The refugees migrate to Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.

Climate, conflict, and migration: Europe’s next frontier of populism

The far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitisation of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far right could become even more potent in Europe. To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, a number of policy changes must be made immediately.

By Jake Moran*

It is not so long ago that we began to witness the reincarnations of far-right, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe. UKIP and the BNP in Britain, Front Nationale in France, Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats drawn support from across the political spectrum and became electorally successful. Their alarming tone about rising levels of inward migration seemed to appeal to voters. The political successes in the Italian and Swedish elections this year are particularly poignant because they demonstrate that, seven years after the peak of the refugee crisis, refugees in Europe remains a significant issue for voters. 

This article extends the discussion of my previous piece on climate related migration and the rise of the populist far right. Here I will discuss how the climate crisis could displace vulnerable populations and force them to migrate to Europe. I argue here that the success of far-right, anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe today serves as a blueprint for what could occur in the next 50 years as climate-related migration potentially increases. After a short literature review, I will discuss how this could produce Europe’s next frontier of populism. I will end with policy recommendations aiming to prevent this dual catastrophe of humanitarian disaster and political crisis facing the continent.

Refugees and Far-Right Populism: A Brief Literature Review

The 2015 refugee crisis, which spurred a wave of far-right populist victories across Europe (Tomberg et al., 2021; Zimmermann, 2016; Vadlamannati et al., 2020), continues today. Many studies have examined how economic migration propelled populist reactions, but only a few have examined populist reaction to refugees specifically (Tomberg et al., 2020; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). This literature can guide our enquiry to establish whether rising refugee numbers can be linked to the growth in far-right populism, and therefore whether refugee populations displaced by climate change will increasingly incur far-right populism.

The literature broadly establishes a link between increased refugee intake and support for the far-right by examining data in specific countries at a macro level (see Dustmann et al., 2019; Dinas et al., 2019; Hangartner et al., 2019; Torres, 2022). For example, a study found a 1.2 percent point increase in the vote share for the far-right for every 1 percent increase in asylum seekers accepted by Germany. Crucially, they find that support for the far right grows in relation to refugee numbers despite high levels of employment nationally, signalling that their relationship is independent of economic factors (Tomberg et al., 2022). 

Scholars highlight the link between the increase in refugee numbers and far-right support in 27 industrial democracies between 1990-2014 (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Accordingly, the concomitant rise in the numbers of refugees and far-right populism is dependent on ‘welfare chauvinism’ — the concern that refugees settling in a country of high welfare payments will receive a greater share of national resources than they are entitled to–. The concern about refugees getting paid by welfare state without proper work fuels a sense of grievance against the refugee population (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

Overall, there is a consensus in the literature that growing numbers of refugees accepted by a host country incur greater support for far-right populist parties. While the economic conditions of host countries do not appear to impact this trend (Tomberg et al., 2022), countries with large welfare states funded by high taxes form a key variable in inflating the popular grievance against refugees (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

On the other hand, the research highlighting the economic contributions of refugees to their adapted country can be read as a response aiming to lessen the social impact of potential far-right responses on the lives of refugees both in the countries of study and where the research is published (Betts et al., 2017). However, there is more to be done. Considering these discussions, we can argue that a surge in refugees displaced by climate change would incur a growth of support for far-right populist parties in Europe. 

Securitization of Refugees and the Discourse of Threat

Social conflict in response to climate refugees can emerge in many forms. The far-right could launch a populist backlash using disinformation campaigns that promote harmful and false narratives about refugees inflating concern to their electoral advantage (ISD, 2021). The more likely route for populists launching this backlash is the ‘securitization’ of refugees as a threat requiring an urgent political response.  

Securitization refers to the transformation of an issue into a threat against the collective from beyond normal or ordinary parameters of governance (Elander et al., 2022). ‘Securitizing’ an issue allows policy makers and other actors to issue emergency responses or employ extreme framing outside of policy norms to deal with such ‘threats’ (Elander et al., 2022). In the context of refugees, securitization has the potential to transform discourse around asylum seekers from that of a humanitarian issue into a discourse about a security ‘threat’ which society needs urgent protection from.

One particularly relevant example of the securitization of refugees in recent years can be found in how Sweden handled the 2015 refugee crisis. Sweden has one of the most generous welfare states in Europe. When the crisis began in 2014, the Swedish people were told to ‘open [their] hearts’ to refugees fleeing Syria and other countries afflicted by war (Elander et al., 2022). Yet in 2015, only a year later, this invitation was revoked, and refugee access was restricted following widespread concern that the enormous burden of integrating refugees was overwhelming Sweden’s welfare system (Elander et al., 2022). 

The above-mentioned dramatic U-turn in government policy clearly demonstrated how the issue of refugees can be rapidly framed as a threat thus, securitized. This change in the attitude and policy about migration illustrates how a welfare state that was known to be an inclusive society can change by seeking ways to limit the migration. Eventually, we witnessed a great success of the populist anti-migration Sweden Democrats in the elections of September 2022 to be second biggest party in Swedish politics and to have great influence over the conservative coalition government, despite it did not take part in the coalition. 

The rise of the Sweden Democrats (SD) was at the heart of the changes in policies and electoral preferences. The opposition to the then government’s ‘open hearts’ policy increased the electoral support for the SD. The Sweden Democrats launched their populist appeal by framing the large inbound refugee population as a threat. This framing resulted in cultural and ethnic differences and the Islamic faith perceived in a negative light. Moreover, the concerns around terrorism and crime were consequently attached to the refugee population (Elander et al., 2022). 

Presenting refugees as a threat to the Swedish people, the Sweden Democrats have made a meteoric rise. Unfortunately, SD is not the only party using securitization to gain political power. All far-right populist parties garnered electoral success through securitizing refugees in recent years in other parts of Europe (Tomberg et al., 2020).

The case of Sweden lends weight to the findings of the literature and precisely demonstrates the argument this article is making. Without sufficient management of refugee populations across Europe, most of the burden will be placed on a small number of countries. The literature finds that far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitization of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far-right could become even more potent in Europe. Refugees from the MENA region are at particular risk of being securitized by far-right populist forces by the ‘othering’ of their ethnic and religious characteristics (Telford, 2018). This is due to underlying assumptions about these groups relating to terrorism and cultural differences from European societies (Telford, 2018). 

Policy Recommendations: Prevention, Management, and Improvement

To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, several policy changes must be made immediately. I divide these recommendations into prevention, management, and improvement. We need to prevent displacement in the first instance. Failing this, we need mechanisms of protection for the vulnerable populations fleeing from their countries through policies to effectively manage refugee lives. Reducing economic inequality in ‘host’ countries is crucial to prevent populist forces gaining footholds to secure electoral gains. In other words, supporting the climate and refugees acts as a stress test on democracy in Europe.

Preventing displacement of these populations from their homelands should be our starting point. The obvious motive for doing so is that nobody becomes a refugee by choice. All refugees would rather keep their homes, their lives, their communities, and their futures, before dispensing with them out of fear. Protecting people from displacement is not simply a political priority for European democracies, but an essential humanitarian objective which we must all prioritize. However, such a global preventive step requires collaboration of international community. 

We see examples of global governance on climate and refugee crisis; however, they are not sufficiently effective. In line with the recommendations of the UNHCR, overseas aid and climate change relief funds should be targeted at the most vulnerable countries (UNHCR, 2021). This includes meeting the commitment to provide $100 billion annually to support mitigation measures, with at least 50 percent funneled towards adaptation strategies (UNHCR, 2021). For example, building dams in Pakistan, which was recently afflicted by enormous flooding, or building irrigation infrastructure in Syria to adapt their agricultural communities to drought, could prevent massive displacements of people in the future.

However, notwithstanding the efforts we apply to this objective, the reality is that climate change is already displacing populations, and will continue to do so (UNHCR, 2021). To avoid dangerous unregulated refugee migration, an appropriate framework of management must be developed between states and at an EU level. In this new age of the climate crisis, the EU has an important and historical role in developing preventive measures and better policies in global context. 

We need to work on the international governance of refugees at state and interstate level as well as regarding theoretical and policy aspects, to meet the challenge of managing the potential increase in the future climate refugee flows. To achieve this objective, we need a transformative and radical overhaul of international law. 

To develop effective international regulations, we must firstly address the central legal problem facing climate refugees: that the current UN Refugee Convention does not provide legal rights for people displaced by climate change (Acras, 2012). Thus far, the issue of governing climate refugees has been addressed with the creation of a Taskforce for Displacement (TFC) alongside the Paris Climate Agreement 2015 (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). Yet, there is debate about its powers and jurisdiction in relation to other UN agencies, and whether it is endorsed by the EU (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). 

Another aspect of such global governance might include working on the distribution of refugee flows more equitably to ensure that European countries (such as Greece, Italy, Germany, and Sweden) are less likely to become overwhelmed. Equitable management of refugee distribution would seek to minimize any populist backlash by reducing the risk of national resources being over exhausted. As the literature shows, this imperative is even greater in high welfare economies where the securitization of refugees is more likely.

Finally, there is significant evidence that economic inequality caused by globalization provides fertile electoral ground for the populist far-right. They exploit ‘touchstone issues’ like asylum and migration to pray on anxieties felt by the ‘left behind’ and ‘losers’ of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2012; Ford & Goodwin, 2014; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Therefore, a strong recommendation for policy makers seeking to insure their democracies against populist gain, would be to improvethe economic conditions of voters. Pursuing redistributive tax policies and shielding industries from the negative effects of globalization would reduce the economic grievances felt by voters. Doing so would decrease the susceptibility of disaffected voters to populist forces relying on the securitization of refugees to expand their reach (Tomberg et al., 2021).

If followed, these policy recommendations have potential to minimize the suffering of refugee populations and protect European democracies from a new frontier of populism by passing its stress test on global governance of climate crisis.

Conclusions

The purpose of this essay has not been to throw refugees under the proverbial bus to avoid a pile up of populism further down the road. Rather, I have tried to highlight the impending risk of a dual catastrophe between humanitarian disaster and a new frontier of populism in Europe.

I accept that my predictions rely on certain assumptions about how individuals, states, and the international community respond to climate change. However, my analysis finds a strong, evidence-based link between climate change, migration, and support for the populist far-right. I further argued that this trend will outgrow the populist surge of 2015 onwards, as climate related migration to Europe will only rise with global temperatures (Moran, 2022).

Action to address the combined challenges I have raised in this article should begin immediately, with a level of response akin to what we have witness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the international community is aware of this tide approaching, but remains nowhere near the vicissitude of reaction necessary to impede its hastening approach.


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


References

— (2021). The networks and narratives of anti-refugee disinformation in Europe.  Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/The-networks-and-narratives-of-anti-migrant-discourse-in-Europe.pdf

— (2021). Key Messages and Calls to Action. UNHCR. [Leaflet]. Glasgow.

Acras, R.L-A. (2012). “Climate Migrants: Legal Options.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 37, pp. 86-96

Betts, A.; Bloom, L.; Kaplan, J. D. & Omata, N. (2017). Refugee economies: Forced displacement and development. Oxford University Press.

Dinas, Elias; Matakos, Konstantinos; Xefteris, Dimitrios & Hangartner, Dominik. (2019). “Waking up the Golden Dawn: Does exposure to the refugee crisis increase support for extreme-right parties?” Political Analysis. 27(2), pp.244–254.

Elander Ingemar; Granberg, Mikael and Montinc, Stig. (2022). “Governance and planning in a ‘perfect storm’: Securitising climate change, migration and Covid-19 in Sweden.” Progress in Planning. 164, pp. 100-634.

Ford, R.A, & Goodwin, M.J.G. (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. London: Routledge.

Hangartner, Dominik; Dinas, Elias; Marbach, Moritz; Matakos, Konstantinos & Xefteris, Dimitrios. (2019). “Does exposure to the refugee crisis make natives more hostile?” American Political Science Review. 113(2), pp.442–455.

Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. (2012). “Globalization and its impact on national spaces of competition.” In: Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. ed(s). West European Politics in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-22). 

Moran, J.M. (2022). “Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis?” Voice of Youth. European Centre for Populist Studies. November 16, 2022. https://www.populismstudies.org/will-the-climate-crisis-lead-to-europes-next-refugee-crisis/ (accessed on November 28, 2022).

Telford, A.T. (2018). “A threat to climate-secure European futures? Exploring racial logics and climate-induced migration in US and EU climate security discourses.” Geoforum. 96, pp. 268-277.

Tomberg, Lukas; Smith Stegen, Karen & Vance, Colin. (2020). “’The mother of all political problems’? On asylum seekers and elections.” Ruhr Economic Papers, No. 879, ISBN 978-3-96973-018-8, RWI – Leibniz-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, Essen, https://doi.org/10.4419/96973018  

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

Vadlamannati, K.C.V. (2020). “Welfare Chauvinism? Refugee Flows and Electoral Support for Populist‐Right Parties in Industrial Democracies.” Social Science Quarterly. 101(4), pp. 1600–26.

Vanhalla, L.V. & Calliari, E.C. (2022). “Governing people on the move in a warming world: Framing climate change migration and the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement.” Global Environmental Change. 76, pp. 102-578.

Zimmermann, K.F. (2016). Refugee Flows, Labor Mobility and Europe. ASSA Meeting Chicago 2017: Princeton University.

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.

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.

A general view of the hemicycle during of a plenary session on BREXIT vote of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on January 29, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

On Chantal Mouffe’s ‘Democratic Agonism’ and EU Democratic Deficit

Conflict constitutes an essential part of a healthy democratic society and should not be eradicated from it. Nevertheless, the “others” must not be intended as enemies to destroy but as adversaries whose ideas can be fought – even with ferocity – without ever questioning their right to defend them. Adopting a “competitive struggle” – as Chantal Mouffe calls it – implies mutual consensus towards institutions and socio-political values, even if it allows political actors to disagree on them, in the light of a “conflicting consensus.”

By Luca Mancin

According to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), societal and political environments are characterized by contentions and intra-groups relations. Politics does not make an exception with its long tradition of struggles and conflicts that gave birth to the so-called antagonistic paradigm (Schmitt, 1996), namely a political hostility that cannot be solved but through a mortal dispute. Though antagonism it can be softened and transformed into what Chantal Mouffe (2013) calls democratic agonism, where dissensus is present but the opposition occurs within shared values and pluralism is safeguarded.

By applying democratic agonism to the integration of the European Union (EU), focusing specifically on post-functionalism, it is unavoidable to deal with the broad concept of Euroscepticism, namely a critical and opposing attitude toward the EU’s economic and political integration. More specifically, this commentary investigates how a democratic agonism among softened Eurosceptic parties within the European Parliament can represent a remedy to the EU democratic deficit. Post-functionalism, indeed, tackles European integration from a national outlook. Hence it is a pluralistic and variegated approach to the EU affected by cultural and socio-political differences by mirroring potential incompatibilities of European politics. Might Mouffe’s democratic agonism precisely offer a solution to overcome such obstacles by promoting a pluralistic image of European politics through a pluralism of peoples and cultures within shared socioeconomic and political values?

The Democratic Agonism Paradigm

‘Why do you kill me?’ 

‘What! Do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just.’

This sentence, contained in Blaise Pascal’s Thoughts (2011: 51), perfectly describes the human attitude to categorizing the social world in a dichotomic manner. After all, Sigmund Freud as well, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930: 114), wrote that “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.” A claim that recalls what Carl Schmitt (1996) argued about the Manichean structure of politics that relies on the contraposition between “friend” and “enemy.” Such behavior is also observable in the social identity theory elaborated by Tajfel & Turner (1986). According to this model, people create us/them divisions in their social environment and behave in the function of their membership group. 

Social identity theory relies on three steps. First, people categorize themselves and identify two parties – the in-group (“us”) and the out-group (“them”); secondly, the in-group’s members adopt the features that are believed to characterize that group; finally, the in-group compares itself with the out-group by exalting themself and belittling the other.

As anticipated above, the Manichean division between “us” and “them” is central in Schmitt’s (1996) work. The German philosopher maintained the crucial political distinction between “friend” (Freund) and “enemy” (Feind). Therefore, for him, the political enemy is “the other” or “the stranger” (der Fremde). The concept of enemy regards a group of people fighting and opposing – it is the Greek πόλεμος (pόlemos) or the Latin hostis (the public enemy). According to Schmitt, then, “the political” has two characteristics: 1) a polemical component embodied by a concrete conflict, and 2) the identification of “politician” in the sense of a political party.

The “us” versus “them” dichotomy is one of the main features of Eurosceptic and populist parties – as suggested by Cas Mudde (2004), who described populism as an opposition between “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” Manichean rhetoric polarizes citizenship and orients it towards a common enemy by finding a suitable scapegoat for each problem (Banning, 2006). We often notice this strategy investigating Eurosceptic and populist vocabulary and discourses, which propose an undetermined people opposed to a vague elite – the EU, the establishment, the bankers. So, an antagonistic approach allows citizens to identify a common enemy, but it denies any chance of constructive criticism and political compromise since it does not consent to establishing a fruitful political debate. Then, it is essential to find an agonistic alternative that permits dialogue and institutionalization of the conflict.

With this in mind, we draw on Chantal Mouffe’s (2013) work, which produces sublimation and institutionalization of Schmitt’s antagonism – which does not allow space for a confrontation between the two contenders that is not deadly. By contrast, Mouffe’s solution aims to overcome the limitations of a mortal political conflict by moving it into a political arena regulated by shared values and principles within institutions. By doing this, Mouffe proposes an agonistic model of democracy, whose purpose does not consist of reaching a consensus without exclusion because that would involve a “we” without a “them” – which is impossible. Mouffe recalls the idea of “radical negativity” – a form of negativity impossible to overcome and that prevents the full achievement of objectivity. Such radical negativity leaves open the possibility of an antagonism: recognizing the existence of radical negativity means recognizing the multiplicity and the divisions of the people. Societies cannot overcome such divisions but only institutionalize them.

Mouffe’s model of political society has its roots in the concepts of “antagonism” and “hegemony.” Antagonism indicates a conflict with no rational solution, while hegemony describes every society’s constitutive and ineliminable negativity. The hegemonic feature of human communities involves that every social order relies on a contingent articulation of power relations without an ultimate rational foundation. Consequently, societies are always the product of a series of practices attempting to establish a determined order in a contingent context. Hence, Mouffe declares that the central political issue consists of establishing an oppositional us/them compatibly with a pluralistic acceptance. The conflict constitutes an essential part of a healthy democratic society and should not be eradicated from it. Nevertheless, the “others” must not be approached as enemies to destroy but as adversaries whose ideas can be fought – even with ferocity – without ever questioning the right to defend. Adopting a “competitive struggle” – as Mouffe calls it – implies mutual consensus towards institutions and socio-political values, even if it allows political actors to disagree, in the light of a “conflicting consensus.”

But what happens if we apply Mouffe’s democratic agonism to European integration theories?

European Integration and Democratic Deficit

Integration theories analyze how to increase political cooperation within the EU by dealing with the EU integration results and the development of its institutions (Diez & Wiener, 2018). Among the several diversified EU integration theories, the post-functionalist outlook is relevant for this commentary. Such a theory, elaborated by Hooghe & Marks (2009), tackles the European Union from the national level of member states by stating that their domestic level politics shapes and affects EU integration and politicizes EU policies. The focus, the authors argue, is precisely on the conflicts at the level of the national citizenry, which constitute the driving forces of European integration.

Indeed, post-functionalism has spread after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and runs parallel to the shift from a “permissive consensus” to a “constraining dissensus” (Hooghe & Marks, 2009). By this term, scholars mean the greater awareness of citizens concerning European issues in the post-Maastricht Treaty period, followed by a broader politicization of the EU’s matters. Such a mutation has been a critical turning point for the European integration process, coinciding with the normalization of Eurosceptic parties (Bijsmans, 2020; Brack & Startin, 2015), which exploited the decrease of EU support and the increase of room for manifesting such a discontent (de Vries & Edwards, 2009). Besides, the diffusion of post-functionalism highlights the growing issue of the EU democratic deficit by making popular discontent concerning EU-related issues heard through national politics.

Whether the European Union is democratic or not raises broad debates (Beetham & Lord, 1998; Schmidt, 2006). The democratic deficit is the idea that “EU institutions and their decision-making procedures suffer from a lack of democracy and seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen due to their complexity” (EUR-Lex)[1]. Such a democratic deficit might have different causes (the lack of genuine representative democracy in the EU, the absence of a common European demos, and the democratic deficit at the national level). Some scholars argue that the EU needs more profound politicization to create political debate to overcome the democratic deficit (Bellamy & Kroger, 2013; Føllesdal & Hix, 2006). These suggestions might entail pan-European elections, the President of the European Commission elected by the European Parliament, or a broader Europeanization of the public sphere. By contrast, other scholars maintain that the EU is as democratic as it could/should be because it aims to produce Pareto-efficient outcomes (Majone, 1994; Moravcsik, 2008). Namely, the EU creates a situation where the allocation of resources is such that improvements cannot be made to the system (i.e., the condition of one person cannot be improved without worsening the condition of another).

A general image of the EU’s democratic deficit, its causes, and potential remedies allows us to investigate whether the increasing number of softened Eurosceptic parties improved the democratic environment of the European Parliament – in terms of debates and participation – by producing a “democratic agonism.” Indeed, Chantal Mouffe (2013) considers it one of the possible solutions for the future of the EU integration since it would preserve the pluralism of identities and allow a “conflicting consensus” within the shared and common values of the Union.

Softened Euroscepticism as a Remedy to EU Democratic Deficit

Addressing the EU democratic deficit through Euroscepticism requires orientating within the complex and vague field of this topic (Szczerbiak & Taggart, 2017). Taggart has generally defined Euroscepticism as “the idea of contingent or qualified opposition, as well as incorporating outright and unqualified opposition to the process of European integration” (1998: 366). Taggart & Szczerbiak (2002) elaborate a further differentiation between “hard” and “soft” Euroscepticism. The first term indicates an opposition per se to the EU, while the second one depicts a qualified opposition to the EU – namely, a rejection of specific integration fields. However, as Kopecky and Mudde (2002) point out, it is still a too broad definition.

While these two broad categories represent necessary starting points, it is crucial to offer more specific definitions of the soft version to tackle this issue properly. Hence, I argue we should consider the category of “Eurorealizm” or softened Euroscepticism by referring to a political position that has been named in two different ways within the literature of this field. One is the term “Europragmatizm” (Kopecky & Mudde, 2002), which depicts a positive attitude towards the ideological image of the EU, but also an opposition to the principles of the European integration process. Similarly, such a political habit recalls the term “revisionist” (Flood & Usherwood, 2005), namely the desire to return to earlier stages of the EU. Finally, concerning Vasilopoulou’s (2011) work, we can consider such a position as a “conditional Euroscepticism” since it accepts a cultural definition of Europe and is aware of the importance of multilateral cooperation at the EU level but rejects the current EU’s political practice and future integrational steps.

Once we have defined what we mean here by softened Euroscepticism, we can examine how these stances can represent a (partial) remedy to the EU democratic deficit. It is essential to draw on Milner (2000), who talks about “healthy scepticism,” considering Euroscepticism as a litmus test for the awareness of critical citizenry concerning the EU’s issues. More recently, De Wilde & Trenz (2012) reconduct Euroscepticism to the EU’s integration process by stating that it is a natural element of the opposition to the European political project. Besides, it embodies a contestation of the European polity, and it might help address problems about sovereignty, democratic deficit, and responsiveness by being part of the more extensive process of legitimation and democratization of the Union. For this reason, Brack & Startin (2015), analyzing how Euroscepticism is currently a mainstream aspect of European politics, ask whether it can help in terms of a remedy to the EU democratic deficit. The literature offers two answers to this question. Firstly, Brack & Costa (2017) maintains that Eurosceptic conflicting opinions inside the European Parliament show the high degree of democratic pluralism of the Union itself. Secondly, Krouwel & Abst (2007) underline the positive aspect of populist Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament since these actors represent a stimulus for an active citizenry. After all, a healthy democracy relies on political contestation and critics, and, to a certain extent, Euroscepticism triggering political discontent can reveal itself as a positive aspect of a democratic regime.

Such theoretical statements find a practical realization in contemporary general Eurosceptic parties’ tendency to soften their position and take up a position of what we defined above as “Eurorealism” (Balfour et al., 2019; Taggart, 2019). In other words, nowadays, Eurosceptic parties are still critics of the European Union but do not assess the exit from the EU as a feasible solution. Here, looking at the question of Eurorealism and examining whether it can fuel democratization of the EU through Mouffe’s (2013) democratic agonistic paradigm implies a European Parliament with a pluralistic trim, where conflicts are present and essential but regulated within shared values and principles. The transposition into the European Studies literature of Mouffe’s approach can be traced in Nicolaïdis’ (2004) concept of “demoi-cracy.” By this term, he means a combination of pluralistic nations and peoples working together to overcome the democratic problems in the EU but maintaining their essential socio-cultural differences and ideological divergences. Only through the maintenance of these unavoidable and natural “geo-philosophical faults” – as the Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari calls them (1994 & 1997) – it is possible to safeguard the “field of conflicting forces”, as the Polish philosopher Krzysztof Pomian once described Europe.

Conclusion

This commentary applied Mouffe’s theory on democratic agonism (2013) to post-functional theories of European integration. It argued that approaching Euroscepticism through the lens of democratic agonism rather than antagonism shows how pluralism and shared values can address the EU democratic deficit. In particular, it was argued that democratic agonism would allow the increasing number of softened Eurosceptic parties to elaborate constructive criticism toward the Union’s trim without menacing an exit of their member states from the EU. Such a solution would safeguard cultures and peoples’ pluralism in what Nicolaïdis (2004) called “demoi-cracy” and constitute a compromise for the “conflicting forces” featuring the European Union politics. In the EU, then, there would still be a “competitive struggle,” not between “friends” and “enemies,” but between adversaries whose positions can be fought but must be respected in the light of a “conflicting consensus.”

References

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Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC, 26(1/2), 67–101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20866722 

Beetham, D., & Lord, C. (1998). Legitimacy and the European Union. London: Longman.

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Brack, N, & Startin, N. (2015). “Introduction: Euroscepticism, from the margins to the mainstream.” International Political Science Review36(3), 239–249.

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[1] The definition is available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/democratic_deficit.html.

A young African woman hugging a white northern woman after a protest. Photo: Sabrina Bracher.

Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It 

In her book, Jessie Daniels deconstructs whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the practice of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.    

Reviewed by Shirin Ananda Dias*

In her book “Nice White Ladies,” Jessie Daniels deconstructs white womanhood and details how it is historically and culturally linked to the inter-generational perpetuation of everyday, systemic, and institutional racism by white women in both the United Kingdom (UK) and, most notably, in the United States (US). Both by drawing on existent literature on race, gender, cultural and blackness studies and by giving detailed ethnographic and personal examples, Daniels details how white women – often with good intentions – contribute to the cycle of racism and demonstrates their complicity in the infliction of everyday micro-aggressions on communities of color. 

Although the book is largely a cultural critique, it also serves as a “self-help book” for those seeking to break free from the toxic chains of whiteness, which inflict pain and suffering not only upon BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), but also upon white women and their families, through generational guilt and self-destructive defense mechanisms transmitted throughout decades. The book’s six chapters take the reader through Daniels’ personal and academic journeys, zeroing in on her experiences with white womanhood and racism throughout her life and academic career. She furthermore provides the reader with alternative constructive modes of ‘being white’ in a diverse and multicultural society.

In the first chapter of the book Daniels places white womanhood in historical context and lays bare, through a cultural and historical lens, how and why white women often feel threatened by and entitled to protection from the ‘other.’ Without vilifying the ‘Karens’ of today’s society, Daniels details how their (sometimes subconscious) feelings of white supremacy, entitlement to protection, and (lethal) power over the ‘other’, are surviving legacies of the colonial period. Within white supremacist society, black men were often lynched to protect white women –the underlying sentiment has survived through generations, resulting in instances of modern-day women weaponizing their white womanhood by using police and law enforcement against BIPOC. Daniels hereby demonstrates and emphasizes how white women’s actions perpetuate colonial cultural legacies to this day, and how they are consequently beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery.

In chapter two, Daniels illustrates how white feminists on both the left and right of the political spectrum tend to perpetrate and exacerbate racial inequalities through their supposedly universal and neutral feminist activism. From the pink pussy hats to the #metoo movement and other movements aiming for women’s liberation and “equal representation, compensation and power in the public sphere as men” (Daniels, 2021: 86), Daniels shows that these movements for women’s rights are far from universally inclusive. On the contrary, these feminist movements tend to engage in gender-only, (neoliberal) feminism that is oblivious to white privilege, race, and institutionalized racism (as well as other relevant intersections). Daniels therefore criticizes so-called liberal feminists on their lack of intersectionality and calls for the inclusion of critical race theory in feminist activism with the objective of the liberation of all women.

In chapter three, “The Shallow Promise of the Wellness Industry,” Daniels shows how women are targeted by all sorts of ‘self-care’ trends – clean eating, skincare products, yoga, mindfulness – which promise fulfillment and inner peace in a capitalist society.  In one sense, these trends are shallow in their failure to deliver true fulfillment; in fact, their intertwinement with the capitalist system ensures that fulfillment is ever out of reach. Daniels, however, focuses on a different source of shallowness: namely, that purveyors of the wellness industry create white-only spaces, and construct a specific normative identity, namely the white-hetero-lady who is in need of care. In creating and orienting itself around this identity, the wellness industry excludes communities of color and obscures the reasons for their struggles. Wellness is portrayed as a product for consumption, instead of something that is contingent upon larger structural issues like systemic racism and poverty.  Daniels also touches upon the wellness industry’s self-help books and criticizes renowned authors such as Brené Brown, for her work’s blindness to whiteness and white-shame, and Eat-Pray-Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, for romanticizing her soul-seeking journey to India without reflecting upon the white privilege that afforded her the means leave everything behind, travel, and ‘find herself.’ 

Chapters four and five discuss identity and kinship. In chapter four, “Love and Theft,” Daniels investigates the psychological and cultural reasons behind certain white women’s appropriation of BIPOC identities. Here Daniels discusses female academics such as Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. She argues that it is the underlying emptiness that resides in whiteness, and, furthermore, white guilt, which drive white women to appropriate non-white identities, so that they can be seen and heard, or to deal with the psychological trauma of being white. Daniels furthermore details how white women, through ‘blackfishing’ or appropriating indigenous Cherokee identities, become the beneficiaries of policies like affirmative action, whereby their successes rest on the backs of those communities who need those policies most. 

Not all white women deal with whiteness and white guilt in the same way as the Rachel Dolezals of the world. Daniels shows how many white women engage in white saviorism in order to assuage their white guilt. An example she discusses is the adoption of BIPOC children by white families, where an undercurrent of white saviorism can perpetuate microaggressions towards communities of color, with the indirect message being that white mothers are more capable of motherhood. As is furthermore shown in the chapter “Protecting White Families,” white women often engage in practices that benefit white families and disadvantage communities of color, by raising their adopted children in a “color blind”, household, rather than a “color aware” one, thereby implicitly downplaying racism’s existence. One’s own contribution to and participation in cyclical institutionalized racism and racial segregation often goes unnoticed; well-meaning and protective mothers, who accumulate wealth within their white families and shield their children from education in multi-racial settings, which Daniels coins as the “new Jim Crow,” seem unaware of the implications of their actions. In all examples, from white women physically protecting their homes with guns from Black Lives Matter demonstrators to those well-meaning women who accumulate wealth and education for their white families, Daniels emphasizes and illustrates how white families are “one of the most powerful forces of reproducing white supremacy” (Daniels, 2021: 193). 

In the last chapter, “The Lie that is Killing All of Us,” Daniels details, through myriad examples of mental health cases (including her own mother’s), how whiteness not only poses a lethal threat to communities of color, but, even more so, how it threatens white communities. She argues that although white people are the beneficiaries of white supremacy (in that they have, for example, greater access to healthcare than communities of color do), white communities are also plagued by higher rates of depression than communities of color, and increasing addiction, mortality, and suicide rates. Daniels illustrates how nice white ladies suffer under the burden of white guilt. Building on this, Daniels exemplifies the impact white guilt has on the individual and collective health of white people and communities. In this vein, Daniels demonstrates how feelings of emptiness – inherent to whiteness – are often the root cause for infliction of harm of others, and for self-destructive behavior. 

In the concluding section, Daniels refers back to previous chapters and provides the reader with detailed methods to develop an alternate, more constructive and justform of whiteness and white womanhood. Jessie Daniels herself strives to be “white without going white, to not take up all the space, to swerve away from the supremacy of whiteness” (Daniels, 2021: 234). The suggested liberators methods include, for example, rethinking social relationships with people who actively participate in the oppression of BIPOC, giving agency to women of color, and being their accomplice in dismantling white supremacy, amongst many other suggestions.

A potential critique of the book is that certain argumentations are rather reductionist, such as Daniels’ proclamations that the Kardashians’ cultural appropriation derives from their white guilt, or that the suicide of a white health worker during COVID-19 was motivated by the burden of white survival guilt. This is where Daniels draws hasty conclusions and appears to disregard the complexity of the human psyche despite her background in critical social psychology. Although I concur that there lays trauma in whiteness, not all behavior is necessarily attributable to whiteness and its discontents. 

Despite this criticism, the book does insightfully deconstruct whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the work of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.  It is a work that I would highly recommend to both academics and laymen seeking to understand the complexities of white womanhood and racism. I would especially recommend the book to white women, as no matter how “woke” one might be, there might be a “Nice White Lady, whether big or small, in all of us.


Jessie Daniels, Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It, Seal Press, 2021, 304 pp., $28, ISBN: 9781541675865


(*) Shirin Ananda Dias is an alumna of SOAS university London, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology. Her two main regions of academic interest are the Middle East and South Asia, where she indulges in political anthropology focusing on ethnic and religious nationalism and populism in the broader framework of globalization and contemporary international relations. She is currently enrolled in the MA program “Social and Cultural Anthropology” at the University of Amsterdam where she is finishing writing her master dissertation on the expression of Hindu nationalism in right wing Hindu nationalist Facebook groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


SocialMedia1

Digital Populism: The Internet and the Rise of Right-wing Populism

This article is an attempt to critically assess the utilization of internet platforms by right-wing populists. Analysing both primary and secondary sources, the author identifies several propaganda methods used by populists in digital venues to trigger insecurities in their target audience. Nativism and xenophobia are at the forefront of these propaganda methods. The increasing use of internet algorithms and artificial intelligence is also brought to the readers’ attention as abetting the spread of fake news and hate speech. The author concludes by drawing attention to initiatives and mechanisms that social media platforms should use to limit the damaging effects of such digital populist rhetoric.

By Sena Eksi

“Populism often asks the right questions but provides the wrong answer” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017: 118).

Populism is defined as a stark social and political divide between the common people and the corrupt elite. The author of The Global Rise of Populism, Benjamin Moffit writes that populist leaders aim to represent the unified “will of people,” hence arguing that populism “is generally misused especially in a European context” (Moffitt, 2016: 101-102). Accordingly, populism is embraced both by left-wing and right-wing political parties, as well as other extremist groups along the political spectrum. Even though populist leaders seem—at least superficially—to have the well-being of their citizens at heart, with time, idiosyncratic politicians tend to corrupt the popular spirit and seek to realize their own goals by labelling themselves as the natural or sole representative of the true people.

Propaganda methods and mass media have always been used to spread new ideas, thoughts, and doctrines. A well-known example is the Nazi regime in Germany, which used propaganda through different sources of media to influence the German population. Today, digital media works as a modernized platform to disseminate all kinds of extremist propaganda nationally and internationally. This article will examine primarily the historical background of populism and the rise of far-right movements, as it is necessary to trace the origin of radicalized currents on today’s digital media. According to Anton Jäger, US populism scholar, “in its original form, populism was not racist; it was truly for and by the people” (Maly, 2018: 5). As evident by contemporary populist parties, this is no longer the case, as racist policies tend to dominate. Therefore, the primary focus of this article will examine how today’s populist voices use digital media—especially social media—as tools to spread racist messages globally.

We begin with the definition of populism. Jan-Werner Müller clarifies that: “[Populism is] a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. […] Populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people” (2016: 19–20). In this view, populist leaders offer an idealized vision to the voting public with a claim that they represent the only true “voice of the people.” 

Presenting themselves as political saviours by satisfying the needs of the population, populist leaders expand their sway among a greater share of the electorate to boost their political power. Populist politicians often use strong emotional appeals, including public discontent, to stir support (Hafner-Burton et al., 2017). Precisely because right-wing politicians trigger the public’s insecurities, highlighting the lack of national and personal security (mass immigration, for example), they steadily cultivate citizen appeal. As Ico Maly emphasizes: “Populism is nowadays being used [as] a synonym for demagogues, racism, authoritarianism and nationalism. The concept has therefore become a euphemism for far more radical ideological positions” (2018:6).

The article Right-Wing Extremists’ Persistent Online Presence: History and Contemporary Trends emphasizes a notable classification, when it comes to the right-wing actors: “we conceptualize Western right-wing extremism (RWE) as a racially, ethnically, and/or sexually defined nationalism, which is typically framed in terms of white power and/or white identity (i.e., the in-group) that is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by some combination of non-whites, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and feminists (i.e., the out-group(s))” (Conway, 2019). It is common for populist politicians to make use of nationalistic notions to create a picture of the in-group, an image that will be radically developed and internalized by right-wing extremist groups. Subsequently, they must exclude individuals who don’t meet the in-group’s criteria.

The reasons for the increase in (far-right) populism and the radicalization of the political firmament in many democracies across the world is due to a complex set of factors. Undoubtedly, however, the central cause, on a global level, has been the intersection of a crisis of democracy (Fitzi, 2019) and a more fundamental crisis of governance (Yuval-Davis, 2012). Overall, the “depletion of the welfare state, the deregulation of the markets and the deconstruction of political culture” (Fitzi, 2019: 7) have proved fertile ground for the expansion of populism. Even if populism was first notable in the Americas, these factors have also caused an increase in European populism. 

Since the end of the 1990s, a rolling set of global crises, including terrorism, climate change, financial crises, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, have undermined citizen trust in “territorial governmentality and juridical control of nation-state bounded governance,” and heightened the sense of a world spinning out of control (Vieten, 2020: 4). Populists can readily step into the breach in such a context, with promises of a return to a golden past and a restoration of “law and order.” A notable example of such an approach is Donald Trump’s declaration to the United States on winning the 2016 election: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon […] come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored” (Taylor, 2016).

Given that populist appeals manifest across the political spectrum, it is worth asking how populism has dovetailed in Europe with the return of the extreme right. For Inglehart and Norris (2016), populist tendencies in Europe increased due to cultural factors, such as the spread of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. With globalization, mobility increased, motivating people to freely choose and even abandon their national identities in favour of the “global supermarket” and of cosmopolitan identities (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 9). Thus, right-wing populists and their voters fear that their distinctive national cultures or identities may be destroyed. These cultural concerns expand and spread widely into society via the extensive use of social media. According to Iosifidis, globalization plays an important role in the rise of far-right movements. The new-social media spreads both the cosmopolitan and nationalistic views (ibid).

The more globalization was emphasized the more the nationalist borders and boundaries were materialized in social media discussions. Economic nationalism was one response in a globalizing yet increasingly unequal economic world. Inglehart and Norris, as well as others such as Judis (2016), have constructed populism as an economic reaction against rising inequalities. But beyond the economy, the ideologies broadcasted on social media created unconfirmed biases on many grounds, especially since the users of social media became the mass consumers of ideology. These included far-right arguments propagating the rationales for exclusivist policies. 

One of the main characteristics of far-right actors is their tendency to advocate for “exclusionist populism” and “their ethno-nationalist notion of citizenship, reflected in the slogan ‘own people first” (Betz, 1994; Rydgren, 2005, as cited in Muis; Immerzeel, 2017: 2). Limiting migration, introducing nativist policies (favouring one’s own language, traditions, and culture) are just a few strategies advanced by far-right politics. This exclusivity can be seen in the nativist claim that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (the nation) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) threaten homogeneous nation-states” (Mudde, 2007; Muis & Immerzeel, 2017, as cited in Muis; Immerzeel, 2017: 2). In most of cases, nationalist convictions are followed by racism and an ethnocentric and xenophobic vision leading to anti-immigration propaganda. Right-wing groups often prefer strong leaders, who reflect “the will of the people” by “stressing themes like law and order and traditional values” (Inglehart & Norris, 2016, as cited in Muis & Immerzeel, 2017: 2-3).

Summarizing, global frustrations with political establishments, concerns about immigration, economic insecurities, growing inequality in wealth distribution, and the dilution of “national identity, have brought about a broader concern that globalization is associated with a shift of power to transnational elites” (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 2). This explains why voters, especially European ones, are now attracted to populist leaders who promise security, an ethno-centric identity, and democracy. The fact that nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc in the European Parliament, called Identity and Democracy (ID), highlights this aspect (BBC News, 2019). 

Digital media has played a significant role in the rise of populism, often facilitating the circulation of far-right propaganda. Accordingly, I’ll next focus on the background of far-right extremism in media. A special consideration will be given to how far-right actors have mobilized across various platforms, particularly in Europe.

Populism in the Digital Age: Social Media as a New Far-right Platform

Before populist politicians speak in the name of the people, they must build a large audience. According to Professor of Government Kurt Weyland, it is firstly important to attract the citizens’ attention. For many citizens, their first impression of a populist movement is formed by the personalistic leaders. By managing politics in opportunistic ways, rather than following a strict program, populist leaders attract followers (Weyland, 2021). Secondly, the media contributes to the construction or destruction and distribution of the populist voice (Maly, 2018: 9).

To understand populism in the digital age, it is necessary to take the socio-technical assemblage, consisting of human and non-human players, into account (Maly, 2018: 17). Non-human players can be defined as the algorithmic functions of digital media. Maly, a professor of politics, goes one step further by subcategorizing these functions as “algorithmic activism.” He highlights the importance of this type of activism, most widely used by politicians: “this type of activism contributes to spreading the message of a politician or movement by interacting with the post to trigger the algorithms of the medium so that it boosts the popularity rankings of this message and its messenger” (Maly, 2018: 10). This algorithmic activism accomplishes a crucial function for a populist, who effectively spreads his or her message with the help of social media. Indeed, contemporary populism boosted by social media algorithms exploit both the public sphere and disrupts individual realities (Maly, 2018). An example of how such contemporary populism measures impact individual realities in the spread of hate-speech online; individuals who would usually not express hate speech in public feel like they have a comfortable and normalised online platform to do so.

International Security professor Maura Conway considers the beginning of far-right extremism on digital media to be the mid-1990s when the World Wide Web developed. This introduced the first cases of internet-afforded hate, initiated and promoted by humans (Conway, 2019: 4). Since then, existing far-right movements have replaced offline based ego-centric, xenophobic, nationalistic, and racist propaganda by voicing them online. Therefore, “the development of information and communication technologies” as well as the alleviation of European borders are considered the “new enablers” permitting far-right groups to “connect and cooperate” (Whine, 2012: 317). 

However, populism scholars are not only concerned about online hate speech but also about disinformation and radicalization. The US and other countries have undergone a series of attacks that can be connected to online disinformation and radicalization. Conway lists different incidents, including the terrorist attack on March 15, 2019, in Christchurch New Zealand, which she cites as the pioneer of such “mainstreaming” of disinformation and online radicalization. She emphasizes that the mosque attack, in which 51 people died, was peculiarly internet-centric, as it involved the distribution of a pre-planned online manifesto and a Facebook Live video stream. Other examples include the Poway synagogue attack on April 2019, the El Paso Walmart shooting in August 2019, the Halle shootings in October 2019, and a series of similar attacks, which only heightened attention on right-wing and their use of the internet to mobilize and radicalize (Conway, 2019: 12-13).

Accordingly, as research shows, many organized hate groups have also developed websites and forums. Some of these, such as those established by various Ku Klux Klan (KKK) branches, function as quasi “news” sites for a more general audience, while others offer more group-specific information (history, mission, events, etc.) (Conway, 2019: 4). Importantly, forums have also “acted as an essential medium for RWEs to air their grievances, bond, and form a collective identity by othering their ‘common enemies’” (Conway, 2019: 4-5).

In addition to playing a key role in facilitating the spread of hate speech, social media is also connected to the rapid circulation of “Fake News” (Wardle, 2017). When talking about “Fake News,” it is necessary to refer to Hannah Arendt, who emphasized in 1953 that the individual could become subject of the totalitarian state and be unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. The flattening of online news, between more traditional sites, social media, and “news” from RWE sites, has made it difficult for social media users to differentiate between fact and fiction, and has helped RWE spread hate and nationalism, galvanize supporters, and attract new ones. 

Twitter is considered a vanguard platform when it comes to polarizing fake news and hate speech in political discourses. Particularly, the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is known for its digital activism using the “hashjacking” strategy. Twitter “hashtags” were designed to create a “virtual community of interested listeners” when directing users to a particular topic. They also facilitate communication and engage debates surrounding specific hashtags. Although this can contribute to open and democratic discussion about a range of topics, extremists have exploited the hashtag to infiltrate their views into moderate discussions (Berger, 2016; Graham, 2015, as cited in Ahmed; Pisoiu, 2020). “Hashjacking,” hijacking a hashtag, uses someone else’s hashtag to promote one’s own social media activity (Darius & Stephany, 2019). Research by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society showed that the Far-right AfD supporters hijacked rising hashtags in 2020, including #FlattenTheCurve or #CoronaVirusDE (Fox, 2020).  Most of the right-wing politicians use both their own party hashtags as well as the hashjacking method to strategically target opponent campaigns and to effectively polarize political discourse. As a result of their digital political communication strategy, they succeed not only online but also in elections (Darius & Stephany, 2019).

When it comes to data about the identified numbers of right-wing extremist accounts, the Twitter application programming interface (API) counts around 175 EU-wide profiles, mainly centred on neo-Nazi and white supremacist topics (Ahmed & Pisoiu, 2020). The field of interest of European-based accounts is centred on topics like antisemitism (holocaust denial, “Jewish world conspiracy,” etc.); defending European culture, identity, and race; and “white genocide.” In the European context, the high rate of activity of Spanish far-right populist accounts stands out, while the electoral success in 2019 of the Spanish far-right party Vox is a testament to their efforts (ibid). The increasing number of refugees and immigrants has contributed even more to digital polarization.

The rise of right-wing populist parties and activists is very concerning, as they not only induce radical activities but also contribute to the formation of narcissistic populations and introverted communities. By creating a self-centred in-group, out-group members are expected to be excluded socially, as well as politically. Moreover, besides the increasing number of asylum seekers, migrants, and “classical” refugees (those who fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group), it is predicted that within the next decades, most countries will also have to face different classes of refugees, specifically “climate refugees” (Tetsuji, 2021). Although immigration is common in every modern society, it is also often followed by xenophobic tendencies. With the arrival of social media 2.0 (simplified technology to allow its users to create, share, collaborate and communicate easily) and the uncontrolled spread of fake news, the formation of xenophobic communities and anti-immigration policies became unavoidable and inevitable.  

To limit the damaging effects of digital media, Wu (2016) suggests using Facebook, among others, as a “public benefit corporation.” To put it in another way, online platforms would aim to support their users’ activity to advantage for the online community and avoid harmful activities. Meanwhile Napoli and Caplan (2017) favour modified frameworks that reflect “the hybrid nature of social media platforms—content producers, but also investors in platforms’ to create connectivity, called ‘information utilities’” (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 24). By relying on the users’ sense of social responsibility, social media platforms would create an information exchange space, as a common good for the internet community. However, these proposals are utopic visions, as they rely on the idealized version of internet users, who aim to use digital media only for the well-being of global internet users.

An initiative taken by the European Commission along with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft produced relevant outcomes: introducing a “Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online” (May 31, 2016) and developing “a series of Europe-wide commitments to combat the spread of ‘illegal hate speech’ via the internet” (Conway, 2019: 16-17). 

Furthermore, Twitter’s reaction to violence and hateful conduct achieved meaningful results including the removal from the platform of far-right political group accounts including the American Nazi Party, the League of the South, and Britain First (Kuchler, 2017). However, even though accounts from the far-right group Britain First, such as Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were suspended, it didn’t take long until they reopened new accounts. Many white nationalist groups also tend to create fake accounts. Recent examples are fake profiles linked to Identity Evropa, an identarian movement which anonymously pushed violent rhetoric related to ongoing protests in multiple states across the US (Collins, Zadrozny & Saliba, 2020). The fact that Twitter does not investigate users’ real identity to protect its users’ privacy, consequently, limits the monitoring of far-right activism and therefore is still in need of improvement.

The exposure to a diversity of ideologies on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, can open opportunities for dialogue. Even though the rise of right-wing populists cannot be prevented, digital media efforts, such as the project of the European Commission, can create significant barriers for right-wing activists on digital media. The rise of online far-right activism has been experienced across the world, and it is the responsibility of digital platforms to prevent such activities from taking place, ensuring all their consumers a safe experience.

Conclusion

This article confirms that populist far-right parties and movements can mobilize and organize on social media. Populism in its original form was meant to be “from the people and for the people.” Since right-wing populist leaders have become more influential, the term “populism” is now laden with negative connotations. 

While globalization is meant to create a more international and multicultural reality, far-right extremists are feeling threatened and use xenophobic propaganda to urge ethno-centric radicalization. Far-right digital media users, especially neo-Nazi and antisemitic groups, use digital media and algorithms to widen their sphere of influence while spreading (internet) hate. Their motives are the defence of in-group culture, identity, and race; “white genocide” is cited as one of their main motivations. 

Ultimately, the digital medium has contributed to the global spread of disinformation, hate-speech, propaganda, and radicalization, and it is increasingly difficult for digital platforms to monitor fringe extremist websites and activity. Due to the immensity of the World Wide Web, it will only grow more difficult to track and avoid radical activities, which multiply daily. It shall be, thus, the responsibility of both the citizen to critically evaluate digital data and of the digital platform owners to safeguard their platforms from online extremism.

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Frauke Petry

Far-right female extremism and leadership: Their power of framing reality in the European context

Female populist followers, members and leaders are becoming an unexpectedly increasing reality, especially in Europe. While social and economic insecurities create uncertainty, mo re and more female voters tend to rely on populist parties’ promises, especially when it is a female leader expressing them. By appealing to the women’s call for equality, security and liberty, the far-right feminist agenda turns to be an adequate reply. 

By Sena Eksi

Populism ancestry lies on the intention of the white supremacist milieu, or the common white people, to stand against the corrupt elite. Even if, the vanguard was pictured to be composed of unsatisfied white male, with time, women also entered the political frame. A new generation of women who didn’t consider their political, social, and economic needs to be satisfied by the patriarchal system, believed that being active in populist parties and movements would be the adequate alternative (Miller-Idris, 2020). 

According to recent studies in Poland, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Sweden and France, more and more females considered the far-right parties to be the right solution when it comes to rebalancing socio-economic and politic dissatisfaction (Taube, 2018). While there is an exponential increase of female right-wing supporters, who tend to vote for parties like Generation Identity or Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), “evidence suggests that the gender gap in far-right support is decreasing” (Iyer & Jain, 2021). Further, ever more women are engaging not only as followers, but also as members and leaders, even if the far-right concerns Western European countries when it comes to national security (Fangen & Skjelsbækb, 2021).

Consequently, reasons for this phenomenon become widely interest of studies, while this article will examine the most common ones, relying on contemporary examples in the European context. Besides this, the female population does not only rely on populist parties to see their political ambitions to be fulfilled, but they also tend to become leaders in the political sphere themselves. In this context, I will descriptively analyse how female leaders attempt to attract not only the attention of male, but also female citizens across Europe. Their methods and power of framing reality by appealing to feminist propaganda regarding anti-immigration policies will be of particular interest during this study. Main question is, hence, does a new era of far-right feminism arise in the Orient and develop in Europe?

Far-right Female Extremism and Leadership

Shifting in first moment the attention to the Oriental world, the growing Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar, known as Burma, is one of the most known ones, when it comes to recent examples of female extremist groups. The female supporters argue that they “find empowerment and opportunities within the movement that they don’t [find] elsewhere” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). Another reason for their participation is their feminist conviction, while many scholars argue that the classic right-wing female supporters deny being definite as feminists. Anthropologist Melyn McKay adds that the female members ‘have received a powerful platform to elevate the concerns of women and bring visibility to the struggles they face in daily life.” Summarised, the members of the Burma movement argue that their activity within the populist group help them to overcome their daily struggles, that they must face as women in a patriarchal environment.

Unlike in the European context, right-wing female supporters in the Oriental world differentiate themselves from traditional values and their “oppressive gender norms,” appealing to feminist convictions. Therefore, the right-wing movements offer female members “opportunities to experience some form of empowerment through political action, participation and even leadership” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). 

A new far-right feminist genesis blossoms in the Orient, while they perform as a symbol of emancipation and independence for women. The belief that they could perform as actors of the change they want to see in society becomes, hence, main stimulation to become members of far-right parties. However, could they be defined as real feminists, just because they oppose themselves against traditional issues and a society dominated by machismo? Maybe they are just fed by xenophobic agenda of feminism or believe that by being pictured as feminist activists, they could create a counter-reform to patriarchal politics. Focusing on the reasons why female voters join the far-right sphere will help us to understand to what extent both oriental and occidental women share feminist convictions by supporting extremist parties.

Why Female Voters Join the Far Right

On a global level, commonly it has been argued that the female followers are concerned about ‘domestic issues’ (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). A 2016 study confirmed that “women aged between 18-40 years of age are most concerned about equal pay, equal opportunities in professional life and good quality childcare facilities” (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). In addition, also social exclusion and financial strain have been determined as important factors favouring right-wing tendencies. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that right-wing populist -as well as right-wing extremist parties- promise respecting family and gender policy within their programmes, according to “The Triumph of the women?” study. By drilling into these arguments’ feminist convictions are identifiable, among others, being economically independent -and not reliant on the male- and access to equal opportunities on the labour market.

In this regard especially in the last few decades far right parties opted for a welfare-driven policy agenda, focusing on social issues to gain female support (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). It is well known that nativism, etno-centric and xenophobic regulations are the core elements of far-right parties’ agenda. Accordingly, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) attempts to increase the birth-rate of the native population by assuring German mothers a child allowance of €25.000 in Germany. Germany is followed by Poland, where the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) guarantees native families with two children a monthly payment of €120 per child until they are of legal age (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). It is to be expected that these pro-nationalistic initiatives will produce a widespread echo around the EU, while other measurements to push the native birth-rate are assumed.

Contrary to these promises, UN special rapporteur Karima Bennoune warns in her report (2017) of growing populist ultranationalism that disregard key principles of equality and the universality of human rights. Furthermore, the rise of far-right politics poses serious risks to gender equality, as well as to women’s rights, according to Bennoune. However, the number of far-right female leaders in politics is unexpectedly increasing, while an insight into their political discourses and their parties’ agenda will be part of examination in the following part. Referring to their power and methods of framing reality will be hence the final aspect to be considered. 

French National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, is maybe one of the most known ones when it comes to female far-right populist faces. Daughter of the right-extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who considered the Nazi gas chambers as “a point of detail of the history of World War II,” Marine grew up in an ultra-nationalistic environment. Even if she expelled her father from the party to soften the party’s far right image, she is considered on the vanguard in terms of her nativist statements. Additionally, in common with other far-right politicians she used women’s rights demands as a tool to achieve support for her Islamophobic campaigns. A series of New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Cologne and Hamburg, Germany (2015) attributed to immigrants –without substantial evidence– were hence a particular occasion to receive the citizens’ approval on a referendum on immigration. Expressing: “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights” (Provost & Whyte, 2018), she successfully convinced the population when limiting the number of immigrant-arrivals.  

Labelling immigration as a national problem is part of the political discourse of most populist parties. In this regard, particularly female citizens feel themselves effected by the number of immigrants, while it is not surprising, that they tend to count on populist parties when regulating refugee numbers. Goethe Institute researcher Gutsche argues that “women sense they are the lower rungs of society and find themselves having to compete against refugees and migrants (Taube, 2018). Therefore, it exists a continuous struggle of losing out job opportunities to immigrants, which leads the female population to support the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties. The latter in return achieve a wider range of national voters.

Furthermore, besides women’s fear of immigrants taking their jobs, refugees are often blamed of being sole perpetrators of sexual violence. Right-wing groups argue that the women’s’ safety will be at risk as long as immigrants –especially from Muslim countries– enter into the country (Chrisafis, Connolly & Giuffrida, 2019). Even if data shows that most cases of sexual violence are committed mostly by native men (Chrisafis, Connolly & Giuffrida, 2019), the power of far-right politicians framing reality, lead listeners to accuse migrants groundlessly. Therefore, the comments of research assistants Shruti and Prithvi (2021) result significant: “Nonetheless, it is not data but persuasiveness of narrative that shapes public opinion; and right-wing groups leveraging fears of immigrants being sexual predators while also pegging themselves as the defenders of women rights has been a powerful narrative driving more recruitment of young white women.”

Accordingly, by portraying themselves as the defenders of “women’s rights”, far-right populist groups illusionary achieve international-wide sympathy and electoral success. “These women are there to give these parties a more open, modern guise and to appeal to female voters,” explained Gutsche. “These are not progressive parties; there is no real gender equality.”

Feminist far-right leaders act, therefore, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, betraying the female population when promising social, political, and economic equality and autonomy, as well as freedom to control over their lives. They just act as marionettes of the dominant masculine far-right party members.

Contemporary Germany is home of most female right-wing populist leaders, leading as front runners when it comes to homophobic currents. Ex-leader of the AfD party, Frauke Petry, is known for her anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies, whereas she ensured her party to enter the German parliament in 2017 (Provost & Whyte, 2018). The party’s ad campaign launched at 2017 further comprises a step on the discrimination scale, including posters saying: “Burkas? We prefer bikinis,” displaying two women in skimpy bathing suits. Other ads had an image of a pregnant woman’s body, with the words: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). Another anti-immigrant grievance, accompanied by nativist proclamations of the party appear surreal to a rational person, whilst it becomes apparently a European-wide reality.

In Poland, Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo of PiS is another example in the anti-immigration political frame. Criticized for using an appearance at former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp to highlight her anti-migrant policies, is just another nuance of her convictions. Moving to the north-east Europe Pia Kjaersgaard, co-founder of the far-right Danish People’s Party, is known for her strong anti-multiculturalism and immigration views, while her views also have been defined as racist by anti-EU activist Karen Sunds.

Summarised conservative agendas, as well as anti-immigration and Islamophobic policies are common characteristics of groups “ranging from the English Defence League in the UK to Stop Islamization of Norway/Stop Islamization of Europe in Scandinavia, to the Golden Dawn in Greece draw on a rhetoric of progressive gender values” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). To counter the Islamic threat, linked to Immigration, these parties offer gender equality and women’s emancipation. In addition, due to the immigration from Muslim countries these far-right currents claim that their true national values (democracy, safety, liberty, equality) tend to be threatened. Consequently, extreme-right parties picture a dangerous and economic threatening external world, that menace traditions and values, while promising a conservative, introvert, and protected society, if elected.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, female populist followers, members and leaders are becoming an unexpectedly increasing reality, especially in Europe. While social and economic insecurities create uncertainty, more and more female voters tend to rely on populist parties’ promises, especially when it is a female leader expressing them. It results that far-right males utilize female party members as pioneers to gain support also among the female voters. By appealing to the women’s call for equality, security and liberty, the far-right feminist agenda turns to be an adequate reply. 

Due to the female leaders’ power of framing and shaping reality, they obtain consensus when uniting the citizens on a common national identity. Therefore, foreign beliefs, lifestyles, and customs need to be excluded. Consequently, a new nativist population arises, whereas to the local culture and traditions are given priority. 

Labelling immigrants as sexual predators and a threat to local security are one of the few accusations used by female populists to differentiate between “insiders” and “outsiders.” By utilizing the anti-migration rhetoric to garner political support, women’s right is being instrumentalised to generate “equality.” The question is when the targeted group of female citizens realizes that the camouflaged ethnocentrism strategy relies on falsified commitments, instrumentalised by the patriarchal far-right policy. 

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