, and hopes of the Turkish people, enabling him to consolidate his authoritarian regime. However, it is important to note that Erdogan’s success cannot be solely attributed to his populist rhetoric, especially considering the ongoing economic crisis in the country.

In addition to his Islamist populism, securitization of the opposition, manipulation, and fearmongering, Erdogan has also employed tactics of electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes. Furthermore, he has greatly benefited from economic populism and neo-patrimonialism. Understanding Erdogan’s winning formula allows us to examine the predicaments Turkey currently faces and consider what Erdogan may do in the future to maintain his winning streak.

After explaining Erdogan’s winning formula, I will try to look at Turkey’s predicaments from the lens of this formula. Unfortunately, there is no good news for Turkey’s educated, Westernized sections of society, as well as Kurds, Alevis, and other political minorities. Erdogan’s approach tends to marginalize and oppress these groups, leading to their continued exclusion and marginalization in the political sphere.

Electoral Authoritarianism and Manipulation of Electoral Processes

Erdogan’s regime is characterized by electoral authoritarianism, where the playing field for opposition parties is heavily skewed, resulting in elections that lack both freedom and fairness. Despite the presence of opposition parties, Erdogan utilizes the full extent of state apparatuses, including security forces and the judiciary, as well as his own party’s massive machinery, which boasts 12 million members (around 20 percent of the country’s adults). Additionally, his control over approximately 90 percent of the conventional media and a powerful digital authoritarianism machine enables him to manipulate information and disseminate disinformation to undermine opposition parties.

Erdogan employs various tactics of electoral authoritarianism to ensure that opposition parties are unable to secure a majority of votes, serving primarily to create a façade of legitimacy for his authoritarian political system. These tactics include gerrymandering, restrictions on opposition campaigns, and the suppression of independent media. Furthermore, the counting of votes is under Erdogan’s control, and opposition parties lack the capacity to substantiate their allegations of election rigging. They are unable to address issues such as the significant increase in the number of registered voters, which has outpaced the population growth of Turkey over the past two decades.

Since 2018, the deteriorating state of the political system in Turkey has led to its classification as “unfree” by organizations like Freedom House. Despite rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) advocating for their release, many democratically elected Kurdish mayors and parliamentarians remain imprisoned. Journalists, academics, and activists critical of the government face intimidation, imprisonment, and media censorship. This has transformed Turkey into one of the most repressive regimes for journalists in recent history.

While Turkey lacks significant oil reserves like countries such as Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, it still needs to remain open to tourists, businesses, and investments from the West. As a result, the regime cannot fully suppress opposition parties and civil society, as they need to maintain the illusion of a competitive political landscape. However, in the end, the regime maintains control, ensuring that the house always wins.

Despite some semblance of political participation and limited space for opposition, Erdogan’s regime employs a wide range of tactics to consolidate power and undermine the principles of democracy, ultimately resulting in the erosion of civil liberties, media freedom, and the ability of opposition parties to challenge the ruling party effectively.

Islamist Populism, Securitization of the Opposition, Manipulation, and Fearmongering

Populism often seeks to create a divisive narrative that separates society into two distinct groups: “the morally righteous people” and “the corrupt elite” who allegedly deny the people their rightful sovereignty. This aspect is fundamental to Erdoganism, the ideology associated with President Erdogan. According to this ideology, “the corrupt elite” consists of the educated, Westernized, and secular segments of society, who are often referred to as “White Turks” and represent around 30-35 percent of the population. On the other hand, Erdoganists consider themselves as “Black Turks,” even though many elite members of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have lifestyles aligned with the “White Turkish” segment.

Given Turkey’s current challenges in competing with the West, both culturally and technologically, Islamists in Turkey harbor deep resentment towards the West, blaming it for the issues facing the Muslim world. To cope with this, they turn to a nostalgic yearning for the glory of the Ottoman Empire and project it as a Pan-Islamist vision, aspiring for a future Sunni caliphate under Turkey’s leadership. This narrative often involves the propagation of various anti-Western conspiracy theories. According to this view, Western powers and Jews are perceived as determined to impede Turkey’s rise to leadership in the Islamic world, using diverse instruments such as the Kurds, Alevis, Gulenists, secular Westernized Turks, academics, journalists, NGOs, and human rights defenders within the country.

During election campaigns, dissenters and opposition figures are frequently demonized and labelled as traitors, terrorists, internal enemies, non-Muslims, fake Muslims, hypocrites, deviants, or supporters of the LGBT community. Erdogan capitalizes on creating and perpetuating crises to instill fear among Sunni Turks and position himself and the AKP as the sole saviors capable of protecting the country and Islam.

By promoting this narrative and generating fear among his Sunni Turkish support base, Erdogan seeks to present himself and his party as the only reliable protectors of the nation and Islam. This approach helps to solidify his power and maintain a significant level of control, particularly through the marginalization and vilification of dissenting voices and opposition groups.

Economic Populism and Neo-Patrimonialism

Erdogan’s populist approach extends beyond politics and spills over into economic populism as well. Throughout his time in power, Erdogan has implemented various social welfare programs and policies aimed at assisting economically disadvantaged individuals. This strategy not only helps those in need but also cultivates loyalty among his supporters.

One way Erdogan maintains this loyalty is by providing neo-patrimonial public welfare, which can be seen as a form of “charitable patronage.” This involves the redistribution of public resources and the granting of preferential access to public jobs, healthcare, and housing. However, these benefits often come at the expense of marginalized ethnic, religious, and political groups who do not align with Erdogan’s agenda.

What sets Erdogan’s approach apart is his careful presentation of these benefits. He and his party have strategically framed them in a way that portrays the source of these benefits not as the state, taxpayers, or future generations burdened with loans, but rather as coming directly from the merciful and benevolent AKP and Erdogan himself. This messaging resonates particularly well with Erdogan’s Sunni Turkish pious support base.

Furthermore, thanks to the AKP’s extensive party machinery, they have a deep understanding of the demographics of each street and village. This knowledge enables them to target their assistance effectively and maintain a close connection with their supporters. As a result, even amidst economic crises, Erdogan’s supporters continue to appreciate him, while those from non-AKP backgrounds and educated middle classes often find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges.

This dynamic is evident even in regions devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes. Despite clear failures in addressing these crises, Erdogan and his party have not faced significant repercussions at the ballot box. This can be attributed to the continued support from his loyal base, who remain steadfast in their backing of Erdogan despite any shortcomings or failures.

Erdogan’s populist neo-patrimonial economic model extends to his approach to interest rates as well. Despite the prevailing orthodox wisdom in economics, Erdogan argues that lower interest rates will lead to a decrease in inflation. He also invokes Islamic principles, stating that interest is considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. Many people perceive his stance on interest as stemming solely from his Islamist beliefs. However, there is a patrimonial populist dimension to this approach.

Firstly, it is worth noting that many of Erdogan’s associates and close allies are involved in the construction sector. This sector plays a significant role in Turkey, as they continually build houses to accommodate the country’s growing population. By keeping interest rates low, Erdogan enables his cronies in the construction industry to sell houses, while simultaneously catering to the desires of his supporters, who mainly come from lower-income backgrounds and aspire to own homes.

This policy of maintaining low interest rates benefits his cronies in the construction sector by stimulating housing demand. Simultaneously, it weakens the overall economy and has adverse effects on the middle class. While this policy serves the interests of his supporters by allowing them to afford housing, it comes at the expense of the broader economy and harms the middle classes. As a result, the middle class, who are not necessarily Erdogan’s core supporters, experience a weakening of their economic standing. This indirect wealth transfer through state policies contributes to the erosion of the middle class, consequently weakening the opposition as well.

By implementing such economic policies, Erdogan is not only pursuing his own interests and those of his cronies but also undermining the strength of the middle classes, which poses a challenge to his opposition. Ultimately, this strategy helps consolidate his power by weakening potential sources of dissent and opposition.

Overall, Erdogan’s economic populism, combined with strategic messaging and a strong support base, allows him to maintain political control and keep his voters loyal, even in the face of challenging circumstances and criticism.

What Does Erdogan’s Winning Formula Mean for Turkey’s Future?

After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad using the methods described earlier.

His vindication and vindictiveness will work against the opposition, dissidents, and minority groups. Erdogan will continue to attack and suppress Kurds, Alevis, “White Turks,” Gulenists, and others. He will intensify his narratives about Western crusaders, Jewish lobby, and portray LGBT individuals as enemies of the Turkish people, labeling dissenters as traitors and terrorists.

Erdogan’s electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes will persist without restraint. He may establish new so-called “opposition” TV channels and newspapers or capture existing ones to create a loyal opposition media. Additionally, digital authoritarianism will increase, aiming to curtail the influence of social media.

Due to growing repression and the negative impact of his economic populism and neo-patrimonialism on the educated middle classes, many educated Turks and Kurds will choose to leave the country, resulting in a brain drain. “White Turks,” fearing a fate similar to that of Gulen Movement supporters, whose businesses, properties, and homes were seized by Erdogan regime and transferred to AKP supporters, will transfer their wealth to Western nations.

To compensate for the decreasing population numbers and simultaneously decrease the opposition’s vote share, Erdogan will increasingly grant citizenship to Sunni Arabs, Afghans, and Pakistanis, not only in Turkey but also in Western countries and even in their countries of origin. Leveraging his party machine, Islamist pro-AKP NGOs abroad, and a trusted network of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, these new citizens will be carefully selected.