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

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

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

By Teresa Calandri*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jake Moran*

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

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

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Melinda Nagy.

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

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

Click here to register!

Moderator

Celia Miray Yesil

Speaker

Dr Heidi Hart

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

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

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

Click here to register!

YouthSeminar4

ECPS Youth Seminars #4 —Populism versus European Values in the Digital Era: The Case of Romania

The decline of trust in the political institutions of liberal democracy and in traditional journalism (print, radio, television) has been fueled by populists and anti-liberal ideologies. The rise of digital populism has especially generated “a cultural chaos of fake news” that is tremendously damaging the democratic culture. Populist leaders accused conventional media of generating fake news or of “being fake news.” In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the people’s loss of trust in the media amplified as they became poorly financed, unprofessional, increasingly politicised, and partisan. Meanwhile, digital populists successfully convince these people of possible opportunities created by direct democracy thanks to the online environment. At this ECPS Youth Seminar Dr Antonio Momoc speaks on “Populism versus European Values in the Digital Era: The Case of Romania.”

Dr. Antonio Momoc is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Cultural Anthropology. He is also the Dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences at the University of Bucharest. Dr. Momoc teaches various aspects of communication and media, the new media theories and political communication, fashion, branding and politics, and electoral campaigns.

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

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP - a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

How has Hindutva populism blurred the line between caste and religion in Indian democracy?

Traditionally, caste and religion have been the two most prominent cleavages in India. Before 2014, upper-caste people used to identify strongly with the ideology of Hindu nationalism. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened during the same period, post-2014, and both received massive public support. It is no longer possible to separate populism from caste, religion, and democracy. Therefore, as Rahul Mukherji noted, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare.

By Saurabh Raj*

One of the historic grounds in the world’s largest democracy and the traditional host of the Jay Prakash (JP) movement[1]—Gandhi maidan, Patna (state capital of Bihar, India)—was full of saffron flags and caps during the 2019 parliamentary elections. A 23-year-old young man who was holding a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag and had a locket of the Hindu lord Krishna around his neck was shouting, “Modi-Modi-Modi & Jai Shri Ram.”[2] India’s prime minister and the most popular leader Narendra Modi was just about to come on stage. This young man looked impossibly excited to see Modi for the first time. The name of this young boy was Rakesh Yadav (his first name has been changed). Yadav belonged to the “Yadav caste”—socially and politically one of the most influential and historically disadvantaged[3] castes in Bihar. 

Being a Yadav and cheering for Modi tells a lot about the shift happening in the socio-political landscape in India: this caste used to be traditional voters for their caste group leader, like Lalu Yadav. Any political scientist would have been surprised to see that many youths like Rakesh Yadav from the Yadav caste would have shifted their political leaning towards Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). Like any curious and politically active citizen, I asked Rakesh Yadav, “Why are you here? I mean shouldn’t you be at Tejasvi Yadav’s (the son of Lalu Yadav) rally?” He bluntly told me, “Bhaiya jaat-paat bahut dekh liye, ab desh aur dharam dekhna hai”—I am done with caste politics and now it’s time to focus on my religion.

His prompt answer was a surprise: caste has always been an integral part of the Indian political system, and most of the voters used to prefer only voting for their caste leaders. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi’s populist Hindutva[4] nationalism changed the caste calculus in Bihar to some extent; religion has become a wider political plank. One could not imagine that a Yadav would vote against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Rashtriya Janta Dal. Also, if someone would vote, she/he couldn’t afford to be vocal about this before 2014. 

Narendra Modi’s populist style of leadership has changed the socio-political equations in the world’s largest democracy. The line of caste has been blurred, and “caste populism” has been taken over by “Hindu nationalist populism,” at least with respect to electoral behaviour. This is one of the biggest shifts in Indian democracy we have witnessed. Before 2014, especially in North Indian states, caste played a primary role in voting behaviour; this has changed (Verniers, 2022). This article attempts to understand this shift and its implications for democracy in India, specifically through the lens of populism. The first part will discuss layers of populism, giving examples from the caste system to understand Hindu populism. In the second part, I will discuss caste populism and my focus will be specifically on the Yadav community. The third part will explain the rise of Hindu populism and its implications for Indian democracy. I will end by looking at the contemporary impact on democracy of these two cleavages.

Indian Democracy and Populism

Caste and religion are the two most prominent cleavages in Indian democracy. There are six main religions, around 3000 castes, and more than 25,000 sub-castes in India (BBC News, 2019). These groups were united under the same roof post-independence, in 1947; democracy was described as “perhaps the only mechanism to hold India together” (Mehta, 2017). Nonetheless, these cleavages have often influenced Indian democracy. The question of the rights of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (the lowest and the historically disadvantaged groups) was settled right after independence: they were granted reservation as a constitutional right. But the concerns of historically disadvantaged classes/castes—also known as Other Backward Classes, or OBCs[5]—and religious minorities were left unaddressed, as their demands for reservation were unfulfilled. Due to such diverse pluralism and these unaddressed concerns, populism has played a crucial factor in maintaining the existing social frictions in Indian democracy. Political parties, caste leaders, and religious groups are used as tools to mobilize one group against another. 

After the 1970s, historically disadvantaged class leaders started mobilizing and demanding their rights, and Yogendra Yadav called this “the second democratic upsurge” (Yadav, 1996). During this period, democracy had taken social root, and many unheard communities started speaking out. Nonetheless, community leaders also made it a battle between the “forward caste vs historically disadvantaged castes.” The Hindu-Muslim fight had already been an integral part of democracy. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the element of “populism” from caste, religion, and democracy. According to Rahul Mukherji, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare (Mukherji, 2014). The author argues that post-independence policies cater to the electoral voter bank instead of promoting the equitable welfare of the masses.

Caste Populism and the Socio-political Rise of Yadav

The Mandal commission movement (a movement to demand reservation in government jobs for historically disadvantaged caste groups) was largely led by the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh (UP) & Bihar during the 1980s. Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav mobilized the historically disadvantaged classes (OBCs). After the successful implementation of the B.P. Mandal recommendations, (27 percent of central and state government jobs should be reserved for OBCs), the Yadav community suddenly emerged as a hero among the OBCs and lower caste people. In one of the largest states in India, Bihar, Yadav is the largest caste, with more than 14 percent of the population. 

Lalu Yadav founded Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) in 1997. RJD is an entirely Yadav caste-dominated political party, most prominent in Bihar. He mobilized Yadav, Muslims, and some other castes and formed a formidable equation to win elections.[6] He raised a popular slogan against upper caste people: “bhoora baal saaf karo” (Removing the Brown Hair)—a Hindi slogan referring to acting against upper castes[7]—to win elections. His populist rhetoric separated society into two separate groups: “the forward caste vs the historically disadvantaged caste.” His populist style of campaigning helped in the mobilization of the historically disadvantaged castes. He became the first OBC chief minister in Bihar, and the socio-political structure changed irrevocably. “When a caste captures the space in the political space as ‘samaj (society)’ is mobilized by a political party, rather than weakening the democratic process, it actually strengthens and deepens it” (Michelutti, 2020), and this is exactly what happened in Bihar. 

After becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar, Yadav gave special attention to the Yadav community and used democracy as a tool in their socio-economic uplift. The Yadav were given preference in government jobs. There used to be special wards for Yadavs in public hospitals, where they received free treatments. A caste that had been unheard of and unrepresented in Indian democracy since independence suddenly started ruling one of the largest states in India.

This would’ve been impossible without the Yadav’s electoral alliance with Muslims, forged during the 1990s. This was an important shift that changed the socio-political landscape of democracy in India. 

The political rise of Yadav also influenced other castes as well. Many lower castes started speaking out, and beliefs in Indian democracy deepened as the ‘elite capture’ of political spaces started disseminating and trickling down to the masses. Ram Vilas Paswan founded a Scheduled caste-dominated political party—Lok Janshakti Party—in 2002, and Nitish Kumar founded Janta Dal United—largely a Kurmi-based[8] party—in 2003. The power dynamics shifted from upper-caste people to historically disadvantaged castes.

Local people throwing flowers on Volunteers of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during march past in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018.

 

Hindu Nationalism and the New Caste Calculus

The Ram Temple movement[9] was a game-changer for India’s politics. This movement is partly responsible for the rise of both the BJP and Hindu nationalism. In a 1991 manifesto, the BJP promised to construct the Ram Temple to restore a symbolic righting of historical wrongs and to end the long and unhappy chapter of the supposed Muslim suppression of Hindus. Since the Ram Temple was highly sensitive, with a strong religious and emotional meaning, even non-BJP parties like the Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Bahujan Samajwadi Party, did not openly oppose the idea of constructing the temple on controversial land—even though many of those parties relied on Muslim electoral support (Rashid, 2021). Between 1989 to 1991, during the Ram Temple movement, the BJP saw the biggest jump in its vote share: it increased its stake 1.8 times, winning 20.1 percent of the vote nationally (Kishore, 2019). This made the BJP a national player in Indian politics and mainstreamed the sentiment of Hindu nationalism.

Nevertheless, despite its significant rise, the BJP was known as the party of Brahman and Bania (the upper and privileged caste groups of the Hindu community). Hindu nationalism was viewed as an upper-caste movement. The rise of Hindu nationalism and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened mostly in the last decade (Jaffrelot, 2002). During the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP successfully mobilized non-Yadav historically disadvantaged groups’ votes in their favour, all while running on the plank of Hindutva. Under the umbrella of Hindutva, Narendra Modi played the ‘politics of presence’ card to attract other castes, many of whom felt unrepresented during the wave of caste populism. According to KM Panikkar, “many social groups earlier unaware of this political change suddenly realized their strengths…that even they can also come to power” (Mehta, 2017).

The image of Modi as a chaiwala (tea seller) who could become the Prime Minister resonated with the lower strata of society; he was their voice as opposed to the elite Congress which was caught in several scams in 2014. Many ‘backward’ castes like Kurmi, Koeri, Kushwaha, etc. could not get a share in power in the state or central governments. BJP tapped this unfulfilled desire and mobilized these castes against Yadav in the UP. The Lokniti-CSDS survey data suggests that this new social engineering of Hindu nationalism has worked quite well. BJP bagged over 40 percent of the OBC votes in the 2019 parliamentary election (Banerjee, 2018). BJP mobilized these castes against Yadav and Muslims, specifically on the plank of Hinduism, and united a more extensive section of castes under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism. For instance, the BJP’s main promise in 2014 was employment and everyone’s social and economic development (“Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”). However, in 2019 the BJP’s main electoral agendas were aggressive nationalism (as there was high tension between India and Pakistan)[10], the construction of the Ram Temple, and the abrogation of article 370.[11] As per the study, Modi’s speeches focused on aggressive national security, and the vote share of the BJP increased by 4.6 percentage points in the home constituencies of soldiers killed in the India and Pakistan violence (Arya & Bhatiya, 2021). 

Hindus have rarely, if ever, been so united post-independence. This unity also influenced the Yadav community to some extent. Data from the Trivedi Political Centre, Ashoka University, suggests that the BJP-NDA alliance has more than 50 Yadav MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in their camp, which is around 23 percent of the total MLAs in the Bihar state assembly (Nissa, 2020). The major takeaway from this data is that Hindu nationalist populism has blurred the line of caste populism, and a large section of the population has started identifying more with religion than caste. I believe the Narendra Modi-led BJP understood the new aspirations of these social groups earlier than other opposition political parties. As many opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress, are seen as pro-Muslim parties, Modi establishes this narrative among the majority of Hindus in his electoral speeches (Rao, 2018). Therefore, they are able to form new social identities under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism.

New Power Dynamics and a Majoritarian Democracy

This new caste calculus has directly influenced the nature of Indian democracy, and I believe now all political parties want to dock with “the majoritarian horse” and mobilize Hindus against others. For instance, while all political parties used to appease Muslims for their votes, Muslims are now mostly ignored. This is also reflected in the Modi government’s policies like CAA-NRC[12], the abolition of article 370, etc. Recently, the Samajwadi Party leader and a very well know Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav said, “Lord Krishna comes in his dreams every night and tells that he will set up Ram Rajya (the rule of Lord Ram) in Uttar Pradesh” (Press Trust of India, 2022). By using the names of Lord Krishna and Ram together, even he is also trying to fuse Yadav and the entire Hindu community together for the coming UP state assembly election. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also started visiting temples across the country and claimed that he is a Kashmiri Brahmin (The Economic Times, 2018).

Changes in socio-political power relations and the expansion of democracy across the castes and communities have penetrated the Indian political imagination and have “begun to corrode the authority of the social order” (Khilnani, 1999). There should not be any debate in saying that democracy has changed the fate of many lower castes in India. Many unheard voices have been heard and shared in state power. But this current form of Hindutva nationalism’s populist politics has overshadowed other cleavages within Indian democracy like Muslims, Tribals, etc. Hindus have mobilized and have also started voicing their unheard historical pain[13] and grief against the imposition of “secular India” on them.

Nevertheless, what about those who have been left behind because of this democratic upsurge? What about the largest minority of the world’s largest democracy—a group currently living under fear and threat? If democracy is perhaps the only tool to hold India together, then why is it failing to provide a safe environment to other minorities like Muslims, Tribals, and women? I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure whether there is a need for another democratic upsurge or not, but I firmly believe that the solution lies in democracy itself. As in the words of PB Mehta, “When we praise or blame democracy, we are often like the person looking for his lost key under the lamp post—not because he has lost it there, but because it is bright there.”

 


(*) Saurabh Raj is a student of M.A. in Public Policy & Governance at Azim Premji University, India. He was also a participant in ECPS Civic Leadership Program, in 2021. His area of interest is party politics, far-right populism, and electoral & democratic reforms. He has also work experience in political and democratic reforms for more than five years.


 

References 

— (2018). “’My gotra is Dattatreya, I am a Kashmiri Brahmin’: Rahul Gandhi in Pushkar.” The Economic Times.November 27, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rahul-gandhis-gotra-is-dattatreya-he-is-kashmiri-brahmin-priest/articleshow/66820708.cms?from=mdr (accessed on October 6, 2022).

— (2019). “What is India’s caste system?” BBC News. June 19, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Arya, Y. & Bhatiya, A. Y. (2021). “The Salience of Political Messages: Evidence from Soldier Deaths in India.” SSRN Electronic Journalhttps://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3955198

Banerjee, A. (2018). “BJP goes all out for 41% OBC votes in 2019.” India Today. June 19, 2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-goes-all-out-for-41-obc-votes-in-2019-1263850-2018-06-19 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Desk, O. W. (2022). “Hindutva: The Growth of Violent Hindu Nationalism.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/hindutva-the-growth-of-violent-hindu-nationalism/217969 (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Jaffrelot, C. (2002). India’s Silent Revolution (ed.). Columbia University Press.

Khilnani, S. (1999). The Idea of India (1st Ppbk Ed, 1999 ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kishore, R. (2019). “How the temple movement helped BJP.” Hindustan Times. November 15, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-temple-movement-helped-bjp/story-VXQd0EgOAwvY4RStFndbVN.html (accessed on October 12, 2022).

Mehta, P. B. (2017). Burden Of Democracy. India Penguin.

Michelutti, L. (2020). The Vernacularisation of Democracy. Taylor & Francis.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, R. C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Mukherji, R. (2014). Political Economy of Reforms in India: Oxford India Short Introductions (Oxford India Short Introductions Series) (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Nissa, B. A. V. G. U. (2020). “What does the caste profile of MLAs in Bihar tell us about politics?” Hindustan Times.November 16, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/bihar-election/what-does-caste-profile-of-mlas-in-bihar-tell-us-about-politics/story-OgMg2zkzFAWwdP9qQs2klK.html (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Rao, P. V., Jr. (2018). “How BJP & Congress play politics over Muslims.” The Asian Age. July 17, 2018. https://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/170718/how-bjp-congress-play-politics-over-muslims.html (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Verniers, G. (2022). “Role Of Caste in Elections.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/role-of-caste-in-elections/295807 (accessed on October 6, 2022)

Yadav, L. P. (2019). Gopalganj to Raisina Road (Hindi Edition). Rupa Publications India.

Yadav, Y. (1996). “Reconfiguration in Indian Politics-State Assembly Elections, 1993-95.” In: Economic and Political Weekly: Vol. Vol. 31 (Issue Issue No. 2-3). 


Footnotes

[1] The JP (Jay Prakash) movement was against Emergency and the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government in 1975-77. It was the first nation-wide movement against the Indian National Congress post-independence.

[2] Lord Sri Ram is a mythological Hindu God, and the slogan “Jay Shri Ram” has become a war cry of the BJP against Muslims.

[3] I will be using “historically disadvantaged groups” to refer to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in this piece- 

[4] A modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation (Outlook India, 2022). 

[5] The Indian Constitution categorizes three classes in India – Forward/Upper caste, Other Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste and Tribes

[6] Electoral alliances between Muslims (17%) and Yadav (14%).

[7] BhooRa Baal represents four upper castes of Bihar – Bhumihar (Bhoo), Rajput(Ra), Brahman(Baa), and Lala(L).

[8] Kurmi is also one of the influteinal castes in Bihar after Yadav and they also belong to the historically disadvantaged class

[9] Ram is Hindu mythological god and Hindus believe that Ayoydhya was his birthplace, where Babri Mosque was built. Hindutva supporters demolished Babri Mosque in 1992. The case about Ram Temple eventually went to the Supreme Court of India. Recently, Hindus won the case, and the Ram Temple construction got a green light to proceed.

[10] A terrorist attack on an army convoy in Pulwama (Kashmir) in 2019 just a few months before the parliamentary elections of 2019. In response, the Modi government launched counter airstrikes in Balakot (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). 

[11] The 1954 presidential order constituted a founding legal document for Jammu and Kashmir (as it was a disputed land between India and Pakistan at that moment); Article 370 and 35A protected the exclusive law—such as the bar on outsiders buying property and women marrying non-Kashmiris losing their property rights—of the State. The Modi Government revoked this in 2019.

[12]  CAA stands for Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) that was passed in Parliament on December 11, 2019. The Modi government amended the Citizenship law to grant citizenship to religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but not Muslims (Press Information Bureau, 2019).

[13] The narrative of the politics of Muslims’ appeasement. BJP claims that Congress was/is a pro-Muslim party. Hence, Hindus’ concerns were ignored by the Congress governments in the name of secularism. 

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

The anatomy of the Italian vote

In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period”, will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. “Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

By Luca Mancin

A Brief Summary of September 25

“From the Italians, a clear indication came in these general elections for a centre-right government led by Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)”  Giorgia Meloni said in the early morning of the 26th of September, as exit polls presented a first image of the Italian vote. “Now it is time for responsibility,” she added. In the face of criticism and doubts resounding in foreign media, Meloni aimed to reassure both national and international audiences that she will govern in the name of all Italians.

The percentual distribution of vote (Source: SKY TG24).
The flux of votes between the 2018 and 2022 elections (Source: YouTrend).

The winning coalition – consisting of Fratelli d’Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reached a majority of 235 MPs thanks to their combined 43.79 percent of the vote. While Italian media has described this coalition as “centre-right”, the foreign press categorises their movement as being dominantly populist radical right,  with only Berlusconi holding moderate and pro-European positions relative to his coalition partners.

While Meloni’s triumph was largely predicted, the level of electoral success (25.99 percent) came as a surprise in comparison to the party’s 2018 score (4.35 percent). Fratelli d’Italia managed to monopolize its role as the dominant opposition party to Mario Draghi’s grand coalition government in the last year and a half. After all, in a government of national unity composed of leftist, centrist and rightist parties, it is quite easy to bring out the political ambivalences and hypocrisies of both opponents and allies. Berlusconi’s party reached an unexpected 8.11 percent, despite polls preceding the vote predicting it to be around 5%. Matteo Salvini failed to reach previous successes as the Lega achieved 8.77 percent of the vote. This result represents a loss of almost 10 points from the 2018 domestic elections and 26 from the 2019 European vote. This dissatisfaction with Salvini’s leadership started growing within the Lega’s electorate, following his decision to join Draghi’s government in February 2021. 

The geographical distribution of votes (Source: YouTrend).

The Five Stars Movement, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, did better than expected compared to opinion polls prior to the election. This surprising result of 15.43 percent was achieved through its strong showing in the south of Italy. The greatest losses came at the expense of the centre-left alliance led by Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD). Independently, the party garnered 19.07 percent of the vote, however it lacked support from its junior partners, who only contributed an additional 7.06 percent to the alliance. Rounding out the Parliament is the so-called “third pole”, the centrist alliance between Carlo Calenda’s Azione and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (7.79 percent), who collectively gained 21 seats.

Distribution of seats in the Lower house (Source: YouTrend).
Distribution of seats in the Higher house (Source: YouTrend).

Background to the Vote

Since the last time Italians voted, the 4th of March 2018, three governments have gone by – two of which were led by Giuseppe Conte (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega (2018), M5S and Democratic Party (2019)) and one by Mario Draghi. In July of this year, M5S, Lega, and Forza Italia withdrew their confidence in the executive, causing a crisis which resulted in the collapse of the Draghi government. 

Draghi’s resignation on the 21st of July, dissolved the grand national unity coalition which featured internal divisions, constant struggles, and a sense of perennial electoral campaigns. The subsequent election occurred in the shadow of the Ukrainian war, a burgeoning energy crisis, management of the Next Generation EU funds, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were further complicated by the reduced number of MPs following the 2020 constitutional referendum and the upcoming deadline for the 2023 economic and financial plan (DEF). 

However, what kind of campaign has it been?

Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, listens during a debate at the Senate in Rome, Italy on June 21, 2022. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

A Short, Summer Campaign

In a nutshell, the campaign has followed an inconsistent pace: vacuous during August and frenetic in September. The opinion polls favouring the populist radical right rendered opposing citizens and parties demoralized to compete effectively with Meloni’s rising popularity. In particular, the centre-left seemed resigned to a defeat, content to “lose with style,” as Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati stated in an op-ed in “Domani”.

While there has not been a strong central theme throughout the electoral campaign, as reddito di cittadinanza was in 2018, some notable themes can still be identified. These include the energy crisis, the populist radical right’s “flat tax” and fiscal relief, the polarization between populist radical right and Democratic Party on the necessity of Atlanticism and Europeanism, and the management of the Next Generation EU funds.

The energy crisis and its economic consequences on all levels of Italian society served as one of the main battlegrounds for the electoral campaign. While all parties agreed on a necessary price cap on oil and gas, marked differences emerged on alternative sources of energy. While the right-wing coalition pushed for nuclear energy, Calenda’s Azione stood for regasification plants, and the left-wing groups advocated for renewable energy sources. Additionally, no consensus was found concerning national debt and financial support for citizens struggling the most with inflation.

Second, the relationship between the frontrunning right-wing parties and Putin was brought into question. This was combined with debates on Italy’s stance to continue economic sanctions on Russia. However, every party attempted to present itself as pro-Europe and pro-NATO, even Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega, historically more sceptic and critical of Europe. The political debate was exacerbated by US leaks regarding Russia’s funding of European parties. This brought about a tumultuous climate of mutual accusations regarding who received Russian funds and who did not. Particularly scandalous were Berlusconi’s words justifying Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Finally, the campaign picked up where Draghi’s government left off: the distribution of the Next Generation EU (NGEU) funds in the National Plan of Recovery and Resilience (PNRR). Meloni strengthened her political aura and authority over the right-wing coalition by repeatedly stating her intention to go to Brussels and “renegotiate” the NGEU details, despite this being neither legally nor politically feasible.  Her populist approach failed to mention the European Green Deal, in spite of sustainability’s significance in the NGEU fund. Across the political axis, environmental concerns were lacking, and only considered by Sinistra Italiana-Verdi and some minor left-wing parties. Meanwhile, PD and M5S’ programmes were largely environmentalist in name only and could even be categorised as greenwashing. Geopolitically speaking, instead, major problems were the migration flow from Libya and the absence of any agreements with the African country and within the EU’s member states (cf. Dublin Regulation III).

In terms of the approach to campaigning, there was a significant push to mobilise the youth vote. Parties turned en-masse to social media networks to create numerous, and often blatant, posts targeting this electorate. Most notably, political leaders across the spectrum used TikTok to post surreal, if not ridiculous, videos in an attempt to achieve virality. For instance, Salvini used to do long live streams on this social, chatting with users and allowing them to apply a variety of filters during his chats.

Giorgia Meloni’s Heavy Post-Fascist Burden

Since the morning of the 26th of September, the front pages of Italian and particularly foreign newspapers presented Meloni’s win as a revival of fascism. Although Giorgia Meloni is likely to become the first female Prime Minister in Italian history, media attention has focused instead on her victory being a symptom of democratic decay in Italy.

Fratelli d’Italia’s relationship to fascism is clear and undeniable. Starting with the tricolour flame as the party’s symbol – this imagery is derived from the Italian Social Movement party, a political successor to the fascist Salò Social Republic. Throughout the party’s history, there has always been a respect for Benito Mussolini. Whether it be the words of a 19-years old Giorgia Meloni on the political skills of the dictator, or Gianfranco Fini’s (one of the founders of Fratelli d’Italia) statement that Mussolini was the greatest statist of the 20th century. Although the party leaders have been openly against any fascist recalls, it is clear that Fratelli d’Italia’s roots drawn from such symbolic and historical imagery.

“Fascism” is not the only peculiarity of this party, which needs further analysis. Fratelli d’Italia’s nature as a populist radical right party (according to Cas Mudde’s definition presented in the book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe) requires thorough exploration and deeper analysis. Indeed, Meloni’s strategies and communications reflect the dimensions of (1) populism, (2) nativism, and (3) authoritarianism. Opponents generally use the fascist element to denigrate Fratelli d’Italia, but risk overlooking and obscuring its more complex articulations. 

According to Bologna University’s professor Salvatore Vassallo, Fratelli d’Italia has a revisionist view of the twenty years of fascist dictatorship in Italy, but leaders of the party have more than once declared the absolute condemnation and distance themselves from such a phenomenon. I would consider the role of fascism in the ideology of Fratelli d’Italia as the “theoretical premise” that influences the authoritarian dimensions of the populist radical right under the banner of authoritarian “law and order” and nativist aspects conjugated in the form of secure national borders or economic protectionism. It means that we should not expect a “fascist backlash” but, rather, an exacerbation or a polarisation of those themes that feature populist radical right’s political programmes – where the fascist rhetoric would be used, if used, by supporters of Fratelli d’Italia and not by its leaders. Considering this, it remains convenient for leftist parties and media to label and condemn Meloni’s triumph as the win of fascism, thanks to her populist and demagogue rhetoric. 

What is missing in such media and political analyses is consideration of the causes behind this electoral result. If Meloni reached the 26% of the vote and won in constituencies that have voted for leftist parties since the birth of the Italian Republic, her triumph probably is a consequence of a democratic malaise, not a cause. Furthermore, I argue that defeated parties and columnists should confront the reasons behind the highest record of abstentionism in Republican history, which reached 64 percent.

Geographical distribution of turnout (Source: YouTrend).

The lethargic politics of Draghi’s government may offer insight to the sharp rise of the extreme right; the centrist decision-making, technocratic disengagement, and the opaque management of the Next Generation EU’s tasks prevented necessary political debate between the left and right. As Chantal Mouffe lucidly explains in her The Democratic Paradox, this tendency to operate on a “radical centre” anesthetises the political environment and indirectly favours and nourishes extremisms – be they of left or right.

What Now?

If Meloni succeeds in receiving the primary responsibility from the national president Sergio Mattarella to form a government, the new executive will be staunchly conservative. We can expect attacks on civil rights in the fields of abortion, euthanasia, gay adoption, racial and homophobic discrimination, as well as stricter immigration policy. After all, Fratelli d’Italia’s slogan states “God, Family, and Homeland”.  

However, the absence of new laws does not mean eliminating the old ones. The Italian Constitution boasts robust checks and balances to constrain executive power. Consequently, the populist radical right majority cannot bypass these controls without holding regular referenda. Additionally, in such a geopolitical and historical context, it is hard to imagine a decline of Italian democracy towards a “Polish” or “Hungarian” model – even if a worried Ursula von der Leyden  has warned about the EU’s dissuading tools. 

Last but certainly not least, we should expect some theatrical shows of strength at the EU’s expense to impress domestic supporters. For instance, Meloni is already pushing for revisions of the PNRR’s expense details in line with current inflation rates. Similarly, we can expect attempts to pressure the EU to adopt new internal regulation on migration flows through operations like naval blockades targeting NGO’s transporting migrants. Finally, on the economic front, neoliberal measures for tax relief, like the controversial “flat tax”, will be difficult to approve due to constitutional issues and a lack of funds. 

The most pressing deadline facing the incoming government is the submission of the 2023 economic and financial planning document (DEF) to Brussels. Given the short time frame, it is likely that Draghi’s outgoing government will work with the new executive to draft the DEF. In light of Italy’s historical national debt problems, Meloni’s first objective will be to reassure the international markets of her moderate profile through a “Europeanism of convenience.”

Finally, it is essential to remember that, since 1948, Italy has had 67 governments, lasting, on average, 414 days. In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period,” will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. 

“Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

Supporters with Brothers of Italy flags during the electoral tour of the party's leader Giorgia Meloni in Caserta, Italy on September 18, 2022. Photo: M. Cantile.

Think that populism had peaked? Think again

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. 

Jake Moran*

Just over a year ago, I submitted my dissertation on the role of English populism in the Brexit referendum result. Fast-forward to today, I am living in Stockholm, Sweden, where the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats recently emerged as the de facto victor in an election which ousted the centre-left bloc from Sweden’s government. The parallel between the subject of my dissertation and the election result here is obvious: a growing electorate dissatisfied with high levels of immigration at a time when cosmopolitan liberalism and globalisation are viewed as marginalising forces in traditional communities.

But what separates this continuing upward trend in populism across Europe – evidenced further by the recent victory of the far-right Brothers of Italy – from the populist forces that sprung during the 2010s, is that the implementation of Brexit, the defeats of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and the paralysing effect of Covid, all contributed to a sense that the 2016 fever of populism had been contained. 

Wrong.

Far from being contained, it has in fact quietly grown in many of the places where right-wing populism was thought to be defeated. While Marine Le Pen was again defeated in the French Presidential election, her populist party gained nearly 10% on the previous presidential election, and her ability to maintain enough support to reach the second ballot is a clear sign that populism in Europe is here to stay. The explanation for this is simple: the issues that began the populist revolt of 2014-16 have not simply gone away as a result of Donald Trump being deposed or Brexit being ‘done.’ They remain largely unsolved, and I predict, will grow to become even more significant issues.

Matthew Goodwin, author of several books on the rise of populism in Europe and the UK – many of which I cited in my own dissertation on populism – recently argued that the scale of the challenges facing European democracies today, will dwarf those that sparked the populist revolt of 2014-16. In an interview with Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, Goodwin predicts that the gap created by the ineffective response of traditional conservatives to the economic and sociocultural crisis of today will spark a right-wing populist backlash greater than in the 2010s. 

From my own research, I agree. As I remarked earlier in this article, the issues created by migration and globalisation have not disappeared in the last few years and will grow in salience as the economic conditions of ordinary voters and the migration crisis worsens. In fact, the view in Britain that Brexit ‘solved’ immigration as an issue of salience for voters is deeply complacent given the persistence of migration across The Channel, the liberalisation of immigration rules from outside the EU by the Johnson government, and the probable impending rise in migration as a direct result of the climate crisis. Immigration has not gone away as an issue and will continue to grow, despite Brexit appearing to have ‘taken back control.’

Another significant finding from my research was that Brexit was fuelled by a populism which tapped into an electorate of discontented ‘losers’ – voters disaffected by the marginalising economic and sociocultural impacts of globalisation who are more likely to align with exclusive political identities such as Englishness. This phenomenon is hugely influenced by inequality, economic insecurity and poor social mobility, all of which are likely to become disastrously more extreme in the months and years ahead due to cost-of-living crisis. In Britain particularly, average mortgage rates have ballooned to 6 per cent as a result of the Truss government’s mini budget, which sent the pound falling and interest rates rising. This is likely to result in a cascade of impoverished households and record inequality over the winter.

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, I estimate that rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. The mainstream of politics has to find radical new solutions to the problems caused by the present crisis, especially on the left which has the most to lose from the growth of populism. Failure to do so will give the populists of Europe a route straight to power.


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

ECPSYouthSeminar3

ECPS Youth Seminars #3 —The Others of Europe: Migrants, Refugees, Minorities and LGBTQ+ on the Eyes of Right-Wing Populists

At this ECPS Youth Seminar, Dr Koen Slootmaeckers speaks on “The others of Europe: The migrants, refugees, minorities and LGBTQ+ on the eyes of right-wing populists” and beyond. 

Dr Koen Slootmaeckers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of International Politics at City University of London. He has a multidisciplinary background and combines insights from sociology and political science into his work. His research focusses on gender and sexuality politics in Europe and is particularly interested in analysing hierarchies within the international system. More specifically, Koen has studied the EU accession of Serbia and how this process affects LGBT politics and activism. And his more recent project is interested in the transnational politics of LGBT Pride Parades. His work has been widely published, including a (co-)edited volume ‘EU Enlargement and Gay Politics’ (Palgrave 2016; with Heleen Touquet and Peter Vermeersch), and articles in, amongst others, East European Politics, Politics, Contemporary South-eastern Europe, Journal of Homosexuality, and Europe-Asia Studies. 

Moderator Celia Miray Yesil is a master’s student of International Political Economy at the Warwick University. She gained her undergraduate degree in European Politics at King’s College London, studying the historical background of European nations and its relationships with the rest of the world. Miray is considering focussing more on the impact of far-right populism in foreign policy, particularly looking at the political language and communication of populist leaders in the international political economy. 

Photo: Shutterstock / GagoDesign

ECPS Youth Seminars — Populism versus European Values in the Digital Era: The Case of Romania

Date/Time: Thursday, October 6, 2022 / 18:00 (CEST)

Click here to register!

Moderator

Celia Miray Yesil

Speaker

Dr. Antonio Momoc

The decline of trust in the political institutions of liberal democracy and in traditional journalism (print, radio, television) has been fueled by populists and anti-liberal ideologies. The rise of digital populism has especially generated “a cultural chaos of fake news” that is tremendously damaging the democratic culture. Populist leaders accused conventional media of generating fake news or of “being fake news.” In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the people’s loss of trust in the media amplified as they became poorly financed, unprofessional, increasingly politicized, and partisan.

Meanwhile, digital populists successfully convince these people of possible opportunities created by direct democracy thanks to the online environment. The populist actors argue that the people do not need the institutions of mediation (traditional media, journalists) and representativity (elites, political parties, parliament) anymore, thanks to the fact that they now have the internet, social media, and new technologies.

Dr. Antonio Momoc is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Cultural Anthropology. He is also the Dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences at the University of Bucharest. Dr. Momoc teaches various aspects of communication and media, the new media theories and political communication, fashion, branding and politics, and electoral campaigns.

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

Click here to register!

For right-wing populists in western world, ‘the others’ include immigrants first and foremost, but can also comprise ‘welfare scroungers’, regional minorities, those with ‘non-traditional’ lifestyles, communists, and so on.

ECPS Youth Seminars — The Others of Europe: Migrants, Refugees, Minorities and LGBTQ+ on the Eyes of Right-Wing Populists

Date/Time: Tuesday, June 21, 2022 / 18:00 (CET)

Click here to register!

Moderator

Celia Miray Yesil

Speaker

Dr Koen Slootmaeckers

At this ECPS Youth Seminar, Dr Koen Slootmaeckers is going to speak on “The others of Europe: The migrants, refugees, minorities and LGBTQ+ on the eyes of right-wing populists” and beyond. 

Dr Koen Slootmaeckers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of International Politics at City University of London. He has a multidisciplinary background and combines insights from sociology and political science into his work. His research focusses on gender and sexuality politics in Europe and is particularly interested in analysing hierarchies within the international system. More specifically, Koen has studied the EU accession of Serbia and how this process affects LGBT politics and activism. And his more recent project is interested in the transnational politics of LGBT Pride Parades. His work has been widely published, including a (co-)edited volume ‘EU Enlargement and Gay Politics’ (Palgrave 2016; with Heleen Touquet and Peter Vermeersch), and articles in, amongst others, East European Politics, Politics, Contemporary South-eastern Europe, Journal of Homosexuality, and Europe-Asia Studies. 

Moderator Celia Miray Yesil is a master’s student of International Political Economy at the Warwick University. She gained her undergraduate degree in European Politics at King’s College London, studying the historical background of European nations and its relationships with the rest of the world. Miray is considering focussing more on the impact of far-right populism in foreign policy, particularly looking at the political language and communication of populist leaders in the international political economy. 

Click here to register!