Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though “foreigners” are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as “enemies” or “friends” in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it.
By Tuna Tasir*
Europe has been highly affected by the global rise of populism (Balfour, 2017; Lazar, 2021; Jones, 2017; Crum and Oleart, 2023); especially radical right populism. In some countries, like Italy, radical right populists have won power; in others, like France, they are growing their influence. Besides European politics, scholarly debates and media are haunted by populism. Many reasons why populism is so successful have been revealed. The pragmatic flexibility of populists is crucial because it allows them to transform their discourses, policies, and targets. Populists adapt quickly to society’s changing needs (real and perceived), based on the country and its elites, which complicates the paths taken to respond to populism.
The Nature of Populism
Normative explanations cannot describe populism because it has no fixed shape with regular programs or principles. As some have argued, populism is not a full ideology like liberalism or socialism but rather is a thin-centered ideology that can be combined with other ‘thicker’ ideologies easily (Abromeit, 2017: 178; Çamurcuoğlu, 2019: 285; Canovan, 1999: 4; Mudde, 2004: 543; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012: 168). When associated with the radical right, populism is also associated with nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007: 22). Specifically, nativism is known to set the basis for xenophobia to emerge and spread (Yıldırım, 2017: 57). However, is associating with nativism, even xenophobia, a normative feature of populism or does it adapt over time or with the conditions of a specific country?
Populists often construct the alienated others, including foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as scapegoats. The targeted language of populist discourse depends on various determinants like the majority and minority ethnicity or religion, the position of the populist party being either the ruling party or in opposition, and the opportunities that emerge in the country. Although left-wing and right-wing variants differ in their creation and treatment of ‘others,’ for the sake of brevity, this piece will focus solely on right-wing populism and its discursive and divisive construction of “foreigners.”
Rhetoric about “the foreigners” varies among the right-wing parties. Considering their nativist, even xenophobic politics, radical right populism might be assumed to always use hostile discourse towards foreigners. In contrast, it can vary in different contexts. In this essay, I will analyze the political rhetoric of the right-wing parties about “foreigners” by examining the cases of Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.
Different Usages of Foreigners in Radical Right Populism
The usage of ‘foreigners’ in populist rhetoric is observed to differ according to the position of a populist party- whether in opposition or office. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, promised to prevent immigrants from coming by sea during her election campaign (Giuffrida, 2022). After coming to power, she enacted a code that limits humanitarian non-governmental organizations from running rescue operations in the Mediterranean (The Maritime Executive, 2023). Yet, her populist attitude against foreigners has changed slightly, especially after being criticized following a shipwreck in which at least 86 immigrants died near the coasts of Calabria in Italy in February (AFP, 2023). Recently, Italy changed its attitude towards immigration and gave the green light to sign a new Migration and Asylum Pact proposed by the European Union (EU). Meloni decided to ease her populist attitude against immigrants for now (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023). While some assert that Italy gained some concessions from the EU (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023), Marine Le Pen, the leader of a populist radical right party in France, claimed that Meloni’s seemingly more inclusive attitude results from the recovery plan offered by the EU (Basso, 2023). No matter which account is accurate, the situation demonstrates that populist radical right attitudes towards foreigners can change after coming into office and over time.
Another element that defines pragmatic changes in the rhetoric about others by the right-wing parties regards the politics of ethnicity. Ethnicity is central in the rhetoric of radical right populists. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainians had to move to European countries. Having radical right populists in office, countries such as Poland and Hungary softened their exclusionary rhetoric and welcomed Ukrainian refugees (Palotai and Veres, 2022). It can be argued that in this case, it is situational and not related to ethnicity. It can also be claimed that these governments oppose immigrants, not refugees or asylum seekers. However, while these countries showed their hospitality to Ukrainian refugees, they were not as welcoming towards refugees of war and conflict from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Beauchamp, 2015; Vadhanavisala, 2020; Cienski, 2017; Witte, 2022; Ghadakpour, 2022). This double standard is not unique to radical right populists – examples can be located throughout European politics. Nonetheless, this double standard by the radical right populists is ironic when considering their typically nativist, even xenophobic, politics (Venturi and Vallianatou, 2022; Reilly and Flynn, 2022).
“Foreigners” do not always have to be enemies in the populist discourse. Religion and opportunistic considerations play a crucial role in shaping rhetoric about foreigners. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embraced numerous Syrians after the Arab Spring. Besides, the EU is committed to aid 10 billion Euro to Turkey for Syrians (European Union “EU Support to Refugees in Türkiye”). Therefore, economic considerations about the ongoing refugee crisis between the EU and neighboring states feed into creating pragmatic approaches toward refugees as foreigners in a populist sense. The same pragmatism can be seen in Meloni’s attitude towards immigrants. One of the reasons for embracing Syrians might be related to the financial aid from the EU, just as Meloni’s green light to the new Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pact might be associated with the post-covid recovery funds.
Embracing Syrians seems to be associated with discursive opportunities and benefits as well. In this way, Erdogan claims he cares for Syrians (Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye, 2016), who are Muslims, as most Turkish people are. Syrians are a valuable subject to earn the support of religious and conservative identities. Additionally, Erdogan used Syrians to threaten the West to let them flow into Europe (Beaumont and Smith, 2019) and rhetorically to accuse the West of causing the tragedy not only in the Middle East but in the Aegean and Mediterranean as well (Alarabiya News, 2015; Hacaoglu and Nikas, 2021; Rankin, 2020). Although most Turkish people reported wanting Syrians to return to Syria, Erdogan used Arab and Syrian immigrants given citizenship as voters in the 2023 Turkish General Elections. Although these votes may not be enough to change the results, what will happen in the next elections when the number of Syrians gaining citizenship increases over the years?
Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though foreigners are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as enemies or friends in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it (Taşır, 2023).
Moreover, the ethnicity of foreigners might change the attitudes of populist radical right parties. Two arguments can explain this change: First, some populist parties might feel close to foreigners because they share ethnic and geographic past. Second, some foreigners might be prioritized due to their ethnicity. The cases of Hungary and Poland are likely to be explained by both arguments. Furthermore, a discursive benefit of this attitude is to create antagonistic division among foreigners by separating them into “good” and “evil.” They accept foreigners according to the arguments above, in this way, can claim that they are not literally against foreigners. In the case study of Hungary and Poland, Ukrainians are considered as good and deserving of protection, while “others” are seen as evils who might corrupt the countries if they get accepted.
Finally, religion and opportunities can transform foreigners from enemies to friends in populist rhetoric. In a society that identifies as conservative and religious, it is an excellent opportunity to welcome foreigners from the same religion as natives. In this way, a message can be directed to ‘the people’ that says: I care about what you care about. Furthermore, it is a different way to make an antagonistic division and mobilize people around that. In our case, the “pure us” who embrace Syrians versus the “corrupt them” referring to the West creates a greater common enemy by using the new foreigners in the country and positioning them against a bigger alienated other. Besides, foreigners might be used as a bargaining tool, as seen in the case of allowing a large intake of Syrians into Europe.
Consequently, thanks to their flexibility, the populist radical right seems to continue to appeal to people (Mudde, 2004: 563; Moffitt, 2016: 135). Although “foreigners” will be the main topic in the future because of wars, crisis, climate change, especially with the increase of “climate refugees” (Taşır, 2023), and poor living conditions, it is hardly easy to say that they were always positioned as enemies in the rhetoric of the radical right populism. The context might change the populist undertones, including a harsher or softer discourse yet there is always an enemy. That is why, to cope with radical right populism, it is vital to produce solutions according to the context.
More questions remain to be addressed: What can prevent the disintegration of civil society under the rule of a populist regime that uses hate speech or softer and seemingly inclusive language yet still targets and creates an enemy? What can the international community do in support of civil rights in times of political targeting of specific groups within or beyond the borders of a country? What have we learned or did not learn from history, and how can we build a safer society for the most vulnerable? What can the youth and the young professionals do in times of crisis to support EU values, liberal democracy, and civil rights? These questions beget collective thinking and sharing the pain of the most vulnerable internationally and equally.
(*) Tuna Tasir (Taşır) is currently a writer at Institute for a Greater Europe and a senior undergraduate student and researcher in Political Sciences and Public Administration. His papers have been published in several think tanks. Tuna is interested in populism and the far-right, Euroscepticism, political sociology, and comparative politics. Besides, he has been conducting his research project on “the level of Euroscepticism of would-be bureaucrats in Turkey” granted by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.
Tuna participated in national and international projects, including European Solidarity Corps projects funded by the European Union. Furthermore, he is one of the owners of a project conducted in association with Izmir Metropolitan Municipality called “Eco Solutions Fest,” which aims to raise awareness of climate change and its impacts among people, especially youth. He worked as a peer reviewer for EPR 2023, run by EST Think Tank, and as an intern at “Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Research,” “Center for Diplomatic Affairs and Political Studies,” and “Bayraklı District Governorate.” From September 2023 to January 2024, he will study at Université Libre de Bruxelles as Erasmus Student Exchange Program.
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