Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Muhammad Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Populism, Violence, and Vigilantism in Indonesia: Rizieq Shihab and His Far-Right Islamist Populism

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab has been one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia since the late 1990s. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In 2020 Shihab was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his ‘moral revolution’ campaign, in the middle of pandemic lockdowns. However, his radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab—more commonly known as Habib Rizieq—is one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia. He has been a permanent fixture in Indonesian popular culture since the late 1990s but drew international media coverage in late 2016 and early 2017, where he spearheaded mass protests intended to derail the election campaign of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic-Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta. Billed as “Protests to defend the Qur’an,” they were more widely known as the “2/12 protests” because the largest of the protests, which saw over 500,000 people flood the center of the national capital, was held on 2 December 2016.

In 2020, Shihab again made headlines when he was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his “moral revolution” campaign, in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.”

The Roots of Shihab’s Islamist Ideology

One of the most important political developments of the twentieth century for Muslim majority populations across the world was the fall of the Ottoman Empire (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The decline of this vast empire, as with other great empires, occurred incrementally. It entered a nearly two-century-long twilight phase before it was broken up following its decisive defeat in the First World War (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The majority of Sunni Muslims across the world traditionally saw the Ottoman Empire as representing a modern continuation of the Muslim caliphate, which started with the leadership of Prophet Muhammad.

When the symbolic figurehead of the Sunni Muslim world suddenly ceased to exist, the gap was soon fulfilled by the relatively new leadership of the Saud family who became the rulers of modern-day Saudi Arabia (Dillon, 2009; Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The kingdom had itself been part of the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia hosts two of the holiest cities in the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina, to which Muslim pilgrims pay annual visits in the form of Haj or umrah.

Saudi Arabia’s symbolic significance derives from it being the home of the two holy cities and custodian of the Kabah. While the Ottomans were, like the Saudis, followers of Sunni Islam, they adhered to the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa. Thus, the Ottomans followed the Hanafi school of thought, and in approaching the Qur’an, the sunnah and the hadithsought to understand Islam using the methods of ijma (consensus) and qiyas (deduction from analogy) (Baer, Makdisi, and Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). This idea of interpretation using deduction and consensus has made the Hanafi school more flexible and open to adaptation to the changing times than the Hanbali school followed in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the Hanafi influence, the societies of the Ottoman Empire were also influenced by thousands of Sufi teachers, writers, and mystics (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). The Sufi approach to Islam believes in establishing a direct connection between the higher power and the individual and does not solely rely on sacred texts and religious rituals to build this connection (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). Hanafi approaches to interpretation and the influences of Sufi thought and practice combined to make the religious culture of the Ottoman Empire generally open and tolerant. There were a great variety of sects and Islamic traditions welcomed in the empire. Still, there were also many opportunities for non-Muslims to play important functional roles, not just in society but also in administrative affairs.

In contrast with Ottoman society’s pluralistic and flexible practices, the Al Saud dynasty took a narrower and more rigid approach as followers of the literalist new school of Sunni thought established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the eighteenth century, Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, joined forces with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The former accepted the latter’s ideology and approach to religious life in exchange for al-Wahhab’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the Al Saud leadership. The Wahhabi movement, or Salafi school of thought, is markedly more stringent than the schools of thought that came before it as it was formed as a “reformist” movement to “purify” Islam from what is thought of as “additional” rituals (Dillon, 2009).

Over the years, Salafi hardliners have propagated the idea that it is only through their legalistic approach that true adherence to the Islamic ideal of monotheistic worship is possible. The Salafi take a negative and, at times, hostile attitude and behavior toward the various sub-sects of Sunni Islam and toward Shia Muslims and non-Muslims (Dillon, 2009). Since the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia has been able to spread its brand of Islam through its petrodollar wealth generated from the fossil fuel industry. Leveraging the cultural capital of its guardianship of the sacred sites and drawing liberally on its financial capital to disseminate its ideology by financing various educational organizations, Saudi Arabia has tried to influence Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Egypt to accept Arab culture and Salafi Wahabism as being essential to authentic expressions of Islam.

In this endeavor, education represents an essential vehicle for propagation. Funding of madrasa (religious schools) and even universities—such as the International Islamic Universities—through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and sponsoring scholarships for students from Muslim countries to gain religious education at King Saud University constitute key elements of Saudi influence (Junior, 2017; Ghoshal, 2010).

In observing the presence of Saudi influence in Asia, Ghoshal (2010) comments, “this process of homogenization and regimentation—a process I would like to call the ‘Arabization’ of Islam—puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds, a rigidly puritanical branch of Islam exported from, and subsidized by, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” As a result, in Asia, Muslim-majority countries have witnessed growing radicalization since the 1980s. Various leaders trained at Saudi-funded and affiliated institutions have continued to spread the hardline narrative of Wahhabism (Freeman, Ellena & Kator-Mubarez, 2021; Benjamin, 2016).

Indonesia

Indonesia’s Salafist Protégé

As one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab positions himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In this quest, he formed the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) in 1998 (Jahroni, 2004). Shihab has used his knowledge of sharia law to declare himself the “grand imam” of Indonesia, dressed in symbolic white—a “pure” color in Islam—with either a green turban (reflecting the color of the shrine of Muhammad) or white turban to symbolize the “purity” and “truth” of his message. While assuming an anti-state approach, Shihab has nevertheless acted as a lobbyist for mainstream right-wing populist parties by swaying voters their way.

In the typical manner of a populist leader, Shihab seeks a direct connection with “the people.” Not only does he use his fluent Arabic and standard religious rhetoric to incite intense emotions in the crowd, but he also draws upon his origin story of “humble beginnings” to relate to his audience. The wearing of plain clothes, the use of “crude” or simplistic language, and the cracking of jokes at rallies while talking about the “evils” that plague the Muslims of the world are his populist hallmarks (Maulia, 2020). Like other populist leaders, Shihab channels the “common person” persona to successfully position himself against the “corrupt elite” with the underlying assumption that “the elite” cannot relate to, and thus do not care about, “the people” (Yilmaz, 2021a; McDonnell & Ondelli, 2020; Nai & Coma, 2019). When Narendra Modi, for example, takes pride in his humble beginnings as a chai wala (tea stall owner) or when Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls himself a “Black Turk” (Yilmaz, 2021b) to relate with the conservative and historically disenfranchised Muslims of small Anatolian towns, both are relating to the “common people” by identifying themselves as being an approachable and relatable leader in contrast to “the elite” and “corrupt” who do not speak, dress, behave and at times look the same way as “the people.”

Rizieq Shihab lost his father as a child and was raised in modest circumstances by his widowed young mother. He gained his school degree at the Salafist Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab (LIPIA), which is one of a chain of Islamic schools funded by Saudi Arabia in Indonesia (Varagur, 2020). At LIPIA, Shihab was exposed to “true Islamic teachings” mixed with state curriculum guidelines. Varagur’s (2020) investigation into Saudi influence in Indonesia revealed that LIPIA uses a blended curriculum employing Wahhabi ideology and the social ideas of “Muslim Brotherhood-oriented political thinkers.” Consequently, LIPIA produces both Salafi teachers and Islamist social leaders. Like Shihab, many other figures have emerged from this milieu as Islamist leaders occupying prominent roles in domestic politics, such as Hidayat Nur Wahid, the leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Varagur, 2020).

Being well-versed in Arabic texts and Salafi teaching, it was not hard for Shihab to earn a scholarship at the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, where he continued his studies of sharia and Islam. Following his studies, he spent some time teaching in Saudi Arabia and later in Indonesia at Salafi educational institutes (Jahroni, 2004). As a popular preacher in the field of tableeg (spreading the religion), Shihab was a fixture in various Jakarta suburbs at Majelis Ta’lim (religious lectures) (Rijal, 2020; Woodward, 2012). Via these gatherings, Shihab built his social capital with the locals as a spiritual mentor who was imparting the “right” version of Islam to them. His involvement in Majelis Ta’lim was one of his first opportunities to interact with people outside the school setting to whom he could preach Salafism.

Given the conditions on Java, a densely populated island with wide disparities in wealth and endemic urban poverty, the Islamic ideals of equity and justice preached by popular figures like Shihab have great appeal for the disenfranchised. Yilmaz, Morieson, and Demir (2021) have pointed out that the use of “social justice” by populist Islamist leaders to call out the failure of government is an important theme. Using this notion, Shihab entered Jakarta’s politics with one foot in the door with the help of popular Islamic preaching in the 1990s. He made effective use of Salafi idealism to address what conventional and “Western” forms of democracy had failed to deliver for the Indonesian people.

Post-Suharto, as Indonesia returned to democracy in 1998, a plethora of new religious and conservative parties seized the opportunity to campaign and participate in elections. This led to a rise in religious groups forming parties and registering them, including the FPI (Hadiz, 2016). As a counter to growing student-led civil unrest against the regime, right-wing parties were also promoted by the state to counter the protesters on the streets (Hadiz, 2016: 154). With democratic freedoms and encouragement by the state, Indonesia soon saw a marked rise in right-wing parties, of which the FPI was one.

Before 1998, Shihab had a limited audience for his religious lectures. But new political freedoms gave him a chance to use FPI as a populist Islamist party to spread its Salafism to a much wider audience. FPI preaching drew heavily on Salafi romanticization of jihad, which “tend[s] to emphasize the military exploits of the Salaf (the early generations of Muslims) to give their violence an even more immediate divine imperative” (Hamid & Dar, 2016). As a result, FPI, under the leadership of Shihab, carried out frequent acts of vigilantism under the banner of a “moral jihad” against “the Other” (Woodward, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab’s Call for Vigilantism

Who constitutes this “Other,” one might ask? From Shihab’s perspective, “the Other” is not only limited to the political elite of the country. He has constantly categorized liberal Muslims, non-Muslims, and Western countries as “enemies.” They are seen as being antagonists of the faith, and their actions are said to constantly endanger Islam at home and across the world. Firmly believing in the call for action, Shihab has called out his followers to pick up arms against “the others.” Thus, a core part of FPI’s activities has been vigilantism.

Hardline Islamism has been used to spew hatred to those who are seen as the “outsiders.” Shihab has used his “anti-establishment agenda” to incite people to take up arms (Mietzner, 2018). His narrative hinges on inciting “fear” among his followers. Given the correlated nature of faith and identity, when the followers perceive a threat to their faith, they feel an ontological crisis looming above their heads. Using this vulnerability by inciting fear and feelings of victimhood as part of the oppressed Muslim ummah, the “faithful” are guided to solutions. In Shihab’s case, the narrative is that Indonesian politicians are either mere puppets of the Western powers or are simply incompetent. Thus, to save oneself in this life and the life after, the believer must take action. Since the formation of FPI in 1998, numerous members have been arrested and charged with spreading terror by vandalism (Facal, 2019; Ricklefs, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

By placing the Qur’an (in line with Wahabi thinking) above the state and the democratically elected government, the FPI has urged its militia members to continue their actions against “the Other” on the ground that it is necessary to bring sharia to Indonesia (Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016: 112; Wilson, 2015). Hadiz (2016: 112) argues that “[The FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.” Shihab has raised a private army of volunteers. The Islamic Defenders Front Militia/Front Pembela Islam or Laskar Pembela Islam (LPI) is the militant wing of Shihab’s group, which puts its ideology into action. They are unlike terrorist groups in the sense that they do not use sophisticated weapons to terrorize citizens at various “hot spots” such as nightclubs. However, they believe in the same ideology that “un-Islamic” behavior is threatening Islam and the future of the ummah, and thus action needs to be taken.

Over the years, Shihab has been able to design and organize the LPI militia in a highly systematic manner, with individuals leading paramilitary cells of various sizes just like an army. These are volunteer citizens who dress in paramilitary garb and use their sticks, batons, and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” to terrorize and attack those seen as “Other.” The members of the LPI are called “Jundi.” Jundi fighters are organized into ranks, with superior officers responsible for anywhere between 25 and 25,000 vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004). Within this militia, the overarching leader is the Imam Besar (“grand imam”)—namely, Shihab himself—who is the “spiritual guide” for all the actions of the vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004).

The LPI is also known to welcome non-militia members of FPI, such as the volunteers, while purging “hotspots” in the city (Facal, 2019). Sito (2019: 191) notes how Shihab has legitimized violence as the answer to problems faced by Muslims as he “stated that such businesses [i.e., hotspots of vice] ensure only social deviance which are the product of Western secularism (sekularisme), pluralism (pluralisme), and liberalism (liberalisme), shortened as “sepilis.” The acronym is a homophone of syphilis, which is intended to mock and draw an equivalency between sexually transmitted diseases and Western culture and capitalism, pegged as the culprit of the economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. Accordingly, over the years, the FPI has claimed that such vigilantism is an expected outcome of upholding the Muslim duty to “promote good and prevent evil.”

The militant activities of the FPI have been highly visible ever since its inception. In 1998 various members of its groups were involved in a clash between the ethnic Chinese residents of Ketapang that lead to the death of over a dozen of ethnically Chinese Indonesian Catholics (Bouma, Ling & Pratt, 2009). Attacks on nightspots, bars, clubs, and suspected LGBTQ+ events have become a hallmark of the group. While the group was banned recently due to its terror sprees, its activities have been able to continue because of the support it has received from law enforcement agencies.

While Indonesia might seem like a peaceful country on the surface, it has long been struggling with reactionary religious forces. In election campaigns, radical Islamism has become an important factor, and public perceptions about modesty, norms, and values are primarily driven by those claiming to act in the name of Islam. Within this context, Shihab has been able to build an alliance with the state security forces (including the police), who are also proactive in their crackdowns on “deviant” groups such as the LGBTQ+ and Ahmadiyya communities. The FPI has been known to carry out the “dirty work” by attacking these groups and, at times, acting as informants about their activities for the police. This symbiotic relationship has allowed both these groups to benefit (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

The group targets “the Other” to ensure “the purity” of religion remains intact for “the people.” The police get to work to covertly appease politicians, who feel pressure to persecute “deviant” groups who “defy” religion. For its part, the members of the FPI have the opportunity to channel negative feelings—instilled through the preaching of Islamist populist leaders such as Shihab via a trauma-inducing narrative—into a physical manifestation of rage against “the Other” (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

Due to the intensity of the violence associated with LPI activities, the group’s leaders and street militia members have been repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for threatening the country’s unity and law and order. Rizieq Shihab has twice served time for hate speech inciting LPI members to attack tourist spots or target non-Muslim and Ahmadiyya groups and villages (Jahroni, 2004: 218). While some politicians initially valued the LPI and FPI as useful counters to civil rights protests, these vigilantes have become harder to control and have used their street power to challenge the state (Facal, 2019; Juoro, 2019: 28; Mietzner, 2018; Hookway, 2017).

While Shihab’s Salafist call for jihad has not resulted in the FPI becoming a true violent extremist group in Indonesia, it has seen its members turn to transnational populist jihad. Shihab has convinced his followers that they are not only Indonesian citizens but also part of the global ummah of Muslims and, thus, have a collective obligation to pursue global jihad against “the Western lobby” and “the Zionists” (Nuryanti, 2021; Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016).

Shihab effectively uses victimhood narratives anchored to nationalism and a faith-based identity that transcends geographical bounds. In this way, the Salafi training that thousands receive in Indonesia makes them prone to become part of the global jihad effort (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). This has become a very dangerous idea as today the world is more connected than ever, and jihadist groups rely upon these ideas to recruit young people (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). In Shihab’s speeches, the “evils” and “cruelty” of the Zionists against the Palestinians is a re-occurring theme that not only talks about the plight of the Palestinians but also politicizes it an attack on every Muslim and the Islamic faith itself. There are clear indications that many have passed through the ranks of the FPI to go on to violent extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS ([email protected], 2021; Idris, 2018: 9).

Members of The Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) rally in front of Indonesia election supervisory agency (Bawaslu) in Jakarta on May 10, 2019.

The FPI a Surrogate Welfare System

The FPI is not merely a vigilante group. The organization has established extensive networks of humanitarian aid providing relief in cases of natural disasters and assistance to the urban/suburban poor of Jakarta (Singh, 2020; Facal, 2019; Sheany, 2018). Services include education and ration packets for the poor. Shihab himself was groomed for his role in a welfarist madrasa setting, winning scholarships as he progressed from one stage of his education to the next.

Keeping this model in view, Shihab has helped the FPI develop many religious schools where children gain an Islamic education and some Arabic training as well. These schools are usually built in impoverished areas where the state has failed to reach out and address the most pressing needs of the people (Facal, 2019). The schools established by Shihab and the FPI leadership follow Salafi Wahabi teaching, which is reflected in gender segregation, strict adherence to dress codes, and other “sharia principles” (Facal, 2019). When public schools are too far from local villages or suburban homes, the proximity of the FPI madrasa gives those who would not otherwise be able to afford it a chance to educate their children. However, these seemingly altruistic establishments are places where young minds are shaped and influenced by the ideology propagated by Shihab and the FPI at large.

Aid work has been a rich field of opportunity for the FPI to extend its influence and build its credibility. Shihab’s popularity and his Saudi connections along with local supporters have allowed the FPI to establish grassroots networks of volunteers to carry out aid work that ranges from evacuating residents from flood-stricken areas to rebuilding homes, such as after the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Much of the humanitarian work was not done by the military nor the state in the immediate aftermath or long-term recovery (Sheany, 2018). One report noted that in mid-February 2004, only the TNI (the Indonesian armed forces), the Mujahedeen Council, and the FPI were the only ones actively involved in the region: “One should note that at the time the volunteers who had been working in the immediate period were already exhausted. Thus, the [aforementioned parties] seem to be the ones who work when nobody else wants to. Whereas at the initial stages, it really was not [the military] who managed the corpses’ evacuation and took care of the sick and injured” (East West Center, 2005: 33). Thus, it is clear that over time, the FPI has created a synergetic relationship at the grassroots within members and communities by providing welfare services (Hookway, 2017).

When the state fails to cope with pressing social and economic issues, populist actors can effectively use dissent and direct it at political leadership. Since the FPI has been seen carrying out “altruistic” actions in the most vulnerable communities, it can draw support from there and establish its stronghold in the vacuum left by a weak state. Thus, Shihab’s rhetoric has repeatedly talked about how the ulama are targeted by an “amoral” government. Therefore, the state’s refusal to “repent” for its sins leaves “the people” with no choice but to carry out its own jihad to guarantee its welfare both in this world and the hereafter (Maulia, 2020; Lembaga Survei Indonesia & Wahid Institute, 2016). With a loyal support base of followers, Shihab’s self-proclaimed mission of establishing a “caliphate” or a Daulah Islam is strengthened where “the people” can practice their true faith (Salafism) “freely.” The political “elite” and “minorities” are accorded little or no room in this idolized caliphate (Campbell, 2017; Hookway, 2017).

More than 200,000 Muslim protesters has descended on Jakarta to demand the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok, be arrested for insulting Islam on November 4, 2016.

Shihab’s Targeting of Ahok in Political Lobbying

After Shihab’s first arrest leading to jail time in 2003, he stepped back and restyled himself, becoming a member of the FPI’s board. In 2013, he declared himself the “grand imam” of the organization. He took a less active role in leading protests but remained, as always, the face of the organization. The anti-Ahok protests showcased his charisma and power, reminding many of why the FPI remained a potential threat to the political elite of Indonesia.

Even before the protests broke out in 2016, signs of the potentially significant political power of the FPI and other right-wing political players were present. Stoking “fear” and using the rhetoric of hate while attributing the markers of moral superiority and victimhood to “the pure people,” groups and leaders such as Shihab have been able to influence the writing and implementation of legislation in key areas, particular at the local level. Hookway (2017) has noted how the FPI has been able to develop social capital through its “morally driven” vigilantism and community-based activities: “In recent years, lobbying groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have helped introduce more than 400 Shariah-inspired laws, including those that penalize adultery, force women to wear headscarves and restrict them from going out at night” (Hookway, 2017). Sharia-inspired legislation has been passed in FPI strongholds, where its presence has been deeply entrenched with the community (Hookway, 2017).

In terms of mainstream politics, the FPI on its own never possessed a voter bank large enough to win a significant place in the parliament. With Shihab’s Islamist political rhetoric, however, right-wing politicians saw a ready resource for mobilizing support on the street in the form of the FPI. Shihab has long been active in mainstream politics, and the plethora of banners and posters in communities where the FPI is deeply attached showcases support for the leader and his allies. The FPI has supported the populist politician Prabowo Subianto since 2014, and this relationship only grew in intensity following the Ahok protests in 2016.

Ahok was the Christian-Chinese deputy governor and righthand man to Joko Widodo (Jokowi) when he was governor of Jakarta. When Widodo became president, Ahok replaced him as governor. Ahok’s very positive public image made him a well-liked figure, and after the 2014 victory of Jokowi, it was speculated that Ahok would be his running mate in the 2019 elections and even a possible presidential candidate for the 2024 general elections (Mietzner, 2018: 270). But before the formal announcement of Jokowi’s running mate in 2016, Ahok became embroiled in a religious scandal that targeted his religious and ethnic background. He was accused of committing blasphemy when he criticized his opponents for their politicized misuse of Quranic verses against him (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018).

A heavily edited campaign video in which Ahok made critical comments alongside discussion of the Qur’an surfaced in 2016, and he became an instant target of attack. He was charged with blasphemy, found guilty, and sent to jail, meaning he can never hold public office again (Nuryanti, 2021). While Jokowi is a pluralist, he remained largely silent and distant during Ahok’s trial and, at the end in 2019, chose a conservative Muslim running mate in the form of Ma’aruf Amin, the chair of the influential Ulama Council of Indonesia (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) (Yilmaz, 2020).

After the viral spread of the Ahok video, the MUI issued a fatwa urging the government to look into the matter as they responded to public sentiment that Ahok had committed blasphemy and harmed the sentiments of the majority of Indonesian Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Mietzner, 2018). Ahok’s public apology following the video’s surfacing and blasphemy accusations did little to satisfy the hardliners who were now able to not only attract conservative masses but even moderate Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021).

The Action to Defend Islam (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations were country-wide protests and sit-ins by the FPI and other right-wing parties and organizations that called for Ahok’s resignation as the governor and immediate prosecution (Fealy, 2016). Ethnic Chinese business people and other members of the elite were a constant target of the FPI even before the Ahok video surfaced. The xenophobic line of attack taken by Islamist populists like Shihab had turned this group into “the Other,” based on differences of faith and ethnicity. Given Indonesia’s past, Shihab had instilled fear in the electorate by claiming that were national leaders selected from among the ethnic Chinese community, communism would be re-imposed in Indonesia (Seto, 2019).

Even as early as 1999, the FPI had printed banners and hung them across university campuses warning students, “Alert! Zionism and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Shihab was able to forge strong alliances with opposition parties and right-wing groups as the FPI became the face of the anti-Ahok movement. By making the issue about “defending Islam,” he was able to evoke deep emotion among crowds. Shihab began to describe himself as “the Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims,” proclaiming a theologically grounded authority to voice the people’s desire for a devout life and the removal of Islam’s enemies (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774). Shihab’s religious populism has thus deployed Islam as a tool to further his agenda and place in the political arena, mobilizing millions to march in support of the movement (Fealy, 2016; Hutton, 2018).

Rizieq Shihab’s loud proclamations that the people had been “hurt” and that religion was “insulted” cast him as a defender of Islam in the eyes of many who supported the marches. In 2017, Ahok, once popular and riding high, lost his re-election bid and subsequently served time in prison. The FPI actively supported a rival candidate for governor of Jakarta. While the protests were able to create an “asymmetric multi-class alliance” between the FPI, religious groups, and the opposition, they failed to secure a majority in the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. Nevertheless, the current mood points to the likelihood that the same alliance will come together to contest the 2024 general elections as well (Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab Imprisonment and the Future of Salafism in Indonesia

Joko Widodo was able to safeguard his political position by distancing himself from the Ahok in 2017 and staying largely silent on the protest movement. Nevertheless, following Ahok’s loss in the gubernatorial elections, the government began to move against the FPI leadership. Seeing the tide turn, Shihab left Indonesia, ostensibly on a short umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. However, he remained in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia when it became clear that the Indonesian police were seeking him in connection with pornography charges.

During his extended sojourn in Saudi Arabia, Shihab remained active online, connecting with “the people” and constantly spewing hatred and spreading conspiracies under the banner of “defending Islam.” During this time, he did not refrain from portraying the government in power as “the enemy” of “the faithful.” The charges against Shihab were subsequently dropped, and he returned home, espousing a mission to lead a “moral revolution” across Indonesia. Political analysts quickly and loudly concluded that this was simply Shihab’s latest Islamist populist tactic to gain momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020).

Taking an anti-Jokowi Islamist stance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Shihab was given a “hero’s welcome” on his return home after nearly two years exiled in Saudi Arabia. The mass gatherings that resulted were troubling for the government because of their risk as super-spreader events. Moreover, they were politically troublesome, feeding into a general sense of despondency triggered by the economic effects of the pandemic. Indonesia was hit hard as its economy suffered greatly due to the fall-off in international tourism and periodic lockdowns (Singh, 2020). In the context of growing discontent directed toward the government, the return of the “grand imam” who promised a better future for the country and afterlife has been a worrying and unwelcome development (FR24, 2020).

Shihab made himself an increasingly large target for government prosecution. He loudly refused to get tested at a government facility for COVID-19 and continued to promote large gatherings of supporters and evoked extreme emotions busing his trademark blend of street humor, political rhetoric, and Islamist hate speech demonizing others. The day before his anticipated arrest, six young members of the FPI were shot dead in a violent confrontation with the police (Aqil, 2020). The government claimed that the victims were armed terrorists trying to destabilize the country’s law and order. Shihab was arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was banned as various members and key leaders were found to be involved in inciting violence (Kelemen, 2021).

Shihab voluntarily handed himself over to the authorities. In the eyes of his followers, this casts him as a martyr and the government as “tyrannical.” In custody in March 2021, he refused to participate in his trial (held remotely by video link), signaling non-compliance by reciting verses from the Qur’an whenever the court sought to question or otherwise engage with him, and his behavior delayed the trial. Since being sentenced, the Indonesian government has refused to disclose his location for fear of drawing large crowds of protesters and supporters (detikNews, 2021).

Conclusion

While Shihab’s immediate future hangs in the balance, there is certainty regarding Islamist populism in Indonesia. Shihab is not the only populist political actor in the country who has used Islamism to build a following. It is still unclear how the disbanded FPI leadership will regroup around the 2024 elections. The sudden ban, the shooting deaths of supporters, and the use of COVID-19 lockdown legislation to arrest Shihab have only served to cast him as a holy martyr in the eyes of his followers.

At the same time, the efficacy of exploiting religious sentiment to generate fear has compounded the power of populist Islamism in Indonesian life. Shihab’s radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action. The FPI may be outlawed, but tens of thousands of FPI activists can regroup under new banners or join or form similar groups. Even behind bars, evidence of Shihab’s political power is displayed by the fact that his location is kept secret due to fear of protests and riots outside the jail. Shihab’s courtroom theatrics involving the recitation of the Qur’an to delay his trial while displaying his “heroic piety” show the enduring power and efficacy of Islamist populism in Indonesia.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. 

The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. 

He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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Jair Bolsonaro during participation in the Unica Forum 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 18, 2018. Photo: Marcelo Chello

Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship

Jair Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. His caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Trump in his use of such platforms. He is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” — however, his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

By Simon P. Watmough

Introduction

On September 6, 2018, the then 64-year-old presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora in Brazil’s southern state of Minas Gerais, about 189 km from Rio de Janeiro. The city —a stronghold of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT)— nevertheless drew a massive crowd of supporters for the right-wing populist Congressman ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, set for October 7. According to some reports, some 30,000 supporters lined the streets (D. Phillips, 2019).

Videos—later shared widely on social media—captured the extraordinary scenes that followed. Dressed casually in his signature yellow and green t-shirt bearing the slogan “Meu Partido e Brasil” (“My party is Brazil”), the former army captain can be seen being carried aloft the shoulders of a mass of supporters moving along Juiz de Fora’s central plaza. He is smiling and waving jubilantly to crowds of well-wishers. Suddenly Bolsonaro grimaces in agony, clutching his abdomen. An assailant in the crowd has plunged a knife deep into his stomach, seriously wounding the far-right firebrand.

By all accounts, the attack nearly killed Bolsonaro, who was rushed to a local hospital having lost as much as two liters of blood. Internal injuries meant he was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was only removed well into his first month in office, in January 2019. Indeed, his injuries and hospitalization kept him largely off the trail for the duration of the campaign. Despite this, Bolsonaro came in first place in the October 7 first round, taking 46 percent in a crowded field of 13 candidates. He went on to win the second round on October 28, taking 55 percent of the votes cast against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad (Londoño & Darlington, 2018).

The stabbing “unwittingly boosted his TV exposure, just as his social media campaign took off” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95). Indeed, Bolsonaro drew adeptly on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to post images of himself in his hospital bed in surgical gowns receiving treatment to still-fresh wounds and in various stages of recovery. These bear a strong resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi’s parading of his bloody face and head wounds after being struck with a blunt instrument by a man at a campaign rally in Milan in April 2009 (Winward, 2009).

In this way, the attack formed a crucial backdrop to Bolsonaro’s campaign and eventual victory. Beyond the sympathy it garnered him, it seemed to reinforce two central aspects of his campaign. First, it made him a direct victim of the country’s disorder (thus reinforcing his claim to be one with ordinary Brazilians fed up with violent crime). Second— in surviving the attack—he bolstered his “tough guy” credentials, proving his uncompromising manhood and the “legendary” status he claims as his mantle.

Entering office as Brazil’s 38th president on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro ushered in a new era in Brazilian politics, the contours of which are still falling into place. Before Bolsonaro’s victory, “Brazilian presidential elections … [were] marked by a virtual duopoly, with the left-leaning PT and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) as the predictable finalists” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). In presidential elections between 1994 and 2018, the two parties had consistently taken 70–90 percent of the vote between them. His victory thus marked a break in the relative stability of Brazil’s party system and the so-called “Nova República” (“New Republic”) that emerged when the army restored civilian rule in 1985 after 21 years of military rule (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93).

Hidden in Plain Sight

The thrice-married Bolsonaro was born in 1955 in Sao Paulo state to a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family. Neither strictly an insider nor a clear outsider, his rise was instead “hidden in plain sight” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 80). His backstory—a contentious but rather undistinguished military and congressional career—and controversial statements mark him out as distinctive. Yet, he is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” (Weizenmann, 2019) — or the earlier Latin American populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Brazil’s own Fernando Collor de Mello. There is something to these comparisons, although arguably his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Bolsonaro began his career as a military cadet, serving 15 years in the army, much of it as a paratrooper. His military experience and identity as a former soldier are central to his political style and his approach to government. It may be fair to say that his military identity is the most salient aspect of his political brand, the foundation on which all else is built. His authoritarian leanings were evident even during his time in the army. Toward the end of his career, at the dawn of the Nova República, he began to court controversy. In 1986, he landed his first blow against the new democratic regime, going public with a series of critiques that the new civilian leadership was undermining the military. In an article published in Veja, a popular Brazilian tabloid, he lambasted the inability of elected elites to ensure adequate pay and conditions for ordinary soldiers (Polimédio, 2018). In 1987, he was arrested and drummed out of the military when it became clear he had sketched plans to bomb military installations to bring attention to the poor pay and conditions (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 12). He was found guilty by a military tribunal but was released soon afterward on appeal.

Almost immediately after the Veja controversy, Bolsonaro entered politics. From 1989 to 1991, he was a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Then he entered national politics in 1991. He won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, which he held for the next 27 years. During his time in Congress, he achieved little legislatively, and what moves he did make were concerned with improving the military pay and conditions (Polimédio, 2018). He was an inveterate party-switcher. Between his election to the National Congress in 1991 and his move to the presidential field in 2018, he changed parties seven times (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” was “the way out for Brazil”. Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship”

President Jair Bolsonaro takes part in the Brazilian Army Day celebration at the headquarters of the Brazilian Army Command in Sao Paulo, Brazil in April 18, 2019. Photo: BW Press.

 

“I am in favor of dictatorship”

Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. He infamously harassed one female Congresswoman, saying she “was ‘too ugly’ to be raped, claimed some black people were not ‘even good for procreation,’ and said he would rather one of his four sons ‘die in an accident’ than be gay” (Child, 2019). He has also described the conception of his fifth child — a daughter — as “a moment of weakness” (Brum, 2018).

However, it is arguably his open support for military rule and his yearning for a return to the period of military dictatorship that have most alarmed Brazilians. In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” (using the army to prorogue Congress and the courts to rule by decree as Peru’s President Fujimori had done) was “the way out for Brazil” (Brooke, 1993). Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship” (Weizenmann, 2019). He is on record publicly stating that the military dictatorship “should have killed more people” and that “You can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections” (Polimédio, 2018). Bolsonaro has long taken the view that the 1964 coup that felled Brazil’s post-WWII democracy was righteous and that the period of military dictatorship that ensued (1964 –1985) was “a glorious era” for Brazil, one “in which law and order prevailed” (Lichterbach, 2019).

His abhorrent views were cast into sharp relief in 2016 during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (see below). A Congressman at the time, he voted to impeach Rousseff — who as a young leftist had been arrested and tortured by the military — and “dedicated his vote ‘to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra’… one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship” (Brum, 2018). Many Bolsonaro supporters — including his own children — posted on social media wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ustra lives!” (ibid.)

“Populism as Parody”: Visual Self-Representation and Political Style

Bolsonaro’s caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Donald Trump in his use of such platforms—especially Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube—to reach the Brazilian people directly, unmediated by traditional channels (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). His campaign “relied heavily on political microtargeting via social media —and focused especially on professionalising a ‘fake news’ industry. In a country in which 70 percent of the population is functionally illiterate… the effect of fake news disseminated via WhatsApp has been perverse” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95).

As Evangelista and Bruno (2019: 17) note, this social media campaigning exacerbated “political feelings [already] present in the political debate.” Facebook/WhatsApp and YouTube especially allowed him to steadily expand his support over time as his message went viral: “Social media was essential … to generate unexpected exposure to messages through viral and targeted dissemination of contents. Memes, emojis, and images were at the center of the discursive battle to build pro-Bolsonaro interpretive frameworks” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

Bolsonaro’s distinctive mode of visual self-representation on social media stands out even among populist leaders worldwide. Mendonça and Caetano (2020) have argued persuasively that Bolsonaro deliberately curates his image on social media—especially Instagram—to emphasize simultaneous “eccentricity and ordinariness which makes his demeanor, his body, and his appropriation of institutional power function as a series of parodies” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 3). This chimes as well with Brum’s analysis of him as an “anti-president” who uses caricature and disdainful mockery to simultaneously emulate and disarm his opposition (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).

Mendonça and Caetano (2020: 12) note that Bolsonaro’s “visual aesthetic combines a sense of being of the people while at the same time projecting an understanding of himself as a charismatic exceptionality.” In this way, the authors argue, Bolsonaro has sought to make a parody of the office to simultaneously appropriate its symbolic power while crafting an image of being an outsider and “close to the people” via ordinary—almost hokey—images, including an Instagram post of him preparing breakfast with “ordinary bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk, poured directly from the can” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 14).

Bolsonaro’s ubiquitous social media presence and campaigning proved wildly successful. He retains fanatical support across Brazil. His fan base, which refers to him as “O Mito” (“The Legend”), skews heavily male and young. Indeed, one enterprising Brazilian company sought to cash in on his notoriety and has named one of its energy drinks — “Bolsomito” —after him (D. Phillips, 2018). His largest single support base is Brazil’s rapidly growing Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal community, which makes up around a quarter of the country. The rise of Brazil’s Evangelicals has occurred against the backdrop of a much broader shift in social values over the last 30 years, especially around the question of law and order: “Today, more Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes” (Polimédio, 2018).

Bolsonaro was also supported during the campaign by a small — but highly vocal — coterie of popular social movements, whose demonstrations and protests were amplified by social media as well as the mainstream press. These groups include Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement) and the Vem pra Rua (Come to the Street) movement (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). Eventually, Bolsonaro was able to unite the three strands of the right in Brazil — “the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship,” the religious right, primarily Brazil’s large and vocal Evangelical community, and the “liberal right [that is] always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state” (Child, 2019).

A toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system.

Millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the government of Dilma Rousseff and ask for her impeachment in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 13, 2016. Photo: Alf Ribeiro.

A Perfect Storm: The Four Winds of Crisis Ushering in Bolsonaro’s Rise

As is generally understood, populist leaders mobilize support “from the perception of crises, breakdown or threat” (Moffitt & Tormey, 2014: 391–392). Bolsonaro’s rise is no different and must be understood against the backdrop of a broad-based set of crises that began in 2013, which Uri Friedman of The Atlantic has referred to as “the slow implosion of Brazil” (Friedman, 2016). Hunter and Power (2019) describe this systemic collapse as a “perfect storm” of four distinct but overlapping crises: an economic crisis, a crisis of law and order, a corruption crisis, and a political legitimation crisis.

Brazil’s post-2013 economic woes underlie everything else. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was among the fastest-growing major economies on earth, growing at an average rate of 5 percent per annum. Moreover, under the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the PT, which came to power in 2003, growth was widely dispersed—arguably for the first time in Brazilian history. Millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty as Lula’s administration diverted swelling government coffers into cash payments for low-income households, most notably via the Bolsa Familia program, the world’s largest cash transfer program (Gazola Hellmann, 2015). But in 2014, the boom turned to bust as Brazil was plunged into the deepest recession in its history (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72)

At the same time, Brazil’s violent crime rate—always high—skyrocketed, driving citizens in the major cities to despair. Gun violence is a particular problem, and seven of the world’s top 20 most violent cities are in Brazil. With over 68,000 homicides per year, Brazil has a murder rate that is over four times the global average (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93; Child, 2019). Indeed, one public opinion study found that violence—a social problem typically seen as best-handled by right-wing parties—was the most salient concern for Brazilian voters ahead of the 2018 elections (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Then, shortly after the economic crisis began to bite, Brazil was consumed by a corruption scandal on a scale that dwarfed anything before. Indeed, the “Lava Jato” (“Carwash”) investigations launched by federal prosecutors in early 2014 became the most extensive (and expensive) anti-corruption drive ever seen (Child, 2019) and seemed to capture almost the entire political class in its net. As Hunter and Power (2019: 73) note, between 2014 and 2018, the Carwash investigations “produced nearly one-thousand arrest warrants and 125 … guilty verdicts falling on politicians and private businesspeople alike. Although the investigation ensnared politicians from fourteen different political parties … the most important names were linked to the PT.”

These several crises fueled a fourth strand—namely, a toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system. The partisan crisis reflected the two emerging trends in Brazilian politics—namely, rising antipathy to the PT (known as “antipetismo”)—due to its perceived culpability in the country’s many crises—and growing nostalgia for the “order” and “clean government” of the military dictatorship (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72). As president, Rousseff was caught up in the corruption scandal, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office. Crucially, her predecessor and PT standard-bearer Lula —who had decided to again run as the PT candidate — was also implicated; in April 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges, making him ineligible for president (Iglesias, 2019).

The political environment, especially after Rousseff’s impeachment, grew toxic, leading to unprecedented declines in public support, not only for the PT government but for the system as a whole. A 2017 Ipsos survey found that 94 percent of Brazilians lack faith in the political elite (cited in Polimédio, 2018). Moreover, a 2018 Latinobarometer survey found that among 18 Latin American governments in 2017–18, Brazil’s recorded the lowest levels of public trust (cited in Hunter & Power, 2019: 74).

The 2018 Elections

As Weizenmann (2019) argues, “Any one of these… crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization” opened up the perfect opportunity for a candidate like Bolsonaro. His campaign—announced in June 2018—very skillfully navigated the collapse in the established system. In so doing, Bolsonaro pushed a message perfectly crafted for the moment—a focus on “law and order,” strong leadership,” and being an “outsider” driving a total restructuring of the system.

Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan was “Brazil first, God above all” — a clear nod to the Evangelical section of his base. He enjoyed several high-profile endorsements, including from the world-famous former Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, now retired (Savarese, 2018). It came despite his controversial campaign tactics, such as when he vowed to end the so-called “concessions” to native Brazilians and former slaves, known in Brazil as “Quilombolas” (The Independent, 2019).

A crucial turning point in the campaign came at the end of August 2018 when Lula was jailed and disqualified from the race, which essentially cleared Bolsonaro’s path. Lula had been “the front-runner in the polls until being disqualified” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). The PT hastily put Fernando Haddad up as an alternative candidate. While he remains beloved in Brazil and his personal brand went some way to overcoming the antipetismo sweeping the country after 2014, Lula’s continued sway failed to translate into support for Haddad. The October 7 first round indicated just how successful Bolsonaro would be with Lula out of the picture; he took 46 percent of the vote and moved decisively into the second round (Cowie & Child, 2018).

Simultaneously, elections were held for Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Support for Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (SLP) surged — the party won 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber, up from just one in 2014 (Hunter & Power, 2019; Weizenmann, 2019). In a highly fragmented party system, this gave the SLP the plurality of the popular vote. Crucially, the 2018 congressional elections also saw a sharp increase in support for parties within the so-called “Bancada da bala” (“Bullet faction”), the loose congressional caucus committed to the arms industry, and a more militarist approach to law and order and public security. Their share rose from 35 to 61 seats in Brazil’s lower house, with 15 Senators in the caucus elected, including Flavio Bolsonaro from Rio de Janeiro state: “Members want to legalize the arming of citizens and make the shooting down of bandits by the military and police exempt from punishment,” (Milz, 2018).

Overall, Bolsonaro benefited from the coalescing of the so-called “triple B” coalition, made up of “bulls” (i.e., agribusiness), “bullets” (the gun lobby), and “bibles” (Pentecostals). Underpinning all was a focus on Bolsonaro’s military credentials, his willingness to “shake up the system” and his fanning of the center-right obsession with the apparent spread of “cultural Marxism”—an amorphous ideology supposedly endorsing political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism—throughout Brazilian society (Savarese, 2020).

Finally, against a backdrop of antipetismo and Bolsonaro’s promises to reform “the country’s broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country’s taxation system” (Weizenmann, 2019), corporate Brazil came on board. In the end, “Brazil’s business community—at first dubious about the candidate’s purported free-market conversion… swung behind him when faced with the binary choice between Bolsonaro and the return of the statist PT” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 70).

The most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general.

President of Brazil Jair Messias Bolsonaro with ministers, governor and senator as well as authorities at the Military Police Soldiers Graduation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 18, 2020. Photo: Jorge Hely Veiga

A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors

Brazil’s cabinet picks reflected all the campaign themes and the “triple B” coalition that underpinned it. His ministerial appointments fall into three main categories—namely, technocrats, culture warriors, and military men (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96). On the first, Bolsonaro was compelled to overcome a sense that he was ill-prepared for office, especially to handle Brazil’s fractured economy. He had assuaged much of this on the trail by promising to appoint specialists and technocrats where needed (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96; Polimédio, 2018). His two key picks as “super ministers” — Paulo Guedes as economy minister and Sergio Moro as justice minister — reflected this drive.

Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro—the lead judge in the Operation Carwash investigations— as his justice minister surprised many and seemed to cement the connection between Brazil’s corruption crisis and Bolsonaro’s win. However, this was shattered in mid-2019 when claims arose that Moro had shown a clear bias in the case against Lula. The investigative journalism newsmagazine, The Intercept, leaked messages purporting to show that Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors (a claim he denies) to ensure Lula’s conviction and disqualification from the 2018 campaign (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 3; Fishman et al., 2019).

Within a year, Moro had resigned his post, accusing Bolsonaro of political interference in police investigations at both federal and state levels. He left office in late April 2020 (McGeever, 2020). Moro’s allegations indicated the president had fired several police chiefs to head off investigations into his son’s alleged corruption. The Attorney-General then opened an investigation (Brito & Paraguassu, 2020). Indeed, for a politician supposedly a paragon of anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has himself become increasingly tarred with the corruption brush. His son, Flavio, has proved problematic (to say the least) dogged by allegations of misappropriating funds (and worse) from the beginning (Milz, 2019a).

Bolsonaro has also appointed prominent religious figures to his cabinet, notably Damares Alves (Women’s Affairs) and Milton Ribeiro (Education), both Evangelical pastors. Alves, who has been in the cabinet since the beginning, has courted controversy for her remarks about gender norms, women’s rights, and Brazil’s annual carnival season. On her election, she made headlines with the slogan, “it’s a new era in Brazil —boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” (Deutsche Welle, 2019a).

Ribeiro —who was appointed in July 2020 after the previous education ministers were forced to resign on account of scandal and corruption — has also caused issues with his focus on religion in schools and continuing Bolsonaro’s strategy of stripping the education system of leftists and “cultural Marxism.” Religious groups welcomed the move, saying, “the education ministry is key to boosting Christian values in Brazil,” and casting aside what they contend is leftist influence in the schools (Savarese, 2020).

Arguably most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general. By September 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed seven serving or former military officers to the government (Hunter & Power, 2019: 82), excluding Mourão. In early 2020, he capped off a cabinet of soldiers by appointing four-star army general and current army chief of staff Walter Souza Braga Netto as his presidential chief of staff. Braga’s appointment took the total number serving, including Mourão, to ten (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). While warnings of a potential coup have been repeatedly swatted back, the fact that military figures so dominate the government has alarmed many (Romero et al., 2020).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent.

Thousands of activists unite in protest for democracy and racial equality and against the Bolsonaro government in São Paulo, Brazil on June 07, 2020. Photo: Alf Ribeiro

The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro had promised “a conservative revolution.” Central to this was his promise to liberalize gun laws, which in Brazil are quite restrictive. Despite this, the country is plagued by terrible gun violence, arguably the most visible aspect of rampant criminality. In his first week in office, Bolsonaro moved on the gun issue—a presidential decree on January 14, 2019, expanded the number of firearms Brazilians could legally own and promised to remove “open carry” restrictions further on in the term (Marcello & Stargardter, 2019). Many of his early moves had the ring of empty symbolism — for example, in the first week, the new administration purged the federal government of so-called “leftist” public servants, who were simply legitimate appointees from previous administrations (The Independent, 2019).

The president and his inner circle stand accused of playing up divisions in the government and society as a kind of “symbolic politics” to bolster their political support: “In this regard, some commentators stress that Bolsonaro and his sons have choreographed certain movements. All the political confusion portrayed since the beginning… shows a pattern of rehearsed sketches to demonstrate cohesion around the conservative values they defend” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).The purpose here is three-fold: to mobilize the base, bolster the Bolsonaro’s “anti-system and transgressive credentials,” and distract commentators from the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the government (ibid.).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent, with the numbers saying they distrusted him outright, rising from 30 percent to 44 percent (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 98). These numbers reflect the key points of social resistance to Bolsonaro’s new administration, which erupted in widespread protest in his first few months in office. Indeed, they began in the campaign, with the nationwide #EleNao (“Not Him”) demonstrations dogging his campaign in 2018. Protests highlighted his anti-LGBT and anti-women attacks and his treatment of indigenous people. Brazil’s April 2019 Carnival seasons saw a slew of floats and parade groups mocking and protesting the president. In particular, there was a pointed response to Alves’ gender assertions, with female carnival-goers dressed in blue and men in pink (Deutsche Welle, 2019a). In the Rio Carnival of 2020, Evangelical Christians hit back with promises to “bring Jesus” to revelers (D. Phillips, 2020).

While he had promised “a conservative revolution,” Bolsonaro’s progress was plodding. He refused to play by the traditional political rules, shunning the country’s long-standing political culture of horse-trading for policy wins. Ironically, a similar approach brought down the country’s last populist leader Fernando Collor de Mello, in the mid-1990s (Panizza, 2000). Like Trump, Bolsonaro appears to believe that he can achieve policy wins by dint of sheer personality and his diffuse and vocal support among his support base.

The 2019 Amazon wildfires drew the world’s attention and calls for concerted international action, most notably from French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro burned a vast swathe of his political capital attacking foreign leaders’ attempts to address the issue, with France’s president and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany coming in for intense criticism. In August 2019, after a G7 meeting that promised a “rescue fund” for the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro lashed out, asserting sovereigntist claims, accusing Macron and the G7 of neo-imperialism (T. Phillips, 2019).

Toward the end of 2019, Bolsonaro scored a victory with the passing of pension reform. Brazil’s pension system had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and without some changes, it threatened to blow up the federal deficit. Fixing the problem had been a central plank of Bolsonaro’s campaign. After much wrangling in Congress and a June 2019 general strike opposing Bolsonaro’s plans to right-size the pension system, reform passed in October 2019. The win did not appear, however, to staunch his bleeding popular support. By late 2019, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent—down from 49 percent when he was elected in October 2018 (Milz, 2019b).

The experience of dealing with an uncompromising Congress has clearly affected the maverick politician, by all accounts has been infuriated by the congressional argy-bargy involved in prosecuting his agenda. At the end of the year, the notorious party-switcher announced he was forming a new party, the Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil). It was also announced that his son Flavio—a senator from Rio de Janeiro who ran on the SLP ticket—would take a senior leadership role in the new party. “The party platform ‘recognizes God’s place in the life, history and soul of the Brazilian people,’ is anti-abortion, rejects ‘socialism and communism,’ and supports the right to possess firearms” (Deutsche Welle, 2019b).

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll.

People wait in a big line to receive food donations for lunch in a downtown street during a severe economic crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2020. Photo: Nelson Antoine

The Second Year: COVID-19, Policy Failure, and an Electoral Rebuke

After the October 2019 pension reform victory, Bolsonaro’s fortunes might have looked up. However, in early 2020 the COVID-19 crisis hit, dominating Bolsonaro’s second year in office. The crisis has struck Brazil particularly hard and has only been exacerbated by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to adequately address the public health emergency and coordinate a response among Brazil’s state and municipal governments. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. He even emulated Trump’s dosing with hydroxychloroquine, which he has called “a miracle cure” (Eisele, 2020). Furthermore, just as Trump did, Bolsonaro self-represented his own infection with COVID-19—which occurred after months downplaying its virology and impact—as part of his “real man” macho image. In so doing, in March of 2019, he referenced his September 2018 stabbing, telling his large social media following that if I am “able to survive being stabbed, then a “little flu” was unlikely to kill [me]” (Eisele, 2020).

Brazil, a federation of 26 states and one federal territory, has devolved responsibility for health and public health. This has played into Bolsonaro’s hands, allowing him to play up “local elites” who stand in the way: “The 65-year-old has repeatedly and harshly criticized the virus-related restrictions to everyday life — some of which have since been relaxed — imposed by states and municipal governments… [In July 2020], he vetoed a law passed by Congress on nationwide regulations concerning the wearing of face masks in public” (Eisele, 2020).

The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll. In local elections held across the country in November 2020, Bolsonaro-backed parties lost ground, as did the main opposition PT. Moreover, in a “direct rebuke to Bolsonaro, voters in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city, re-elected mayor Alexandre Kalil, who took tough quarantine and social distancing steps that were criticized directly by the president” (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). The established center-right and conservative parties saw a return to electoral fortune after their poor showing in the 2018 congressional elections. Bolsonaro’s former party, the SLP, failed to take top place in a single election (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). His Aliança pelo Brasil did not stand candidates, as the party had formed too late to gather the necessary signatures to register as an official electoral party (Ying, 2020).

Conclusion

After just over two years in power, the very worst predictions about Bolsonaro’s presidency have not materialized. Certainly, the military has so far remained firmly in the barracks and has swatted back calls for intervention in politics (Romero et al., 2020). None of this should be taken as a call to celebrate. Indeed, it is really down to a fortuitous mix of incompetence on the part of the administration — most evident in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the checks and balances in Brazil’s federal system. Bolsonaro’s own stubborn refusal to play by established rules and establish a governing congressional coalition is also a key factor, meaning his agenda has largely stalled in the legislature. Thus, like Trump in his first term in office, institutional inertia has managed to blunt and slow the worst effects of Bolsonaro’s radical agenda.

Nevertheless, much damage is being done to the fabric of Brazilian society. As The New York Times recently noted: “The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s” (Romero et al., 2020). However, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy widespread — if minority — support in the electorate, as this brief has detailed at length. Moreover, his new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, is an as-yet untested legislative vehicle and could well do very well at the next general election scheduled for October 2022. Much depends, of course, on Brazil’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the trajectory of further reform efforts.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a controversial figure, one who has frequently appeared in international media due to his brusque remarks and increasingly authoritarian practises, both abroad and domestically. During his premiership and subsequent presidency, he successfully changed Turkey’s political fabric and is now aiming to influence international politics in unprecedented ways. Erdogan’s journey, from mayor of Istanbul to prospective leader of the Muslim world, has been facilitated by exploiting existing power structures – or dismantling them, if they don’t serve his needs. All the while, he’s retained his charisma as an influential Islamist leader working in the best interests of “the people” and the “ummah.” By using populist strategies and manipulating democratic institutions, Erdogan is increasingly a populist authoritarian. 

Since his National View (Milli Gorus) years in 1970s and 80s under the mentorship of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s worldview and narrative had always had populist elements that constructed him and practicing Muslim Turks as the real and morally superior owners of Turkey but they had been victims of the Kemalist elite that oppressed them and denied their general will. However, Erdogan’s populism has been intensified after he consolidated his power in early 2010s and its anti-Westernist conspiratorial content has increased. 

A recent study (Lewis et al. 2019) published in The Guardian shows that Erdogan is the only right-wing leader labelled ‘very populist.’ Based on the extent to which their speeches have populist ideas, each populist leader under study was given an average populism score. The speeches were graded on a 0-2 scale, ranging from not populist to very populist.According to the study, the average populism score across all 40 countries has doubled from 0.2 in the early 2000s to around 0.4 in 2019. Erdogan was ‘somewhat populist’ between 2007-2014. However, between the years of 2014-2018, he was ‘very populist’ with a score of 1.5 out of 2.0. Only Hugo Chavez (1.9) and Nicolas Maduro (1.6) received higher score than Erdogan while Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi had a score of only 0.8. 

The Republic of Turkey was built in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed the First World War cost Turkey an empire, a monarchy, caliphate, and the majority of its lands, save for the Anatolian heartland. This has caused immense trauma, anxiety and insecurity among the ruling elite. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dreamed of reviving a republic from the ashes of empire. Defeated at the hands of the European powers, Ataturk and several followers were convinced that “reinventing” the nation and its “ideal citizens” in the mould of the European civilisation would provide the foundation for a modern, secular republic. For 80 years, Kemalism promoted a nationalist homogenising narrative hinging on the national reconstruction of a Turkey detached from its Ottoman past and rebuilt according to a secular blueprint. However, detaching the Turkish people from their Ottoman roots has proved unsuccessful; and Kemalism succeeded only in marginalizing and victimising all ethnic, religious and political minority groups that didn’t fit the prototype of the Kemalists’ desired citizen, Homo LASTus – Laicist, Ataturkist, Sunni, and Turkish (Yilmaz, 2021).

More than eight decades of repression and denial of the Ottoman past and heterogeneous fabric of society gave room to a resentful counter narrative to rise. While Homo LASTus isolated non-Muslims and non-Turkish groups, it is the conservative Sunni majority who have given birth to an Islamist populist voice. The man voicing their anxieties, discontent, grievances, insecurities, fears and future hopes is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populism has shapeshifted – from centre-right to far-right (Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). His early coalition and representation of resentful liberals, democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, ethnic minorities and civil society organizations that were marginalized and even demonised under Kemalism has gradually transformed to a narrow core of vindictive conservative Sunni, Islamist, ultra-Turkish nationalists. 

Through his long political career, Erdogan has always had the benefit of positioning himself as a man of the people due his humble beginnings. This has set him apart from the political and military “elite” (Lowen, 2017; BBC, 2002). The fairy tale-esque nature of his childhood story – the upward mobility of a poor boy raised in a poor and angry urban setting at the margins of Istanbul’s more prosperous and Westernised areas becoming the leader of Turkey (Cagaptay, 2017) – inspired his voters. Some even see him as the chosen “sultan” or “caliph” for a “New” Turkey – and possibly even for the Muslim world; others rightly criticize his populist and autocratic tendencies (Lowen, 2017). Yet when closely observed, Erdogan’s political ideology is mostly that of the shape-shifter; he ensures his political survival at all costs – even if those costs are damaging the institutional fabric of the country and widening deep rifts in a multi-ethnic and religious society (Genc, 2019).

There have been many studies published on the Erdogan and AKP’s recent populism (e.g. Selçuk 2016; Yabancı 2016; Kirdiş and Drhiemur 2016; Özpek and Yaşar 2018; Yilmaz 2018; Castaldo 2018; Özçetin 2019; Sawae 2020; Taş 2020; Yilmaz 2021). As such, this profile will not discuss the Erdogan’s populism in detail, leaving it to the other excellent studies to do so. Instead, this will focus on the emotional aspects of Erdogan’s populism – including Ottoman nostalgia, anxiety, hate, antagonism, victimhood, and resentment – and how they are used to mobilize voters. 

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

 

The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan

To understand his politics and personality, one must start with Erdogan’s childhood. Born in the poor Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, most of his early life was spent in Rize province, in Turkey’s Black Sea region(Lowen,2017). Raised in a working-class family, Erdogan was sent to a religiously-oriented Imam Hatip school by his father, a ferry captain (Genc, 2019). It is unclear if he ever received a university degree from Marmara University due to ambiguity surrounding the issue (BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, his years at the Imam Hatip greatly impacted him. He studied the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and Muslim teachings. He also spent a considerable amount of time improving his Quran recitation, which earned the praise of his friends (Genc, 2019; BBC, 2002).

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP), which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP) that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015). Erbakan was a prominent voice against the secular ideology of Kemalism, which had isolated many Muslim Turks. As an adolescent, Erdogan was exposed to the manifesto of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus which based its Islamist ideology around severing the Turkish nation from secularism, Westernism and Capitalism. Milli Gorus was also sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and harshly critical of Zionism. Milli Gorus’s ideology was civilizationalist and pan-Islamic and urged the nation to cut its ties with Europe and align with Muslim-majority countries (Sahin & Dogantekin, 2019)

Erdogan spent considerable time within the MSP’s youth group and gained recognition when he organized a boxing match during the visit of the Afghan mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The profound influence of religion on Erdogan’s early life was evident when he turned down a spot on an Istanbul city soccer team because the city had a ban on the Islamic beard at that time (Genc, 2019).

After a second ban, Erbakan re-founded his party yet again, this time named the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP). Erdogan’s commitment to the party earned him a spot as the party’s provincial head in Istanbul. He possessed the art of amassing a huge number of volunteers to hand out flyers and hang posters, displaying his leadership and organizing skills. Most of his time was occupied in political work, and he was soon known for his great oratory skills with emotive mobilizational power. He delivered emotional and resentful speeches decrying “the evil new world order” and supporting “Muslim brothers” across borders that resonated with the victimhood mood of the conservative sections of society (Genc, 2019)

Erdogan’s earlier political affiliations helped him not only identify with Islamist populism but also see its value in Turkish society. Kemalists had for years suppressed a chain of Sunni Islamist parties as part of their secular agenda, only breeding further resentment. To attach populism with a divinely sanctioned ideology – Islam in this case – was a viable opportunity. Thus, Erdogan did not shy away from using public sentiments and emotions towards religious oppression to gain prominence for himself. 

Rising to prominence in 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed down for violating the tenets of Kemalism. Erdogan became a vocal critic of the government and was arrested for reading a poem that the state claimed, “incited violence.” While the arrest was the highlight of his tenure, his agenda was public focused, including improving traffic congestion, dealing with water shortages, and controlling pollution. He remained more pragmatic than Islamist (BBC, 2002).

At the same time, there were hints of religiously motivated actions taken during this period. First, he symbolically limited the use and sale of alcohol (Ozbilgin, 2013). The step was taken under the guise of “public safety,” appealing to both religious voters and concerned citizens. He also rebelled by not asking his wife to uncover her head and instead avoided bringing her to official functions and government spaces – covered women were barred from entering public offices and educational institutes as part of the Kemalist ideology to secularize Turkey (BBC, 2002)

His blend of public works and subtle moves to please Islamist groups made him popular. When asked about why he’d developed such a good reputation, Erdogan responded, “I am Istanbul’s imam” (Genc, 2019). His statement reflected two major things about his populism. Firstly, as early as the 1990s, his confidence in himself as “the chosen one” was not rooted in democratic measures and values; rather, it was always attached to a “divine” element. The word imam[1] gave him an air of Islamist populism. Secondly, his smirky response shows belief in the idea that Islam and liberal democracies can be merged for the welfare of “the people.” Thus, positioning himself as a “Muslim Democrat” – one who is able to tolerate non-Muslims and yet at the same time be “Muslim enough” allowed him to amass great public support. 

His “imamet” of the city came to an abrupt end when his recitation of a controversial Islamo-nationalist and militarist poem landed him in jail for four months (he was sentenced to ten). The poem featured the lines, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” Due to its clear Islamist references, the poem was considered unconstitutional (Genc, 2019). His jail time added to his victimhood and populist popularity; he was viewed as “bold” in the face of the victimising evil Kemalist elite and not afraid of the Kemalist regime that had for decades muffled freedom of expression and religious affiliation. Erdogan established himself as the antithesis to the status quo, another populist hallmark. 

For Erdogan, the ultimate aim has always been power, and everything could be instrumentalized to achieve this. He signalled this in the 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he said, “…democracy can’t be an objective but an only an instrument… democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” 

Erdogan, following his imprisonment, found himself without a party. Increasingly, the public viewed him as pious and courageous; his humble beginnings added to his credibility as a leader of the “people.” Moreover, his reformist attitude and promising improvements during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul earned him a voter base across large sections of society, especially the conservative segments across the rural landscape of Anatolia.

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.”

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec

 

Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views

While he had been able to connect with the discontent conservative masses, to survive the secular military and judiciary – and also to attract a large voter base of non-Sunnis, non-Muslims, and non-Turks – Erdogan rebranded himself. He moderated his views, especially on the west, to appeal to voters in national elections (Yilmaz, 2009). This was the first example of his pragmatic, populist shape-shifting. He issued statements that were more populous than religious, claiming, “We don’t need bearded men who are good Quran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019)

The prohibition of Welfare Party in 1998 paved the way for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP), which was also banned in 2001. The dissolution of the Virtue Party led to the birth of two conservative parties. One of them was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arınc. Erdogan was also a major figure in its founding, although he was technically still banned from politics. He described his role in the party, very much the opposite of what it is today, as part of a group of leaders: “a cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” His role, in his words, was that of an “orchestra chief.” He declared, the “age of me-centred politics is over” (Genc, 2019).

The other party to rise from the Virtue Party’s ashes was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP), which over the years, despite being a right-wing party, has taken an anti-Erdogan stance. During AKP’s first election, it was nearly banned, which resulted in Gul running as the party’s main candidate, since Erdogan was still technically banned from contesting elections because of his conviction for reciting the poem. Eventually, through a by-election and verdict from the judiciary, Gul stepped down as prime minister in 2003; Erdogan assumed office. 

He was ushered in as the beginning of the era of Muslim Democrats (Yilmaz, 2009). It was a model hailed by many as a blueprint for success for the Muslim world. Its proponents claimed it brought “the best of both worlds,” combining a hint of religion with liberal democratic values. 

But the party never truly embraced the image. Instead, this was a survival move for the AKP and Erdogan, who were able to win votes on a broad spectrum of anti-Kemalist sentiments and among those hoping for a truly democratic Turkey. This appeal to the latter groups was the populist side of Erdogan’s Islamist politics. 

Erdogan’s first tenure as prime minister was marked by impressive economic growth for the country and a quest to bridge the gap with Europe. Erdogan boasted, “When we first came to government… our relations with some of the countries in our region were almost non-existent… [now] we have friendly relations with most of our neighbouring countries… we have relations in [the] political, economic, social, cultural, commercial, military areas with many of the countries in the region” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Playing the role of a pro-Western conservative, he insisted on Turkey’s presence in NATO and in a bid to secure membership of the European Union (EU) (Söylemez, 2012; Genc, 2011)

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.” He launched a “democratic war” against the Kemalist elite and the country’s system of military tutelage. It is now clear that these were more of a means to an end, as most populists consolidate ideologies to gain support as a way of easing into power. 

Erdogan often tried to have it both ways. The Turkish government offered to launch a joint fact-finding mission, with Armenia, into the genocide that took place at the end of World War I; however, the government refused to actually admit the genocide took place. At an intentional forum, Erdogan plainly explained, “Diasporas in some countries lobbying for resolutions in the parliaments of other countries is like an extrajudicial… it’s an extrajudicial execution because there is no fact-based process here. So, this is something that Turkey cannot accept… we told our friends, but we still do not have a response,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).

As Erdogan’s second national election approached, there were nationwide protests about fears that he and the AKP planned to change Turkey’s constitution (de Bendern, 2007; BBC, 2007). Erdogan’s populist theatrics garnered public political support and centred around the hope that “new Turkey” would be part of the EU and an economic power. 

Populists often use the media and the political bully pulpit to become public fixtures, deepening their connection with the people. It makes them more human and relatable. In the midst of the on-going countrywide protests, Erdogan apparently “fainted” inside his car, which led to a mass panic and a dramatic rescue attempt. The episode added to Erdogan’s narrative as a “wronged man” who was being betrayed despite doing all he could for the people and the country (Genc, 2019; Dincsahin 2012)

In 2008, an attempt to close the AKP again failed, although it led to the party’s funding being limited. However, Erdogan’s relatively moderate first term had resonated with voters: in 2007, he linked his party’s win to the ethos of Turkey’s democratic and secular values. By electing him, the country had passed the test: “The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular social state governed by the rule of law, and throughout this process this year, Turkey has gone through an important test of democracy and come out stronger than before from these elections,” Erdogan stated (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). 

By the end of his second term, it was clear that Erdogan was gifted at fully utilizing the rifts in Turkish society to gain a popular mandate. He had made “the people” those who were disenfranchised by the Kemalists, positioning himself as a humble outsider – as compared to the Kemalist elite who were the others. He would use his experience to address the country’s core issues through democratic means. Economic growth, better diplomatic ties, and a bid to join the EU established him as the “leader” of a people failed by the Kemalist Homo LASTus project.  

After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology. This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the EU membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Kursat Bayhan

 

The Authoritarian Populist Surfaces

Erdogan’s worldview has always contained populist elements, dating back to his National View (Milli Gorus) years in the 1970s and 80s. In the National View narratives, practicing Muslims were framed as the real owners of the homeland (“the people”) but had been victims of the pro-Western and secularist Kemalists (the “evil elite”) that oppressed them. However, with the economy slowing down in 2009, Erdogan’s populism intensified and soon became the core feature of his narrative (Dinçşahin 2012; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology (Onbaşı 2016). This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the European Union membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020).

This also has roots in Erbakan’s National View Islamism and the totalitarian ideology of Erdogan’s more influential role model, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, which included a strong religio-moral component and claimed that “the people” they represented did not only refer to those who were exploited, excluded, oppressed, and victimised but also to practicing Muslims who were constructed as morally superior (Tugal 2002)

He is an Islamist; however, different from other Islamists. He developed an Islamist populist style to further appeal to the grievances, resentfulness and hopes of the conservative Turkish Sunni masses that were victimised by the “evil” Kemalist elite who were the pawns of the West. In this narrative, he constructed himself as the only genuine representative of the people and their general will.

Public Enemies

After spending a considerable amount of time wearing the guise of a Muslim Democrat, Erdogan made a final shape-shift, gradually exposing his populist autocratic style of rule in the aftermath of the 2011 elections (Turkish Weekly, 2011). He used trials such as Sledgehammer (Balyoz) and Ergenekon to increasingly target the military and position himself and the AKP as the voice of democracy against the “corrupt” military. The Kemalist military was public enemy number one. Through populist “otherizing,” Erdogan continued to eliminate his greatest opponents and further polarize support in his direction. His actions were justified: they were bringing justice to the Turkish people who had, for generations, been wronged by the elite and corrupt military.

The Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations, which occurred between 2008 – 2011, gave more legitimacy to Erdogan. High-ranking military generals were put on trial and, as a consequence of the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, a number of Kemalist judiciary members were replaced. This led to a weakening of institutional checks on the AKP from the Kemalist factions. This was one of the first examples of Erdogan undermining democratic institutions by using populist divisiveness to consolidate his position. He justified it as in the best interest of the people.  

Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was gradually side-lined for populism, and then Erdogan re-introduced Islamism to the picture. As part of this transformation, the “black Turks” – conservative Muslims who had been oppressed by the Kemalist “white Turks” – were position as “the people” and the Kemalists, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and non-Turks were the “other” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Erdogan and the AKP used the classic populist card of segregating the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elite. He was the people’s man – their voice.

Islamism was at the heart of Erdogan’s populist agenda. Erdogan lifted the rules of banning women from wearing headscarves in public offices and departments. This was celebrated, as it gave women the autonomy to choose what they wanted. However, it was not done to give women democratic rights, but to consolidate Erdogan’s status as a “good Muslim” who stood up for the historically oppressed group. Increasingly, he expressed more conservative views regarding women; for instance, three years later, he publicly claimed, “no Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning… we will multiply our descendants,” (BBC, 2020). 

Moreover, during his third term, Erdogan imposed hefty taxes and restrictions on alcohol sales (Ozbilgin, 2013). The tax meant that Turkish Airline stopped serving drinks on domestic flights; stores could no longer sell alcoholic beverages between 10 pm to 6 am. Lastly, stores selling alcohol had to be at least 100 meters from places of worship or educational institutes. Violators were to face mammoth fines. Brushing away criticism, Erdogan defended his actions: “There are such regulations everywhere in the world. The youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits,” (Ozbilgin, 2013). As Erdogan consolidated his power, he used Islamism to change the social fabric, divide society, and legitimize his decisions through “pure” religious motivations. 

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power.

Crowd protesting in Gezi parki, Taksim, istanbul on May 31 2013.

Erdogan also gradually and successfully turned the media and civil society into “public enemy number one.” The Gezi Protests, in 2013, allowed Erdogan to “otherize” anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Of people gathered in Gezi, he said: “Are the people only those at Gezi Park? Aren’t those who came to meet us at Istanbul airport people, too? Those who are gathered now in Ankara; aren’t they people, too?” Erdogan called on the protesters to face off in local elections the next year. “Instead of [occupying] Gezi Park or Kugulu Park [in Ankara], there are seven months [until the elections]. Be patient and let’s face off at the ballot box.”

The protests allowed Erdogan to play on the existential insecurity of Turkish voters. He played up conspiracies that Western or outside powers were trying to destabilize the country. This again played on the public’s collective paranoia, which dated back to the Treaty of Sèvres, when the allied forces divided the defeated Ottoman Empire. This lingering trauma is deeply rooted within many Turkish people. 

The Gezi Protests sprang up in the wake of a government plan to build a shopping mall and mosque on the site of Gezi Park, a public area in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. At issue was Erdogan’s clientelism: he was increasingly running the country by buying the patronage of various individuals. A vast majority of “welfare” projects were centred around privatizing public sectors, and this led to the rise of a new bourgeoisie who profited from the neo-liberal reforms. They were naturally loyal to Erdogan’s patronage (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Lowen, 2017)

The Gezi Protests erupted after nearly three years of “welfare” being used a guise to hand out contracts to Erdogan-friendly businessmen. The development of the park symbolized the frustrations of marginalized groups: public space was being privatized, to benefit Erdogan and his allies. The peaceful protests were met with state violence; 11 people were killed due to police brutality (Lowen, 2017). Erdogan “otherized” the protestors and their sympathizers, defining their support as “terrorism propaganda” or “insulting” the country’s leadership. He also attacked the media supporting the protestors and criticizing the government. In a statement, he said, “There is no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their pen and position to serve their aims” (Lowen, 2017).

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power. All the while, he effectively dismissed any opposition as “propaganda.” 

In December 2013, a series of police investigations revealed corruption involving high-level AKP elite, including Erdogan’s son Bilal and three cabinet ministers. The regime refused to let the investigations proceed: Erdogan characterized them as a “judicial coup” carried out by members of the Gulen Movement and initiated a comprehensive crackdown against the Movement. The police officers in charge of the investigation were arrested. The prosecutors on the case were replaced, and the cases were subsequently closed. In the following months, the regime seized Gulen Movement-affiliated media organisations, appointing trustees and turning them into pro-AKP mouthpieces. They seized other Gulen Movement organisations and businesses, effectively usurping thousands of private properties (Day, 2016).

The Gulenists became yet another “enemy.” Erdogan alleged members of the Movement were wiretapping himself and other Turkish officials, endangering the state (The Guardian, 2014). Mass arrests of police, civil servants, and members of the judiciary followed. Erdogan accused Gulen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state. Erdogan pledged that he would “go into their lairs” and bring an end to the parallel structure (Butler, 2014).

Amidst this backdrop, in 2015, Erdogan was elected President. He presented himself as the “man who holds Turkey together” amidst constant threats and crises (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020). Many of these conflicts and crises were of Erdogan’s making. 

The 2016 coup attempt was to become the magnum opus of Erdogan’s populism. He called it a “blessing in disguise.” Without evidence, Erdogan blamed the coup on Gulenists. He was targeting Gulen when he said, “I have a message for Pennsylvania (referring to Gulen)… you have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.” Following the coup attempt, any opposition to Erdogan and his party was opposition to Turkey, a country surrounded by “enemies” inside and out (Flinks, 2016)

The purge following the failed coup attempt was merciless. The remaining opposition was crushed. It is estimated that more than 150,000 public servants were deposed from their former jobs, and thousands more were arrested (BBC, 2020).

In the wake of the failed coup, a 2017 referendum abolished the office of Prime Minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. It gave President Erdogan the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). Erdogan had successfully “otherized” all potential opponents – Kemalist institutions, civil society organizations, and the media. These “others” were a threat to the very survival of Turkey – a thread made crystal clear during the failed coup attempt. Using populism rooted in anti-Western sentiment, pro-Islamist ideology, Turkish nationalism, and conspiracy theories, Erdogan suppressed dissent, broke institutional checks and balances, and established a “new elite” who were a loyal support base in the private sector for himself and his party. He was even able to co-opt the secularist and nationalist opposition parties (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020; Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). Under such circumstance, the referendum was always bound to pass. 

As President, Erdogan has become more belligerent, especially towards the West. The man who wanted to build bridges between the West, Middle East, and Turkey has been in constant spats with Western countries. Erdogan has been constantly creating and managing international crises, while at the same time fighting off the “terrorist threat” facing Turkey from Kurdish militias (Tol, 2020).

No credible opposition remains. With Kemalists drawn out of power, religious propaganda in his hand, and the creation of multiple “enemies,” he has a comfortable hegemony over Turkish politics. Religion is used to run his “security state” and shore up support. Since disbanding thousands of schools and educational institutes linked to the Gulen Movement, Erdogan has turned them into Islamist schools. The Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) is also used as a tool. His handpicked Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa to support the Erdogan regime’s actions following the coup. 

The views of his most adamant supporters are reflected in a comment by one supporter who expressed his feeling for President Erdogan before the 2017 referendum: “He speaks our language, gets aggressive like we do – and tells the world what we want to say” (Lowen, 2017). He has become the embodiment of “the people”: they see themselves reflected in his words and actions. 

Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war.

Supporters wait for the arrival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a referendum rally in Istanbul on April 8, 2017. Photo: Thomas Koch

 

Leader of the Ummah

Modern Turkey still basks in the glorious history of its long Ottoman past. The collapse of the Empire as a result of Treaty of Sèvres led to the formation of the modern-day republic. Erdogan has harnessed the resentment, grievances, trauma, anxieties, fears, insecurity and siege mentality that still exist over the partition of the Empire, occupation of Turkey by the Western powers, the imposition of westernising and secularising Kemalism and its victimisations.

Thus, a wave of Ottoman restorative nostalgia is visible in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy. Within Turkey, he has used the education system, media, and scheduling of public holidays to shape the common narrative: that Turkish Sunni Muslims should take pride in their Ottoman heritage. Through these gestures, he seeks to restore the country to its former “glory,” embedding the idea of “greatness” in Turks. Organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar are collaborations with the Diyanet to facilitate the construction of this narrative (Yabanci, 2019)

Moreover, Erdogan has not only banned critical content from the media. He has successfully replaced it with more “Islamist” or pro-Ottoman oriented content, such as the global hit “Diriliş: Ertugrul,” a fictional tale inspired by the alleged founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s support is visible for such shows when he visits their sets with his family members and “gifts” the show to fellow “brother Muslims” countries for free, in good faith, so that “young minds” can be exposed to a “counter” to Western influence (Banka, 2020)

Erdogan has used religion as a cudgel, to continue dividing society and consolidating his support. His ideology is perhaps best reflected in his speech after Hagia Sophia was controversially reconverted to a mosque, in 2020: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream the same about the Republic of Turkey … We tear up those scenarios of those who want to siege our country politically, economically, militarily by realizing a much large vision … To those who are surprised by Turkey … rising again like a giant who woke up from its century old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!’” (Global Village Space, 2020).

Media and educational institutions are broadcasting Erdoganist ideology overseas. Turkey has given the broadcasting rights of Ottoman-based fiction shows to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. At the same time, the Diyanet has been active in its engagement with the Turkish diaspora as well non-Turkish Muslim minorities living in the West. Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war: “The West sided with terrorists, and all of them attacked us. These include NATO countries, as well as European Union countries. Weren’t you against terrorism? Since when you have been acting with them?” (Jones, 2019)

His rhetoric was as strong as ever when he called the French people “sponsors of terrorism” and their head of state “retarded” in the aftermath of a crackdown on radical Muslims following the murder of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth (Mishra, 2020). He strained relations with Germany after issuing highly insensitive remarks calling out the “fascists” who “will never destroy Turkey’s honour” and asking Turks to “defy the grandchildren of Nazis” (Lowen, 2017). Not shying away from championing his “Islamist cause,” he has lent his sympathies to the Egypt based pan-Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is known to showcase their four-finger salute called the “rabaa” (BBC, 2020)

In addition to lending verbal support to causes such as Palestine and Kashmir, the Turkish military has become involved in conflicts in various Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It held joint exercises with Azerbaijan just before its conflict with Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020). Turkey has sent “peacekeeping troops” to Qatar, Somalia, and Afghanistan, further expanding its role in the Muslim world (Tol, 2020). While Erdogan harbours Sunni Muslim views, he has also urged the Muslim world to unite. 

At home and overseas, Islamist Erdogan is the Muslim leader who is the “real” one, representing the authentic values of “the people” or “ummah” – but mainly Sunni Muslims (Çapan & Zarakol, 2019). Erdogan’s version of Islam excludes not only non-Muslims, but also Alevis (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). The “white Turks” at home are the domestic enemies, while externally, the Western and Zionist “lobbies” are out to cripple the Muslim world (Erdemir & Lechner, 2018; Yılmaz Z. 2017). Erdogan is the voice of the deprived “real” people, their champion against the interests of the “others.”

Ironically, his anti-Western stance and goodwill towards the ummah are circumstantial. Once, Erdogan pledged to seek justice for the Palestinians and has expressed antisemitic views; yet, the softening towards Israel by the Gulf countries has led Erdogan to also take a softer stance: he does not have a problem with the nation itself, but only “the top level.” He said, “It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.” However, he further elaborated, “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different … We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” (Aljazeera, 2020)

While Erdogan has been critical of Western countries, exploiting the religio-cultural divides, he has been busy cultivating closer ties to countries such as Russia and China (despite China oppressing and detaining millions of Uighurs in an obvious attempt of genocide). Russia is an Orthodox Christian majority state, and China is a hybrid-communist state without an official religion (Tol, 2020). Thus, it is evident that religion is a means to an end, an effort to gain influence at home and abroad. It has worked: Erdogan increasingly presents himself abroad as the presumptive heir of the Muslim Ummah. 

He expounded on this in a speech he gave at the World Muslim Minorities summit in 2018: “Differences should not be an obstacle to love and brotherhood… Just like the direction of the Qibla — the direction that a Muslim takes when praying — is the same, the hearts of all Muslims are also same despite them being in different locations around the world … Today, attacks on Muslims and refugees have become commonplace in many states that practice democracy and law… Muslim women are being harassed on streets, at workplaces just because they wear headscarves. The Western world wants to defend its own ideology and way of life through anti-Islamism.”

While the Kemalists were embarrassed of their heritage, Erdogan has embraced Turkey’s Ottoman past. His narratives provide pride and hope to “the people.” He has promised them glory through nostalgic references and used a pan-Islamic populism that is transnational in nature to extend Turkey’s influence in Muslim countries. Erdogan has placed himself at the heart of dreams of the caliphate’s revival. He is the Islamist populist Muslim leader of an increasingly autocratic, populist and necropolitical republic that encourages its citizens to sacrifice their lives for the nation, state, religion and its leader (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021).

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.”

The pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are seen at the building in Istanbul on February 14, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

 

Conclusion 

The republic is facing its first reconstruction. While Ataturk was the founding father of the Republic, today Erdogan has become the father of New Turkey. Having reconstructed the republic, he now seeks to influence the broader Muslim world (Genc, 2019)

His populism can be summed up as the “Erdoganist ideology” or “Erdoganism” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) and has helped him craft a new national identity based on “Islamism, majoritarianism, Muslim nationalism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism, personalism, [the] personality cult of Erdogan, Ottomanist restorative nostalgia, Islamist myth-making, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, victimhood, Islamist populism, civilizationism, anti-Westernism, resentfulness, vindictiveness, and anti-Western conspiracy theories to support and legitimize his position in power” (Yilmaz, 2021). In other words, he constructed all the tools to craft an Islamist populist political stage on which to rise. 

Beginning his journey in the midst of conservative and Islamist political parties, Erdogan understood that his early survival in politics depended on his ability to pose as a “democrat”; thus, he modelled himself and the AKP as “Muslim Democrat.” The only “others” were the corrupt, Western, and elite Kemalists. Thus, the first stage of his political life was supported by a heterogeneous “people” who were Kurds, non-Muslims, and conservatives along with those let-down by eight decades of Kemalist rule. By his third term in office, Kemalist institutions had been diminished, laying the groundwork the emergence of an autocratic leader. 

The second transitional phase in Erdogan’s political career came when he was faced with increasing homegrown opposition and rejection by the EU. Feeling insufficient, exposed, vulnerable, and attacked, Erdogan was successful in launching a series of attacks on any opposition. These were supported by conspiracy theories. Erdogan made Turkey a “vulnerable state,” attacked by conspirators, parallel structures, and devious foreign influence; only he, the strongman, could “save” Turkey restore its glory, dormant for 100 years. To consolidate power, changes in the constitution were introduced in the name of “security”; those defined as the “people” narrowed, driven by ultra-nationalism and Islamism. All the while, Erdogan assumed the position of a strong leader and guide for a great nation that was under attack from all sides. 

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas, such as promises of a “great” Turkey or a “new Turkey.” Erdogan, the “leader” or “hope” of the Muslim world is the sole figure at the movement’s centre. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.” Erdogan has become once “the people” – his success is theirs, and vice versa (Yilmaz, 2021).

Erdogan’s intervention in the media and educational spheres mean Turkish youth are exposed to his narrative. Thus, not only has he been able to galvanize support from an existing voter bank; he has also been creating a “loyal army” of supporters who believe in the ideals of their leader and identify with an imagined Ottoman Islamist identity that instils in them a “duty” to spread Islam in the public sphere, establish ties with “brother” Muslim and Turkic peoples, and defend the “oppressed” Muslim world against the “anti-Muslim lobby” (namely, the West and Israel) and not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for this cause (Yilmaz, 2021).

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled. All this has been done in the name of “the people.” After nearly two decades, Erdogan remains at the centre of it all. 

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[1] The word imam symbioses someone as a leader or model for Muslims 

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan

Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Imran Khan’s journey to the corridors of parliament is unique for a country like Pakistan. Most political personalities in Pakistan have risen from the landed elites (the jagirdars), a small group of business tycoons, or the military – the latter, dictators turned “democrats.” 

Pakistan’s first democratic, pseudo-populist leader, the iconic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a member of the landed elite in Sindh; his grandfather and father were both active in the politics of British India. Following Bhutto’s execution, leaders from his party, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were family members, including his daughter Benazir Bhutto, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari, and currently, his grandson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. 

The other major leadership during the country’s intermittent democratic periods have emerged from the Sharif family. With a background in the steel industry, the brothers Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif rose to power in the 1980s, promoted by the dictator Zia ul Haqas as a right-wing counter to the left-leaning PPP. The Sharifs rose to power from the heartland of Punjab; today, the second generation of Sharifs is guided by Mariam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz, the faces of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). 

Amidst this backdrop, smaller parties have also horse-traded, generally relying on fraternity, kinships, wealth, and religion to amass support. 

Imran Khan’s immediate family did not come from an elite business or agrarian background. Rather, he was raised in an upper-middle-class family with an engineer father and a homemaker mother. He did not pursue politics as a career until his late 40s; before politics, played international cricket. To understand Khan’s political personality, one must thoroughly understand his public image before his political career began.  

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Iconic Sportsperson  

It is notable that many populist leaders portray themselves as a political “outsider,” thus promising a fresh start. Khan is also considered an outsider. An iconic cricketer, Khan dominated the cricketing world in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an Oxford-educated, anglicized Pakistani sportsman who spent most of his time overseas. Even before he became a national hero in 1992, Khan was a well-liked figure in Pakistan, due to his boyish charm and sportsmanship.

He became a hero while captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. Under his captaincy, Pakistan won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992 after a hotly contested match against England. Cricket is one of the most watched and followed sports in Pakistan and holds a deep national significance. To millions of Pakistanis, Khan was the leader who led the nation to the much-awaited victory. The victory is cemented in the collective memory of Pakistanis as a miracle made possibly by Khan’s leadership. The Prime Minster and his party members have repeatedly used the victory to reaffirm the people’s faith in the “Captain’s” capabilities.      

To gain legitimacy as a political leader, Khan extensively changed his personal outlook, from that of a Westernized cricketer to an Islamized philanthropic politician. In 1988, Khan published an autobiographical account of his life in Imran Khan: An All-Rounder View. Revised in 1993, this was an account of his cricketing career. He also discussed coming to terms with his Muslim heritage and identity after spending considerable time in Western institutions. Khan put out another title in 1989, Imran Khan’s Cricket Skills. This book was meant for fans of the sport, to be used as a guide for honing their cricket skills. Using his celebrity status, Khan published a travelogue, Indus Journey: A Personal View of Pakistan in 1990. After admitting that he had come to terms with his identity, in his travelogue, Khan crossed the country and relived his memories of visiting key settlements and remains along the Indus River, showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage[2]

Three years later, in 1993, Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans. The books dug even deeper into his heritage. The progression of his books shows that during the last years of his cricket career, he increasingly identified with his Pakistani and Muslim identity, shunning his westernized influences. His increasing interest and concern for Pakistan was visible in the considerable amount of time he began spending on philanthropy. Khan established the first cancer hospital in Pakistan, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, in 1994. There was a personal side to this act, as Khan’s mother had succumbed to cancer which inspired him build the hospital. 

The hospital now has branches in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (under construction). They provide world class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford treatment. Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish a not-for-profit educational institute, Namal. 

He accomplished these mega projects with tremendous support and faith from the public. He ran unparalleled cross-cultural campaigns to raise funds. The fundraisers were high-profile events; Princess Diana of Wales even attended one, while at the grassroots level, children called “Tigers” collected funds for the cause.  

The “reformed” image of an anglicized schoolboy become Pakistan’s hero philanthropist helped start Khan’s political career: Khan launched his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),[3] in 1996. PTI was a small, personality-driven party, run by Khan and several of his close friends and family members. The party catered to the population with a promise of reformist ideals – to deliver “justice” to “the people.” 

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Beginning of a Political Career

In his most recent publication, Pakistan: A Personal History, published in 2011, Khan largely focused on his struggles with the PTI. He repeatedly and aggressively asserts his “Muslimness” in this book, a shift that coincides with his changing political ideology. Khan aligned himself with the populist religious sentiments of the conservative populace, a necessity for gaining political support.  

Khan was married to Jemima Goldsmith from 1995 to 2004. Goldsmith comes from a well-known Jewish family from Britain; this was a huge problem for Khan’s public image in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism and Zionist conspiracy theories are common (Aafreedi, 2019). It was unclear during the period if Goldsmith accepted Islam or not, another scandalous issue for Khan. He was also frequently photographed at niche, elite parties, where alcohol was the norm.[4]There were alleged affairs with models and socialites, further tarnishing his image. To make matters worse, Sita White, an American heiress, claimed Khan was the father of her daughter born out of wedlock (a claim disputed by Khan)[5] (Irish Times, 1997)

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis, who feel defying the “Western” way of life is a test of one’s Muslimness. 

Khan was offered positions in the government of dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1988 and later in a caretaker government in 1993; he declined both (Mir, 2018). His decision to stay as an “outsider” further bolstered his claims as a political leader not chasing money or power but seeking to fight for the people

Amidst this backdrop, Khan and the PTI competed in their first general elections in 1997. Their symbol was the cricket bat, despite Khan focusing more on his humanitarian work inspired by key Muslim figures such as Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Though the party lost handily, Khan stayed in the public eye. He was critical of the PML-N government and the military status quo under Pervez Musharraf. Khan’s message was simple: “end corruption, clear out the political mafias” (The Guardian, 2008). He again declined invitations and pressure to join the pro-Musharraf alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-Q), once more maintaining his status as an outsider (Mir, 2018)

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” 

The PTI won their first seat in the National Assembly in 2002. Post-9/11, Pakistan was engulfed in the war on terror. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan made it a close ally of the US and the Bush administration. On Pakistan’s western front, a porous border, wild terrain, a lack of governance, and the presence of local radical factions allowed for fleeing Taliban members to seek shelter. Over the next decade, Pakistan was seriously impacted by the war in Afghanistan. Public and military buildings – including markets, shrines, and schools – were targeted by  suicide bombers; radicalism surged, and so did the military’s involvement in various operations in an attempt to drive out the radicals. The US used drones to target various radical and Taliban leaders, killing large numbers of civilians and destroying property. The region saw an influx of refugees from Afghanistan and scores of internally displaced people, too. 

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” He railed against the government for not aiding internally displaced citizens and for becoming so dependent on the US, it wouldn’t object to the drone strikes on sovereign Pakistani soil. Educated, middle-class Pakistanis responded to his humanitarian narrative: “Are these people not humans? These humans have names. Drone attacks are a violation of human rights” (Chowdhry & Houreld, 2012).  

Khan took an openly critical view of the situation, and one of his interviews sums up his stance: “We (Pakistan and the CIA and USA), created these militant groups to fight the Soviets… Jihadis were heroes then……. the US packs up and leaves Afghanistan… And we were left with these groups…. Pakistan again joins the US (post 9/11) in the war on terror and now we are required to go after these groups as terrorists… so, Pakistan took a real battering in this” (Press Trust of India, 2019)

Opposition to government and US involvement continued throughout this period. These views were in line with public sentiment, as most conservatives opposed the US and civil society felt cornered under the autocratic, military-led government. Another humanitarian issue, popular in war torn areas and amongst civil society groups, concerned missing persons[6]. Khan also took up the mantle for this cause, specifically missing persons from Balochistan. Once more, the government was seen as negligent and too beholden to the US (Mir, 2018)

Khan was the politician who brought these issues to light while the PPP and PML-N stayed silent on matters regarding, for instance, the right to a free trial and other civil liberties and safeties. Khan was “brave” and “outspoken,” a man who spoke for “justice” by standing up to the US. After winning his first seat in the National Assembly, Khan continued his crusade against US influence and “puppet politicians” as he spent most of his time in office acting as a lone opposition voice on terrorism-related issues and civilian rights. By the end of the Musharraf regime, Khan had staged several protests – such as hunger strikes – for the restoration of unconstitutionally dismissed judges and actively took part in an alliance along with other major parties and civil society members to call for new and fair elections in 2008 (Inskeep, 2008; Walsh 2007)

Khan’s increasing anti-West rhetoric also coincided with his divorce from Goldsmith in 2004. The former cricketer, who once frequently wore Western clothes, now appeared increasingly in the Pakistani-styled kurta and shalwar and was no longer married to a “Jewish foreigner.” He increasingly raised “Muslim” issues and characterized the American war in Afghanistan and its impacts on Pakistan as a “West versus Islam” issue, a highly popular narrative with the general public. He became the face of the protests surrounding issue of desecrating the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in 2005. Khan exclaimed, “This is what the US is doing… desecrating the Quran” (Rajghatta, 2005). His comments greatly undermined Musharraf, causing mass civil unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which led to 16 people killed in rioting in Afghanistan (The Week, 2020). As part of his opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, he also led protests to blockade food and army supplies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Peshawar highway, en route to Afghanistan (Express Tribune, 2011). All of this was viewed as “heroic” in the eyes of many Pakistanis who did not approve of their country’s involvement in the American’s Afghan war.       

Khan refused to partake in the 2008 elections, which he felt were not free and fair. Questioning the electoral credibility of the country’s democratic system added a new dimension to his populism. Before the elections he said, “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go…. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). He expressed deep resentment towards the regime.  Soon, Musharraf resigned, and a PPP-led government came to power while Khan remained outside politics until his party participated again in the 2013 elections, where they had their most successful campaign ever, winning a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. 

Remodelling the Kaptan[7]  

Khan rapidly rebranded from 2008-2013. His new, populist, Islamized brand was spread on private media channels and on social media platforms such as Facebook.

He increasingly asserted that his decision to enter politics was for “the people” and not for fame, money, or power – in contrast to the “corrupt elite” politicians who were in power. Khan also asserted he felt the “pain” of the masses and sought inspiration from the work of pan-Islamist philosophers and freedom movement political leaders, to finally realize the Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned. Since his autobiography’s publication in 2011, Khan used the examples of Prophet Mohammed and the first four Muslim Caliphs to highlight his aspirations to deliver good governance on the “Islamic model.” 

By the early 2010s, Imran Khan had shunned his western ways and aligned with populist issues concerning religion and governance. He said, “I call them [‘Westernized’ Pakistanis] coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside, looking at Pakistan through a westernised lens” (Walsh, 2011). Before the 2013 elections, he leaned into anti-American rhetoric, anti-corruption slogans, and quick fixes to the people’s problems – and he spread this message at huge rallies called jalsas, hosted across the country. 

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses.     

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. On most issues, he remained vague – the biggest example of this being his conviction about the “good” and “bad” Taliban. Khan has repeatedly asserted that the Taliban were created by the US as a counter to the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s; abandoned by the US, these groups – originally called the Mujahideen – turned against their former allies, resulting in the 9/11 attacks (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017). Khan sought a peaceful resolution to the conflict and blamed the Pakistani and American governments for using controversial measures. To liberal factions, his call for meditation and rehabilitation was appealing, as military intervention had only made matters worse. At the same time, anti-West rhetoric was popular in conservative groups and his sympathy for the group, which Khan believed was justified by Islam, earned him the trust of extremist factions which previously saw him as part of Zionist conspiracy theories (Boone, 2012).

Khan saw cosmic justice or karma in the Taliban’s “freedom fight” against the “outsiders”; with full confidence, Khan asserted, “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad …The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad” (Boone, 2012; Dawn; 2012). Khan supported the ultra-right-wing coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and opposed operations against radical militants in the tribal areas. He also protested madrassa reforms. Together, these stances earned him the moniker, “Taliban Khan” in international media – and favourable reception at home in both conservative and liberal circles (Pataudi, 2012; Guardian, 2005).  

Corruption and governance were frequent features in Khan’s vocabulary. The PPP’s leader, Asif Ali Zardari, was known for rampant corruption during his wife’s last two tenures as prime minister. This supported Khan when he called out the “corrupt elite.” The PTI leader soon attacked PML-N leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, questioning their development programs in Punjab – and in particularly Lahore, the province’s capital and the hometown stronghold of the Sharifs. These programs were accused of focusing on infrastructure and beautification, ignoring the rampant poverty. Khan cast himself as an outsider and promised to fix the “people’s” problems. He wouldn’t fill his pockets with “blood money.” Khan’s views can be summed up in an interview: 

“I have been critical of the generals in the past. I told them they are selling our blood for dollars…But this is not martial rule.[8] It’s up to our corrupt government to take responsibility… We [him and the PTI] would go back to the people(Walsh, 2011).

Media and social media brought Khan unapparelled fame, as his populist rhetoric was well received by the masses who yearned for change and relief. PTI jalsas were a unique occurrence and designed to create an intimate connection between “the leader” and “the people.” PTI might have been the political party with many faces, but Imran Khan was the face of these gatherings. 

Paradoxically, Khan’s image successfully attracted members of the middle class to his gatherings. These events were like much loved melas[9]. Unlike other political rallies, they featured dancing – with women free to partake – and musical performance by leading Pakistani bands and singers. Particularly attracting urban younger and more “modern” citizens,[10] these rallies – headlined by fiery speeches by Khan – were a mainstay of social mediatabdeli was a trending hashtag. The huge fan following that Imran Khan amassed led his followers to be called youthias (youngsters), or more commonly insafyans (justice seeks). By the early 2010s, Khan’s populism was an amalgamation of piecemeal ideologies rooted in Islamism, anti-Westernism, anti-elitism, calls for public reforms, and a desire to give “power” to the people. Together, he was seeking change – or what he called tabdeli. Thousands had gathered at the PTI’s Lahore gathering in 2011, making Khan a formidable contender by the 2013 general elections. 

The PR rebranding had paid: had transformed from a Western captain to an Islamized kaptan (Urdu word for captain). These mass gathering were called tsunamis – a symbol for the revolutionary change that Imran Khan would bring; using his “bat” he would “knock out” the wicked and corrupt and lead the country to the “people’s victory” and “glory.” 

This image was not accidental: it was crafted in the speeches Khan delivered. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses. He was considered bold for calling out the state’s pattern of taking a “begging bowl” to the IMF or US. At the same time, he crudely yet hysterically poked fun at Zardari and the Sharifs on the basis of their appearances or policy decisions, evoking deep emotions through his charisma combined with a “common” style (Kari, 2019).        

Khan became a pop cultural icon. Clothing lines designed women’s clothing such as kurtas and scarfs with Khan’s faces on them; kids and women painted their faces with the colour of PTI flags for the rallies (Dawn 2015). Fan carried or wore pop-art posters and badges. Wearing an Imran Khan themed item was a political statement against the status quo. Khan’s online army of insafyans was busy sharing video featuring his rallies and quotes, as well as memes comparing him to the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Mufti, 2016).

Polls showed that 68 percent saw Khan as the favoured leader in the county. During this period, Khan’s “official account got around 100,000 hits daily and a Facebook account [received] 500,000 [hits]” (Mufti, 2016). The virtual space worked in his favour; given his background as a sports star, he knew how to optimize his public presence and earned the title “Facebook Khan” (Gulzar, 2018). Khan was a national populist phenomenon who captivated conventional and social media.     

Social media followers still rave when Khan’s official account posts his workout pictures, which make him seem active, hard-working, and glamorous compared to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, known for his gluttonous indulgences. Khan’s social media army is highly intolerant of any opposition directed at their leader; they have been known to be abusive towards various factions of society, a sign of how deeply they believe in Khan and his message. Some call them “blind followers” (Mehdi, 2013). The supporters’ sentiments have been adopted by Khan’s increasingly autocratic populism. He has openly targeted his critics by calling them agents of “India’s fascist government”; since taking power, he has simply used regulatory authorities to muffle dissent or criticism directed towards him or the party.                

From Pakistan’s Last Hope to “U-Turn” Khan 

Imran Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to his supporters during public gathering held on December 11, 2012 in Lodheran. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

 

Mainstream Opposition (2013-2018) 

Before 2013, Khan announced that his party would hold internal by-elections to prove they were different from the mainstream parties, which remain feudalistic and hereditary. This further strengthened his image as a populist outsider who was willing to diverge from business as usual. However, this was merely a distraction from the criticism that was mounting when PTI welcomed “electable” politicians – defectors from the mainstream political parties (Mufti, 2016).Khan’s experience made him understand the need for electable politicians. Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians” (Rehman 2018). In a party statement, PTI said: “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he is the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis” (Sadaqat, 2017). Thus, anyone critical of the party’s leader was a supporter of the corrupt elites – or, worse, an unpatriotic citizen who did not want to make Pakistan a better place. “True people” were those who supported PTI; the rest were naïve or traitors and following the “old ways”; they weren’t ready for the change that would build a “New Pakistan.”           

Two major developments occurred when Imran Khan secured his tenure in the 2013 elections. Firstly, PTI formed a provincial government in KPK province by aligning with the ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI). Khan pledged to reform KPK over the next five years. The party implemented new policies, include welfare reforms, a reformist agenda for public office, an effort to improve technology, and calls for justice. All of this was in line with Khan’s promises for a naya[11]Pakistan (Daudzai, 2018).  

The technocratic solutions in KPK, made to directly benefit the people, were placed in sharp contrast to the infrastructure-led developments made in Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharif brothers and the ruling party. He mocked the PML-N leaders as jangla-Sharifs with their jangla bus project;[12] While Khan’s policies benefitted the people, the PML-N was accused of using development projects to support their steel business by pocketing public funds (Daily Motion, 2017). PTI’s tree planting drive in KPK also earned Khan great support, as he became a rare politician who was concerned about climate change in a country where the leaders never pay attention to it (Gishkori, 2020).  

Unfortunately for Khan and the PTI, it was soon clear that his populist agenda was not easily translatable into effective policies. While KPK was the model for PTI’s policies, the technocratic reforms brought little development for the common people, as governance – especially at the local level – remained incapacitated, making it impossible to implement policies (Daudzai, 2018).

Moreover, Khan had pressed for “peaceful” resolutions to the insurgent violence in the province; yet during the PTI’s tenure, two military operations were carried out – Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Further, to appease the JI faction of their coalition, Khan turned a blind eye to the Islamization of school curriculums in the province; rather than rehabilitation and deradicalization – a PTI promise – public education was Islamized, with Quran classes made compulsory in schools (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014)

Ironically, Khan – who had opposed the Lahore transit project launched by Shahbaz Sharif – developed his very own metrobus project in Peshawar, KPK’s capital. He carefully marketed it as holistic, transparent, cost effective, and for the people; in reality, the project was behind schedule and over budget (Khan, 2019). And after having railed against corruption, Khan’s “tree tsunami” project was embroiled in a corruption scandal (Gishkori, 2020)

To divert attention from PTI’s failure to deliver on its promises, Khan used his time in office to attack PML-N’s leadership. It was an effort to gain anti-establishment support. Khan’s magnetic presence in the media allowed him to shift attention elsewhere. His crafty oratory, frank mannerisms, and fiery speeches made him the man to “save” Pakistan from the PML-N’s corrupt leadership. 

Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness (Yousaf, 2015; Dailymotion, 2016).

His skills were highlighted when the 2014 “Azadi March” was launched. It featured scores of political rallies across the country, and PTI joined hands with the right-wing religious party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), which was spearheaded by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri for a mass sit-in in Islamabad. The mission of the march was to “unmask corruption,” but Khan famously said, “This [the Azadi March] is beyond it [election rigging campaign]… the Pakistani people are not sheep that can be herded; we must empower people” (Dailymotion, 2014).

The usual jalsas were attended by thousands. They were no longer just for the middle class, but the working class, too. Khan gained support for his naya Pakistan agenda. His plan merged three key elements: Islamism, conspiracies, and a promise for welfare reforms. The country was seeing price hikes of basic commodities despite huge foreign investments being made by China. Khan merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism when he promised that naya Pakistan would be modelled on the state of Medina, from the times of Prophet Mohammad. Khan promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days, and a key feature of this promise hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020). 

Khan introduced a highly ambitious 100-day agenda which promised to bring back looted wealth and to implement welfare policies and governance for the people (Pakistan Today, 2018). His party has presented him as the “struggling hero” who sleeps on the ground or in a container, in the cold, just like the ordinary people. The party has also emphasized his struggle to bring power to the Pakistani people and to guide them in the light of the Qur’an and best Islamic practices, to eliminate the injustices and corruption of the political elite and foreign powers (Dailymotion, 2014).

The release of the Panama Papers further aided Khan’s cause of driving out “corrupt politicians,” when the names of Nawaz Sharif and his family members surfaced in money embezzlement cases. Khan promised vengeance and liberation from the “blood sucking” politicians, a message that especially resonated with young voters. One of his speeches summarized his tone: “Nawaz Sharif! Nawaz Sharif you shall be held accountable! You all shall be held accountable! Nawaz Sharif you will be the first one held accountable and after that each and every one shall be accounted for!” (YouTube, 2016). The crowd chanted, “Go Nawaz Go,” in support of Khan – the chant became the number one trending hashtag in Pakistan. 

In addition to the mass rallies, Khan pushed court cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family members; this led to the former being disqualified from office. During a “Thanksgiving” jalsa[13] Khan started his speech by thanking Allah and congratulating the masses on their first “victory.” He claimed this was only the beginning of the country’s journey to greatness (Khan, 2016). Like most populists, Khan promised deliverance without clear plans, yet the pro-public sentiment of his statements earned considerable support among the disaffected populace.  

By 2018, Khan had transformed into a kaptan by promising a Muslim welfare state where all the corrupt sinners would be jailed and Pakistan would no longer be a beggar or a puppet of America. Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was his trophy, which he flaunted to the public ahead of the 2018 elections.

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled. Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has also used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. 

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

 

Leadership (2018-Present)

Since assuming office as prime minister, Khan has done something of a U-turn. Since coming to power, the PTI has been unable to deliver on any of its promises, other than building a special task force to recover looted national wealth (Dawn, 2021). Promises of shelter, social welfare, youth job creation, access to quality education, and other ideals have been left on the drawing board or halted (Dawn, 2021). For instance, the promise to end corruption in the first 100 days vanished

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled (Qayum, 2020)

To gain clout, Khan has successfully renamed welfare programs for PR purposes; for example, the Benazir Income Support Program’s (BISP) elements have been merged and branded with the Ehsas Welfare Program; and health cards that were launched during the last government are now rebranded as the Sehat Suhalat Program (Shat Suhalat, 2021; Junaidi, 2016). Such rebranding is a common practice in Pakistan. Khan promised to end Pakistan’s “brain drain” by inviting technocrats from overseas to “fix” the country, and so far, it has ended in a disaster, as Tania Aidrus, who was leading the digital Pakistan initiative, has resigned, and Zafar Mirza, the advisor on heath, did the same. Khan’s failure to deliver has meant that his promise to attract foreign investment from expat Pakistanis has failed to materialize (Khan, 2020). 

Not only has Imran Khan been unable to instil change, but under his leadership, a lot of backtracking from promises has been made. Two examples include Dr. Atif Mian being dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school of thought,[14] and Khan taking “the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after years of severe criticism of the IMF (Farmer, 2020; Dawn, 2020). 

Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. Since coming into government, he has used the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to attack opposition media such as the Jang Group and subsidiaries such as Geo Channel (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2019). Under the Khan government, any anti-state or government content seen on social media is portrayed as an “outside” attack, intended to alter the perspectives of Pakistani citizens (Butt, 2021)

Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has, throughout PTI’s tenure, targeted various PML-N leaders on suspicion and accusations of corruption. While there are credible accusations of corruption, PTI has mostly escaped scrutiny despite similar allegations (Farooq, 2020; Shar; 2019, Zubair, 2019). In addition to PEMRA, Khan’s government has created tighter rules for social media regulation under the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020; these acts grant the government a permit to ask Google, YouTube, and other sites to ban or block content they consider unfit (Chabba, 2020).

Khan has also been directly confrontational towards the judiciary. In 2007, he went on a hunger strike to support the judiciary, and in 2017, he praised them for their “just” decision to dismiss Nawaz Sharif from office; during his tenure, he has pressured the judiciary on two occasions. Khan and the PTI used parliament to overrule the judiciary, extending the service tenure of the Chief of Army Staff. He also challenged the death sentence handed out to dictator Pervez Musharraf.Referencing Musharraf’s death sentence, Khan said, “People’s trust in judicial system has been shaken” (Dawn, 2020)

Khan’s tenure has seen increasing inflation and unemployment, in addition to the already dire economic conditions. The opposition parties have formed a coalition to challenge his office. Khan has called this opposition anti-state and enemies of the state; he’s called them “Indian” agents and members of foreign plots against Pakistan. This populist rhetoric resonates with Pakistanis who have been using conspiracy theories for decades to externalize the nation’s failures. Thus, it has now become a fight between the “state” and its “people.” Imran Khan has publicly called Nawaz Sharif a traitor, and Khan’s government has banned media from airing Sharif’s speeches due to “seditious” content (Dawn, 2020). 

Khan and PTI have also deflected attention by externalizing blame. He uses the “honest man” strategy, positioning himself as the one humble man the people can trust. He believes that he had an “unfair” start because the system is so corrupt and damaged that he cannot deliver his promises with 100 days. He admits his failures and has pled with the people to give him time; he promises he will deliver only if they have “faith in him” (Khawar, 2020). Simultaneously, he has also externalized blamed, pointing the finger at India for allegedly sponsoring terrorism in the country and lobbying against Pakistan in the global arena. These are highly sensitive nerve endings amongst the public, who feel touched by Khan’s humbleness while also feeling sorry for his plight. All the while, they believe his claims; a majority of Pakistanis view India as a malicious actor.

Imran Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled.

Enthusiastic Youth going towards the venue Minar-e-Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s political rally on October 30, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

 

Khan’s Populism and its Consequences  

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

An example of this is the Single National Curriculum Plan (SNCP), which aims to bring equity to the education system by having a single curriculum for public and private schools. In a country where quality education is a privilege few enjoy, SNCP is a symbol of equity and the promise of justice in naya Pakistan. At the same time, its highly Islamized aspects – including teaching Quranic verses and the life and sayings of the Prophet (from a Sunni interpretation) – appease the religious sentiments of the populace. SNCP also represents a move away from “Westernized” education to a more indigenous model. PTI advertises SNCP as true to the values and norms of Pakistani culture (in reality, Sunni Islamic culture). Thus, in one policy proposal, Khan combines anti-Western and anti-elitism with Islamism and reform.

In three years, Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled. Khan has again merged various ideologies such as anti-corruption, anti-elitism, conspiracies, and a quest to make Pakistan a “just Islamic state” modelled on Medina to justify his vindictive, autocratic behaviour. 

These choices have set up a choice between the “people” – that is, those pure ones on the right (religious) side – and those who oppose the people. This latter group includes traitors and Indian spies, members of the elite, or those brainwashed by Western sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The “otherization” of critics and those who do not identify with Khan’s narrative leaves little room for pluralism.                   

Khan’s merged ideologies and populist rhetoric are primarily defined by Islamism as a way of viewing the world and an agent of change to answer all social issues. His supporters are overwhelmingly young (again, a majority of Pakistanis are under 30), which makes his support worrying. His tenure has promoted Quranic education, Muslim victimization, a wave of pan-Islamism, and fear of the “West” and non-Muslims. For these policies, and radicalizing the country’s youth, Khan has been named amongst “The Muslim 500” (The News, 2020). When a number of Shia and ethnically Hazara were massacred in 2021, Khan blamed India for “sponsoring terrorism,” even though his policies have done little to ensure that interfaith harmony is promoted in an already radicalized society. 

Captaincy of the country has led Khan to make many compromises or U-turns; his image as a political “outsider” or miracle worker are no longer valid; he has struggled to turn populist dreams into the reality of a naya Pakistan. To cover his shortcomings, like other populist leaders, he has misused power and deflected blame to imagined external threats. He also doubled down on his populism, “otherized” internal critics, and tried to construct their criticism as illegitimate. Moreover, by codifying populism into educational policy and spreading conspiracy theories, Khan’s tenure is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan’s social fabric.

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Footnotes

[1] Tabdeli is an Urdu work that is used to describe reform and change. This word has become synonymous with Imran Khan.    

[2] The Indus River is the largest river system in Pakistan. Historically, cities and settlements, from north to south, have developed along the river. Thus, it holds immense cultural significance.   

[3] Pakistan Movement for Justice  

[4] In Pakistan possessing and drinking alcohol is a punishable offense.   

[5] In Pakistan sex outside marriage is a punishable offence. The Hudood Ordinances, at the time, consisted of Zina (extramarital) Ordinance, which before 2006, could hand jail sentences of up to 10 years along with stoning to death for the adulterer and a public whipping of 100 lashes for a fornicator. 

[6] In Pakistan ‘missing persons’ are people who have gone missing by being abducted or killed by state intuitions. These occurrences have also been called the ‘enforced disappearances.’   

[7] Captain 

[8] Talking about the central PPP Government and PML-N Punjab government

[9] Funfairs where locals celebrate with family and friends. They were once a common occurrence in Pakistan, but the wave of suicide bombings severely limited or hampered these once frequent occurrences where dance and music were common.   

[10] It is noteworthy that Pakistan has one of the youngest populations around the world. People under the age of 30 make up over 64% of the total population.  

[11] New Pakistan 

[12] Jangla-Sharif refers to the Metro Bus project in Lahore. PML-N had heavily invested in infrastructure projects during their two terms in Punjab.   

[13] After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif Khan gathered his supports in a ‘Thanksgiving’ rally as they were ridded off ‘kind of corrupt.’    

[14] Ahmadis are a subsect of Muslims who have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan; they are a highly persecuted group who face discrimination and even loss of life due to their religious affiliation. Extremist right-wing groups consider them wajib-ul-qatal (eligible to kill).   

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro speaks in an act to support to Assembly Constituent in Caracas, Venezuela on May 23, 2017.

Nicolas Maduro: A populist without popularity

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Nicolas Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable.

By Imdat Oner 

Latin America has long been a fertile political landscape for populist leaders. Argentina’s Eva Peron, Peru’s Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas, and Ecuador’s José María Velasco Ibarra are all well-known populist leaders. For these politicians, populism was a viable political strategy, one they used to mobilize people against the “elites” on their way to obtaining and retaining power. Claiming to be the embodiment of the “pure” people, Latin American populists have rejected checks and balances that would limit their power, which they view as derived from the people’s will.

A second wave of populism has taken root throughout Latin America with the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Kirshner in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. They mainly rose to power amid the rising sentiment against neoliberal policies. Adopting an anti-American discourse and anti-neoliberal approach, these pink-tide leaders have continued the region’s populist tradition. Like their predecessors, these new populist leaders appeal to the excluded masses by mobilizing against the establishment and promising better lives for their supporters. 

The rise of Chávez in Venezuela has especially inspired academic studies of populism, which is known as one of Latin America’s most enduring political traditions. Elected on the promise of ending neoliberal economic policies and corrupt politicians, the late President Chávez ruled Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. His movement, Chavismo, drew heavily on the charismatic populist connection between his leadership and the people. While he was planning to remain in power until 2021 (La Tercera, 2008), he passed away at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer. Following his death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro – in full, Nicolás Maduro Moros – came to power as Chávez’s handpicked successor. Maduro, Vice President under Chávez, was sworn-in in April 2013 as Venezuela’s interim President until new elections could be held. He inherited the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV) and announced he would be the party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. 

Designated by Chávez as his political heir, Maduro narrowly won the election. Despite a less favourable international situation and complex domestic socio-economic conditions, Maduro committed himself and his regime to further authoritarianism, to solidify his hold on power. Under his administration, Venezuela has been an emblematic case of severe democratic erosion while suffering a major economic and humanitarian crisis. This paper will seek to introduce a detailed profile of Maduro and his place within the region’s populist politics.

Maduro’s Background

Born in 1962 into a family that had heavily engaged in leftist politics and labour movements, Maduro followed his parents’ footsteps and began his political life in the student union during his high school years (The Guardian, 2013). His educational career is murky. Several records indicate that he could not finish high school (Cola, 2018). The most well-known fact about Maduro’s early age is that he worked as a bus driver. In those years, Maduro was actively attending labour union activities. He got involved in politics through leftist groups such as Rupture and the Socialist League (Dobson, 2018). At 24, Maduro moved to Cuba and attended a one-year course at the Escuela Nacional de Cuadros Julio Antonio Mella, a political training centre run by the Union of Young Communists (Oropeza, 2013). He trained to become a professional revolutionary (Naim and Toro, 2018). His connection with Cuba at this young age would later play a critical role in his regime’s survival.

Maduro was long part of Chávez’s inner circle. His first connection with Chávez dates to the early 1990s. Maduro participated in the 1992 military coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, which was led by Chávez (Oropeza, 2013).After the failed attempt, Chávez was sent to a military prison; Maduro campaigned for his release (The Guardian, 2013).Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, led the legal team that worked to get Chávez freed. Since the beginning, Maduro and his family were among Chávez’s most faithful supporters. 

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder.

The former presidents of Cuba, Raul Castro (L) and of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez (c) and Nicolas Maduro (R) in Cumana, Venezuela on April 17, 2009.

Maduro’s strong ties to Chavismo and Chávez have been critical factors advancing his political career. Maduro slowly but surely climbed the political career ladder. First, he took an active role in founding the Fifth Republic Movement, initiated by Chávez ahead of the 1998 elections. After Chávez’s successful rise to power in 1998, Maduro became part of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the new Venezuelan constitution. Then, he served a long string as a deputy at Parliament. He was re-elected in the 2005 parliamentary elections and became the President of the National Assembly. One year later, Chávez appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs. The former bus driver was the longest-serving minister at this post during Chávez’s reign (Alarcon Deza, 2014). In 2012, shortly after Chávez’s victory in the presidential election, Maduro became Vice President. Before leaving for surgery in Cuba in December 2012, Chávez picked his long-time loyal confidant as his successor. In his last public appearance, President Chávez described Maduro as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations” (Chuck, 2017).

Is Maduro A Populist Leader?

Jan-Verner Mueller (2013) has raised a critical question: “Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular and charismatic leader?” It is generally accepted that populist leaders derive their legitimacy and authority from the people and their popular support. Claiming to have the people’s support, populists believe in popular sovereignty as manifested by regular elections and referenda representing the people’s will. Put simply, this has never been the case for Maduro. First of all, Maduro was appointed by Chávez as his successor. While carrying out his role as interim president, he ran for office in special elections convened in April 2013, in the wake of Chávez’s death. Maduro had neither Chávez’s charisma nor his support. Calling himself “the son of Chávez,” Maduro narrowly won the election against opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a mere 1.5 percent. Compared to other populist leaders, he has grown deeply unpopular since his election. 

Lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro has been unable to enjoy the level of popular support Chávez did. Shortly after he assumed office, his job approval suffered amid rising economic problems, including hyperinflation, devaluation, and rampant poverty. Among the populace, there was a growing distrust of the Maduro government. According to Corrales and Bergen (2016), there was no single indicator of governance that improved under Maduro, and he was perceived as the weakest president in Venezuelan history. The existing problems pointed to significant losses for Maduro and his party in upcoming elections. Reliable polling indicated that Maduro’s approval rating stood below 25 percent before the end of 2014, and around two-thirds of the country believed that he would not be able to complete his first presidential term (Reuters, 2014). These numbers make more sense when put in context and compared to his predecessor’s approval ratings. Since Chávez first came to power in 1999, his party, The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), has dominated Venezuelan politics. During the Chávez era, PSUV won every election, both presidential and parliamentary. And remarkably, Chávez won his last election, in 2012, by 11 points and enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating just before he died (Corrales and Bergen, 2016). 

Maduro’s low approval rating suggests he lacks a unique feature of populist leaders: charismatic appeal. As Carlos de la Torre has written, in hyper-personalistic regimes, charisma cannot be transferred to a handpicked successor (De la Torre, 2017). As Maduro lacks personal charisma, he constantly invokes Chávez’s memory and legacy to capitalize on the latter’s genuine popularity among the people. Before he was elected in 2013, Maduro overwhelmingly relied on his predecessor’s political capital and legitimacy to gain the people’s support. Maduro and party followers strongly endorsed the slogan of “Chávez lives! The struggle continues! Always fighting for victory, Comandante!” (Angosto-Ferrández, 2016). Although Maduro sought to emulate Chávez’s tactics and style, his fierce rhetoric without strong charisma failed to galvanize Chávez’s electoral base.

Maduro’s low approval rating became more evident in the 2015 parliamentary elections. The electoral coalition of the opposition parties, called Mesa de Unidad Democrática, (Democratic Unity Table – MUD), won a landslide victory against the ruling party PSUV. The result was a record 74 percent turnout, with 58 percent of voters supporting the opposition and only 42 percent supporting the government (Neuman, 2015). PSUV lost control of the assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999. The opposition achieved a three-fifths majority, which enabled them to pass laws, censure, and remove government ministers and the executive vice president.

Despite lacking charisma, Maduro has displayed one classic trait of populism, by framing Venezuela’s struggle as the “pure” people against the oligarchs. A recent study from the Global Populism Discourse, which identifies populist discourse in the speeches of world leaders, labels Maduro as “very populist” on the basis of speech analysis (Lewis et al., 2019). Like his predecessor Chávez, Maduro’s discourse permanently seeks to divide society into two separate groups and explicitly articulates an existential struggle between them. The discourse mostly revolves around confrontational rhetoric, framing politics as a zero-sum game between the people and the conspiring elite. Similar to other populist leaders, Maduro treats his political opponents not as competitors but “enemies of the homeland” to be defeated (Rodriguez-Garavito and Gomez 2018). Rhetorically, he portrays himself as a victim, even at the height of his power, blaming domestic or foreign elites. Ultimately, the populist discourse aims at legitimizing the use of any means to stay in power.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country, Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. 

The members of the Venezuelan resistance protested against the Maduro government in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

New Authoritarianism Under an Unpopular Populist Leader

Even though Maduro differs from other populist leaders in terms of lower popular support, he shares another commonality with them: posing a danger to liberal democracy (Hawkins and Ruth, 2016; Weyland, 2013). After inheriting a hybrid regime, Maduro followed a playbook left in place by his predecessor. The deepening socio-economic crisis and increasing domestic instability have increased pressure on Maduro. To maintain his power, he has become more radical, adopting authoritarian tactics on several fronts, including weakening state institutions, undermining checks and balances, polarizing society into two camps, and stacking the playing field against his opponents.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, which started under Chávez, was a long and gradual process. During the Chávez era, Venezuela was governed by a semi-authoritarian regime, with extremely weak democratic institutions and skewed checks and balances. While Chávez used populism to entrench his power and consolidate a competitive authoritarian regime in the country (Corrales and Penfold, 2011; Levitsky and Loxton, 2012), Maduro scaled up to full-blown authoritarianism in the face of eroding support for his government. As a Freedom House (2017) report indicated, under the Maduro administration, Venezuela gradually transitioned from a “partly free” democracy into a “not free” authoritarian regime. As Maduro’s support has waned at home, the executive branch increasingly engages in traditional authoritarian practices to consolidate political power and eliminate any efforts that would threaten its survival. Facing internal and external crises, the Maduro administration has adopted all sorts of repressive measures, including undermining state institutions, arresting opposition leaders, and suppressing the press (Corrales, 2015: 44).

In this respect, the parliamentary elections in 2015 became a litmus test of whether the regime would accept losing any power through elections (Marsteintredet, 2020). Faced with a sweeping opposition victory, Maduro initially acknowledged the results by saying, “The bad guys won, like the bad guys always do, through lies and fraud” (The Guardian, 2015). But before long, the government implied that it had no intention of sharing its power with an opposition-led parliament. Within two years, the parliament was weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for a supermajority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by a constituent assembly that rules in the place of the National Assembly. 

In the years following the 2015 elections, the country was riven by deep polarization and faced a political impasse, as Maduro felt more insecure about holding power. By early May 2016, the opposition had submitted petitions with some 1.8 million signatures to call for a referendum that would remove Maduro from power. Nevertheless, with the help of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which the government has filled with Maduro loyalists, the referendum was blocked. This manipulation was simply another confirmation that the ruling party would not accept the results of an election that it might lose. 

Similarly, the Supreme Court repeatedly undermined the opposition-dominated National Assembly’s authority as an equal branch of power, routinely overturning the laws that it enacted. The Court has been turned into a political weapon of the Maduro administration. Shortly after the opposition gained control of parliament in 2015, Maduro repacked the Court with unconditional loyalists by circumventing the judicial appointment procedures outlined in the constitution (Freeman, 2020). The Supreme Court nullified nearly all legislation that the National Assembly passed in 2016 and stripped it of its budgetary powers. Moreover, Maduro asked the Court for extraordinary powers to govern by decree, bypassing the legislative body’s checks and balances.

Political interference in the judiciary is not new in Venezuela. This “judicial shield” was also used by Chávez, who packed the Court with his loyalists (Correa and Recinos 2016). Yet, the Supreme Court during the Maduro administration has become an arm of an authoritarian executive (IJC, 2017). A report by the International Commission of Jurists’s (IJC) indicates that the executive has decisively co-opted the Court, whose members mainly consist of members of the ruling party and ex-government officials. For example, last year, the Supreme Court unilaterally appointed a new electoral commission, which was supposed to be appointed by parliament. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court argued that the opposition-run legislature was in “unconstitutional omission.” The Court suspended the leadership of the two leading opposition parties (Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática) and appointed Maduro supporters to lead both parties instead. Finally, the Court increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 166 to 277, a means of packing the legislature (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

While the CNE and the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the National Assembly’s authority and ability to legislate, Maduro aimed to fully dissolve it in 2017. The government controversially created a new Constituent Assembly to supersede parliament’s authority and bypass its legislation. Its alleged purpose was to draft a new constitution, yet it never happened. The Constituent Assembly assumed de facto power and made all the country’s important political decisions, giving Maduro full control of the process. This explicitly marked Venezuela’s exit from democracy. 

Under the Maduro administration, electoral irregularities have also become more common (Corrales, 2016). The regime understands that it cannot survive a free and fair election, especially after the resounding defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although the remine has inherited several “legacy” irregularities from Chávez, Maduro has also introduced new, election-specific irregularities of his own (Corrales, 2016). It is widely accepted that electoral conditions under Chávez were never free and fair, and the incumbent party enjoyed an uneven playing field, but the elections were more competitive and happened mostly on schedule (Corrales, 2016). During the Maduro administration, Venezuela has experienced significant electoral irregularities, including the abuse of state power to the incumbent’s advantage, gerrymandered electoral districts, and public media access for opposition candidates (Alarcón, Álvarez, & Hidalgo, 2016).The government’s electoral strategy is designed to turn out its core supporters while discouraging its opponents from voting. Maduro has created an environment that enables the ruling party to hold elections without any risk of losing. 

Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners has significantly increased under the authoritarian Maduro administration. Like other populist autocrats, Maduro has labelled the opposition leaders “traitors” serving as allies of foreign countries. Popular opposition members have been mostly side-lined from the political process, either through being jailed or forced to live in exile; some have been disqualified from holding office (Singer, 2019). The leader of the Popular Will Party, Leopoldo López, was one of the most popular opposition leaders; he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for a series of alleged crimes related to his participation in the protests of early 2014. Another popular opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who has run twice as a presidential candidate, was barred by Maduro’s government from running for office. The Supreme Court also lifted parliamentary immunity for Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s vice president, who the government accused of crimes for his involvement in street protests (Semple, 2017)

As part of a larger authoritarian playbook, the political prisoners have also been used as a bargaining chip by the Maduro administration. For instance, in August 2020, the Venezuelan government pardoned more than 100 opposition politicians, including more than 20 legislators who had been accused of conspiring against the government (Reuters, 2010). Maduro attempted to use these prisoners as part of an ongoing negotiation ahead of parliamentary elections.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival.

Nicolás Maduro with First Lady Cilia Flores and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López are seen as watching a military parade in Caracas on February 1, 2017.

The Alliance with the Military 

Chávez’s main strategy was to use plebiscitarian mass support to transform established institutions and concentrate power in the hands of the President (Weyland, 2013). However, Maduro, unlike other populist leaders, lacks the charisma to appeal to popular support. Instead, he consolidated support among the Chavista’s inner forces and the military (Romero and Mijares, 2016). Lopez Maya (2018) describes Maduro’s government as a “neopatrimonial rule”; it is not a simple populist regime. According to her, Chávez’s close circle coalesced around Maduro, letting him rule along with his family, friends, and the military. Maduro originally derived his legitimacy from those implicit domestic coalitions rather than the people’s vote.

Amid diminishing government support, Maduro is increasingly bolstered by a loyal security apparatus, including the military and police. After losing Chávez’s political capital amid the deteriorating economic situation, Maduro has leaned increasingly on the military, which has become vital to his regime’s survival. Maduro and his allies understood that the military would be a decisive player in the political game. The lack of charismatic leadership and popular support has made a power-sharing arrangement with the military necessary.

It is important to note here that the high “militarization” of Venezuelan politics dates back to Chávez, who espoused a narrative of the “civil-military alliance” even in the early years of his administration (Strønen, 2016). A significant number of military officers entered into the traditionally civilian space of public offices, effectively militarizing the political system. While many military officers were purged during the Chávez era, some loyal officers were promoted to critical civilian posts.

With Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become even more involved in politics through a series of rewards granted by the government in accordance with implicit power-sharing arrangements. Maduro sought to shore up his support in the armed forces after the defeat in the parliamentary elections (Smilde, 2015). Losing a critical branch of power, Maduro rewarded “profit-seeking soldiers” with access to cabinet posts and the control of banks and other financial institutions (Correa, 2020). High-level bureaucratic cadres and political posts have been staffed with military officers. The officers have a massive presence in the presidential office, vice-ministries, and among governors, mostly without giving up their military offices. As of 2020, eight members of Maduro’s 33-member cabinet – and seven of the nineteen governors who belong to the ruling party – are active or retired military members (Correa, 2020). Several key sectors now rest in the hands of military officers, including the distribution of food and basic products. Maduro appointed Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino López as head of the “Grand Supply Mission” in 2016, handing him control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system. Since then, the Venezuelan army has become the main authority regulating food and medicine distribution across the country

Maduro has surrounded himself with a group that faces high exit costs if the ruling party loses power, thereby ensuring their support for his survival in office (Cannon and Brown, 2017). For example, David Smilde (2016) argues that Maduro has picked generals for his inner circle who are on the US blacklist for drug trafficking or human rights violations. Theseindividuals have much to lose in any political transition favouring democracy and the rule of law. Any transition to democracy could lead to prosecution and long-term imprisonment. High ranking military officials are expected to remain loyal to their commander-in-chief, since their ability to avoid justice depends on Maduro’s survival.

Maduro has needed to consolidate support amongst the military: since he came to power, the likelihood of a coup has increased. Fed up with rampant corruption, rapid democratic backsliding, and the dire economic situation, some factions of the opposition considered the possibility of a military intervention. Maduro, in fact, claims there have been several attempted coups against his government (Lansberg-Rodríguez, 2015). Some Venezuelan opposition members and generals were arrested by intelligence agents and indicted on charges of conspiracy against the government. According to Corrales (2020), by mid-2019, the Maduro administration held 217 active and retired military officers in prison, many of them without trial. While the Venezuelan government fingered opposition members, generals, and businesspeople as plotting a “coup” against Maduro, he also accused the United States of masterminding an attempt to overthrow him.

The army has played a significant role in supporting Maduro’s legitimacy and power, especially at critical turning points. The military’s support of Maduro smoothed the way for his consolidation of power. That support has not been uniform, however. In 2019, dozens of military members joined Juan Guaido’s uprising attempt. However, none of them were upper-level military members, and the attempt failed. 

Oil pump jack and oil barrels with Venezuelan flag.

Fall of the Petro-state Under the Maduro Administration

Maduro also lacks another significant asset that Chávez enjoyed: booming oil prices. Oil accounts for around 90 percent of petro-state Venezuela’s exports (OPEC, 2016). Instead of saving the oil revenue for the future, Chávez just funnelled booming oil revenue into social programs targeting the poor, including subsidized food, free healthcare, and education. Even though Chávez was a highly charismatic leader, his popularity also heavily depended on his government’s economic performance and generous social programs funded by oil money, which in turn spurred the voters’ support for him.

Maduro was elected president amid an unfavourable economic environment and would soon feel the long-term economic pain that Chávez wrought for the sake of short-term gain. Shortly after Maduro took office, the global price of petroleum crashed, triggering Venezuela’s most serious economic and social crisis in recent history. Since 2013, the country has lost 62 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Bull and Rosales, 2020). The economic crisis has rapidly spiralled into a serious humanitarian crisis marked by worsening public services, malnutrition, and shortages, including for food and medicine. 

Venezuelan oil production has also declined because of international sanctions and a lack of maintenance in the oil sector. Instead of market-friendly economic reforms and relaxing price controls, Maduro chose to continue with his predecessor’s populist economic policies, including nationalizations, tight state control of the economy, and uncontrolled printing of money. Some short-term relief did not solve the complicated problems. Losing his popular support, Maduro was, indeed, not in a position to deviate from Chávez’s socialist policies mainly due to a fear of losing his base (Smilde, 2015). Maduro’s economic management was also marred by a series of incompetent appointments. At a critical time when the economic crisis deepened, Maduro appointed a professor who believed inflation does not really exist (Ellsworth, 2016).

The decline in state revenue due to the sharp fall in oil prices also resulted in reduced social welfare programs. As social programs benefiting the poor, the clientelist social networks providing services in exchange for political support has significantly expanded under Maduro’s rule. Even though food distribution and other social programs have long been in place, at least since Chávez was in power, the massive misuse of state resources became more frequent through solid patronage and clientelist politics under the Maduro administration (Buxton, 2017). Maduro explicitly used government resources to guarantee his re-election for another term. For example, before the presidential elections in 2018, Maduro expanded food subsidies nationally to assure a high electoral turnout (Penfold, 2018). Under military control, food was used as a political tool to reward and mobilize supporters and punish opponents. The voters who were not ideologically aligned with Maduro were excluded from food distributions and other social programs (García-Guadilla and Mallen, 2019)

The neo-patrimonial rule under Maduro also allowed corruption and illicit businesses to flourish across the country. According to Transparency International (2019), Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world (of a total of 180 countries included in the Corruption Perception Index, Venezuela ranks 169). A recent example of the complex corruption schemes initiated under Maduro’s rule is the “Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) program.” Initially created to provide subsidized food to poor citizens, the program has turned into a complex corruption network that made money from overvalued contracts, which eventually enriched high-level officials (Reuters, 2019). While corruption has proliferated under Maduro’s rule, other illicit businesses, including drug trafficking, have emerged as a key source of profits for the ruling elite (Naim and Toro, 2018).

Opposition protested against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017.

Anti-Maduro Protests 

This difficult economic situation has been accompanied by a pronounced deterioration in social issues and, consequently, an increase in the levels of political conflict. Deteriorating economic conditions, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption have undermined Maduro’s unravelling support over the years, leading to widespread discontent among broad sectors of the population, even including some faction of Chávez supporters. Inevitably, the worsening situation triggered several massive protests across the country against rising repression, the high cost of living, and misgovernance.

Amid growing frustration, in 2014, the government faced the first massive demonstrations. Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, led national street protests in opposition to Maduro as part of a strategy known as “La Salida” (The Way Out). Hard-line members of the opposition and students took part. The demonstrations were severely repressed by Venezuelan security forces, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. 

The country witnessed another set of widespread protests in 2017, when the Supreme Court stripped the opposition-led parliament’s legislative powers. This decision prompted widespread outrage in the country. A month of huge protests against Maduro’s rule involved instances of looting and violence. Maduro reacted to these protesters by referring to them as “vandals and terrorists” and called his supporters to the streets (Romo and Marilia, 2017). Similarly, he ramped up his fierce rhetoric against the right-wing opposition and external powers.

Maduro violently cracked down on the protests and imprisoned his major political rivals. Security forces repeatedly used excessive force to repress anti-government demonstrations, resulting in dozens of deaths. Several international institutions documented human rights violations committed by state authorities. Recently, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission identified findings about extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture committed in the country since 2014 (UN Human Rights Council, 2020). Similarly, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor reported that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces, and pro-government individuals had committed crimes against humanity (Reuters, 2020).

Maduro’s Presidency Facing Questions of Legitimacy 

Under conditions significantly favouring the incumbent party – including voting irregularities – the main opposition parties decided to boycott the next presidential (2018) and parliamentary elections (2020), saying the electoral system was rigged in favour of Maduro and his party.

In May 2018, the presidential elections took place amid criticism of domestic and international actors. Maduro was re-elected with 67 percent of the vote, although only 46 percent of eligible voters participated. The high abstention rate was due to the opposition’s boycott.The election was rejected and labelled illegitimate by several countries and international organizations, including the United States, the Lima Group (12 of 13 Latin American member countries and Canada), and the European Union. 

In January 2019, Maduro was sworn in for his second term as president amid questions about his legitimacy. Only two weeks after Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony, the President of the National Assembly and the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s acting President. His claim rested on a provision in the 1999 constitution that allows the president of parliament to assume power temporarily in the absence of a president-elect. The opposition argued that Maduro had not been elected legally, and, therefore, the country was without a president. Since 2019, Venezuela has been caught in a political conflict between the two men who claim to be its rightful president.

President of Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaido talks to the people during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on January 23, 2019.

Even though Guaido was recognized as President by more than 50 countries, he has remained powerless and struggled to gain control. Most critically, he did not succeed in persuading the upper echelons of the military – the most critical power player in Maduro’s survival – to turn against the regime. With Maduro firmly entrenched in power, Guaido-led efforts have failed to change the political dynamic on the ground. In June 2020, ruling-party lawmakers elected one of the opposition members backed by Maduro to lead the parliament, depriving Guaidó of his position (Krygier and Faiola, 2020). While the opposition declared this move a “parliamentary coup,” Guaido’s popularity significantly declined only one year after he promised to remove Maduro from power. 

Seeking to bolster his legitimacy, Maduro continues to hold elections significantly stripped of their democratic requirements. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Guaidó-led faction of the opposition refused to participate due to serious electoral irregularities. The electoral system has been re-designed in favour of the government. In June 2020, the Supreme Court stripped three of the four main opposition parties of their leadership, allowing the parties to be co-opted by pro-government politicians. Along with an expanding of the National Assembly, from 167 to 277 seats, this severely weakened the opposition. The Maduro administration also refused to allow international electoral observers.

With low voter participation, the president and his left-wing allies won 257 of the 277 seats in the assembly, taking 67.7 percent of the vote. Regardless of civilian disenchantment with politics, solidified his grip on the last democratically elected institution in Venezuela. 

Another Populist Playbook: Foreign Plots

Maduro has another similarity with other populist leaders: he feeds fears of external plots to distract the public’s attention from daily problems inside the country. From the outset of his reign, conspiracy theories have been central to Maduro’s discourse (Carey, 2019). Shortly after he took office, Maduro accused foes of plotting to assassinate him and claimed that “imperialist” enemies infected Chávez with cancer (Reuters, 2013). The Venezuelan government has trumpeted the conspiracies as a way of rallying its supporters around a shared, unsubstantiated enemy. Both Chávez and Maduro used conspiracies as a weapon to discredit or demonize adversaries and to generate a fortress mentality among supporters (Piñeiro, Rhodes-Purdy and Rosenblatt, 2016).

Unable to control the collapse of the economy and chronic issues inside the country, Maduro sustained typical Chávez-style conspiracy theories and claimed foreign states were the main culprit of the country’s problems.In 2016, Maduro announced a plot orchestrated by the US and its alleged domestic conspirators to sabotage the Venezuelan economy. Two weeks later, he announced that the US Embassy, with the participation of opposition leaders, carried out a cyberattack against the banking system (Telesur English, 2016).He also explicitly attributed the country’s socio-economic misery to “external dynamics” by constantly invoking the “economic war” waged against his government by internal and external enemies (Reuters, 2018). Maduro has also constantly characterized the widespread protests and rallies as attempted coups fostered by the United States against his government. For Maduro, there was an international right-wing conspiracy working with the radical opposition inside the country to oust him.

Meanwhile, the US’s increasingly aggressive policy towards Venezuela helped Maduro paint himself as the victim of a foreign plot by the US in an effort to gain favour at home and abroad. First, the Obama administration declared Venezuela as an “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” and imposed sanctions on a few high-ranking government officials in 2015 (Neuman, 2015). Then, the Trump administration further increased the pressure by adopting a “maximum pressure” policy to topple Maduro and pave the way for a democratic transition inside the country.Washington imposed another set of sanctions against Venezuela in 2019 in a bid to oust Maduro. The PDVSA state-led oil company was barred from accessing US financial markets as of 2017 and from selling oil to any US-related individual or corporation as of 2019. 

These sanctions disrupted he flow of petrodollars. But the aggressive policies also provided Maduro with a tailor-made excuse: he could blame the crisis on external powers and establish more sweeping government control over key government institutions (Dempsey, 2018). Similarly, Maduro used the sanctions to shore up his domestic supporters and loyalists. Maduro shouted to a large crowd: “I invite the entire Venezuelan people, in all the states and regions of the country, to join in. No one messes with our country. The Yankee boot will never touch it,” (New York Times, 2015).

Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the opening ceremony of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela on September 17, 2016.

An Authoritarian Coalition with Like-minded Regimes

Maduro’s less favourable conditions after Chávez were not limited to domestic dynamics. Venezuela’s position has significantly changed in the regional and international context since Maduro assumed the presidency. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide,” as a wave of leftist governments took power in the region. While this surge, which began with Chávez’s election in Venezuela in 1998, created a favourable environment for Chávez, it had begun – and continues – to recede as right-wing parties once again gained power in the region.

With the demise of potential left-wing allies, Maduro’s government has become increasingly isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Rising repression, human rights violations, economic crisis, and widespread corruption cases have all accelerated the regime’s regional isolation. 

The changing price of raw materials has also altered regional dynamics (Romero and Mijares, 2016). In 2005, Chávez launched PetroCaribe, which provided a stable oil flow to many Caribbean and Central American nations on preferential payment terms. When Venezuela’s oil production plunged and the US sanctions ramped up, the Maduro administration scaled back the program. In return, Venezuela lost the diplomatic support of those small countries, which had until then that blocked nearly every resolution put forward by other member states condemning or pressuring the Maduro government.

Venezuela’s isolation in the regional context has become more visible in the initiatives led by the Organization of American States (OAS), which is an influential regional organization that includes 35 independent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS has become the principal body through which the countries in Latin America have exerted pressure on the Maduro administration as instability intensified in the country. The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, called the Inter-American Democratic Charter in May 2016, a process that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization. The Maduro government formally withdrew from the regional body in April 2019 (Gallón, 2019)

More external pressure and increased isolation in the region further destabilized the economy and the state’s income. Being in dire need of economic and financial relief, the Maduro government managed to find ways of evading sanctions by deepening its alliances with like-minded regimes. In response to rising isolation in the region, the Maduro administration has become more reliant on alliances with China, Russia, and other autocratic populist international actors. Strong ties with China and Russia have strengthened the resilience of the Maduro administration. During the Chávez era, these bilateral relations blossomed due in large part to the close personal relations between presidents. These two revisionist powers have been eager to trade their financial and diplomatic support to Venezuela as part of their geopolitical intentions in America’s backyard. With that intention, Moscow and Beijing have played a crucial role in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat, primarily through loans and other contributions (Rouvinski, 2019)

Several other countries also appeared eager to cooperate with the Venezuelan government despite the risk of more sanctions. These countries have become vital partners, filling the void at a time when many Western companies express reluctance to engage in business with Venezuela for fear of incurring US sanctions. A widening array of friendly countries seemed to expect preferential access to Venezuela’s market and to cultivate lucrative commercial relationships. Erdogan’s Turkey is one of the opportunistic new “allies” that has extended a lifeline to Maduro (Oner, 2020).

Meanwhile, Cuba still remains an influential actor in Venezuela. Cuban security officials are reportedly involved in various key areas of the administration, including intelligence services. Maduro’s connection to Cuba, cultivated when he was a young man, has made Havana more pervasive during his rule (Naim and Toro, 2018). It is believed that Cuban security training and technical assistance has significantly helped the Maduro government to establish a firewall against internal and external threats (Fonseca and Polga-Hecimovich, 2020). In return for this aid, the Maduro administration provided significant oil support to Cuba. While Cuban military and intelligence personnel help Maduro stay in power, the oil provided by Venezuela continues to provide much-needed support to the Cuban economy.

Conclusion

The last seven years under Maduro have been marked by rising polarization, election irregularities, looming economic crisis, and massive protests. Maduro’s incompetent policies have further propelled the country into a downward spiral, which eventually forced more than five million people to leave the country. The same political, economic, and social shocks contributed to the regime’s rising authoritarianism. As the opposition gained popular support through the elections and external pressure on Maduro grew, the resorted to anti-democratic means to maintain his grip on power.

There is a widespread consensus that Maduro is an unpopular leader. Despite his lack of popular support, Maduro still shares particular features with other populist leaders. His discourse and political style – framing politics as constant battle between the good and corrupt – is notably populist in nature. Similarly, his struggle for power at the expense of rising repression and restrictions is in line with the autocratic practices of other populist leaders. As several scholars argue, Maduro has transformed an inherited, semi-authoritarian regime into a full-blown authoritarian one (Corrales 2020; Marsteintredet, 2020).

Lacking personal charisma and booming oil revenues, Maduro has struggled to obtain his predecessor’s popular support and failed to legitimize his rule at the polls. Instead, Maduro consolidated his power through sharing it with elites and the military. Externally, the country’s social, economic, and political environment has contributed to the growing perception among international actors that the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian and unstable. In the face of the greatest threat to its survival both at home and abroad, Maduro and his allies eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic institutions. 

The Maduro administration remains reluctant to make any concessions that might erode its power. With implicit and explicit power-sharing arrangements with key actors at the domestic level, Maduro has been able to cling to power. Currently, the military still supports Maduro; there are no signs this will change anytime soon. As the recent political events suggest, and barring free and fair elections, unpopular populist Maduro will remain in power. 

(*) IMDAT ONER is a Senior Policy Analyst at Jack D. Gordon Institute. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Florida International University. He holds a M.A. degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the same university. He specializes in International Relations with major focuses on foreign policy in Latin American. Oner has extensively published on Venezuelan politics, Venezuelan foreign policy, and Turkey-Venezuela relations. His articles published in War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, Ahval and Miami Herald.

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Rupert Murdoch, an Australian-born American media mogul.

Rupert Murdoch: A Populist Emperor of the Fourth Estate

Rupert Murdoch is probably the most controversial media figure in the world. His career, journalism, and political involvements have been a frequent source of controversy. There are a number of book-length biographies about Murdoch and his role as the world’s most influential and populist media mogul.

By Bulent Kenes

Both his enemies and friends paint him as an almost supernatural figure. In their eyes, he is “the Supreme Satan” or “Dracula” or the “Prince of Darkness” (Cooke, 2018); others call him the “media’s demon king” (Arsenault & Castells, 2008) or “a Sun King” (Neil, 1996); to some he is simply “an arrogant cancer” (Kwai, 2020). Rupert Murdoch stands out as the archetypal media mogul. He has been heralded as the living embodiment of Charles Foster Kane and “the global village’s de facto communications minister”(Farhi, 1997; Low, 1998).

Political pundits, politicians, and anti-conglomeration activists present Murdoch’s Goliath-like status as paradigmatic (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). Characterized as a relentless and formidable businessman by many of his biographers (Chenoweth, 2001; Dover, 2008; Page, 2003; Shawcross, 1993), Murdoch is probably the most controversial media proprietor in the world. His career, journalism, and political involvements have been a frequent source of controversy. There are a number of book-length biographies about Murdoch as the world’s most influential and populist media mogul. He is also the central figure in several other books concentrated on his business dealings, his politics, or his involvement in scandals.

Murdoch has instituted what The Nation dubbed the “four S” model of journalism – “scare headlines, sex, scandal, and sensation” – across nearly every major acquisition that he has made over his career (Pasadeos and Renfro, 1997: 33)The Economist labels Murdoch the “inventor of the modern tabloid” (The Economist, 2011), and it’s true he developed and followed a pattern for his newspapers – namely by increasing the coverage of sports, sex, and scandal, leading to sensationalist, eye-catching headlines. For many, Murdoch’s success has resulted in the dumbing-down of the media, with quality entertainment and journalism replaced by mindless vulgarity (Walker, 2002). Murdoch’s tenure has been marked by an exception disregard for social graces. “I’m quite ashamed,” he said. “I enjoy popular journalism. I must say I enjoy it more than what you would call quality journalism.” But he was never really ashamed at all (Cooke, 2018).

As a controversial figure, Murdoch’s initial success was built on his achievements as a newspaper publisher. His newspapers have also been among the most controversial. The controversies initially arose when his tabloid papers pushed the boundaries of public and professional acceptability; soon, the controversies surrounded his papers becoming vehicles for promoting his favoured political candidates – specifically, right-wing populists (McKnight, 2010).

Rupert Murdoch was born on March 11, 1931, the second of four children and the only son of Keith (b. 1885) and Elisabeth (b. 1909). While Keith died at sixty-seven, Elisabeth lived to be 103, dying in 2012. Keith gained fame by evading military censors to report on the slaughter of his countrymen during the British-led Gallipoli campaign of World War I. He leveraged that fame to become a powerful executive at the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times news company, a position that he in turn used to punish his enemies and reward his allies (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). Soon he built up a network of Australian media holdings, acquiring several existing tabloids publications in take-over bids (Serle, 1986). Over the next two decades he bought shares in existing media operations and was chair and manager of the Telegraph and Herald (Moores, 2005, p57).

Keith Murdoch amalgamated many existing media companies to form publications such as the Courier-Mail and subsequently monopolised the local press in several regions (Scottney-Turbill, 2012). But he never built a true media empire. Keith did own two regional newspapers, one of which had to be sold to pay off his death duties when he died suddenly in 1952. That left only the 75,000-circulation News of Adelaide for his 21-year-old son. But Rupert Murdoch had already received something much more “valuable” from his father: an extended tutorial in how to use media holdings to extract favours from politicians (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Rupert studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Worcester College, Oxford, in England. He kept a bust of Lenin in his rooms and came to be known as “Red Rupe.” Such tales are supposed to show the extremity of his evolution: from undergraduate Marxist in the Labour Club to a union-breaker and Thatcherite-in-chief (Cooke, 2018). Although he never seemed to hold a coherent set of political beliefs in his worldview, Murdoch’s early inclinations were to identify with the underdog and to be anti-establishment.

Rupert’s first order of business after he gained control of his father’s media operations was to establish a proper Murdoch-owned empire in Australia. After buying additional local papers, he founded the country’s first national general-interest newspaper, The Australian, which gave him a powerful platform that he used to help elect governments that eased national regulations designed to limit the size of media companies. He would eventually take control of nearly two-thirds of the national newspaper market (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Murdoch has built his empire in many stages. He became a national figure in Australian newspapers in the 1960s. During the 1970s, his News Limited grew to encompass many international holdings. In the early 70s, he published sensation London tabloids; in 1973 Murdoch made a successful bid to purchase three Texas publications (Funding Universe, 2011, p1). This was followed by the acquisition of The New York Post three years later (Marijorbanks, 2000, p3). This not only marked News Limited’s entry into the American market, but also highlighted Murdoch’s growing interest in the US and in international expansion. Murdoch had his sights set on the creation of a global empire (Winseck, 2008, p1-5)

News Corporation sign at headquarters building in New York City.

News Corporation (NewsCorp), the organisation at the head of the Murdoch Empire, was established in 1979 as holding company for the investments of News Limited and its international subsidiaries (Funding Universe, 2006, p1). Through News Limited, News Corporation, and other holdings, Murdoch has taken his cross-media ventures into commercial and pay-tv markets, also acquiring a long list of commercial business enterprises (Harding-Smith, 2011, p1-14; Funding Universe, 2006, p2). His purchase of the Times and Sunday Times in the UK happened in the early 1980s. His entry into US television and film also took place in the 1980s, and his solidified his unprecedented dominance of Australian newspapers in the late 80s. In the 1990s, he expanded to satellite TV, especially in Asia and Britain. 

In 1993, he purchased Star TV, a pan-Asian television service based in Hong Kong, as part of his plan to build a global television network (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020). Thussu (2007) argues that Star’s entry into the Indian television market engendered a “Murdochization” of news that transformed the country’s media industry (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). The network has steadily grown in terms of viewing numbers. Its success, based on brazen right-wing propaganda, may encourage Star News to pursue an even more pronounced populist news agenda in the future (Thussu, 2007).

Murdoch developed ties to politicians across the globe so that they would support him, even as he supported them. Elected officials have known that their rise or fall is in part dependent on him. Efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology.

Murdoch founded Fox News in 1996, and he acquired Dow Jones and Company (The Wall Street Journal) in 2010. Each of these developments was attended by controversy and conflict. His cross-media ownership has extended into numerous geographical areas, including the aforementioned India and numerous South Pacific regions (Winseck, 2008, p1-5). This has placed Murdoch and his media in a position of great influence and control. The three main countries he plays a significant role in are Australia, the UK, and the US. In these democracies, presidents and prime ministers come and go, but Murdoch remains (Grynbaum, 2020). His power has been more lasting than any political power: during his career, he has enjoyed access to nine US presidents, nine British prime ministers, and nine Australian prime ministers (Cooke, 2018).

Murdoch’s pan-Asian network Star (Satellite Television Asian Region) has transformed TV news and entertainment in India, as elsewhere in Asia. By 2005, Star was broadcasting “over 50 television services in seven languages to more than 300 million viewers across 53 Asian countries” and claimed a daily viewership of some 100 million (Thussu, 2007).

Murdoch developed ties to politicians across the globe so that they would support him, even as he supported them. Elected officials from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, from Tony Blair to David Cameron, have known that their rise or fall is in part dependent on him (Galloway, 2018: 103). People not only respect Murdoch but are also afraid of him. Therefore, efforts to understand Murdoch’s media universe are often compared to Kremlinology (Grynbaum, 2020).

The biographers and critics of Murdoch have generally emphasised his business activity as his overriding and even sole motivation (McKnight, 2010). To them, Murdoch is a businessman who is ultimately more interested in profit than politics (Fallows, 2003) and his interest in politics is to a large extent directly related to his ability to conduct business (Gershon, 1997). Accordingly, Murdoch’s political affiliations move swiftly in accordance, not with political ideology but with NewsCorp’s bottom line (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). The bigger Murdoch’s empire became, the more power he consolidated to clear away obstacles to its further expansion (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who in 2011 broke the New International phone hacking scandal – wherein it was revealed Murdoch employees hacked the phones of British celebrities, politicians, and royalty – wrote in his book Hack Attack that Murdoch’s use of power is far subtler than outsiders imagine. “He may be a highly political animal, they say – obsessed with the details of life in the corridors of power and personally possessed of some extremely right-wing opinions – but what he most wants from politicians is favours for his business. He’ll betray his own principles, he’ll embrace politicians for whom he has very little respect, just as long as they have the power to help the company get bigger” (Davies, 2018c). Surprisingly, Murdoch has endorsed such a view of his own devotion to profits before politics (Shawcross, 1992:302).

In practice, Murdoch and NewsCorp have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades in advancing political goals by propping up newspapers that are financial losers, inter alia The New York Post (Auletta, 1995:86) and The London Times. The Times runs at a great annual loss, which is subsidised by its profitable sister paper the Sunday Times. The national daily in his country of birth, The Australian, also lost money for its first 20 years and even today does not always make a profit (Stecklow et al, 2007).

Murdoch argues that the reason for these subsidies is because he supports competition and choice for readers. But it is widely believed that the real reason lies in Murdoch’s desire for political influence (McKnight, 2010). He sees the news media as being more than merely a commercial enterprise (Chenoweth, 2001; Neil, 1996; Page, 2003; Shawcross, 1993; Wolff, 2008). He recognises their significance as cultural engines capable of both interpreting and shaping reality. To date, Murdoch has shown no trepidation in the use of this power (Hobbs, 2010). McKnight’s (2010) historical analysis argues that NewsCorp is unique among media conglomerates in its commitment to Murdoch’s ideological beliefs, providing evidence that Murdoch is willing to let some of his newspapers lose great sums of money in the service of the promotion of his beliefs (Wagner, 2014).

It is no doubt that Murdoch is not merely a businessman who happens to court politicians for regulatory quid pro quo; rather, Murdoch is, in the words of a former executive of News Corporation, “a frustrated politician … [who] can’t leave politics alone” (McKnight, 2003: 348). This is not to claim, however, that Murdoch’s politics are always clear or that his behaviour is dogmatically determined by his ideological proclivities. He has learnt when to restrain his natural right-wing political leanings in order to safeguard his financial interests, as evidenced by his endorsement of Tony Blair’s New Labour (Street, 2001: 133-139) along with his wooing of China’s communist party (Curtin, 2005).

The most frequently cited evidence that Murdoch puts profit before political beliefs was his newspapers’ support in 1997 of the election of Blair. This move is offered as proof of his political pragmatism and preparedness to discard his previous support for the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Against such views, it is equally arguable that Murdoch’s support for Blair simply recognised that the political centre in Britain had moved towards a new Thatcherite consensus, which Labour Party shared. Namely, rather than Murdoch shifting to support Labour, Labour had shifted to win his (and others) support. Indeed, it could be argued that Murdoch’s news media helped create the shift to the new consensus and hence assisted the convergence of political parties (McKnight, 2010). Despite Murdoch occasionally shifting his allegiances between politicians and parties, he has shown remarkable consistency regarding his support for right-wing ideologies. 

As Castells (2007) argues, power relationships are largely defined within the space of communication in a network society. This means that global media groups are key social actors because they help to shape the social world by exerting control over issue-framing and information gatekeeping (Bagdikian, 2004). These organizations play dual roles. They are not only corporate and media actors in their own right, but they control a disproportionate number of communication delivery platforms that constitute the space in which power – whether it is political, economic or social – is articulated (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Murdoch’s power is augmented by his ability to act as what Castells (2004)conceptualized as a ‘switcher’, or a connection point between political, economic and media networks that facilitates their cooperation by programming common goals and resources. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston’s description of 19th-century Britain, Murdoch’s empire has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only permanent interests (Cassidy, 2006).

In this framework, the Murdoch/NewsCorp business model is founded on three broad strategies: (1) vertical control and horizontal networking, (2) ruthless pursuit of market expansion, and (3) the leveraging of public and political-elite opinion. These components are interrelated, mutually constitutive, and predicated on the ability of Murdoch via NewsCorp to serve as a switching point, connecting media, political, and economic networks in the shared project of the company’s financial expansion (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). Thus, “Murdoch has become a cancer – an arrogant cancer on democracy” in the words of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, by monopolizing or affecting the characteristics of media power in many parts of the world (Cottle, 2003, p21). 

A Keen Supporter of Right-Wing Ideologies and Populism

According to McKnight & Hobbs (2011), Murdoch’s international media empire has an historical tendency to support right-wing ideologies and to promote some radically conservative ideas, with key executive staff and occasional editorial interventions used to create a partisan pattern of media content. Significant parts of his international media conglomerate constitute what might be labelled a “multi-state ideological apparatus” (Althusser, 1971). In this sense, what distinguishes NewsCorp from its rivals is the fact that it is the only media conglomerate created, built, and dominated by the vision and tenacity of one individual (Page, 2003). As Robert McChesney has noted: “More than any other figure, Murdoch has been the visionary of a global corporate media empire” (McChesney, 1999: 96). When Murdoch took control of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in 2007, Bill Moyers writing on AlterNet.org that he “is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power, he’s carnivorous: all appetite and no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path” (Wagner, 2014).

Murdoch’s vertical control allows NewsCorp to function as a more targeted political weapon in comparison to its peers. This political leverage facilitates NewsCorp’s ability to expand its holdings through the granting of regulatory favours, leading to larger audience shares, which in turn expands its political clout, creating a cycle of influence.

Over the decades, Murdoch’s NewsCorp became the world’s largest media conglomerate, with its diverse cultural products consumed in over 100 countries across six continents (News Corporation, 2008:1-11). NewsCorp has enfolded within its operations film production and distribution, television production and broadcasting, advertising, newspaper and magazine publishing, book publishing, football teams and other sports teams, multimedia, information technology, and music publishing. Among NewsCorp’s assets were the US Fox Broadcasting network, the Twentieth Century Fox film studio, the book publisher HarperCollins, the online social network MySpace, over 175 newspaper titles in the UK, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the US, and satellite television networks in Italy, Asia, and Britain (Finkelstein, 2007). As of October 2007, NewsCorp also owned more than 1,445 subsidiaries in over 50 countries (NewsCorp, 2007).This complex ownership structure, even when compared to other multimedia corporations, has been another one of NewsCorp’s key strengths (Arsenault & Castells, 2008)

Murdoch and NewsCorp use key operational strategies such as political brokering, leveraging public opinion, sensationalist news headlines, customizing media content, and diversifying and adapting media holdings in the face of technological and regulatory changes to penetrate new markets and expand audience share (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).Murdoch’s strategy of global expansion is also premised on the creation of mutually advantageous synergies between different media sectors (Flew & Gilmour, 2003). He reportedly seeks to exploit “vertical integration” to control the various links in the media supply chain, from production to distribution, while expanding “horizontally” across different media formats and sectors, thereby creating cross-promotional opportunities and “spin-off” products (Flew & Gilmour, 2003; Hobbs, 2009).

Of course, Murdoch does not directly control every editorial aspect of his vast network of news media (Neil, 1996:164). According to Andrew Neil, whom Murdoch appointed to edit one of his newspapers in 1983, Murdoch’s editorial power is generally more subtle, in that he: (1) employs editors who broadly agree with his political beliefs; (2) favours staff, or “courtiers,” who reaffirm his social and economic views; and (3) makes his political values regularly known to editorial and managerial staff (Shawcross, 1993; Page, 2003). Murdoch’s corporate control facilitates and is facilitated by his ability to intervene in the editorial policies of his vast holdings (Barr, 2000). A February 2003 Guardian survey found that all 175 NewsCorp-controlled newspapers mimicked Murdoch’s support for the invasion of Iraq, George Bush, and Tony Blair – and were equally derisive of anti-war protestors (Greenslade, 2003).

Meanwhile, Murdoch’s vertical control allows NewsCorp to function as a more targeted political weapon in comparison to its peers. This political leverage facilitates NewsCorp’s ability to expand its holdings through the granting of regulatory favours, leading to larger audience shares, which in turn expands its political clout, creating a cycle of influence (Arsenault & Castells, 2008). Despite business and economics – not ideology and partisanship – providing the central unifying theme of Murdoch’s political agenda (Baker, 1998Fallows, 2003), the perception that Murdoch, via his editorial control over his properties, wields disproportionate control over public opinion provides him with considerable political leverage (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).

It was Neil (1996) who first gave Murdoch one of his most durable nicknames – the Sun King. It remains one of the most indelible descriptions of Murdoch. In his book Full Disclosure, he wrote: “When you work for Rupert Murdoch you do not work for a company chairman or chief executive: you work for a Sun King. You are not a director or a manager or an editor: you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King … All life revolves around the Sun King: all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed and he expects his remit to run everywhere, his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark and anybody of importance reports direct to him. Normal management structures – all the traditional lines of authority, communication and decision-taking in the modern business corporation – do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters,” (Cooke, 2018).

Rupert Murdoch & Jerry Hall at the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, CA on January 10, 2016.

Rupert Murdoch has been married four times and has six children. His first wife was Patricia Booker, and they had one daughter, Prudence (b. 1958), before they divorced in the mid-1960s. Murdoch married Anna Torv in 1968, and they had three children (Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James). They were divorced in 1999. Murdoch then married Wendi Deng, and they had two children, Grace and Chloe, before the couple divorced. Finally, in 2016, he married Jerry Hall, actress and model, and former partner of Mick Jagger.

Murdoch’s Long Trajectory From Leftism to Right-Wing Populism

A widely accepted view of Murdoch’s political evolution is one beginning with youthful leftism and eventually moving across the spectrum to the conservative right. However, it would be more correct to say that the trajectory followed by Murdoch started with an Australian nationalist position, often expressed as opposition to the “British Establishment” (Shawcross, 1992: 66-7; Regan, 1976: 98-9). This was combined with a degree of social libertarianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But from the late 1970s on, Murdoch has endorsed more conservative causes, just as conservative political thought was poised to shift toward economic libertarianism (McKnight, 2003).

Murdoch’s political worldview became more stable, internally consistent, and far more to the right over time. He became much more hawkish on defence issues. Save defence, though, he has favoured smaller government and reduced taxes. Over the long course of his career, he moved from being an enthusiast for political involvement and a supplicant to politicians, to becoming an established source of patronage who expected politicians to court him (McKnight, 2010)

This “courting” has led to questions about the independence of his media outlets. But asking whether Fox News is an arm of the Trump White House risks missing the larger picture. It may be more accurate to say that the White House — just like the prime ministers’ offices in Britain and Australia — is just one tool among many that Murdoch uses to exert influence over world events. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said in an interview with “Nightline.” “And now we’re discovering we work for Fox” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

McKnight argues that Murdoch led the way in establishing a transatlantic “bridge” or platform for ideas to be exchanged between Britain and the US during the Reagan-Thatcher years. The flow of traffic across the bridge was largely one-way, with the Sunday Times importing into the UK a “local variant” of Reagan’s “conservative populism” in the form of “market populism.” This approach “championed a view of economic markets which saw them as the friend of the ordinary people and which damned critics of markets as ‘establishments’ and ‘elites’” (Daddow, 2012).

The populism articulated by Murdoch’s media outlets has a distinctive quality thanks to its belief in the virtues of free markets, deregulation, and privatisation. When combined, these elements form what has been called “market populism” (McKnight, 2010). This amounts to a view that economic markets “expressed the popular will more articulately and more meaningfully than did mere elections” (Frank, 2002: XIV). It has been argued the decline of the working class-based Left has been matched by the rise of the rhetorical stance of market populism and anti-elitism on the Right – essentially to garner the support of blue collar workers for conservatism (Frank, 2004).

Just two years after Murdoch bought the Sunday Times it had become “a hard line paper of the Right” on foreign policy and industrial relations, according to Young (1984). Murdoch’s influence in promoting the Thatcherite stance of the Sunday Times was confirmed by Neil. According to him, “Rupert expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain … the resulting potage is a radical-right dose of free market economics, the social agenda of the Christian Moral Majority and hard-line conservative views on subjects like drugs, abortion, law and order and defence” (Neil, 1996: 165).

The Murdoch empire did not cause the right-wing populist wave, but it enabled it, promoted it, and profited from it. His media has helped elevate marginal demagogues and mainstream ethno-nationalism and politicized the very notion of truth. It may not have been Murdoch’s mission to destabilize democracies, but that has been his most consequential legacy.

“I don’t know that my views are as right wing as they’re painted to be,” Murdoch once said, but Neil countered that his former boss is much more right wing than he first appears. Perhaps what Murdoch means is that he is a social moderate: years ago, he dabbled with the candidacy of the televangelist Pat Robertson, but now cultivates only a garden-variety homophobia, which he has the sense to keep quiet about. “I’m considered homophobic and crazy about these things and old-fashioned” was his take on same-sex marriage. When Watergate happened, Murdoch’s response – pumping ideological fear – broke with the rest of the journalistic class. “The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,” he said, “but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West” (Cooke, 2018).

An Immigrant Nationalist And Multi-Billionaire Outsider

As an immigrant stoking nationalism, a billionaire championing populism (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019) – Murdoch and his global media empire have promoted right-wing politics, stoked reactionary populism (Stack, 2019), and helped reshape democratic governments (Kwai, 2020) across the globe. The “Murdochization” of media (and even politics) characterizes a “process which involves the shift of media power from the public to privately owned transnational multimedia corporations controlling both delivery systems and the content of global information networks” (Thussu, 1998: 7). 

Of course, the Murdoch empire did not cause the right-wing populist wave – but it enabled it, promoted it, and profited from it. Murdoch’s media outlets have helped elevate marginal demagogues and mainstream ethno-nationalism, while also politicizing the very notion of truth. It may not have been Murdoch’s mission to destabilize democracies, but that has been his most consequential legacy (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019a). 

Murdoch’s populism distinguished itself not so much by the way it encouraged his readers and viewers to kick down against immigrants, homosexuals, and minorities, but by how it encouraged them to kick up. It drew upon the New Class concept developed by conservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, etc in response to the emergence of a white-collar elite, identifiable by its cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and liberalism – all notions that are antithetical to nationalists (Sparrow, 2011).

Although Murdoch, his immediate family, and his executives are elite by any measure of the word, his targets both nationally and internationally are the nefarious, cosmopolitan, and multicultural “elites.” Anyway, it makes sense, according to Cooke, when one takes the weird Murdochian understanding into consideration: “A wealthy lawyer would never be described as elitist unless they work in human rights. Fighting racism is the real racism. Fighting sexism is the real sexism. Fighting elitism is the real elitism. A multinational media company is not globalist though, because Murdoch believes in sovereignty. Particularly his own” (Cooke, 2018).

On the other hand, Hendrikse and Fernandez argue that the rise of right-wing populism is closely linked to the growth of offshore finance and global oligarchs like Murdoch. These oligarchs are driving populist agitation despite right-wing populists around the world claiming that they must protect their nation from exploitative global elites (Hendrikse & Fernandez, 2019). According to the authors, right-wing populists are actually serving the interests of oligarchic billionaires. Right-wing populists tend to say “yes” to free finance and free trade, but “no” to free migration, democracy, multilateralism, and human equality – a worldview that almost perfectly aligns with the political goals of oligarchs like Murdoch. The super-rich are indeed using populist forces and deliberately manipulating nationalist sentiments. In the meantime, global media barons, of whom Murdoch is probably the most prominent, have supplemented “neoliberal narratives with nativist venom, selling the virtues of patriotism while themselves living as true ‘citizens of nowhere’” (Dembowski, 2019).

A key to understanding the worldview that distinguishes Murdoch and NewsCorp is the recurring notion that a powerful elite promotes left-wing ideas and liberalism. Most commonly, this is expressed through the phase “the liberal elite” and references to an “intellectual establishment.” In this worldview, the elites are a group of people whose ideas are so powerful that they oppress the rest of society. More specifically, liberal elites are politically correct, and they have captured government, mass media, and higher education. Their ideas on culture and politics dominate society at large. In this discursive framework, the attacks on the elite by editorials and columnists in Murdoch’s newspapers are seen as legitimate protests from an oppressed and marginalised group struggling against this domination (McKnight, 2010).

With this understanding, Murdoch seeks to portray himself as an “outsider and friend of the ordinary, of the people, continually battling away against the vested interests” (Du Gay, 2008: 83). This stance is evident especially in Murdoch’s newspapers in both Britain and Australia. This was the case with the Sunday Times in the 1980s and early 1990s, which articulated an “anti-establishment” view combined with a free market orthodoxy (McKnight, 2009). In a study of Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia, a consistent anti-elite market populism appeared among editorials and leading columnists. Murdoch’s easy transition to the side of capital, shedding his undergraduate state socialism in the process, glosses over something more fundamental. According to Cooke (2018), he has never stopped being a Leninist, at least in the sense of wanting to destroy the contemporary establishment.

Cooke explains the psychological explanation for this is rooted in “Murdoch’s status as a perpetual outsider.” At Geelong Grammar, he was the son of a press baron, not the offspring of landed gentry, and was bullied accordingly. He was a colonial in Great Britain, and a man of initiative in the stuffy languor of Menzies’ Australia. In the US, he was a foreigner trying to do business in New York City with no connections and a newspaper proprietor who did not share America’s sacral view of the press. He hated all of these incumbent attitudes and not only sought revenge on them but also saw them as opportunities for arbitrage (Cooke, 2018).

The ur-establishment Murdoch set himself against, the template for all the others, was Establishment Britain after the Second World War. He encountered it twice, first in 1950 as a student at Oxford, then again when he started his British newspaper empire, beginning with the purchase of the News of the World in 1969 (Cooke, 2018). When Murdoch entered the British newspaper market, London society shunned him and his vulgar tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World, which he used to wound his enemies and advance his political interests. (Chozick, 2017). In Australia, the Murdochs were unusual among establishment families for their Anglophobia, and Rupert reserved special hostility for English snobbery. The hostility was reciprocated – at Oxford, a magazine described him as a “brilliant betting man with the individual Billingsgate touch,” a reference to the coarse, working-class fish market known for its foul language (Cooke, 2018).

An Anti-Elitist Elite

Due to his outsider status, Murdoch and his media empire can take an anti-elitist stance despite Murdoch himself being an elite. It is no problem that anti-elitism is historically associated with the poor and the trade unions, which have long railed against the power of money and privilege. In terms of political theory, the name for this resistance to the domination of elites is populism (Canovan, 1981). Once a progressive force associated with the Left until the middle of the 20th century, populism has more recently been identified as part of a conservative resurgence that connected Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to working class voters (Perlstein, 2008: 277). The identification of populism as a key part of the successful coalition behind Reagan was made by several commentators who articulated its characteristic elements as framing opponents as “elites” and advocating for small government (Federici, 1991: 61-71).

Murdoch and his media empire are fiercely dedicated to a political project that will eliminate trade unions, abolish and/or commercialize public education, increase economic inequality and the power of billionaires and big business, ignore and aggravate the environmental crisis, promote endless wars and militarism, corrupt the judicial system…

Murdoch and his media empire are fiercely dedicated to a political project that will eliminate trade unions, abolish and/or commercialize public education, increase economic inequality and the power of billionaires and big business, ignore and aggravate the environmental crisis that threatens human existence, promote endless wars and militarism, advocate for governance by and for the rich, corrupt the judicial system, and protect elections that go to the highest (anonymous) bidders. Above all, Murdoch champions the elimination of independent journalism. All the institutions that make for a credible modern democracy are in his crosshairs (McChesney, 2014).

In terms of Murdoch’s media background, populist anti-elitism is a natural fit for the segment of his tabloid formula claiming to protect the interests of ordinary people. In 1977, after his takeover of The New York Post and New YorkMagazine, he railed against elitist journalism (McKnight, 2010): “A press that fails to interest the whole community is one that will ultimately become the house organ of the elite” (Shawcross, 1991:186). Twenty-seven years later, in defence of Fox News and The New York Post, Murdoch repeated this rationale: “The traditional media in this country is in tune with the elite, not the people … That is why we’re not liked by the traditional media. That’s not us” (Strupp, 2004).

Similarly, “The Sun has no party politics,” ran a front-page manifesto in its first week proper under Murdoch management: “The Sun is a radical newspaper. We are not going to bow to the establishment in any of its privileged enclaves. Ever.” Funny, hypocritical, racist, jingoist, homophobic, and leering, and with a new disdain for the royal family generally and their privacy in particular, together The Sun and the News of the World transformed the UK – and in the process degraded it. It was the ultimate form of colonial revenge. Britain, not Australia, Murdoch seemed to say, was the crass and ugly place, with the coarse and common people with the insatiably lurid tastes. Just look at its press. Christopher Hitchens called the process “the replacement of gutter journalism by sewer journalism.” Cooke says instead of repudiating this sort of charge, Murdoch and his employees revelled in it (Cooke, 2018).

In addition, criticisms of the “liberal media” motivate Murdoch’s media entities. It was this motivation that drove him to establish Fox News. Murdoch had long accused CNN of being “too liberal,” and the future head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, promised to “restore objectivity [to news media]” (Collins, 2004: 24). Criticism of the liberal media has been a regular feature in comments by Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Moreover, Fox News carries a regular program, Fox News Watch, which criticises media coverage. Such criticisms are weighted towards discovering “liberal bias” in what it refers to as “the mainstream media” (McKnight, 2010). 

Further, Murdoch personally criticised The New York Times for its liberal agenda: “I think that Arthur Sulzberger, over the years, has made it very clear that he wants a very liberal paper, and that he wants a staff that reflects that community. For five years, he didn’t want any white heterosexual men hired” (Esquire, 2008). According to the accounts of former employees, Murdoch’s NewsCorp has a distinctive culture that totally fits with right-wing populism’s tenets: tribal, aggressive, and centred around powerful editors. A former NewsCorp insider described it as an aggressive, masculine culture – although there are also women in NewsCorp’s executive and editorial ranks. The culture of NewsCorp has also been described by some past executives and former staff as “bullying” and “vindictive” (Davies, 2018b). 

According to McKnight (2010), remarks targeting the liberal media elite not only reveal Murdoch’s long-standing political views; they also constitute a business model. They resonate with the latent and widespread public scepticism toward “the media,” and thus distinguish NewsCorp from its commercial competitors. In Australia and Britain, attacks on the “liberal media” take the form of attacks on the public broadcasters, the BBC which Murdoch blamed on “the narrow elite [who] controls it” and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) (Evans, 1989). When Murdoch launched Sky Television, his barely hid his intent to compete with the BBC, which stood in the way of a privatised broadcasting system, part of which Murdoch wanted to own. Columnists in The Sun and The Times attacked the BBC for its perceived “left wing” bias and elitism. The news programs of the ABC are also “guilty of a consistent left-liberal slant,” according to Murdoch’s Australian newspaper (McKnight, 2003).

Another distinctive feature of Murdoch’s media is that his entities hold long-standing policies towards major matters (e.g. the Iraq war and global warming) of public interest and campaign for these policies (McKnight, 2010). The sole instance of a dissident view on Iraq within the editorials of a News Corporation newspaper occurred in the Mercury, a newspaper on the island state of Tasmania, in Australia. In September 2002, an editorial argued that it “would be wrong for the US to pre-emptively attack Iraq. It would be wrong for Australia to ride shotgun to any unilateral US assault on the hated regime of Saddam Hussein” (Hobart Mercury, 2002). After a written directive from company headquarters, the newspaper’s stance changed dramatically (Manne, 2005:76). By early 2003, its editorials spoke in terms of Saddam’s “barbarism” and argued that Australia was compelled to contribute troops to an attack (Hobart Mercury, 2003). Meanwhile, when Murdoch announced a change in News Corporation’s policy on climate change in May 2007 and warned that it posed “clear catastrophic threats” to the world (Nason, 2007), The Sun immediately announced that “[t]oo many of us have spent too long in denial over the threat from global warming” (The Sun, 2006).

Murdoch’s biggest publishing house, HarperCollins, has functioned in parallel with his media outlets. McKnight & Hobbs (2011) suggest four elements of taxonomy of conservative books published by HarperCollins. First, the nurturing of the conservative and Republican political culture, especially its history and heroes; second, books arising from specific ideological campaigns fostered by the conservative movement in the US over the last 20 years; third, books institutionally linked to other conservative NewsCorp media outlets such as the journal the Weekly Standard and the cable TV channel, Fox News; and, fourth, a number of books reflecting the ideological enthusiasms of Murdoch himself (McKnight & Hobbs, 2011). Despite his guarantees of editorial independence, HarperCollins, much like the other assets of NewsCorp, operates in accordance with the wishes of Murdoch, and appears to reflect his beliefs and political values (Belfield et al., 1991:242).

Another concrete expression of Murdoch’s exercise of influence on right-wing politics has been the systematic links between himself, his media outlets, and several conservative think tanks in the US, Britain, and Australia. Murdoch has been on the board of three conservative think tanks (McKnight, 2010). The first was the Hoover Institution, in 1987-88, during the high tide of Reaganism. In Australia, Murdoch joined the advisory council of the conservative Institute for Public Affairs, and he was also a generous donor to the same body (Burton, 2007:107). In 1997, he joined the board of the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, set up by the owner of the largest private oil company in the US. At the time, the Cato Institute was running an active campaign of climate change denial. No think tank from the left or centre has any kind of relationship with either Murdoch or his news media (McKnight, 2010).

Murdoch has also supported small activist intellectual groups (McKnight, 2003). In 1989, he personally authorized financial support for a friend and adviser of Margaret Thatcher, David Hart, who published a confidential newsletter smearing Labour and other public figures for alleged links with communism (Rose, 1990b). In 1988, Murdoch had thanked Hart for sending him a copy of the newsletter, World Briefing, and asked “Are you sending it to any of our other editors—or should I circulate it?” The following year he authorized “£40,000 per year for three years, in addition to the £150,000 previously agreed” (Rose, 1990a). A similar connection was Murdoch’s financial support for the US neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz and his influential magazine Commentary (Alterman, 1997: 8).

Hundreds of climate activists lie down in front of News Corp Australia headquarters in Sydney calling the Murdoch press liers on January 31, 2020.

Australia or Murdochland

There is nothing new about claims that Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia are not just right-wing, but distort and manufacture news, campaigning for favoured political parties without the obligation of fairness. There is also nothing new about concern over the impact the company, which controls 70 percent of Australia’s newspaper circulation, might have on democratic debate (Alcorn, 2019, Hobbs, 2010, Tiffin, 2010). Former Prime Minister Rudd’s campaign manager, Bruce Hawker, wrote that NewsCorp is “easily the most powerful political force in Australia, bigger than the major parties or the combined weight of the unions” (Cooke, 2018).

The Murdoch family changed Australian politics in 2016 when it took control of Sky News Australia and imported the Fox News model. They quickly introduced a slate of right-wing opinion shows that often focused on race, immigration, and climate change denial; recently, Murdoch’s media empire has called for the lifting of all coronavirus-related restrictions (Simons, 2020). The program known as Sky After Dark (Stack, 2019), features its hosts and their guests stirring up anger over the perceived liberal bias of the media, the “suicidal self-hatred” of Western civilization, and the Australian equivalent of the Central American “caravans” to the US – emigres coming to the country by boat from Indonesia and Malaysia (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b). Murdoch’s outlets also led an effort to repeal the country’s carbon tax and pushed out a series of prime ministers whose agendas didn’t comport with his own (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Underlining the fact that today’s Australia feels more insular, völkisch, and hostile in character than its near neighbour New Zealand, Cooke (2018) asks: Is this just an accident of history or the end product of strong Murdoch influence in one place and weak Murdoch influence in the other?

Murdoch’s elder son Lachlan built alliances in the country, drawing close to Tony Abbott, a right-wing member of Parliament with a confrontational style (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate and long-time nemesis of Abbott, was replaced by the right-wing nationalist Scott Morrison (Stack, 2019) through a definitive intraparty vote. The small number of Australian media outlets that the Murdochs did not own portrayed Turnbull’s ouster as a Murdoch-led “coup.” In his farewell speech in August 2018, Turnbull pointed to “outside forces in the media” as the architects of his demise. Morrison quickly aligned himself with US President Trump (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019b). 

Murdoch and his ubiquitous NewsCorp empire played a major role in orchestrating the removal from office of not just Turnbull but also Labour’s Prime Minister Rudd. Rudd also believes NewsCorp undermined his first prime ministership, as well as that of successor Julia Gillard. He has called for a “full-throated inquiry” into NewsCorp and branded the company “a cancer on democracy.” Rudd is one of the few politicians who has dared to speak out about News Corp (Davies, 2018a). A petition posted in October 2020 by Rudd asks the government to establish a Royal Commission into the dominance over Australian media by Murdoch’s NewsCorp and its impact on the country’s political landscape. The petition has been signed by over 280,000 people (Simons, 2020). 

Critics say Murdoch’s media outlets have undermined efforts to fight climate change, pushed governments into hard-line policies on issues like migration, and employed language and images widely seen as racist (Kwai, 2020). Underlining the fact that today’s Australia feels more insular, völkisch, and hostile in character than its near neighbour New Zealand, Cooke (2018) asks: Is this just an accident of history or the end product of strong Murdoch influence in one place and weak Murdoch influence in the other? However, the consequence of the ethno-nationalist fervour that the Murdoch media has amplified in Australia has impacted New Zealand, where an Australian white nationalist, Brenton Tarrant, stood accused of killing 50 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques on March 14, 2019. Tarrant was a fan of the white nationalist Blair Cottrell, whose deferential treatment by Sky caused a national outcry (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b).

The UK: Under the Siege of Murdoch’s Media Octopus

It was Murdoch’s belief in the commercial potential of satellite broadcasting that prompted his relentless efforts to privatize satellite broadcasting in Britain. In the late 1980s, after he lost his bid for the British government’s sole satellite broadcasting license (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a), he risked millions of pounds to invest in the Luxemburg-based Astra satellite. It was through Astra that Murdoch’s Sky network was able to beam across the UK and, within a decade, change the broadcasting ecology of Britain (Thussu, 2007).

Murdoch’s British tabloids helped advance the agendas of British leaders. Lance Price, a former Blair spokesman, referred to Murdoch as “effectively a member of Blair’s cabinet.” In turn, Murdoch faced little government scrutiny as he expanded his media empire to reach 40 percent of British newspaper readers and millions of television viewers (Chozick, 2017). Blair learned, however, that even a special relationship with the media baron can sour quickly. He and Murdoch – once so close that Blair was the godfather to Grace Murdoch – are no longer on speaking terms. During the British government’s 2012 inquiry into the mogul’s political influence, Blair described what it was like when a subject falls out of favour with a Murdoch-controlled tabloid. “Once they’re against you, that’s it,” Blair said. “It’s full on, full frontal, day in, day out, basically a lifetime commitment” (Chozick, 2017).

Rupert Murdoch Murdoch shuttered the News of the World newspaper, but the hacking scandal continued to grow.

As mentioned before, Murdoch’s whole career has been marked by controversy. But the phone hacking scandal in the UK, which came to light in July 2011, dwarfed all the previous scandals. The extensive investigative journalism of Nick Davies revealed that Murdoch’s Sunday paper, the News of the World, had hacked into the phone of teenage murder victim Millie Dowler. Mounting evidence indicated that newspaper staffers had engaged in illegal and unethical behaviour, notably the hacking of mobile phone mailboxes belonging to celebrities, murder victims, and British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Murdoch shuttered the newspaper, but the scandal continued to grow. He subsequently testified on several occasions before British MPs, claiming that he had been unaware of the hacking (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).

Last day of the famous tabloid News of the World website after the scandal of phone hacking by the newspaper, on July 10, 2011 in London. News of the World was on sale since 1843.

Building Euroscepticism to Pave the Way for Brexit

Murdoch’s newspapers and television networks have been instrumental in amplifying nativist revolt around the globe (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a), and including in the UK. The Sun spent years demonizing the European Union (EU) to its British readers (Stack, 2019). Daddow has examined the impact of changing media coverage of European integration in Britain since accession to the European Economic Community (ECC) in 1973, specifically through a consideration of the causes behind the collapse of the “permissive consensus” on European affairs. Since the 1975 referendum, this consensus has given way to a form of “destructive dissent” across vast swaths of media, particularly UK tabloids. The collapse in media support for the EU project has been expressed in a number of ways, some of them bordering on the nationalist and/or xenophobic, and opportunities for the expression of such views have merely been increased by the EU’s own efforts to deepen integration in the face of widespread popular distrust of both national politicians and supranational constitution-building (Daddow, 2012).

Daddow alights on the “Murdoch effect” as a core explanation for this general shift in attitudes. Murdoch was the market leader on Euroscepticism, as expressed in agenda-setting outlets such as The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. Daddow suggests that Murdoch led the way in creating a climate of fear around European matters that severely tested the leadership qualities of even notionally pro-European prime ministers on this vexed question in British politics (Daddow, 2012).

Opposing touchstone EEC policies using the “straight-talking” language of the “common man” became the characteristic Murdoch position. The Sunday Times and its Murdoch tabloid stablemates have crafted a workable, socially conservative, populist line on European matters for years. 

The Murdoch empire has not been the only repository of hard and/or xenophobic Euroscepticism in Britain, but it has been the pace-setter. The intensification of anti-European activity in Britain around the time of the Maastricht Treaty goes some way to showing the synergy between the Thatcher foreign policy agenda and Murdoch-inspired Euroscepticism. This scepticism became more bombastic, injected a greater sense of urgency into the debates by presenting treaty reforms as existential threats to British sovereignty and identity, became less deferential to politicians and “elites,” and was deeply critical of “foreign” machinations that threatened supposedly objective British interests (Daddow, 2012).

Murdoch’s News International, with willing support from ideological Eurosceptics across the top-selling UK tabloid and broadsheets, has proved effective at keeping the British public in a permanent state of “war” with the EU since the 1980s and paved the way for Brexit.

A former Downing Street insider has ventured to suggest that European affairs were part of a Faustian pact between Blair and the Murdoch machine. Price was informed: “We’ve promised (Murdoch’s) News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without informing them (Daddow, 2012). When Blair refused to call a referendum on the proposed EU Constitutional Treaty in 2004, he was attacked vehemently by Murdoch, who personally insisted on the News of the World labelling Blair a “traitor” in its headline attacking the decision (Seldon et al., 2007: 266). New Labour was also told that it would not receive the backing of News International titles in the 2005 general election unless Blair did a U-turn. “He did, and within days The Sun secured the scoop” (Daddow, 2012). Backed by evidence of Murdoch’s deal-making style and abhorrence of the European project, many observers in policy and academic circles have embraced the view that Blair’s European policies were indeed the result of a “Faustian pact” with Murdoch (Wallace, 2006: 63).

Murdoch’s News International, with willing support from ideological Eurosceptics across the top-selling UK tabloid and broadsheets, has proved effective at keeping the British public in a permanent state of “war” with the EU since the 1980s (Daddow, 2012). Prime Minister John Major told a judicial inquiry in 1997 that Murdoch said that he could not support him if he didn’t change his stance toward Europe, which Major took as a demand for an EU referendum (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Murdoch had a hand in the British right threatening to drive Britain out of the EU, too. The Sun had long been advocating for an exit from the EU, and so had Murdoch himself, distilling his opposition to the EU into a single quote attributed to Anthony Hilton, a columnist at The Evening Standard: “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Murdoch’s media, especially The Sun, cast Brexit as a choice between the “arrogant Europhiles” and the country’s working class, while railing against “mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock” (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). It helped lead the Brexit campaign that persuaded a slim majority of voters in a 2016 referendum to endorse pulling out of the bloc (Stack, 2019). The Sun’s cover on the day of the Brexit referendum was a picture of corporate synergy: “Independence Day: Britain’s Resurgence,” it read, over a mock version of the poster for the 21st Century Fox movie “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which opened in Britain that day. Murdoch likened the country’s decision to leave the EU to “a prison break” and celebrated the vote with Nigel Farage, a leading architect of Brexit, at a garden party at the London mansion of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev.

The referendum represented the realization of a long-deferred dream for Murdoch. But it also returned him to a position of influence in British politics. Not only had The Sun played a critical role in delivering the Brexit vote, but in the ensuing political upheaval, it had swung behind Theresa May. Once in office, she found time for a private meeting with Murdoch on one of her first foreign trips: a less-than-36-hour visit to New York to address the United Nations (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). In sum, the Murdoch effect on media coverage of the EU in Britain has been dramatic.

Murdoch and the “FOX Effect” on American Politics

In 1973, Murdoch entered the American newspaper business. In the 1980s and ’90s, Murdoch bought a number of American publications and amassed major holdings in other communications ventures, including radio and television stations and video, film, and record companies, as well as book publishing. In 1985, Murdoch took the step of becoming a naturalised US citizen in order to facilitate a move into the US television market (Finkelstein, 2007). The same year he acquired the Twentieth Century–Fox Film Corporation and bought several independent American television stations from Metromedia, Inc., and then consolidated both these ventures into a new company, Fox, Inc. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).

In 1995, NewsCorp entered into a partnership with MCI Communications Corporation, a major provider of long-distance telecommunications services in the US. The following year, Murdoch sought to expand his presence in American television with the launch of Fox News, a news and political commentary channel that has become enormously influential. In 2007, he made news with the announcement that NewsCorp was acquiring Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, for $5 billion. In 2017, he agreed to sell most of the holdings of 21st Century Fox to the Disney Company. Two years later, the deal closed and was valued at about $71 billion (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).

In the US, Murdoch has played a central role in the evolution of both journalism and politics. His Fox News Channel has become a powerful force within Republican Party politics – and therefore all of American politics. The station has a dubious record for fairness, accuracy, and integrity, but it has proven to be a supremely powerful megaphone for Republican talking points (McChesney, 2014). When Murdoch agreed to sell 21st Century Fox, Trump called him to get his assurance that the Fox News Channel would not be affected (Chozick, 2017). Thus, hugely profitable Fox News and various other TV channels were excluded from the sale, and they became part of the newly formed Fox Corporation.

Fox News has had a profound effect on broadcast journalism in the US, thanks to the traditional Murdoch formula of sensationalism and entertainment employed in the pursuit of ratings and revenue (Brock, 2004; Greenwald, 2004).Presenters on Fox News abandoned journalistic traditions of objectivity and political neutrality (belied by the network’s Orwellian slogan, “fair and balanced”), employing instead a combative interview style (Halper and Clarke, 2004: 185).Andrew Calabrese (2005) argues: “Murdoch’s Fox News set the standard for patriotic television with an editorial policy that echoed the Bush administration’s official stance, making any challenge to the White House’s plans for war seem tantamount to treason… While chasing after FOX in the ratings war, the other networks also shifted more closely towards FOX’s ideological terrain” (Hobbs, 2010).

Labelled the “FOX effect’ by Iskandar (2005), Schechter (2003), Collins (2004) and Greenwald (2004), the editorial policies and journalistic formula at FOX have had a detrimental impact on America’s public sphere and media. Indeed, the “FOX effect” highlights quite well the potential problems posed by “infotainment,” with a number of studies showing the disproportionate level of misconceptions held by viewers of Fox News (Brock 2004; Halper and Clarke, 2004:193).Even in the post-invasion phase of the Iraq War, long after US forces failed to locate Saddam Hussein’s alleged hordes of biological and chemical weapons, 80 percent of FOX viewers held several misconceptions of the war and its justifications, including that the coalition found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the September 11 terrorist attacks (Calabrese, 2005; Kull et al., 2003).

Murdoch has been an integral force in reprogramming the media network, making the ability to mobilize public opinion a fundamental measure of power within the media environment. As Iskandar notes, “the arrival of Fox News Channel (FNC) has reinvented and reinvigorated partisanship in the press…”

Murdoch has been an integral force in reprogramming the media network, making the ability to mobilize public opinion a fundamental measure of power within the media environment. As Iskandar notes, “the arrival of Fox News Channel (FNC) has reinvented and reinvigorated partisanship in the press, thereby creating a model for its application in the broadcast realm” (Iskandar, 2005: 164). By lambasting other networks as too liberal and presenting itself as “fair and balanced,” FNC encouraged other networks to replicate its formula in order to remain competitive and to stave off criticisms of a liberal bias. Thus, by influencing public opinion in favour of the Iraq War, FNC not only strengthened its ties to the Bush administration, but it influenced the journalistic norms of rival outlets in support of a similar agenda – reprogramming the television media landscape as a whole (Arsenault & Castells, 2008).

Empirical evidence indicate that FNC played a critical role in mobilizing and sustaining public opinion in favour of the Iraq War and the Bush administration (Arsenault & Castells, 2006; Iskandar, 2005). This support benefited the administration, but it also benefited NewsCorp. Nielsen data documented a 288 percent increase in FNC audience share during the initial stages of the Iraq War (Ayeni, 2004:8). However, Fox News’ claims to be “fair and balanced” and to offer “real journalism” that lets the viewers decide (“we report, you decide”) are totally groundless. On the contrary, Fox News is a very conservative, pro-Republican network that does not separate commentary and news and that supports conservative politicians and policies far more openly than any other television network supports any politicians, liberal or conservative (Weaver, 2005).

Michael Wolff characterizes Fox News as “the ultimate Murdoch product,” because it brought tabloid journalism to American television (Wolff, 2008: 282). What has been missed in the equation is the business model of tabloid journalism: it means dispensing with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replacing it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value-added is by providing a colourful, partisan take on the news (McChesney, 2014).

Research demonstrates that the more conservative media one consumes, the more likely they are to dismiss as liberal propaganda or lies, news or arguments that contradict the conservative position (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008: X, 240). Conservative media, led significantly by Fox News, marches in lock-step with the same talking points, the same issues, and even the same terminology deployed by the Republican party. They apply the core principles of advertising and propaganda. This has helped to galvanize and solidify the American right, making it more powerful than it would be otherwise (McChesney, 2014).

FOX and the conservative media can aggressively push stories, have Republican politicians echo them, and then badger the traditional media for having a “liberal bias” if they do not cover the stories as well. Because it believes it is fighting an uphill battle with liberal propagandists, Fox News can have an unabashed and breath-taking double standard, where they have very different evidentiary standards for stories that serve them versus stories that damage their politics. If facts prove inconvenient for the preferred narrative, ignore them (McChesney, 2014). 

Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks.

Signboard Fox News Channel at the News Corporation headquarters building in Manhattan, New York City.

In recent years, some Fox News hosts and guests have been moving ever closer to openly embracing the most bigoted sentiments of the white-nationalist movement. A few days before the antisemitic attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 Jewish worshipers on October 27, 2018, a guest on Lou Dobbs’s show said that a migrant caravan headed to the US border from Honduras was being funded by the “Soros-occupied State Department.” The shooter, according to a post he made on social media, had come to believe that Jews were transporting members of the migrant caravans. When Tucker Carlson came under fire for his increasingly pointed attacks on immigration – “We have a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor, they tell us, even if it makes our country poorer and dirtier and more divided” – he received personal text messages of support from Lachlan Murdoch (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b). 

Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks (PublicMind Poll, 2011). A 2007 study found that the introduction of the network on a particular cable system pushed local voters to the right: the Fox News Effect, as it became known. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, a majority of self-described conservatives said it was the only news network they trusted (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland conducted a survey of American voters in 2010 that shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources (Howard, 2010).

For decades, Murdoch has used his media properties to establish a direct line to Australian and British leaders. But in the 44 years since he bought his first newspaper in the US, he had largely failed to cultivate close ties to an American president until Donald Trump’s presidency. Murdoch and Trump – both forged in New York’s tabloid culture, one as the owner of The New York Post, the other as its perfect subject – have travelled in the same circles since the 1970s. Although both men parlayed their inheritances into global power, they have stubbornly viewed themselves as outsiders at odds with the establishment (Chozick, 2017).

Prime ministers have danced to Murdoch’s tune (Luce, 2018), but Trump is the first US president on whom he has personal influence (though Murdoch initially urged Mike Bloomberg to run for president against Trump) (Forbes, 2020). Having once dismissed Trump’s candidacy, Murdoch later threw himself wholly behind it. During the final stretch of the campaign, Fox News cut back appearances by anti-Trump analysts and contributors and added pro-Trump ones, while also ramping up its attacks on Hillary Clinton. One anti-Clinton segment was built around an appearance by Jeff Rovin, who had for years been the editor in chief of The Weekly World News, the supermarket tabloid best known for claiming that Hillary Clinton was possessed by Satan and had carried on an affair with a space alien named P’Lod. Other Murdoch outlets were swinging behind Trump, too (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

After the election, Murdoch moved even more forcefully to support Trump (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). They talk weekly and sometimes daily. Trump takes his cues from Fox & Friends, the morning show that plays the same role in Trump’s day as the presidential intelligence briefing did for his predecessors. Sometimes, Trump phones the show live (Luce, 2018). Trump enjoys getting Murdoch’s calls. As someone who prizes wealth and power, Trump had long admired Murdoch; for decades, it had invariably been Trump who called Murdoch, asking for help. Now, it was Murdoch reaching out to Trump on a regular basis (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). 

A Gallup–Knight Foundation survey (2018) found that 69 percent of Americans had lost trust in the news media over the previous decade. For Republicans, the figure was 94 percent. In the two decades since the networks founding, the Fox News Effect has never been more pronounced. A March study by Navigation Research, a Democratic firm, found that 12 percent of Fox News viewers believe that climate change is mostly caused by humans, compared with 62 percent of all other Americans. At the same time, 78 percent of FOX viewers believe that Trump has accomplished more than any president in American history, compared with 17 percent of other Americans (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019b). In return, the Murdoch approach to empire building has reached its apotheosis in the Trump era (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

Conclusion

During his six decades in media, Rupert Murdoch has carefully built an image as a pragmatist who will support liberal governments when it suits him. Yet his various news outlets have inexorably pushed the flow of history to the right across the Anglosphere, whether they were advocating for the US and its allies to go to war in Iraq in 2003, undermining global efforts to combat climate change, or vilifying people of colour (at home or abroad) as dangerous threats to a white majority. The Murdoch dynasty draws no lines between politics, money, and power; they all work together seamlessly in service of the overarching goal of imperial expansion (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

A six-month investigation by The New York Times covering three continents and including more than 150 interviews has described how the Murdoch family turned their media outlets into right-wing political influence machines that have destabilized democracy in North America, Europe, and Australia (Stack, 2019). Media power has historically accrued slowly, over the course of generations, which is one reason it tends to be concentrated in dynastic families. The Murdoch empire is a relatively young one, but it would be hard to argue that there is a more powerful media family on earth (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a). However, the Murdoch family is not immune from internal conflicts and tensions, which reflect themselves in questions around succession. Succession has been a source of tension in the Murdoch family for years, particularly between Murdoch’s sons Lachlan and James (Stack, 2019).

James and Lachlan are very different people, with very different politics, and they are pushing the company toward very different futures: James toward a globalized, multiplatform news-and-entertainment brand that would seem sensible to any attendee of Davos or reader of The Economist; Lachlan toward something at once out of the past and increasingly of the moment – an unabashedly nationalist, far-right, and hugely profitable political propaganda machine (Mahler, & Rutenberg, 2019a).

The Trump presidency also exposed a deeper divide between the brothers. James was becoming increasingly troubled by Fox News. He didn’t object to the idea of a conservative news network, but he did object to what he felt it had evolved into at certain hours: a political weapon with no editorial standards or concern for the value of truth and a knee-jerk defender of the president’s rhetoric and policies (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c).

After Trump issued his executive order banning immigration from some Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, James pushed his father and Lachlan to agree to write a companywide memo reassuring its Muslim employees in the United States and abroad. James wanted the note to forcefully and unequivocally establish their opposition to the policy and to tell employees who felt threatened by it that the company would do everything in its power to protect them. Lachlan wanted it to be less confrontational and to not specifically mention Trump or the Muslim ban, which Fox News’s opinion hosts were defending night after night (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c).

Months later, when Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., saying that there were some “very fine people” among the white supremacists, James’ wife Kathryn insisted that they write their own open letter of opposition, without consulting with his brother or father first (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019c). James and Kathryn were planning to devote some of their fortune to trying to neutralize James’ fathers’ media weapon. In early 2019, their foundation, Quadrivium, announced initiatives to defend democratic nations against what they saw as the rising threat of illiberal populism and to bolster voting rights (Mahler & Rutenberg, 2019b).

However, Murdoch’s choice for succession has made it clear that he doesn’t want his global media empire to change its right-wing populist route. Since Murdoch’s accident on Lachlan’s yacht in January 2018, the power structure inside NewsCorp has tilted toward Lachlan. According to The Australian’s former editor, Chris Mitchell, Lachlan is politically further to the right than his father. Lachlan is said to be a climate-change sceptic. This stands in sharp contrast to his brother, James, and Kathryn, who promote action on climate change. Lachlan also shares NewsCorp’s distaste for the elites, even though he belongs to the most rarefied of elites: the billionaire’s club in both Australia and the US (Davies, 2018d). It seems likely that the Murdoch Empire will continue to be a vehicle for promoting right-wing populism across the globe for the foreseeable future. 

Lachlan Murdoch (L) and Sarah Murdoch attend the “mother!” premiere at Radio City Music Hall on September 13, 2017 in New York City.

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Duterte

Rodrigo Roa Duterte: A Jingoist, Misogynist, Penal Populist

Around the world, populists are associated with economically irresponsible and unsustainable policies. In Duterte’s case, the action‐oriented dimension is demonstrated through his tough rhetoric and policies against criminal and anti-social activity, particularly the use of illegal drugs. This is described as the new penal populism.

By Bulent Kenes

On May 9, 2016, Filipinos voted to elect their 16th president. Among the candidates, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was the last one to join the campaign; and yet, he won despite a controversial reputation established during his long political career as a mayor of Davao City. During the campaign, Duterte promised to establish a similar regime to the one he established in Davao City – a regime that would restore “law and order” across the Philippines. He truthfully admitted that he was not going to be gentle with “criminality in general and drug lords in particular” and that his presidency might turn violent. Nevertheless, this crude rhetoric didn’t stop the people from giving Duterte their votes (Panarina, 2017). Immediately after his inauguration, public trust in him skyrocketed to 91 percent. His success lies in his ability to connect to the masses, a trick he learned during his school years (The Famous People, 2020).

Rodrigo Duterte was born on March 28, 1945, in Maasin, Philippines. His father, Vicente G. Duterte, was a lawyer; later, he became the acting mayor of Danao and, following that, the provincial governor of the Davao province. Rodrigo’s mother, Soledad Roa, was a teacher and a civic leader. Rodrigo was the second of five children. He started his education in Maasin, but within one year, the family moved to Davao City, where Rodrigo was admitted to Santa Ana Elementary School. His high school education was not smooth. After being expelled from two schools for unruly behavior, he was finally admitted to the High School Department of the then Holy Cross College in Digos, where he ultimately completed his schooling.

As governor of Davao, Duterte’s father was often absent. His mother was a stern disciplinarian who forced him to attend strict Catholic schools where he was allegedly molested by an American priest. To escape the strictures of life at home and at school, he often ran with his father’s police bodyguards, who introduced him to guns, booze, and life on the street (Vatikiotis 2018). He enjoyed hanging around with them and became street-smart, picking up their vocabulary and mannerisms. Although it caused immense trouble during his school days, the experience later helped him to connect with the masses (The Famous People, 2020).

"I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it. In Davao, I used to do it [kill] personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you.”

Speaking of his high-school years, Duterte admitted that he shot one of his classmates. As The Enquirer explains, the student bullied Duterte (Fe, 2016) and got shot for it (although he luckily lived). It is worth mentioning other examples of Duterte’s violent behavior, such as his statements on personally killing three criminals as mayor of Davao. He said: “I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it.” He also added: “In Davao, I used to do it [kill] personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you” (BBC News, 2016).

In 1988, Duterte was elected mayor of sprawling Davao City on the island of Mindanao. During the following decade, he was twice reelected. Due to term-limit restrictions, he did not run for mayor again in 1998 but successfully sought a seat in the Philippines House of Representatives, representing Davao. Upon the completion of that term in 2001, he returned to Davao City and was once more elected mayor. The restrictions were imposed again in 2010; he occupied the position of vice-mayor while his daughter Sara served as mayor. In 2013, Duterte returned to the mayor’s office, this time alongside his son Paolo (“Pulong”) (Panarina, 2017).

In Davao in the mid-1980s, communist rebels fought against the military and police-backed vigilantes in a gruesome dirty war. Violence killed people almost daily. Duterte was known as a tough city official in touch with both vigilantes and communists for political ends. As mayor, he was widely praised for cleaning up the city by using death squads and extrajudicial executions (Guthrie, 2018). He legitimized the activities of the Davao Death Squad (DDS), which many human rights organizations believe led to the deaths of 1020-1040 civilians from 1998 to 2005 (Quimpo 2017, p. 157). The DDS was composed of ex-army officers, police officers, and rehabilitated criminals who took justice into their own hands by killing suspected drug users, dealers, and petty criminals. DDS members were given “shoot-to-kill” orders for those resisting arrest (Tusalem, 2019).

During his more than two decades as Davao mayor, Duterte managed to transform the city into one of the safest areas in Southeast Asia. His radical crime-fighting tactics earned him the nicknames “the Punisher” and “Duterte Harry” (in reference to the film character Dirty Harry). Rather than denying extrajudicial killings in Davao City, he embraced them. The death squads that carried out the killings operated with impunity and Duterte openly praised both their methods and their apparent results. In this way, he cultivated the image of a coarse, pistol-toting vigilante, which he would utilize during the presidential campaign in 2016 (Ray, 2020).  

In 2016, the socio-political conditions in the Philippines were ripe for any populist candidate like Duterte to be elected. The life of a common Filipino has been complicated by inadequate infrastructure, ineffectual government, old-hat political leaders, and governments dominated by a few affluent families. All of these factors helped Duterte to win the hearts of the people despite not being a complete outsider in Filipino politics. His family originally came from Cebu, where they were also involved in politics (Kundu, 2016). Duterte’s “One Voice, One Nation” slogan referred to his background as a Manila outsider. In the classic mode of the “anti-politician politician,” he sought to distance himself from the discredited politics of the capital city (McCargo, 2016). Duterte’s success in restoring peace and order in Davao City led to his immense popularity among Filipinos who exhausted with an elitist political system blighted by corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and political instability (Curato 2017c).

Duterte’s reputation grew as he took his political reputation to the national stage and found a country receptive to the message he would deliver via social media and elsewhere: drugs are a scourge, and he would use any means necessary to end the problem (Guthrie, 2018). While Duterte’s responses to questions about vigilante connections were ambiguous and contradictory, he clearly relished his reputation as a ruthless anti-crime candidate. But while Duterte talked equally tough on corruption, he soon became embroiled in controversy over his own bank accounts (Santos, 2016).

Surveys reveal that the average Filipino is happy and optimistic, although socio-economic data suggests they are severely afflicted by income inequality in a country where 40 of the richest families account for almost 80 percent of the wealth.

The Philippines, a country of more than 106 million people, is an odd basket of contrasts. The faster the country grew, the more obvious its poverty became. The rich got richer, the corrupt escaped jail, crime rates soared, and Manila’s creaky infrastructure groaned under the weight of its populace. Measures of inequality in the Philippines soar above its regional neighbors, with a Gini coefficient of more than 44 and poverty rates above 20 percent; the murder rate, at close to 9 percent, is the highest in Southeast Asia (Vatikiotis, 2018). Despite these stats, surveys reveal that the average Filipino is happy and optimistic, although socio-economic data suggests they are severely afflicted by income inequality in a country where 40 of the richest families account for almost 80 percent of the wealth. Starved of opportunities at home, almost 12 percent of the population live or work overseas. And yet Philippine society is deeply nationalistic and given to fits of jingoism. In this context, Duterte’s appeal becomes more understandable (Vatikiotis 2018).

Electoral polling data from the 2016 election suggest that even as he won votes across socio‐economic classes, Duterte’s strongest base of support comprised younger, wealthier, and more educated sections of the population (Ramos, 2020). This appears to be borne out by polls conducted a month before the elections, on the basis of which Teehankee and Thompson (2016a) opine that “the Duterte phenomenon is not a revolt of the poor. It is middle‐class driven. It is angry protest most acute among the modestly successful, including call-center workers, Uber drivers, and overseas Filipino workers.” Similarly, Coronel (2019) notes that among Duterte’s most “hardcore supporters” are the “new middle classes,” comprising Filipino nannies, nurses, seamen, and construction workers working overseas and the digital underclass working in the booming call centers in Manila and other cities. They constitute a section of the population for whom the global division of labor has provided pathways out of poverty but not necessarily into affluence and security. It is not difficult to see how Duterte’s electoral pitch to deal with issues of criminality and the country’s crumbling urban infrastructure would resonate with them (Ramos, 2020).

At the core of Duterte’s public image were two closely interwoven themes: authenticity and masculinity. His authenticity was a challenge to the high-class backgrounds of both incumbent Benigno Aquino III and Aquino’s anointed candidate, Mar Roxas (Kundu, 2016). Duterte delighted in code-switching between Tagalog and English; the Philippine Daily Inquirer dubbed him the “trash-talking mayor” for his constant swearing in both languages. Duterte did not hesitate to curse anyone and everyone – even Pope Francis, whom he called a “son of a whore.” He flaunted his crudity as a marker of his maleness, boasting of his womanizing (Ranada, 2015), claiming that he wished he had raped an Australian missionary (ABC News, 2016); after the election, he catcalled a female reporter at a press conference (Youtube, 2016)

Duterte’s open disdain for women, crude jokes, and foul language only seemed to burnish his allure (Guthrie, 2018). Much of that vulgarity is misogynistic and homophobic, and John Andrew G. Evangelista explores the contradiction of how a country with some of Asia’s highest ratings for gender equality could produce a president prone to rape jokes and unwanted kisses. “Duterte did not make politics sexist,” Evangelista explains. “It was already sexist to begin with,”(Capozzola, 2018).

In a forum where he first indicated his interest to run for president, Duterte said, “If only to save this Republic, I can run for President.” He warned the audience of an “imminent disaster” if illegal drugs, criminality, and stalled peace talks are not resolved. For Duterte, the nation is on the brink “of being fractured,” and it takes a leader who can say, “if you don’t follow the law, you’re fucked with me.” Duterte’s framing of fighting illegal drugs as a major election issue gained traction, evidenced by a poll where low pay and illegal drugs became some of the top issues concerning voters (Pulse Asia, 2016). This is a change from the usual issues that survey respondents identify outside the electoral season, where jobs, poverty, and inflation are among the top concerns; illegal drugs are rarely part of this list (Curato, 2017a).

Duterte often used shock tactics in his rhetoric. The phrase “I killed … / I will kill you” was featured in two of his discourses. He used machismo as an overarching amplifier that allowed him to appeal to his supporters. This amplification strengthened his support and contributed to the masculine image he had built.

In Duterte’s case, his use of gutter language lends credibility to the urgency of saving the republic. By rendering the visceral rejection of the status quo visible, he gives voice to the peoples’ frustration. His main campaign message was the suppression of criminality and drugs within three to six months. He offered no clear economic platform, except for a vague proposal of a shift to the federal system. His currency is his promise of certainty, anchored on the rhetoric of violence and machismo (Curato, 2017a). During his election campaign, Duterte’s main slogan was “Change is Coming,” but this was no Obama-like evocation of the audacity of hope. The word “change” was invariably paired on Duterte posters with a clenched fist, more resembling a threat than a promise. Other slogans included the rousing “Go, Go!”, the idealistic “One Voice, One Nation,” and the more ambiguous Tagalog “Tapang at Malasakit (courage and devotion).” All were accompanied by the ubiquitous fist (McCargo, 2016). 

Duterte often used shock tactics in his rhetoric. The phrase “I killed … / I will kill you” was featured in two of his discourses. He used machismo as an overarching amplifier that allowed him to appeal to his supporters. This amplification strengthened his support and contributed to the masculine image he had built. Machismo is designed deliberately to amplify existing support from audience members (Ismail et al., 2018). Most controversially, he has made no bones about using extrajudicial violence to eliminate crime. During the campaign, Duterte warned that he would be killing people once he got elected: “When I become president, I’ll order the police and the military to find [criminals and drug pushers] and kill them.” Duterte declared in the final weeks of his campaign: “The funeral parlors will be packed … I will supply the dead bodies.” (Vatikiotis, 2018).

Wielding raw charisma, coarse language, and an unapologetic indifference to the norms of public behavior, Duterte’s no‐nonsense political style represented a fresh take on traditional electoral campaigns in the Philippines, in a way that spoke to people’s sensibilities (Fink‐Hafner, 2016; Taggart, 2004; Teehankee & Thompson, 2016b). His tough talk sparked the hearts of voters fed up with the incumbent administration’s inability to live up to its narrative of good governance (Holmes, 2016). Anchored on national frustration and anger (Teehankee, 2016), Duterte’s campaign speeches generated captivating stories of discontent and outrage over an inefficient and corrupt government.

Duterte invoked a crisis narrative of widespread criminality and illegal drug use, which generated illegal profits for the entrenched elite. Throughout his campaign, he cited a figure of anywhere from 3 to 4 million drug users in the country to justify his anti-drug campaign, although the Dangerous Drugs Board of the Philippines pegged the number at around 1.8 million (Gavilan, 2016). Through iron‐fisted leadership, Duterte vowed to eliminate the drug problem in 3 to 6 months, even at the expense of human lives (David, 2016).

Populism may not be new to the Philippines, but Duterte’s style is a departure. While Joseph Estrada and Jejomar Binay were often compared to Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, whose anti-elite rhetoric and pro-poor programs were tainted by scandals and corruption, Duterte’s brand of populism is often compared to that of Donald Trump.

A Populist Public and Duterte’s Presidency

On May 9, 2016, nearly 80 percent of eligible voters turned out for the election, and Duterte captured nearly as many votes (39 percent, or 16 million votes) as his two closest competitors combined (Ray, 2020). His “change” and “courage” image was that of a fearless pugilist, single-handedly taking on the forces of darkness. This narrative drew on the Davao mayor’s reported links to vigilante groups credited with killing dozens or even hundreds of drug-dealers (Whaley, 2016).Duterte’s promise of a country free from drugs and criminality resonated with the public’s concern for peace and order. Election exit polls showed that 57 percent of voters who voted for Duterte did so on the basis of his drug-war platform (Mangahas, 2016).

There are various ways to account for Duterte’s rise to power. His brand of populism is one of the most compelling approaches to making sense of his electoral victory. Duterte was chosen as the people’s champion against an oppressive and corrupt political establishment (Abts & Rummens, 2007; Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). This is consistent with previous literature on populism, which documents how populist leaders construct society as separated between “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2010). Populism may not be new to the Philippines, but Duterte’s style is a departure. While Joseph Estrada and Jejomar Binay were often compared to Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, whose anti-elite rhetoric and pro-poor programs were tainted by scandals and corruption, Duterte’s brand of populism is often compared to that of Donald Trump (Curato, 2017a). Duterte’s “anti‐elitist” stance appears to be directed only at those sections of the elite outside his own governing coalition (Ramos, 2020).

Many firsts characterized the 2016 Philippine elections. It saw the electoral victory of Duterte, the first Filipino local politician to directly leapfrog to the presidency (Heydarian, 2018). Duterte’s election also reflected an emerging trend of rising populism around the world (Arguelles, 2017; Curato, 2017a). This international surge of populism has not only resulted in populist leaders but also what Curato (2017c) calls, the “populist publics.” According to Curato, the scandalous statements and incessant improprieties that have defined populists have also characterized their respective populist publics. “Populism is about populist publics as much as it is about populist leaders,” she wrote. Thus, at a gathering of supporters in Manila, Duterte’s “public” brought placards that read, “Those who will not vote for Duterte will get killed!” (Clement, 2016).

This perceived fanatical character of many populist supporters earned them pejorative labels. Rivals of Duterte have labeled his supporters as “Dutertards,” a contraction of “Duterte” and “retard.” This wave of ridicule and mockery was not only limited to populist critics. Even in academic literature, it is common for populist supporters to be represented in negative terms (Arguelles, 2019). Yet it’s important to remember that Duterte won a majority of his support from the upper and middle classes (Holmes, 2016; Teehankee & Thompson, 2016a).

In the past decades, the Philippines has witnessed an electoral cycle vacillating between “reformism” and “populism,” with both sides having sometimes won the support of poor voters, who are admittedly more populist (Thompson, 2010). The populist Filipinos offer their support to Duterte in exchange for changes in how they are represented in public, how politics is conducted, and how the government is managed (Arguelles, 2019). As an example, many residents of Kalayaan, which is one of the many poor villages in the country targeted by Duterte’s brutal operations against drug operations, still continue to support him in the face of the extrajudicial killings (Arguelles, 2018).

For the populist public, a vote for Duterte is a vote to make their everyday misery visible (Christie, 2009). Despite widespread international and domestic criticisms of his drug war policy, the populist public sees it as a recognition of their hidden suffering (Curato, 2018). Support for Duterte also reflects the populist publics’ demand to bring authenticity to Philippine politics. In the eyes of the populist public, Duterte possesses both transparency and consistency. By being authentic, Duterte is seen to be more trustworthy, predictable, and relatable – characteristics that allowed a politician like him to easily get the political support of the populist public (Arguelles, 2019).

By being open about his personal failings and moral weaknesses, Duterte is seen by his supporters as ordinary. The populist public considers him to be more predictable and accessible, as they understand the state of mind of an “ordinary” person. As Schaffer (2007) noted in his study of slum communities, they gravitated to politicians who may be corrupt but can accord them respect and dignity. Hypocrisy repulsed the populist public on two counts: one, they despised that politicians considered themselves to be morally better individuals than ordinary people; and two, they were offended that these politicians would think they, the public, could be easily fooled (Arguelles, 2019).

The populist publics also voted for Duterte to overcome perceived bureaucratic inertia. For his supporters, Duterte is seen as a representation of a persistent political will. To these voters, the persistence of political will is demonstrated when politicians are determined to overcome all impediments, including legal challenges, just to be able to do pursue their desired course of action. These voters demand that politicians refrain from using the complexity of the bureaucracy as an excuse. In Duterte’s case, his unresponsiveness to the criticisms of his controversial drug war policy is seen as proof of this. Duterte’s supporters interpreted his disregard for due process and the rule of law not only as persistence and determination to fulfill his campaign promises but also as a form of solidarity with them in resisting the faceless but powerful bureaucratic rules (Arguelles, 2019).

Around the world, populists are associated with economically irresponsible and unsustainable policies that bureaucrats tend to reject (Rodrik, 2018), including unconditional cash transfers, free social services, and huge infrastructure projects. (Pasuk & Baker, 2008). In Duterte’s case, the action‐oriented dimension is demonstrated through his tough rhetoric and policies against the criminal and anti-social activity, particularly the use of illegal drugs. This is described as the new penal populism (Curato, 2017c; McCoy, 2017b; Pepinsky, 2017): Duterte’s supporters are drawn to his war-on-drugs policy on the premise that the existing legal system and institutions are used by the illegal drug industry to their advantage. For Duterte and the populist publics, if the order is to be restored in the country, what is needed is a strong and decisive leadership instead of strengthening the rule of law (Arguelles, 2016).

Penal Populism and Duterte’s “War on Drugs”

Duterte justified his “war on drugs” by exaggerating the security threats imposed by the illegal drug trade and, in turn, used this war as an instrument to incorporate the national police into his power base (Quimpo, 2017). This also resonates with the rhetoric of a strand of the new right and populist leaders with whom Duterte currently shares the world stage. This strand of populism has been described as “penal” or “punitive” (Curato, 2016). It involves the political practice of courting votes by preying on citizens’ anxieties about security and safety, through the promotion of punitive short‐term solutions to address criminality, often at the expense of respecting human rights (Ramos, 2020).

The ideology of penal populism has a positive relationship, on the provincial-level, with extra-judicial killings. For example, it has been found that extra-judicial killings are more likely to occur in provinces where Duterte’s vote-share in 2016 was highest and in provinces that he regularly visited and where he gave speeches justifying his war on drugs. These findings comport with theories relating to how chief executives of representative democracies may increasingly rely on vertical accountability from citizens to extract continued political legitimacy given that horizontal checks on their power remain weak and ineffective. The results also imply that penal populism is an ideology that is used not only as a campaign tactic or strategy to win elections but as a program of government (Tusalem, 2019). Duterte also increased visits to certain provinces to promote and sell his anti-drug crusade through landmark fiery speeches, which are often laden with profanities and appear to be popular with the masses (Lamchek, 2017). This is clearly a tactic used by presidents in delegative democracies as a way to connect with the public to guarantee continued support (Tusalem, 2019).

Because of his systematic attacks on human rights, Duterte was called as “fascist original”. Of course, Duterte doesn’t seem to care – he likened himself to Adolf Hitler and said that he would “be happy” to exterminate three million methamphetamine users and sellers in the country. He said, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [points to himself]”.

By definition, penal populism is a virulent type of populism where leaders run on a platform of law and order in an effort to exploit fear and anxiety from their citizens. It is also an ideology that portrays how a country’s political and economic instability can be traced to failures in the justice system and where policies and legislation are perceived by citizens as favoring criminals and neglecting the plight and concerns of law-abiding citizens and victims of heinous crimes (Curato,2017b; Kenny, 2018). This is also corroborated by Kenny’s (2017, 2018) analysis of Philippine politics. Such support for a pernicious form of populism is not directly related to a declining economy; rather, support for “law-and-order” political leaders is driven by stoking generalized fear in the population because of the lack of institutionalized parties that are programmatic (Tusalem, 2019)

As a matter of fact, citizens in more developed provinces are more likely to endorse and support Duterte’s penal populism. Such strong support for penal populism in affluent provinces and in provinces where Duterte won by large margins may also embolden police authorities to carry out the will of the majority. Conversely, poorer provinces, where narrower income inequalities exist, are less likely to prioritize crime victimization and crime insecurity in electoral campaigns, as their votes are based on addressing immediate, pressing concerns like poverty, hunger, and employment(Tusalem, 2019)Penal populism resonates with a public whose experience of justice is mostly of its elusiveness. Around 80 percent of drug cases in the country end up being dismissed, and it may take a decade to achieve a conviction. The demand for immediate action plays on the temptations of swift justice (Arguelles, 2019)

However, penal populism comes with a cost: because of his systematic attacks on human rights, Duterte was called as “fascist original” (Bello, 2017). Of course, Duterte doesn’t seem to care – he likened himself to Adolf Hitler and said that he would “be happy” to exterminate three million methamphetamine users and sellers in the country. On September 30, 2016, he said, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [points to himself]” (Lema & Mogato, 2016)Committing mass violence with impunity and with public adulation, Duterte is the most dangerous president in the post‐dictatorship Philippines. In fact, Simangan (2018) argues that his war on drugs is a “textbook case for what the processes of genocide look like.” 

Within days of his landslide victory, Duterte vowed to reintroduce the death penalty – abolished in the Philippines in 2006– in concert with his promise to “fatten all the fish” in Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals. In a televised address in June, he endorsed vigilantism by members of the public, stating that he would personally reward anyone who shot and killed a drug dealer. On June 30, 2016, Duterte was inaugurated as president of the Philippines (Ray, 2020). In his inaugural address, he read a short and powerful speech free from expletives. He assured the public that he knows the limits of presidential power and vowed to adhere to due process and the rule of law. However, hours after his inauguration, Duterte started cracking jokes about the profitability of funeral parlors under his administration (Curato, 2017a).

At the turnover ceremonies of the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines, he once again resorted to off-the-cuff speeches. “There is time to rest and to die,” he said, pertaining to drug lords. And, in perhaps one of the most controversial moves of his first month in office, he publicly named top police generals, judges, and politicians who were part of the illegal drug trade (Curato, 2017a). His drug war soon led the National Police (PNP) to carry out extrajudicial killings of presumed drug dealers (Timberman, 2019). When the police become the sole executor in the war on drugs, it makes obeying other rules even more difficult. In the 2016-2018 period, Duterte fired more than 400 police officers who were proven to have violated various regulations. Duterte eventually even offered to take over the leadership of the PNP himself (Aminuddin, 2020). Duterte openly followed a policy of reestablishing “law and order” by using authoritarian and militaristic methods. These have been heavily criticized by Western democratic societies but have rapidly earned him the “trust” of ordinary people (Panarina, 2017)

The violence precipitated by the war on drugs, the use of murder as a tool of public policy, and the open disregard for law and the courts is nothing new in the Philippines. Presidents, warlords, politicians, and various kinds of insurgents have been murdering with impunity in the country for generations. Duterte just took things a step farther, turning the use of death directed against the underclass into a political selling point. Duterte learned the tactic when he cut his political teeth as a prosecuting attorney in Davao City at the end of the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos era. Marcos also used wars against drugs to justify violence, albeit on a more modest scale than Duterte (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte’s disregard for human rights has been the most worrisome aspect of his administration. “Human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the nation,” he declared in his first State of the Nation Address, a direct retort to his critics including human rights advocates, academics, and the Roman Catholic Church. One month after Duterte took office, there had been over 900 drug-related killings, 700 anti-illegal drug operations, 700 arrests, and hundreds of thousands of voluntary surrenders all over the country, further crowding jail cells already serving over five times their maximum capacity (Curato, 2017a).

In his first six months in office, more than 6,000 people were killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs,” many by vigilante groups; a fraction of those deaths occurred during police operations. Metro Manila’s funeral parlors were strained beyond capacity, and hundreds of unidentified or unclaimed bodies were interred in mass burials. Human rights organizations and Roman Catholic officials spoke out against the bloodshed, but Duterte responded by accusing the church of corruption and the sexual abuse of children (Ray, 2020). Duterte’s “war” can be seen as his key instrument for delivering on his electoral campaign promise. He treats the purported “drug menace” as an issue of criminal justice, rather than as a public health concern (Tomacruz, 2018). These extra‐judicial killings of suspected drug pushers and addicts by the police and vigilante groups deprive the victims of the recourse to due process (Ramos, 2020).

The death toll has continued to rise. In two years, police shot and killed around 4,800 people (Guthrie, 2018), although human rights activists suspect the body count could be as high as 12,000-15,000. According to the Brookings Institute and Human Rights Watch, the figure is between 9,000 and 12,000; the political opposition in the Philippines has the number at 20,000 (Tusalem, 2019); and the head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights has said the death toll from the policy may be as high as 27,000. Duterte has reveled in the bloodletting, barely bothering to deny his role in mass death (Guthrie, 2018). Most of the victims are denizens of urban slums and disproportionately poor; the drug war has rightly been described by international organizations as a “de facto program of social cleansing” and a “war on the poor” (Hadro, 2017).

Most victims come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. More specifically, many are unemployed or did not complete their primary or secondary education (Tusalem, 2019). The victims – often young male breadwinners from poor families –are dismissed as “collateral damage” of a war meant to keep the streets safe (Curato, 2019). Photojournalists have documented almost nightly killings in slums: people found slumped in pools of blood. A few of the killings have been caught on CCTV cameras.

Beyond the grisly spectacle of bloodied bodies, are grieving wives and orphaned children. Nearly 800,000 supposed drug users have surrendered to authorities and volunteered for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, there isn’t the infrastructure to cope with this volume of treatment. Meanwhile, a 2017 survey revealed that eight out of ten Filipinos fear that they may become victims of the war on drugs – yet, a similar number nonetheless support the campaign (Vatikiotis, 2018).

This fear is not baseless. The crackdown on drugs has resulted in the deaths of elected city officials and even Catholic priests. Duterte has shown no remorse. Yet, confoundingly, he remains popular. He may have silenced his critics using extra-judicial means, sacking the Supreme Court chief justice in the process, but he continues to deliver on key parts of his promise to address chronic problems. While Duterte draws most of his attention because of the war on drugs and his foul-mouthed disregard for women and religion, as a populist leader, he is moderately successful (Vatikiotis, 2018). In June 2019, a survey showed the public’s satisfaction with the war on drugs at 82 percent (Reuters, 2019). The popularity parallels that of pro-poor social programs, infrastructure development, and military pay raises. Duterte’s populist policies continue to earn major support from the low and middle classes and the urban poor (Aminuddin, 2020).

The pace of these gross human rights violations has alarmed scholars with concerns that the country is moving toward a situation where creeping authoritarianism is making a comeback, thus eroding the democratic gains the country has achieved since 1986 with the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship (Curato 2017c). What also confounds scholars is that this act of state repression has been endorsed and supported by citizens. National surveys conducted by Pulse Asia in September 2017 suggest that 88 percent of Filipinos support the Oplan-Tokhang movement (as Duterte’s “war on drugs” is known) and 86 percent believe that the campaign is orderly and does not violate the due process rights of Filipinos(Tusalem, 2019)

In July 2017, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bi‐partisan formation in the United States House of Representatives, conducted a public hearing on the human rights consequences of the war on drugs in the Philippines (Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, 2017). In February 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary investigation into the more than 12,000 deaths that had occurred during Duterte’s “war.” The following month, Duterte responded by announcing his intention to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC (Ray, 2020). Lashing out at the ICC investigation, Duterte said during a speech on Sept. 27, 2018, “What is my sin? Did I steal even one peso? Did I prosecute somebody who I ordered jailed? My sin is extrajudicial killings” (Guthrie, 2018). The Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC became official in March 2019 (Ray, 2020)

In June 2019, international human rights experts from the United Nations issued a statement calling on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines, in the face of the “staggering number of unlawful killings and official attacks on people and institutions who defend human rights” (Cumming‐Bruce, 2019). International and domestic human rights organizations have continued to remain sharply critical of Duterte, but he has dismissed them, going so far as to instruct police to shoot activists if they are “obstructing justice” (Ray, 2020).

In October 2018, Rappler – an online news organization which published investigative pieces that exposed Duterte’s online troll army, questionable procurement deals, and impunity in the drug war – began running an extraordinary series called, “‘Some People Need Killing’ – Murder in Manila” by journalist Patricia Evangelista. The six-month investigation details how the police used and sometimes paid vigilantes, gang members, and others to ratchet up the body count in the grimmest district of Tondo, the worst slum in Manila. In the series, which is street-level reporting at its best, a young thug named Angel details how he was recruited into a vigilante gang by police and middlemen and was paid per killing. “Every time they said we had a job, they meant we were going to kill,” Angel is quoted as saying (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte engineered the arrest of his leading legislative opponent and the removal of the country’s top judge; declared martial law in the country’s second-largest island; and boasted of using extrajudicial force. And yet, Duterte is the most popular president in Philippine history.

Dutertismo: Demise of Democracy

Away from the carnage on the streets of Manila and other parts of the country, Duterte has generated controversy on the world stage. Like Trump, Duterte is given to surprising outbursts, such as when he called both US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis a “son of a whore” in Tagalog. He has shown little patience with the formal aspects of diplomacy, showing up late for summit meetings, dressed informally, and sometimes even skipping key events (Vatikiotis,2018). He engineered the arrest of his leading legislative opponent and the removal of the country’s top judge; declared martial law in the country’s second-largest island; and boasted of using extrajudicial force. And yet, Duterte is the most popular president in Philippine history (Capozzola, 2018). Why?

According to Capozzola, almost every explanation begins in the middle of an urban highway. From February 22-25, 1986, as many as a million Filipinos gathered on Manila’s Epifanio de los Santos Highway (EDSA) to prevent President Marcos from attacking a group of military defectors who had broken with his regime to support Corazon Aquino in the aftermath of elections widely viewed as fraudulent. Filipino political culture was reborn in these four days, creating a democratic vocabulary and expectations for sweeping reforms even as entrenched elites continued business as usual (Capozzola, 2018).

More than 30 years later, it is clear that “People Power” did not bring about the expected transformation. Politicians prattled on about the “unfinished” revolution but offered little explanation for why so many tasks were long left undone; meanwhile, doors opened for media-savvy populists. While ordinary people endured grinding poverty, a rising middle class demanded infrastructure, public safety, and an end to corruption. The poor wanted someone to speak for them, and the middle class wanted the government to do something. Both were disappointed. This was a ticking time bomb, and the election of Duterte was its explosion (Capozzola, 2018).

Like many observers, Heydarian sees Duterte as the culmination of three decades of political crisis. He argues strenuously for the existence of “Dutertismo,” political ideology and approach to governance that draws from Duterte’s “deep and diversified base” and targets his enemies at the expense of basic liberal principles (Capozzola, 2018). Thus, under the rule of Duterte, democracy in the Philippines has backslid towards authoritarianism

Aminuddin (2020) argues that three key factors are driving the current recession of democracy in the Philippines. The first factor is the use of populism in political campaigns. This results in elected leaders being held hostage by their own political promises, which have the potential to inflict damage on democratic institutions, practices, and values(Aminuddin, 2020). Populism, as political theorist Simon Tormey (2018) puts it, is a pharmakon, “a powerful substance intended to make someone better, but which might end up killing him or her” (Curato, 2019). The second key factor is the political marginalization – used by presidents and their respective oligarchies – of their political rivals. This is accomplished through both repression and hegemonic power, weakening the opposition and public control of the ruling regime’s performance. The third factor is the weakening of public institutions through policies created by politicians that support the regime (Aminuddin, 2020).

As mentioned above, Duterte’s government uses the legal system to attack political opponents, disparage or threaten leaders of key accountability institutions, and batter the mainstream media with lawsuits and criminal charges (Medina-Guce & Galindes, 2018). However, voters in May 2019 delivered a resounding endorsement of his agenda by backing a slate of pro-Duterte candidates. Duterte maintained his hold on the House of Representatives, and, by taking control of the Senate, he removed what was the only effective check remaining on his administration (Ray, 2020). Beyond Duterte’s overt displays of toxic masculinity is a discernible pattern of his aggressive attacks against the integrity of democratic institutions. His regime has demonstrated its willingness to breach the boundaries of state power while evading accountability (David, 2016 & Thompson, 2017b).

The Philippines’ presidential system allows presidents to utilize state-level repression with very limited constraints from other branches. This led many scholars to classify the Philippines as an example of Guillermo O’Donnell’s (1994, 1996) delegative democracy – political systems that have not completely transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy and thus maintain autocratic features where the president employs coercive strategies against the country’s people (Thompson 2017a; Pilapil 2016). According to O’Donnell, such polities are characterized by the elevation of the chief-executive as the true “embodiment of the nation, the custodian and definer of its national interest” and one that assumes a “paternalistic” role for his subjects. This arises because legislatures and the courts lose their ability to regulate the rule of law, and thus such institutions are likely to have no real political power except to rubber-stamp presidential directives(Tusalem, 2019)

In such a system, the president maintains his legitimacy through vertical accountability with the people, and, as such, his/her campaign promises must be translated into real, actionable programs to sustain his/her continued popularity. Thus, the president is above all political parties and organized interest groups, as his/her only sole purpose is to promote an agenda that continues to cater to the will and desires of the masses (Tusalem, 2019). Running on a platform based on this brand of populism, Duterte was able to gain support among an exhausted population made apathetic by political instability and economic mismanagement. More specifically, the public embraced Duterte’s dichotomy between “virtuous citizens versus hardened criminals – the scum of society” (Curato 2017b).

To show who he supported in this dichotomy, in December 2019, Duterte threatened to beat up and jail the “oligarchs” who run Manila’s water concessions, accusing them of bilking the government and overcharging consumers. “No matter how many bodyguards you have,” he said at a public meeting, “I can ruin your face, son of a bitch.” As their share prices went into a tailspin after the president’s attacks, the heads of the country’s two biggest business conglomerates agreed to renegotiate the water contracts and give up the hefty awards the government owed them. One company even ceded control of its water business to a businessman on friendlier terms with the president (Coronel, 2020).

Duterte’s dystopian depiction of drugs as the root of all social ills has been a successful deflection strategy, distracting Filipinos from the country’s limited developmental gains and shifting the blame for social problems onto criminals, who can be ruthlessly targeted in the name of national progress (Thompson, 2018). Duterte also campaigned on a promise of challenging the elitist democratic institutions in the country. These same institutions have been unable to bring needed reforms and have failed to unleash the country’s economic and political potential (Heydarian 2017). He has made good on his word, moving to eliminate liberal barriers to his agenda.

He has also sought to sideline domestic critics by intimidating independent media, government institutions, and civil society groups, whom he accuses of “coddling” criminals (Thompson, 2018). His campaign was entirely based on restoring peace and order based on a populist sentiment that the country had become a “narco-state” (Quimpo 2017). Duterte believes that the Philippines will be unable to sustain its economic growth trajectory and remain politically stable unless the government eradicates drug use among its population. This platform was then translated into action as “Oplan-Tokhang” (Tusalem, 2019).

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Duterte’s tenure so far is the manner in which he has dealt with the political opposition. Critics have been handled harshly and often threatened with violence. At the beginning of his presidency, he successfully had one of his leading critics in the Senate, Leila de Lima, who cut her teeth investigating the Davao Death Squads, imprisoned on improbable drug charges after he publicly “slut-shamed” her (Thompson, 2018). However, Duterte’s efforts to jail another opposition senator, Antonio Trillanes IV, have backfired. Trillanes, a retired army officer who helped plot a coup against the unpopular former president Macapagal Arroyo, has accused Duterte and several of his top officials of corruption and has suggested that his son and son-in-law are both involved in drug smuggling (Thompson, 2018).

Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was also removed – and almost without a whimper. She was also a critic of Duterte’s “war” (Vatikiotis, 2018). Lawyers described the purge of Sereno as the “final nail in the coffin of judicial independence” (Minda News, 2018). The first female chief justice had a tense relationship with the macho president. Early in Duterte’s term, Sereno reminded Duterte that only the judiciary had the right to discipline judges, after he had publicly accused a number of them of being part of the drug trade. Duterte threatened Sereno, claiming she should not create a crisis, “because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you” (Lorena, 2018). These threats became even harsher in 2018. Duterte put Sereno “on notice” that “I am your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court.” Duterte demanded that Congress fast-track Sereno’s impeachment, and Congress dutifully acted (Cruz, 2018).

Parallel to the impeachment proceedings, in Congress, a case was filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida to consider Sereno’s appointment void from the beginning. Sereno was accused of failing to accurately declare her wealth in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth when she applied for the post of chief justice. This, according to the solicitor general, calls into question her integrity, thereby disqualifying her from holding public office. With a vote of eight against six, the Supreme Court made history by removing its own chief (Curato, 2019).

Duterte also tends to take repressive actions through parliament, where left-wing parties and politicians have become his main allies and support his populist policies, such as the Tax Reform Program, which provides benefits to the middle class. It was an exceptional case when Duterte supported the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill of 2018 but failed to get approval from Congress. His support was questionable – he comes from a political family, his children also hold public office, and his daughter is mentioned as a future successor to the top office. Similarly, many legislators supporting him also belong to political dynasties (Aminuddin, 2020).

Duterte has extended his crackdown on opponents to every corner of society. He has been particularly vicious against the Catholic Church, which has been critical of his war on drugs. Duterte has called the church “the most hypocritical institution in the entire Philippines,” accused the clergy of abusing boys and coddling drug dealers, and threatened to behead a bishop who provided sanctuary to witnesses of police abuses in the drug war. In even more heavy-handed moves, Duterte has used his propaganda machine to shave off support for liberal opposition, and his state lawyers have hounded the most outspoken dissenters with aggressive prosecution. As a result of this campaign, Duterte has a near-monopoly on political power (Coronel, 2020).

The pandemic did not halt but instead furthered Duterte’s illiberal project is best instantiated in the shutdown of ABS-CBN – a media giant Duterte singled out in his previous speeches for its alleged bias against him. The last time the network went off the air was in 1972 during the Marcos dictatorship.

Rappler’s chief editor Maria Ressa attends the TIME 100 Gala 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, NY on April 23, 2019.

Having threatened, bullied, and jailed many of his opponents, Duterte has also cowed much of the media into submission and curtailed press freedoms. Maria Ressa, the cofounder of a news website Rappler – which documented the worst excesses of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign – was arrested numerous times on questionable charges (Ray, 2020). 

Since he took office, Duterte has been persistent in accusing Rappler of violating the constitutional requirement for mass-media organizations to be 100% Filipino owned. Rappler is American-owned, Duterte claims. He also claims it is backed by the CIA and out to destabilize his administration. Rappler denies these claims (Curato, 2019).

“It is easier to navigate a conflict zone, a war zone than it is to navigate the social media and the legal weaponization of laws in our country. But we hold the line,” Rappler’s chief editor Ressa stated. The two areas of Rappler’s coverage that seem to have most unnerved Duterte revolve around significant investigations of police impunity in the drug-war killings and the continued use of Facebook to spread disinformation and distortion for political ends (Guthrie, 2018). 

On January 15, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s license to operate, claiming violations of the Foreign Equity Restriction of the Philippine Constitution. A month later, Rappler’s Malacañang correspondent Pia Ranada was banned indefinitely from covering the president. The eight-year-old media start-up also found itself facing a cyber-libel complaint and five charges of tax evasion, together with unrelenting online death threats to its journalists(Curato, 2019). Duterte is belligerent and has warned the media about the limits of press freedom. “It’s a privilege in a democratic state,” he said. “You have overused and abused that privilege” (Salaverria, 2018).

The weakening of the political opposition has been aided by the regime’s aggressive intimidation of the press. Duterte’s other targets include the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had been the most respected newsgroup in the country before it caved to political pressure on its businesses and sold out to an ally of Duterte. Other outlets still challenge Duterte, including to some extent the country’s largest TV news network, ABS/CBN (Guthrie, 2018).

Duterte is aware of using social media to control his agenda. He applies so-called Key Internet Protocols, or KICS, to censor online media, limits information, and launch technical attacks on government critics. The attacks on freedom of expression on social media or in conventional media are of concern because they are often followed by physical attacks or torture (Aminuddin, 2020).

In reality, the Philippines has one of the most vibrant media landscapes in the region, but it is also one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism. Long before Duterte threatened the media, the Philippines had some of the highest incidences of journalists being killed in the world. Journalism in the Philippines is a dangerous enterprise, made even more toxic by a president who sees journalists as the enemy.

Duterte has shamed the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN News as “rude” in his speeches. “See how they slant,” he complained. “I’m not scaring them, but someday, karma will come.” Observers read this as a clear threat to two of the country’s biggest media organizations. The ABS-CBN franchise is up for renewal in 2020. Duterte has said that if it were up to him, he would not renew it (Rappler, 2017). After 12 hearings, the House Committee on Legislative Franchises rejected the franchise application of the ABS-CBN Corporation (de la Cruz, 2020).

The pandemic did not halt but instead furthered Duterte’s illiberal project is best instantiated in the shutdown of ABS-CBN – a media giant Duterte singled out in his previous speeches for its alleged bias against him. The last time the network went off the air was in 1972 during the Marcos dictatorship. The network was forced to go off the air at the height of the pandemic because its franchise was not renewed. There are many implications of the network’s shutdown. Aside from curtailing press freedom, ABS-CBN’s absence means many Filipinos living in far-flung and vulnerable areas have no access to news and information not only about the pandemic but also about forthcoming disasters including the destructive Typhoon VongFong (Curato, 2020).

Duterte Makes New Friends From Old Enemies or Vice Versa

Ever since independence in 1946, every Filipino president has walked a fine line between insisting on an “independent foreign policy” and burnishing close connections to Washington (Capozzola, 2018). Duterte has also long wanted to end the Philippines’ dependence on the US security umbrella and foreign aid; past presidents were forced to come to heel when American officials threatened to withhold assistance in an effort to rein in corruption and human rights abuses. Therefore, Duterte has called for a “separation” from the US and advocated closer ties with China, believing that the Philippines’ long-term security and economic interests are best served by Beijing’s embrace (Coronel, 2020)

Duterte called US President Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” in response to the US’s criticism of the extra-judicial killings (Ismail et al., 2018). He threatened to “break up” with the US at their joint military exercises.

In the months after his presidential victory, Duterte stirred the global political arena by announcing his radical departure from long‐standing Philippine diplomatic relations with the US and his subsequent shift to an alliance with China (Montiel et al, 2019). The Chinese Ambassador was among the first foreign envoys who met Duterte after his victory. During his campaign, Duterte said that he would continue a stance toward multilateral negotiations on the disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea. He has also encouraged China to invest more in the Philippines and engage in further economic cooperation (Kundu, 2016).

On September 5, 2016, Duterte called US President Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” in response to the US’s criticism of the extra-judicial killings (Ismail et al., 2018). He threatened to “break up” with the US at their joint military exercises(Ranada, 2016a). During his state visit to China in October 2016, Duterte declared to Chinese officials, “I announce my separation from the United States, both militarily but also economically … So, please, you have another problem of economics in my country. I am separated from them so I will be dependent on you for a long time” (Ranada, 2016b). Following Duterte’s shift in allegiance, China generously provided financial assistance to the Philippines, offering aid in the construction of major local infrastructure projects, including major bridges, expressways, and even rehabilitation of a war‐torn city (de Vera, 2017).

China has continued to lend significant funds to an ambitious public works program, and Chinese businesses and tourists bring much-needed investments and foreign exchange to the Philippines. Unlike the US, China offers these benefits without pressing Duterte to give ground on democracy and human rights (Coronel, 2020).  However, high-profile visits by Duterte to Beijing aside, the basics of the US-Philippine military relations have not changed: the Mutual Security Act commits the US to military protection, while the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allows joint maneuvers, training, and ship visits. Heydarian argues this is not an erratic or inconsistent foreign policy but one that “follows a strategic logic which is sensible for smaller powers precariously caught between competing superpowers” (Capozzola,2018).

When Western governments expressed concern over the rampant vigilantism, Duterte said that the West could offer the Philippines only “double talk.” When the US went beyond talking and suspended the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines, Duterte met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2017 to discuss the prospect of an arms deal (Ray, 2020). Duterte successfully showed that the country’s sovereignty cannot be compromised by business interests. Similarly, it may not be difficult for Duterte to assert his country’s sovereignty despite its economic dependence on China. In response, the international community has threatened economic sanctions while the US government has cut off some overseas development assistance to the Philippines, with Duterte lambasting officials of the EU and the US government as disrespectful of his country’s right to self-determination—often giving speeches laden with profanities and obscenities against world leaders and threatening to withdraw from international human rights organizations, treaties, and obligations(Tusalem, 2019).

Foreign direct investment (FDI) continues to pour into the country, although this may have less to do with the approval of the regime, and more to do with the opportunities offered by the government’s ambitious infrastructure spending program and the momentum resulting from steady economic growth throughout the 2010s. Data from the Central Bank of the Philippines show that total net foreign investments increased in all years that Duterte has been in power so far, compared to their levels in 2015. While there have been fluctuations in FDI from Japan, the US, and the European Union, Chinese FDI steadily increased from 2015 to 2018, reaching unprecedented levels in 2018 and 2019 (Ramos, 2020). Foreign investment from China increased 10 percent in the early period of Duterte’s presidential term (Cigaral, 2019). They flowed mostly into promised infrastructure projects. With the Duterte administration’s multi-trillion-peso flagship “Build, Build, Build” program, the National Economic and Development Authority envisions that the Philippines will be a high-middle-income country by the end of Duterte’s term (Curato, 2019). Duterte is hedging his bets on Chinese investments to finance this economic vision. While the Aquino administration took a proactive approach against China in pursuing territorial claims, Duterte takes a pragmatic route, preferring bilateral negotiations and the joint development of resources(Aminuddin, 2020).

Since 2016, shortly after Duterte took office, more than 3 million Chinese nationals have visited the country. This resulted in rising public anxiety about the number of illegal workers (Aminuddin, 2020). Nevertheless, superpower talk rarely stirs widespread public emotion, because the majority of the voting population concern themselves with local issues. However, when a populist leader wins and governance begins, she/he may decide which global superpower best suits the country’s needs for effective governance. In the case of the Philippines, this also includes optimal logistical and ideological support for the authoritarian rule (Montiel et al, 2019). More specifically, leaders in countries with weak economies need foreign aid for advanced military equipment, training of armed forces personnel, and potentially even foreign militarized consultants during escalations of intrastate armed confrontations (Grant, 2010; Hawkins, 2008)

Duterte believes China can fulfill these needs. Before he left for China in April 2018, he publicly declared his “love” for Xi Jinping. And during Xi’s state visit, twenty-nine deals were signed. The most controversial of these deals is a memorandum of understanding covering the joint exploration of oil resources in the South China Sea. The skepticism regarding China resonates with the public. Xi’s visit was met with protests all over Manila demanding that China get out of Philippine waters (Curato, 2019). 

The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is a prominent example of a populist rising to power through law-and-order rhetoric.

Conclusion

Duterte is, of course, a populist, but he is also a pragmatist. The utilitarian logic behind Duterte’s decision-making is best described by the words of Kovács and Lynch, who wrote that “Drugs are a problem in the Philippines. What is the most direct way of dealing with it? Kill drug pushers and users. Is it feasible? Yes. Let us do it. China is encroaching on Philippine maritime territory. Is it possible to repel China? No. Let us deal with China, then. The insurgencies are a fundamental challenge to the state and a major loss of treasure and life. Can they be defeated? No. Let us negotiate peace with them. All these are part of what adds up to an effective nation-building project, perhaps not planned, but playing out so.” And from the outside, it appears Duterte does implement the policy most convenient for him at a particular moment(Kovács & Lynch, 2016).

Curato (2020) wrote that Duterte’s initially ambiguous ideological position became clear four years into his term. Having rid his cabinet of progressive politicians and populating them with retired military generals, Duterte’s illiberal project is getting consolidated as time goes by. The Covid-19 pandemic gave Duterte the justification to further tighten the control of security forces, especially in the capital.

In the Philippines, most presidents become lame ducks halfway into their six-year terms. But four years into his presidency, Duterte remains at the top of his game, impervious to blistering criticism of his autocratic tendencies and his bloody war on drugs. A December 2019 poll shows his popularity at 87 percent, surpassing that of every Philippine president since competitive elections were reintroduced in the 1980s. His opponents hope that “Dutertismo” will fade away in 2022 when his term ends. But they should not assume that Duterte will quietly leave office like his predecessors(Coronel, 2020).

According to Coronel (2020) Duterte’s demonstration of power may be thuggish, but it is also methodical. From his 21 years as mayor of Davao, he learned that citizens respect and follow a strong leader. He is an avid reader of Nietzsche and Machiavelli and likes to quote from “The Prince.” He’s a student of power, which means that despite his seemingly irrational fits of public rage, Duterte plays the long game.

Buoyed by public support, Duterte is making every effort to consolidate his base, cement his legacy, and handpick a successor so he can continue to exert influence and exercise power beyond his term. If he succeeds, then Duterte’s illiberalism, anti-Westernism, and anti-elitism may endure for years to come. Duterte has fanned rumors he will field either his daughter Sara or his former aide Senator Go in the 2022 presidential race. He has let slip that his daughter may succeed him. Some observers speculate that Duterte will run as vice president on the same ticket as his successor, thus setting himself up to continue exercising power (Coronel, 2020). Dutertismo seems set to remain, either with Duterte or without him, for the foreseeable future – even after his mandate as a populist, jingoist, macho president ends.

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Sweden Democrats' Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

Per Jimmie Åkesson: A Smiling Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

Jimmie Åkesson and his party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), are not yet authentically democratic. They are still “the same old iron gang as usual” despite concerted efforts to change their image. Of course, Åkesson has steered the SD away from the Nazi movement onto a more parliamentary path. But its essence – alarmist resistance to immigrants and Islamophobia – has remained the same, and there is still no solid indication that Åkesson has matured or moderated over the years.

By Bulent Kenes

Per Jimmie Åkesson is a Swedish author and leader of the populist radical right (PRR) Sweden Democrats (SD) party. Åkesson’s path to politics was both normal and unusual: he began his political activism through the anti-abortion movement and Scientology meetings (Poohl, 2011). Åkesson, who was also politically active as a member of Moderates (M) for a short period of time, first became a member of Sölvesborg City Council in 1998, running on the SD platform. After he became president of the party in 2005, he took the SD from the political margin to the center, making it into one of Sweden’s largest parties (Expo, 2018). He has been a member of the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) representing Jönköping County since 2010 (Parliament, 2010).

Åkesson was born in 1979 in Ivetofta in Skåne County (Lindström, 2010), but grew up in Sölvesborg in Blekinge County. He had tried to get in touch with the local department of the neo-nazi New Democracy party, but his efforts were unsuccessful (Poohl, 2011). Instead, he became a member of the Moderate Youth League, the youth wing of the Moderate Party. But he soon left the Moderates and contacted the SD in December 1994. On New Year’s Eve 1994, he and some of his comrades founded the the Sweden Democratic Youth (SDU: The youth wing of the SD) in Sölvesborg (Expo, 2018).

Despite his involvement in 1994, he claimed that he did not join the party until Mikael Jansson was elected as party leader in March 1995, when the party began a process of renewal (Expo, 2018). Therefore, the question of exactly when Åkesson joined the SD is still shrouded in obscurity. 

Although the specifics are still debated, he joined the party sometime between 1994 and 1995. Under normal circumstances, a few months may seem an insignificant detail. But in Åkesson’s case, it matters. In the chapter of SD’s anniversary book (20 röster om 20 år) about him, Åkesson makes an allegation that he did not join the SD until controversial party leader Anders Klarström left his post in favor of Mikael Jansson. For Åkesson, the change of party leadership represents a breaking point in the SD’s history. Mikael Jansson symbolized the “new.” The new SD started the process of purging racists and neo-Nazis. For Åkesson, it is important to stand on the right side of the line. 

The problem is that his story is not right. His narrative – of joining in 1995 – is contradicted by a text Åkesson wrote for SDU-Syd’s member magazine in 1997: “We first had contact with the SD sometime in December of the same year (1994). During a meeting on New Year’s Eve, we decided to start working party politics, and that a local SDU department would eventually be formed” (Åkesson, 1997). And in a 1999 interview with The Democrat, he said that he joined the SD’s youth association “after the 1994 elections” (Poohl, 2011). In 2012, Lars Adaktusson claimed in the Metro newsapaper that Åkesson joined the SD “when the party politics were still shaped by right-wing nationalists and skinheads,”(Mattsson, 2015). However, the SD’s press secretary Christian Krappedal has accepted Åkesson’s official narrative and stated that he became a party member in the spring of 1995 (Nyman, 2015).

It is also difficult to find out how exactly Åkesson came into contact with the SD. He himself says that it was one of his teachers’ negative attitudes about the SD that attracted him to the party: “The teacher said it was a bad party and it was awful to vote for it. Anyway, there were two students in the class who had voted for the SD and then it led to a great discussion. Then I became a little curious and looked more closely at the party. There was a lot I could do there” (Poohl, 2011). But in 20 röster om 20 år, Åkesson told a different story. There, Åkesson described distancing himself from Sölvesborg’s fashionable youth circles; then, together with some friends, he began to search the “outfields.” There he found the Sweden Democrats. The correct explanation remains unclear. In any case, Åkesson’s political search ended with the SD (Poohl, 2011).

Åkesson claims in his book Satis Politio that his main political ambition was to “distance the party from questionable ideas” (Åkesson, 2013). Paradoxically, he also claims that he has not seen any form of racism in the SD – this despite working with Tina Hallgren-Bengtsson, an SD member Höör, while founding the SDU in Sölvesborg; in 1996, Hallgreen-Bengtsoon burned books in bonfire while wearing a Nazi uniform (Expo, 2018). Moreover, many who have criticized the SD pointed out that party members have expressed Nazi views. In some cases, they’ve used Nazi symbols and uniforms. Both of the then-SD leader and the youth union chairman were Nazis. SD members dressed in Nazi uniforms – even at the party’s official meetings. For instance, Kenneth Sandberg, who later left the SD and appeared in Nazi contexts – including as a writer for a Nazi newspaper – sat with Åkesson on the party board (Mattsson, 2015). In the SD’s newspaper Kurier, the aforementioned Hallgren-Bengtsson was widely advertised as deputy party leader. After she resigned from the party, she and her husband Jan Bengtsson went over to the more radical National Socialist Front. 

There are many similar examples, i.e. many people in the ranks of the SD have previously expressed sympathies with racist or national socialist ideas (Mattsson, 2015). Åkesson states in Satis Politio that he joined the SD with the intention of fundamentally changing the party, but wrote that, “Not even Mikael Jansson succeeded fully in the clean-up during his ten years at the helm.” Åkesson didn’t deny that the former party leader (Klarström) was a Nazi, nor that the party has links to Nazism and skinhead culture, but he claims that such links are exaggerated (Åkesson, 2013).

Åkesson studied a three-year social science program between 1995-1998 at the Furulund School in Sölvesborg (Adolfsson, 2013). In 1997, he was elected as a deputy member of the party board (jimmieåkesson.se). Then, he began his studies at Lund University in 1999. During his first year, he studied philosophy and research policy. He then studied political science, law, economic history, economics and social geography. According to his autobiography Satis Polito, he was most attracted to the SD’s policies opposing the European Union (EU) and immigration: “Like so many others, I stuck to the SD’s immigration policy, but it was probably above all the party’s view of the EU that made me to take the final decision” (Åkesson, 2013 & jimmieåkesson.se).

Prior to working for the party full-time, Åkesson worked as a web designer at the company BMJ Aktiv, which he co-founded with Björn Söder, the former SD party secretary. Meanwhile, the local SDU association quickly became one of the largest and most active political youth associations in the municipality. This laid the foundation for the municipal elections in 1998, when Åkesson was elected to public office as a councilman in Sölvesborg. The same year, he also became deputy chairman of the SDU (Lindström, 2010).

Åkesson recounted his political experiences in those days with the following words: “Of course, as a 19-year-old and a Swedish Democrat, it was great and exciting to take a seat in an assembly elected by the people, especially since it was about something you yourself have been involved in building from the ground up. At the same time, it would have been good to have someone more experienced to learn from, and I must say that I envy the youth politicians in the established parties because they have that advantage. As a Swedish Democrat, so far, we have had to start from scratch, which has been useful but extremely challenging” (jimmieåkesson.se). 

His role within the SD national organization began in 1997, when he was elected alternate member of the party board. Since then, he has held many different assignments, including being chairman of the SDU between 2000-2005, within the party’s communications unit where he was involved in advertising production and press contacts. He wrote press releases and produced information materials and political programs. Åkesson was also assigned to the chair of the party’s program commission. He was the lead author of the principle program adopted in 2003 and of the “democracy program” that was produced in the fall of 2004. In addition, he put together the election manifesto of 2002. He described those days: “Politically, the ideology and democracy issues interest me above all. The development of recent decades in Sweden is interesting to study, especially in relation to other countries. There is no doubt that Swedish society has [been] derailed in many respects” (jimmieåkesson.se).

In the years before he became the party chairman, Åkesson devoted a great deal of his time and efforts to organizational and election planning work. He was a driving force in the SD’s central election planning group. Before the 2004 European Parliament (EP) election, he was one of the party’s top names behind Sten Andersson and made himself known as a diligent speaker. The party tripled its support in the European Parliament (jimmieåkesson.se).

Åkesson received massive attention and reaction when he published a debate article in Aftonbladet on October 19, 2009 that was critical of Islam. The article argued that various phenomena associated with Islam were the “greatest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II” and it highlighted Muslims as Sweden’s biggest foreign threat.

After some internal disputes within the party, Åkesson was proposed by the nomination committee to be the new SD leader in 2005. At the party congress on May 7, 2005, Åkesson won a vote over former party leader Mikael Jansson (Widfeldt, 2015). Since 2005, Åkesson has remained party leader. In the 2006 election, the SD significantly increased its support in the municipality of Sölvesborg, more than doubling their seats in the municipal council and winning almost ten percent of the votes. As party leader Åkesson participated in a number of debates and hearings on both television and radio (jimmieåkesson.se). 

On October 19, 2009, Aftonbladet published a debate article by Åkesson that was critical of Islam. The article argued that various phenomena associated with Islam were the “greatest foreign threat to Sweden since World War II.” The article highlighted Muslims as Sweden’s biggest foreign threat (Åkesson, 2009). It received massive attention and reaction. Åkesson met Business Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Maud Olofsson in a live debate on SVT (Stensson, 2009). The Center for Racism applied to the Swedish Attorney General (Justitiekanslern – JK) about the article potentially inciting violence against various ethnic groups (Aftonbladet, 2009). JK did not, however, consider that the article’s content constituted incitement against an ethnic group and decided not to initiate an investigation about it (Justitiekanslern2009).Despite reactions from political and intellectual circles, an opinion poll conducted by United Minds Opinion Institute and Synovate in October 2009 found that the debate had increased support for the SD (Brors, 2009). In February 2010, the DSM magazine released a survey showing that according to 150 leading Swedish writers, debate editors, chroniclers, and social debaters, Åkesson was Sweden’s 9th most crucial opinion leader (Brors, 2010). 

In the 2010 general election, the SD passed the 4 percent national election threshold for the first time and entered the Riksdag with 5.70 percent of all votes, gaining 20 seats (Nyberg, 2010). Åkesson was elected together with 19 of his fellow party members. In 2013, Åkesson published his autobiography Satis Polito (Åkesson, 2013). Fokus magazine ranked Åkesson as Sweden’s 5th most powerful person of the year (Fokus, 2013).

In September 2014, Sveriges Radio’s (SR) Ekot reported that Åkesson spent about 500,000 Swedish kron ($70,000) on online betting in 2014 alone. The sum is more than a politician could earn in a year after tax (The Local, 2014). The revelation caused an uproar, both among people who view Åkesson as unreliable and those who opposed SR’s decision to publish the information. Åkesson called SR’s actions an attempt at “character assassination” (Eriksson & Olsson, 2014).Following the 2014 election, Åkesson announced he would be on sick leave due to burnout, during which Mattias Karlsson became temporary party leader (Holender et al, 2014). In early 2015,  Åkesson was named as Sweden’s most important opinion leader of 2014 by DSM; the authors of the piece claimed that he had changed the political landscape (DSM, 2015) of the county. In an interview with Fredrik Skavlan on March 23, 2015, Åkesson announced his gradual return to Swedish politics (Lisinski, 2015).

Sweden Democrats’ Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018.

A Strong Leader Without Much Charisma

While several authors consider that charismatic leadership is an essential feature of populism, quite a few others remain skeptical (Pappas, 2016). For Albertazzi and McDonnell, for instance, “the charismatic bond between leader and his followers is absolutely central to populist parties” (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008). Meanwhile, Mény and Surel assert that populism “advocates the power of the people yet relies on seduction by a charismatic leader” (Mény & Surel, 2002).Weyland also places charisma at the center of his definition of populism, which he sees as “a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power” (Weyland, 1999). In a similar vein, lack of charismatic leadership has been proposed as explaining why some populist parties are unable to gain ground in some countries (Smith, 2010), while others have shown empirically that political charisma is an important predictor of the relative success of populist radical right‐wing parties (Lubbers et al, 2002 & Pappas, 2016).

Moreover, organizationally, PRR parties are seen as centralized, with grass-roots members enjoying little influence (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). In this context, internal leadership essentially refers to the party organization. It is sometimes suggested that right-wing populist parties are leader-centric and take decisions in a top-down fashion (Heinisch & Mazzoleni, 2016).A study finds that PRR parties also display lower levels of intra-party democracy than any other parties on the political spectrum (Bolin et al, 2017). Meanwhile, external leadership refers to the electoral arena. Certainly, leaders do seem to greatly affect parties’ electoral support (Mughan, 2015); the importance of a party leader’s own personal traits are often emphasized (Bennister et al, 2015). In relation to PRR party leaders, the elusive quality of charisma is often assumed to be crucial (Lubbers et al. 2002). However, in a survey of forty-five populist contemporary European populist leaders, only five were categorized as being charismatic (Pappas, 2016).

There were genuine leadership contests in the SD in the early 2000s. The party’s first formal leader was Anders Klarström, a former member of an outright neo-Nazi party (Nordiska Rikspartiet), who was elected by the 1989 party congress. He was replaced by Mikael Jansson, formerly a member of the Center Party, at the 1995 congress. Although Jansson made the party somewhat more respectable, many thought the progress was too slow. Moreover, he was widely regarded as being a rather uncharismatic and introverted leader. Jansson was also accused of nepotism (Bolin, 2012 & Widfeldt, 2015).

Internal dissatisfaction with Jansson increasingly came to the fore after the 2002 election. A faction of younger SD politicians (known as the Skåne gang) from the party’s stronghold of southern Sweden managed to advance its position by acquiring more seats on the party board after each party congress. While Jansson was formally still leader, his standing was increasingly undermined. The advance of this faction was gradually reflected in the orientation of the selection committee. The new balance of power was openly revealed ahead of the 2005 congress when the selection committee nominated Åkesson as new party leader (Ekman & Poohl 2010). Jansson fought on, but Åkesson managed rather easily to unseat him, with 91 votes to 50 (Jungar, 2016).

Although Åkesson is the longest-serving SD leader (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b), the SD did not rely on charismatic leadership, at least not to the same extent as many other PRR parties (Bergmann, 2017). Swedish political parties have distinct organization cultures, especially with respect to leadership. Normally, leaders are formally accountable only to the extra-parliamentary organization. This is reflected in the formal titles given to the leaders (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). The norm is that parliamentary groups are under the firm command of the party leadership and voting discipline tends to be solid (Jensen, 2000). Research has suggested that the SD is somewhat even more centralized and less internally democratic than other Swedish parties (Jungar, 2016), so it might well be that the election of Åkesson’s eventual successor will involve less openness than in other parties (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Any long-serving party leader has to exercise considerable political skill and a good degree of ruthlessness, and Åkesson has been no exception. He has been successful both at holding onto his leadership position and at keeping the SD aligned to his preferred political strategy (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Thus, the SD’s transformation and growth has coincided with Åkesson’s tenure. Despite being only 25 when he became party leader,  he pulled the SD’s ideological stance towards mainstream Swedish politics, rhetoric, and symbols. The SD’s popular support began to increase (Loxbo & Bolin 2016). Some of this could be attributed to Åkesson, but socio-political conditions in the country were changing, too. The financial crisis of 2008 had a sharply negative, albeit fairly short-lived, effect on the Swedish economy. As war, chaos, and violence spread through the Middle East, the applications for asylum by refugees – which had averaged less than 10,000 annually from 1995-99 – rose to over 25,000 annually from 2000-2010 (Migrationsverket, 2019). Economic and social changes are probably insufficient to explain the rise in support for SD, but they surely played a role (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Despite his grip on power – he has never faced a serious leadership challenge – Åkesson is not regarded as particularly charismatic (Jungar, 2016; Bergmann, 2017 & Eatwell, 2018). According to a study, Åkesson “does not meet even generous definitions of charisma” and is better “described as low-key” (Widfeldt 2015). However, compared with his predecessors, there is no doubt that Åkesson as SD leader has a far broader electoral appeal. Jansson was instrumental in the SD’s professionalization, but Åkesson is generally reckoned to be much more eloquent (Bergmann 2017). While he is “rarely described as an inspirational speaker,” and although he is not prominent in social media, he has always been called “an effective media communicator” (Widfeldt 2015) and “media-savvy” (Demker, 2012). Åkesson’s low-key expression is said to suggest competence and reliability; only rarely does he sound deliberately provocative or outrageous. He is also a good debater (Widfeldt, 2008 & Bolin 2012), even when subjected to tough questioning about the SD’s extreme, neo-Nazi past, or when accused of racism (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

Åkesson generally appears calm and sensible – which is exactly how voters should perceive him (Poohl, 2011). Thanks to his cool image, Åkesson could make an attempt to broaden the party’s support and stretch out to female voters. While doing so, he made it clear that he most definitely is not a feminist. “I’m not a feminist! I am a Sweden Democrat, social conservative and nationalist. But I believe in equality,” he said (The Local, 2014). He has also been labeled a liberal – another term he disavows. “Maybe I’m a little softer in my opinions than Jimmy Windeskog, but I just see it as positive. Being liberal, on the other hand, is very destructive to me and of course it is deeply offensive to get such a title,” he said in an interview with the Democrat in 2000. Jimmy Windeskog, who was editor of the party’s member magazine SD Bulletin between 2000 and 2003, and party secretary between 2001 and 2003, had accused him of being “liberal.” Åkesson further explained that the reason he has been perceived as “soft” is because he is “very conservative in his attitude” (Poohl, 2011).

Poohl (2011) wrote that one of the reasons for Åkesson’s reputation as a “liberal” is probably his fierce opposition to the death penalty, which was a hot topic during his first year in the party. He has explained that during his first party meeting in 1996, he raised his voice in the discussion about the SD’s demands for capital punishment. Åkesson’s opposition to the death penalty is based on a strong conviction of “the inviolable right to life,” which also made him a loud opponent of abortion during his SDU years. As a young man he was a member of pro-life (anti-abortion) movement.

According to Bolin and Aylott, a clique of his close allies, most of whom he had met at university, has been central to Åkesson’s leadership. By 2015 the positions of secretary-general and chair of the parliamentary group, arguably the two most important roles in the party after that of the leader, were in the hands of Åkesson’s closest allies, Mattias Karlsson and Richard Jomshof, respectively. At the same time, other long-standing members of the clique were eased out of leading positions when their behavior and statements had become awkward for SD. Admittedly, this took a long time in the case of Kent Ekeroth. Elected to Parliament in 2010, Ekeroth was soon involved in an early-hours, racially charged contretemps, although this infamous “iron-bar scandal” only came to light two years later. More violence in 2016 led to his being dropped from the party’s lists for the 2018 election. Another example was Björn Söder, an old ally of Åkesson’s, who was replaced, against his will, as the SD’s secretary-general in 2015, although he remained an MP (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

In general, Åkesson is the least popular Swedish party leader. When respondents in an annual national survey have been asked to score each leader on a scale from -5 to +5, Åkesson’s average score has been significantly lower than others (Andersson & Oscarsson, 2018). While his scores improved over the years, from -2.7 in 2011 to -1.5 in 2017, his relative unpopularity mirrored the fact that the SD remained by far the most disliked party in Sweden (Ryan & Reiljan 2018).However, Åkesson’s average score has ranged from +2.5 in 2012 to +3.4 in 2015 among the SD’s sympathizers. Popular or not, Åkesson has proved to be a very capable party leader. He formulated a clear, long-term political strategy and pursued it with steadiness and ruthlessness. He helped take the SD beyond its extremist origins and established it as one of Sweden’s three biggest political parties (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b).

According to his book Satis Polito, Åkesson had already decided to deal with the SD’s racist and neo-nazi ideological roots when he took over as party leader in 2005: “My ambition was to further distance the party from dubious ideological traditions,” he wrote. These words are in fact a recognition of the fact that there were fascist elements within the party.

Racism: How Successful Has the SD Been in Changing Its Skin?

According to his book Satis Polito, Jimmie Åkesson had already decided to deal with the SD’s racist and neo-nazi ideological roots when he took over as party leader in 2005: “My ambition was to further distance the party from dubious ideological traditions,” he wrote. These words are in fact a recognition of the fact that there were fascist elements within the party. Åkesson understood the need for renewal within the party (Åkesson, 2013): just after Åkesson became leader, the party changed its logo from the flaming torch to one featuring an Anemone hepatica, reminiscent of the party’s very first, but short-lived logo (Sweden Democrats, 2005). Åkesson argued that “the flaming torch accounted for things that happened in and around the party during the lost years of the 1990s.” 

Other similar fascistic elements were also cleared out. Åkesson said racist slogans such as “Preserve Sweden Swedish” were also replaced with a goal of “making Sweden a little more Swedish.” He believed such changes were to “reach new voter groups and thus grow.” The party principles adopted in 1999 were free from stakes according to Åkesson and were instead based on “value conservatism” (Åkesson, 2013). Åkesson declared in October 2012 that his party had “zero tolerance” for racism or extremism and urged all “deviants” to leave the party. This happened after several well-publicized cases of gross racism by various representatives. 

But critics have claimed that the SD’s “zero tolerance” policy is applied to low-level representatives while those higher in the party hierarchy go free (Expo, 2018). 

By 2019, well over 100 SD members had been expelled under the zero-tolerance policy. They included several leading members of the SD’s youth wing, who were accused by the party leadership of consorting with an extreme right-wing organization. When, in 2015, an ally of those expelled members was elected chair of the youth wing, the SD leadership simply closed down the wing and replaced it with a new youth organization (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). Despite all these changes and purges, critics still wonder whether these measures are sufficient to tame the SD and absolve it of its fascist, racist, neo-Nazi past. Some high-ranking members still use racist rhetoric or engage in far-right political activities. For instance, in 2016, SD lawmaker Anna Hagwall was dismissed from the party for antisemitism after proposing a bill to end state subsidies for media outlets that she claimed favored Jewish-owned media groups (The Times of Israel, 2016).

Hagwall’s proposed legislation was openly targeting the Bonnier media group, whose controlling family has Jewish roots. The Bonnier group owns 175 companies, including television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, and operates in 15 countries. “For many years the SD have been working resolutely to end the currents of antisemitism and conspiracy theories in society,” Akesson argued in a statement. He addes, “Through her statements, Hagwall prejudiced this work and the party’s image. Anna wants legislation in which people are divided by ethnic appearances. We don’t support that.” Hagwell also sent an e-mail to Aftonbladet trying to justify her position. “It should not be allowed for any family, ethnic group or enterprise to control directly or indirectly more than 5 percent of the media,” she insisted (The Times of Israel, 2016).

In October 2018, a senior SD lawmaker Carina Herrstedt called for action against what she labeled the “control of media by any family or ethnic group,” again citing Bonnier. Herrstedt was also widely criticized in the media for writing a racist joke in an email that was deemed offensive to gays, blacks, nuns, Roma, and Jews. Moreover, SD’s finance spokesman Oscar Sjostedt was heard in a recording jokingly comparing Jews to sheep being killed in German abattoirs. Because of such remarks, the SD has been accused of espousing antisemitic views despite counting Jews among its ranks, including several lawmakers (JTA, 2018).

There have been other scandals. The Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed the fact that active and former neo-Nazis were standing as candidates for the SD in the 2018 election, despite the party claiming to have purged itself of any Nazi sympathizers. The SD’s deputy parliamentary speaker Bjorn Söder (a member of Skåne gang) said in summer 2018 that he did not believe Jews or people with indigenous Arctic Sami heritage could be Swedish (Martin, 2018). Söder maintained that he never questioned minorities’ rights as Swedish citizens but merely stood up for their rights to preserve their distinct ethnic identities. On Facebook, Söder criticized Annie Lööf, the leader of the Center Party, who wrote on Twitter that “My Jewish friends are simply my Swedish friends: As a citizen of Sweden, you are Swedish, even whether you belong to one of our national minorities or not.” Söder claimed that Lööf was “undermining” the status of those five minorities by downplaying their distinctive identities. Söder made similar statements in a 2014 interview with Dagens Nyheter, too (JTA, 2018).

Lena Posner Korosi, who was then the president of the Jewish Council in Sweden, expressed that Söder’s reasoning was “reminiscent of 1930s Germany.” Meanwhile, Paulus Kuoljok, the president of the Sami Parliament Plenary Assembly called Söder’s Facebook post “provocative” and designed to win votes. “They have shown their hostile stance for quite some time, so I’m not surprised,” he told SVT.

Despite SD officials frequently saying that they had planned to write a white paper on the party’s extremist connections, the project has never become a reality. In summer 2018 Åkesson highlighted Nazism in his speech during the political week at Almedalen: “Nazism can never be nationalism. Nazism is an anti-democratic, socialist, racist, imperialist, violent, international ideology, and it lacks justification for its existence in a democratic society” (Baas, 2018a). However, an examination of more than 6,000 Parliamentary candidates (and thousands more local candidates) from all political parties showed a totally different picture. The result showed that numbers of former members of the violent Nazi organization National Socialist Front (NSF) were running under the banner of Åkesson’s SD, including prominent Nazis such as Andreas Olofsson, Thomas Jelinek, Tobias Ekberg, Nina Magnom, Stellan Mårtensson, Morgan Scammel, and others (Baas, 2018a). The study was carried out by Expressen, with the support of Expo.

Furthermore, Åkesson’s co-worker and Parliamentary candidate Mikael Bystedt has anonymously written hundreds of comments on hate sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tiderExpressen revealed how Bystedt has systematically spread hatred towards Muslims and called Arabs “the scum of the earth.” He dismissed them as “lazy parasites that can’t bear to lift a finger and just lie on the couch expecting to be served with both one and the other” (Bass, 2018b).When Expressenreported that mosques were burned down in London, Bystedt wrote, “Damn it was well done! Now we hope this spreads to Sweden like a wildfire.” Expressen mapped out how Bystedt systematically and anonymously spread hatred, mainly against Muslims, on sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tider, but also the infamous American site Breitbart. Bystedt wrote the comments with an account that is linked to his private e-mail address, which he used when he became a member of the SD in 2013. He also used the same e-mail address in contacts with authorities, such as the Swedish Companies Registration Office and the Swedish Press, Radio and Television Authority. In comment after comment, he attacked Muslims. In 2015, Bystedt suggested on Avpixlat that Sweden should “expel all Muslims.” About the same time, he also presented a five-point program to “save Sweden.” Two of the points were: “Stop all immigration / immigration of Muslims. Destroy all traces of Islam in our Swedish society, mosques etc.” In order that no one should miss his views on Muslims, Bystedt repeated them again and again: “How many times do we have to say it, Muslims should not live in our countries, OUT OF THEM!”

At Breitbart, Bystedt put forward the conspiracy theory that former US President Barack Obama was in fact a Muslim in disguise who pursued jihad: “Now US has got rid of Obama, the Muslim conducting stealth jihad!” In a comment on Avpixlat, Bystedt expressed a belief that segregation was a good thing: “Enough for all people to have equal value. It was probably much safer in the United States when it was apartheid. Do you want to make your homeland safe … easy, out with Africans and Muslims.” When Expressen confronted Bystedt, he said he did not “recognize them [the comments],” even though he has systematically written about 500 comments on the hate sites for four years. When Expressen showed that he had written his personal information in his comments, he confirmed them (Bass, 2018b).

Bystedt has worked as a press assistant at the SD’s Parliamentary office. He is the Vice Chairman of the party’s Täby branch north of Stockholm, and in the 2018 election, he ran for both City Council and the Riksdag (Bass, 2018b).

Keeping in mind the fact that the SD was founded only three decades ago by Nazis, skinheads, and an 80-year-old SS officer who fought for Hitler’s Germany, it is understandable that the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right characteristics of the party and its neo-Nazi past are not easily purged.

In the 2014 election, Expressen was also able to reveal over ten SD politicians who anonymously wrote racist or otherwise hateful comments on sites such as Avpixlat and Fria tider. One of those revealed was the then-SD official Christoffer Dulny. And in November 2012, the paper revealed how the then-SD politician Erik Almqvist expressed himself in racist and hostile fashion during a night out in Stockholm. Late in the evening, he and his party colleagues Kent Ekeroth and Christian Westling armed themselves with iron pipes (Bass, 2018b).

Keeping in mind the fact that the SD was founded only three decades ago by Nazis, skinheads, and an 80-year-old SS officer who fought for Hitler’s Germany (Lindström, 2019), it is understandable that the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right characteristics of the party and its neo-Nazi past are not easily purged. Truly, many party members were involved in the 1990s skinhead wave, either as participants themselves or through friends. Björn Björkqvist, Magnus Söderman, Daniel Friberg, Vávra Suk, Jimmie Åkesson, and Mattias Karlsson all have a background in the skinhead wave (Teitelbaum 2017).

Åkesson confessed in his book that when he was a teenager, he listened to Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule was Sweden’s most well-known White Power band. SD circles have claimed that Ultima Thule weren’t racist but played a form of extreme nationalist music. The band’s first single, which became a success in nationalist circles, was used as a signature melody in the SD’s local radio broadcasts (Åkesson, 2013).

According to Lars Lindström, a columnist for Expressen, when Åkesson joined the SD, the political idea of the party was still that “ethnic strangers” should pack and run. Today, the party’s program talks about an “inherited essence” that must be preserved and Åkesson himself is concerned that immigrants should be sent back to their countries “where they should live.” The SD has always wanted to eject people originating in “distant countries and cultural circles” (party program 2011), including those “outside the Western cultural circle” (1996) from “ethnically distant cultures” (1994) or “overseas origin” (1989). Even today, the SD is working hard to consolidate its intolerance. In the Riksdag, SD proposals have demanded that investment in minorities should end, that minority protections in the Constitution should be removed, and that the Prison and Probation Service should carry statistics on ethnicity going several generations back. When the SD has seized power in municipalities, proposals have been put forward with the aim of damaging the Roma and Muslims – “the others” (Lindström, 2019). 

PRR parties are commonly referred to as extraordinary or exceptional. Some even study the party category without reference to established mainstream concepts and theories, as if it is “a pathology, and can thus only be explained outside of the ‘normal’” (Mudde, 2010). In terms of policy, the parties are often said to have extreme stances on, for example, immigration and nationalism (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). “For a couple of decades, many SD politicians in social media have expressed condemnation and malice toward people of different skin color or religion. They are impossible to count: Hundreds of politicians, thousands of posts. So much hatred that you can’t get in. It’s happening now. Also: MPs from the SD participate in fascist sites, draw antisemitic jokes, call people in town ‘blatte-lovers – black lovers’ and ‘babbe – negro,’” wrote Lindström. (Lindström, 2019).

It is no secret that Åkesson has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Viktor Orban’s illiberal regime in Hungary without ever addressing how it is running an antisemitic campaign against the billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros. Expo magazine also mapped out nine SD politicians who have retained their mandate despite making rough antisemitic statements. These people were allowed to remain in high ranking positions in the party without being questioned by the SD leadership (Bass, 2018b). And Åkesson saw no problem with hosting Nigel Farage and several ethno-nationalist leaders from eastern Europe at an “alternative Nobel Prize” ceremony in Stockholm (Martin, 2018).

The SD may have neo-Nazi roots, but it is still actively antisemitic – and these traditions have been renewed by the conspiracy theory of how Jewish “cultural Marxism” in the EU leads to mass immigration (Aagård, 2019). A fringe group of neo-Nazi supporters undermine the SD’s attempts to clean up its image. In October 2016, even Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven branded the SD as “nazist and racist” (The Times of Israel, 2016).

According to Lindström, in 2018, the SD ran 14 politicians who were members of Nazi organizations or actively spread Nazi or grossly antisemitic propaganda. Whenever journalists have scratched the surface of the party, they have found a politician with ties to a Nazi compound or who wants to shoot refugees on the Öresund Bridge with a shotgun. “Of course, the SD’s party leader knows this. He is a political broiler who has served in a racist party since he was a teenager. That’s why Jimmie Åkesson has to take a walk when someone highlights the racism in the SD: He knows it’s true,” Lindström wrote (Lindström, 2019).

“There are still some neo-Nazis in the party,” said Anders Sannerstedt, a political scientist at Lund University in southern Sweden. “Akesson said people who in their teens had Nazi links should be forgiven and should be open about it. They still have a lot to do, but they’ve been more careful this time vetting candidates for election, nationally and locally,” he told the BBC in 2018. Sannerstedt said Akesson’s drive to broaden the SD’s appeal has worked and, like some other rising nationalist parties in Europe, it has a populist agenda setting it apart from the political “establishment” (BBC, 2018).

Immigration & Multiculturalism: “Sweden belongs to the Swedes”

Roger Griffin sees fascism as a form of “populist ultranationalism” that seeks to rebuild the nation after a period of perceived crisis and decline (Griffin, 1993). In his summer 2014 speech, Jimmie Åkesson described the crisis and decline he saw in Sweden: “Mass immigration is an issue of fate,” he said. “Mass immigration effects all parts of the society” (Mattsson, 2015). According to Åkesson, mass immigration negatively impacted the welfare, healthcare, and education systems; and “the limit of what is possible to handle has been passed long ago” (SVT Forum, 2014).

Sweden long sought to confirm its status as a “moral superpower” through its previously generous asylum and migration policies, welcoming all those fleeing oppression and war. But the SD has struck a different note. Åkesson argued for “helping refugees locally, in the near vicinity of their home-country,” rather than welcoming them to Sweden, warning that allowing them to seek refuge in Sweden would entail too great a burden for the welfare state and may lead to the collapse of Swedish society altogether (Norocel, 2017). This view is not new. In a 2006 interview with Expo, he talked about the years when he applied for the SD. “There were two issues that made me politically interested,” he said, meaning immigration and the EU. “At the end of the 1980s, a lot of immigrants started to come to our small town. It soon became apparent that it was segregated and that there were contradictions and that it created problems when immigrants arrived in such a short time,” said Åkesson; he was ten years old at the end of 1980s (Poohl, 2011).

Sweden long sought to confirm its status as a “moral superpower” through its previously generous asylum and migration policies, welcoming all those fleeing oppression and war. But Åkesson argued for “helping refugees locally, in the near vicinity of their home-country,” rather than welcoming them to Sweden, warning that allowing them to seek refuge in Sweden may lead to the collapse of Swedish society.

Åkesson has always opposed multiculturalism and the liberal mixing of cultures that Sweden’s mainstream parties have espoused for years. The SD has accused the traditional centrist parties of “wrecking” social welfare by encouraging the arrival of foreigners – especially Muslims – who they argue do not share Swedish values. They try to tie immigrants to crime. As an example, in recent years, shootings have risen in Sweden, something the SD links to the rise in immigration, although official figures show no correlation (BBC, 2018).

According to the SD, multiculturalism poses a threat to the shared values that constitute the cultural community of Sweden. The party defines “Swedish identity” in its programs: “Swedish applies to the one who has a principal Swedish identity and is from her own perspective and by others regarded as Swedish.” The rhetorical figure underpinning this message is: Sweden belongs to the Swedes. The idea of a distinct Swedish culture, albeit vaguely defined, is “the glue that binds Swedes together.” The projected image is of a long-lost homogeneous Swedish society that clings to the myth of a common ancestry and an original home, to which all “real Swedes” should and could also relate to today (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

As the average annual number of asylum applications has increased since 2011, the SD has tried to exploit this increase by voicing strong skepticism about immigration. Their efforts have, at least electorally, been successful: in 2014, the SD’s vote-shared doubled for the fourth-consecutive election, and it became Sweden’s third-biggest party. When 163,000 asylum-seekers poured into Sweden in 2015, the SD ramped up its anti-immigration rhetoric (Bolin & Aylott, 2019b). “Most of the immigrants haven’t had a chance to become part of Swedish society and of course many of them have been Muslims and many segregated in suburbs around the big cities, [where they] build parallel societies,” said Åkesson. The SD’s 2018 election manifesto also said that, “we want to stop receiving asylum seekers in Sweden and instead use real aid for refugees.” Åkesson also said that, “we want to enable more immigrants to return to their native countries” (BBC, 2018). In the 2018 election, Åkesson’s SD won 17.5 percent of all votes.

Meanwhile, the SD’s nostalgic appeal to an idealized and sanitized version of the Swedish welfare system, the folkhem (the people’s home) (Hellström et al, 2012), is a style of nativism and welfare chauvinism that has helped the party to increase its influence in Swedish politics. Since the election of Åkesson as chair in 2005, the party has undergone an ideological transformation in order to normalize populist radical right (PRR) discourse. Thus, references to the Swedish people and their folkhem, their culture, and their Christian (Lutheran) religion replaced former appeals in the SD discourse to safeguarding racial purity, reintroducing the death penalty, banning abortion, and stopping non-European adoptions, albeit arguably in a “racializing manner that often recreates the content of biological racism through different words” (Mulinari & Neergaard, 2014 & Norocel, 2017).

Åkesson’s speeches consolidate an idealized vision of the folkhem as an exemplary welfare society based on the homogeneous community of Swedish citizens. This line of reasoning was very clearly articulated in Åkesson’s speeches from 2011 and 2012, wherein he emphasized that the SD’s politics are about “unity and consensus, about a coherent, warm, and solidary Sweden,” about a tightly knit society that makes no distinctions “between the privileged or the neglected, there are no sweethearts and no stepchildren … not one of them despises the other.” 

In other words, the folkhem envisaged by Åkesson is one built on the ethnic and cultural homogeneity of the Swedish native majority, engaged in an intimate relationship characterized by warmth and solidarity towards one another, in a manner resembling a family united under the folkhem’s protective roof. Åkesson makes it clear that the SD is driven by a story about the good home for citizens – about the folkhem, a tale of a society where no one is left behind (Norocel, 2017).

By describing the folkhem’s inhabitants as family members, Åkesson enforced the idea that the Swedish native majority constitutes a homogeneous community of blood. In so doing, Åkesson specified the criteria for membership in thefolkhem, thereby enforcing a distinction between those “rightfully” belonging to the folkhem’s enclosure, and migrant Others as potential intruders among the folkhem’s family members. Namely, Åkesson used a discursive distinction between those migrant Others that assimilated into Swedish society and embraced the “Swedish values” underpinning the “Christian, democratic world” that Sweden is part of; and those migrant Others who failed the integration test and instead had willingly joined “the world’s Islamists” (Norocel, 2017). In other words, “becoming Swedish” is not a mere matter of fulfilling the administrative citizenship requirements; rather, it entails a more profound process, which hinges on “cultural commensurability with respect to the foundational values that define Europe’s cultural heritage” (Betz & Meret, 2009).

In the seventh chapter of Åkesson’s book Satis Polito is entitled “Multiculturalism or Folkhemmet.” Åkesson wrote critically of Sweden’s immigration policy. According to Åkesson, the ideals were lost “somewhere on the road.” He postulated that there is a converse relationship, a dichotomy, between the folkhem and multiculturalism; and immigration threatens national cohesion. Åkesson believes that SD challenges the “political establishment’s stance”: “We simply do not want the fragmented, segregated, soulless society that the social liberal establishment created for us. We fight against it” (Åkesson, 2013).

The SD asserts that the good “people’s home” has been destroyed by “internationalism in the traditional political ideologies [that] have had a full impact on both immigration policy and economic policy. Honorable concepts like the nation and family were trampled on in the dirt.” 

The SD and Åkesson link crime and moral resolution to “uninhibited immigration.The party program claims: “Sweden is considered to have become a “breeding ground for international leagues, drug syndicates, terrorists and criminals. Murderers and criminals have complete freedom” (Sverigedemokraterna, 1994). In a 1992 issue, the party puplication SD-Kuriren alleged, under the headline “Murdered by immigrants,” that 129 Swedes were murdered by immigrants between 1986-1990 and added that, “often these murders have been the results of raw and brutal assaults.” The report also claimed that this horrible fact was concealed by the mainstream media and the political establishment (Klarström & Wikman, 1992).

The campaign for 2018 election concluded with a big row in the final televised debate between the party leaders. Åkesson mentioned the relatively low rates of employment among immigrants and argued that “one must ask the question why it is so difficult for these people to get a job. It is because they are not Swedes. They do not fit in Sweden.” Swedish public service television, which hosted the debate, decided that Åkesson’s remarks were so “grossly generalizing” that they violated the terms of its mandate (Landahl, 2018). The channel publicly disassociated itself from them. The SD boycotted the broadcaster’s remaining election coverage (Aylott & Bolin 2019). 

Tensions were heightened in February 2020, when the Turkish regime announced that migrants were free to cross into Europe. Since 2016, an agreement between Turkey and the EU closed the Turkish/European border to migrants. By reneging on this agreement, Turkey dramatically escalated political tensions throughout Europe, as thousands of migrants and refugees massed on the Greek frontier. 

Åkesson travelled to the Greek/Turkish border in March 2020 just to tell the migrants – many of whom have been desperately waiting, camped in the open and hoping to be welcomed by Europe – that his country is full. “So, if you want to go to Sweden, then that is a bad idea. We don’t have the capacity to help more,” Åkesson told the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, adding that he had traveled to the Turkish border city of Edirne (Daily Sabah, 2020). Åkesson was detained there by Turkish poliçe as he handed out leaflets, and he was escorted to a plane and sent home (Vanttinen, 2020).

Senior Swedish politicians condemned Åkesson’s provocative gesture. Swedish migration minister Morgan Johansson led the criticism, telling Swedish news agency TT that the stunt was “totally ridiculous” and that Åkesson only went there to “pose for cameras.” Åkesson’s party confirmed he had visited Greece, writing on Twitter, “We all remember the migration chaos of 2015 and we have to do everything we can to make sure it never ever happens again.” Other Swedish party leaders also criticized the move. Anders Jonsson of the Center Party told TT that it was “not worthy of a Swedish party leader,” and Jonas Sjostedt of the Left Party called it “pitiful” in a tweet (Daily Sabah, 2020).

Exterior of the Mosque which was built in 1998 and was completed in April 2007, is owned by the Islamic Cultural Association in Fittja, Sweden.

Racism Out, Islamophobia In

While Åkesson has instituted a much bally-hooed (and selectively enforced) promise of“zero tolerance” for racism within the SD, that promise also foreshadowed a shift in the SD’s tactics. The SD condemns neo-Nazi contacts but sees Islamophobia and xenophobia as acceptable. Islamophobia is prevalent among Swedish Democrats, and it is an essential part of the party’s core ideology. If Swedish Democrats make Islamophobic statements, they won’t be kicked out of the party (Engkvist, 2013).

Åkesson believes that there is a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. Åkesson has underlined that Christianity and its moral values are central cornerstones of the folkhem. This may indicate a thinly veiled assumption that Muslim faith in itself – described by Åkesson as a deeply patriarchal religion of “genital mutilation of completely healthy children” and of “violence and oppression in the name of honor” – constitutes a hindrance for the migrant Muslim Other in their efforts to become a full-edged and law-abiding citizen of the folkhem, which “had been built on democracy and a thousand-year-old Christian foundation” (Norocel, 2017).

Åkesson believes that there is a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. He has underlined that Christianity and its moral values are central cornerstones of the folkhem. After accusing the multicultural Swedish power elite as being “totally blind to the dangers of Islam and Islamization,” Åkesson used myriad clichés about Islam and Muslims to instigate fear and terrorize people.

In an October 2009 opinion piece in Aftonbladet, he argued that the immigration of Muslims has led to Islam adversely affecting Swedish society and that he sees Muslim immigration “as our greatest foreign threat since WWII” (Expo, 2018). According to Åkesson, despite its universal claim, multiculturalism is a monocultural phenomenon that has only found root in the postmodern, oikophobic western world (an oikofob is a person who despises his homeland) (Åkesson, 2009).Åkesson’s article in Aftonbladet portrayed his views on Islam as a religion as well as his thoughts on Sweden’s Muslim minority; he also expressed what he would do if he came to power. The article contained many of the classic PRR characteristics such as Islamophobia, nativism, racism, fear mongering, etc.

After accusing the multicultural Swedish power elite as being “totally blind to the dangers of Islam and Islamization,” Åkesson argued that “Islam differs from Christianity on several crucial points, such as the distinction between spiritual and worldly power and the view of the use of force. Islam has no equivalent to the New Testament and no universal love message. These differences have also made Islam and the Muslim world actively reject the enlightenment and humanism.” By highlighting the alleged presence of 1,400 years of war and contradictions between Islam and Christian Europe, Åkesson came to the conclusion that “Islam has affected Swedish society to a much greater extent than Swedish society has affected Islam. Mass immigration from Muslim countries together with the relatively high birth rates within the Muslim population indicates that this development will continue unless a change in political course occurs” (Åkesson, 2009).

Åkesson used myriad clichés about Islam and Muslims to instigate fear and terrorize people by saying, “I think, twenty years ago, most Swedes would find it very difficult to imagine that Islam would become Sweden’s second largest religion, that Swedish artists who criticize or joke about Islam would live under constant death threats, that about ten Muslim terrorist organizations would come to establish itself in Sweden, … that the freezer counters in our grocery stores would offer halal slaughtered meat, while Swedish preschools stop serving meat. Swedish schools would introduce new holidays to celebrate the end of Ramadan while banning more and more church schools and so on” (Åkesson, 2009).

Gender equality is always a difficult issue for culturally racist parties in the Nordic countries in general, and for the SD in particular (Berggren, 2007; Gullestad, 2002 & Norocel, 2010). On one hand, the party’s ideological core is suspicious of gender equality and its connection with feminism; on the other, gender equality constructed as a Swedish national trait is often seen as a fundamental boundary between “us and them.” Swedishness, in this context, is gender equality as a national characteristic (Mulinari et al, 2014), as highlighted in an opinion piece by Åkesson: “… that leading representatives of the Muslim community will demand the implementation of Sharia law (Sharialagar) in Sweden; that the Swedish municipal health board (Landsting) would use taxes to circumcise (skära av förhuden) totally healthy young boys; that Sweden would have a higher level of rape and that Muslim men would be strongly represented among the rapists (förövare); that Swedish swimming clubs would introduce separate timetables for women and men, that Swedish municipalities would discuss the possibility of gender-segregated swimming education in schools” (Åkesson, 2009).

He continued: “All of these are parts of Swedish reality today. The question is what it will look like in a few more decades, when the Muslim population, if the current rate holds, has multiplied in size and many of Europe’s major cities, including Malmö, are most likely to have a Muslim majority. The multicultural elite may see this future as a colorful and interesting change in Sweden and Europe… As a Swedish Democrat, I see this as our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War, and I promise to do everything in my power to reverse the trend when we go to elections next year” (Åkesson, 2009). According to Pew estimates, the number of Muslims in Sweden in 2050 will be approximately 1,130,000 (or 11.1 percent of the population) under a zero-migration scenario; 2,470,000 (or 20.5 percent of the population) under a medium-migration scenario; and 4,450,000 (or 30.6 percent of the population) under a high-migration scenario (Pew Research Center, 2017). As SVT’s senior political commentator Mats Knutsson wrote, Åkesson has a “Trump spirit.” 

Not all media members take a completely hostile attitude to Åkesson. SVT’s Bengt Westerberg wrote that Åkesson and other critics of Islam are not wrong in all respects. According to Westerberg, Åkesson and the SD’s politicians highlight views and phenomena that do exist and which deserve criticism. But these views are not representative of Muslims in general. Just as there are many expressions of Christianity, there are many of Islam. Moreover, many immigrants from Muslim countries are not practicing Muslims (Westerberg, 2016). A report from the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities in 2017 showed that just 170,915 of Muslims (less than 20 percent) in Sweden regularly practice their religion (Statistik, 2017).

Furthermore, many Muslims leave their home countries in protest of how Islam is practiced there. “Muslims who immigrated to Sweden are also affected by Swedish values. Birth rates are generally not very high in Muslim countries and among Muslims in Sweden. For instance, it is lower in Iran than in Sweden,” wrote Westerberg. He added that, “Of course, there is every reason to worry about the radicalization taking place among some young Muslims. But it must primarily be solved through a more ambitious integration policy where the young immigrants get real opportunities for education and work” (Westerberg, 2016).

Åkesson’s views on Islam and Muslims – as explicated in his controversial article in Aftonbladet – have caused strong reactions, and legal experts say that his views (and those of the SD) vorder on persecution against an ethnic/religious group. For example, Per Hultengård, lawyer for the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association, told Aftonbladet that the article could be read as a warning to Swedish Muslims, not in the least due to Åkesson’s promise at the end. “I would take that as a threat,” said Hultengård (Radio Sweden, 2009).

According to Jan Hjärpe, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Lund, the rhetoric used by Åkesson has clear racist undertones, as it is based on the assumption that religion is decisive for how people act: “This is the same kind of propaganda that was used by Nazi antisemites.” Hjärpe’s views have been shared by the head of the Swedish Muslim Council, Mostafa Kharraki: “This can’t be interpreted as anything but racism.” At an informal press conference at the Gothenburg University, then-Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also said that Åkesson’s article reflected what the SD wants to achieve: “This is the core of this party’s ideas. They may have spent a whole weekend trying to make it look as if they have several different areas of interest. They don’t. They have one area of interest and that is to create an ‘us-and-them’ scenario” (Radio Sweden, 2009).

Aftonbladet’s editor Jan Helin, who decided to print Åkesson’s article against the advice of the newspaper’s legal experts, would have been legally responsible for the publication and would have been prosecuted for the offense. “I have decided to take that risk. Åkesson’s text is important because it shows clearly on what values a party, on its way into Parliament, rests on. You may think that his views are right or wrong. But through reading this article you get a chance to consider what the SD actually believes,” Helin wrote, also in Aftonbladet (Helin, 2009 & Radio Sweden, 2009).

Muslim woman in a scarf holds flag of Sweden.

During an interview with Dagens Nyheter’s Jenny Stiernstedt in 2011, Åkesson also stated that extremist Islamism is the biggest factor behind threat of terrorism in Europe and Sweden. He underlined his desire to change Sweden’s “extreme” immigration policy without being afraid of being called xenophobic or Islamophobic. He said it is his and his party’s right to discuss the dangers and threats facing Sweden. Stiernstedt asked, “Today, many tend to confuse Islamist extremism and Islam. Don’t you see a problem with that?” Åkesson’s answer showed that he makes no distinction between Islam and extremism: “First, I do not think that there is any particular extremist Islamism. All Islamism is by definition extremist… You cannot disconnect Islamism from Islam, because Islam is not only a religion but also a political ideology that governs every detail of a Muslim’s life” (Stiernstedt, 2011).

Åkesson’s interview confirmed that there is an Islamophobic way of thinking present in the SD’s jargon. If the SD thinks all Muslims are extremists, then increased Muslim immigration only brings Islam’s unwanted values. In reality, Islamists constitute a marginal group among Muslims, and extremist Islamism should not be confused with Islam. Radical terrorist groups constitute a very small group among Muslims (Engkvist, 2013). Thus, Åkesson’s mix of Islamism and Islam is baseless. When Åkesson speaks of extremist Islam, he suggests non-Muslims should fear an entire faith, despite many practicing Western Muslims endorsing a modernist interpretation of Islam (Gardel, 2010).

In an interview in Sydsvenskan on April 21, 2007, Åkesson also talked about ethnicity and stated that, “it primarily includes culture, language, and religion, but you cannot ignore the fact that appearance also has a certain significance.” He also argued that, “whoever says he is primarily a Muslim and secondly Swedish, he is not truly Swedish. I mean that Swedishness cannot be such a public identity that anyone can become Swedish. As I can’t become Alban, nor Aboriginal or Chinese either” (Expo, 2018). He even referred to world-famous Bosnian-Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a “mercenary soldier” on the Swedish national soccer team (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010). Åkesson has also argued that the minaret, a tangible symbol for the “new” multicultural Sweden, generates a feeling of insecurity among the Swedish people (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010).

In his traditional summer speech in 2014, Åkesson again focused on Islam, immigration, and crime issues. Following a sweeping review of the current global conflict zones, Åkesson shifted his focus to Islam. “In the wake of recent years’ developments in Libya, Iraq, Syria and several other countries, I argue that the problem of Islam’s bloody borders cannot be denied… Islamism is the Nazism and communism of our time and must be met with the same disgust and with a much stronger resistance than is the case today.” This allegation prompted the most generous applause. Åkesson went on to say that Islamism is the greatest global threat to peace, security, democracy, equality, and human rights (Jakobson, 2014).Furthermore, he directed his ire to the handful of Swedish citizens reported to be fighting in Iraq and Syria: “You guys can stay there. Sweden is no longer your home. This country is built on Christian principles” (The Local, 2014).

Åkesson has repeatedly used debates over classism and gender equality to justify his party’s opposition to “the unreasonable financial burden” entailed by the Muslim Others’ presence within the folkhem. In his speeches, Åkesson reiterated his concerns about Swedish working-class women. Åkesson has stated that the SD’s self-appointed task is not only to defend Swedish women from “the menacing (male) Muslim Other,” but also to prevent them from pursuing emancipatory activism on their own, thereby confirming tacitly the patriarchal assumption about male superiority he tries to embody (Norocel, 2017).

As was mentioned above, Åkesson’s preoccupation with gender equality as part of the folkhem system is only instrumental and serves a welfare chauvinist purpose to instigate and consolidate the Swedish native ethnic majority’s opposition to the presence of the migrant Muslim Other in the folkhem (Norocel, 2010). In Åkesson’s imagination, the Swedish Muslim population is a threat to Swedish gender equality: Swedish culture is secular, women-friendly, and respects individuality. In contrary, Muslims are religious, patriarchal, and live in collectivistic cultures (Gardell, 2010; Gullestad, 2002; Razack, 2004 & Yegenoglu, 1998). This reflects similar developments across Europe, whereby PRR parties’ leaders have morphed from “radical right-wing ‘thugs’ into well-educated and well-dressed demagogues, typifying overtly caring and responsible politicians” (Wodak, 2015).

According to Mulinari et al, the SD justifies through the shared assumption within Swedish public discourse that it is those who belong to the nation that have the power and the right to decide Swedishness. What is specific to Åkesson’s SD is that they focus on their right to exclude the other (Mulinari et al, 2014). A key component of these arguments is the connection of the boundary between “us” and “them” to processes of polarization, in which the other is not only different but problematically different; they differ from what is considered normal (Hage, 1998). Islam and Muslims represent the other or outsider in the SD’s exclusionist PRR worldview.

A Sharp U-turn of Euroscepticism

Continental Europe’s PRR parties have always had a complicated relationship with the EU. Unlike the British Eurosceptics, most of them have never been opposed to European integration per se, but rather to the shape it has taken. “Neoliberal,” “distant,” and “cosmopolitan,” Brussels became a perfect strawman in their “fight” against political elites. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, the Front National, like Italian neo-fascists, was a fervent defender of European integration – they saw it as a way to defeat the true enemy, the Soviets. With the end of the Cold War and the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, all these parties executed a 180-degree turn – from pro-European to Eurosceptics. PRR parties suddenly began fighting for the primacy of the nation-state. Now, opposing the “Eurocrats” and their puppets in the national political mainstream has become the general attitude of PRR parties (Fernández, 2019).

Åkesson indicated his party’s opposition to the EU as one of two main reasons to participate in the SD’s ranks. He reiterated this fact in an opinion piece he published in 2019: “For me, the EU issue has always been an extremely important issue, so important that it was one of the decisive reasons why I left Moderate School Youth and instead joined the Swedish Democrats well over 20 years ago.”

Brexit was a great opportunity for PRR parties – at least, it was in the beginning. With her desire to move away from traditional far-right discourse to a more “transversal” populism, Marine Le Pen championed using Article 50 as the cure to France’s problems, many of which stemmed from the EU, she alleged. Invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) starts the member state’s withdrawal from the EU. In compliance with the TEU, in March 2017 the UK gave formal notice to the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU, allowing withdrawal negotiations to begin. 

Brussels-imposed austerity and the negative perception of how the EU handled the Eurocrisis and the migration crisis fueled anti-EU sentiment across the continent. Along with Brexit, this was an opportunity for right-wing populists to find more suitable and exploitable ground for demanding sovereignty from Brussels (Fernández, 2019).

In his interview with Expo in 2006, Åkesson indicated his party’s opposition to the EU as one of two main reasons to participate in the SD’s ranks (Poohl, 2011). He reiterated this fact in an opinion piece he published in Aftonbladet on Januarry 31, 2019: “For me, the EU issue has always been an extremely important issue, so important that it was one of the decisive reasons why I left Moderate School Youth and instead joined the Swedish Democrats well over 20 years ago” (Åkesson, 2019).

Like many populist radical right parties in Europe, the SD has always been highly Eurosceptic, with Åkesson frequently arguing that the country should hold a referendum on whether it should remain in or leave the EU. Like Britan, Sweden was somewhat peripheral to the EU. If Brexit could happen, why not Swexit?

Åkesson told Reuters in 2014 that his party’s sympathizers have relatively little interest in EU politics. “It is obvious that our voters are very reluctant to vote in European elections. We thought maybe it had changed a bit since the last election, but it seems as if our voters are very skeptical about even going and voting.” Åkesson and his party argue that national governments should reclaim power from the EU. “For the average SD voter, EU opposition is not why you vote for them, it is because you want another immigration policy,” said Ulf Bjereld, professor of political science at Gothenburg University (Ahlander, 2014). Åkesson’s EU policy called for heavily restricting immigration, opposing Turkey’s accession to the EU, and seeking a referendum on EU membership (The New York Times, 2016).

Åkesson has rallied against “bureaucrats in Brussels” for years and as recently as the run-up to the 2018 election gave his full-throated endorsement of a “Swexit” referendum “The EU is not the way to cooperate in Europe,” he told channel P1 of Radio Sweden in August 2018. “My position is that we should renegotiate the terms of our membership and then the people should have their say,” he stated. The following month, a SD representative told The Local that, “we want the Swedish people to vote on Sweden’s EU membership” (The Local, 2019).

However, the SD has quietly changed its tune on the EU, with party leader Åkesson now saying that the party will be “pragmatic” and try to change the union “from the inside” (The Local, 2019). In January 2019, Åkesson wrote an op-ed in Aftonbladet officially announcing the party’s position change away from exiting the EU (Åkesson, 2019). Instead, Åkesson said, the party would now fight for treaty reform. This treaty would undo decades of post-Maastricht integration, but would keep Sweden in the EU (Fernández, 2019). Åkesson has always been against, and says he will always be against, the EU if it continues on a course of supranationalism. “It is the Swedish people who ultimately have to decide how Sweden is governed, not bureaucrats in Brussels or other countries’ politicians that we cannot vote for and which we cannot cast aside,” he wrote (Åkesson, 2019). “Cooperation is needed to achieve results, and it is through collaboration that opportunities for reforming the EU from the inside are improved,” he stated, adding that the SD would join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group within the European Parliament and that it had established good relationships with its “Nordic friends in the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns” (The Local, 2019).

Although he did not rule out pushing for a “Swexit” referendum “in the long term” if his “vision” of a reformed and less “supranational” EU didn’t work out, he said it was simply false that his party is blindly Eurosceptic. “When other parties tried to portray the Sweden Democrats as a protectionist and closed party, it is a false image only intended to distort and smear the Sweden Democrats. We see the benefits, not only the disadvantages, of today’s EU cooperation” (Åkesson, 2019) he wrote. Åkesson added that it is important to “be pragmatic and fully utilize the opportunities that exist” within the EU framework (The Local, 2019).

This U-turn led to lots of speculation. Some said the shift must have been Åkesson’s, as most PRR parties have have top-down, authoritarian leadership structures. In this sense, the lack of internal democracy was potentially an asset: Without being conditioned by the party base, party leaders can be as pragmatic and as flexible as necessary to pursue whatever political objectives they want (Fernández, 2019). Others evaluated the change of position vis-à-vis the EU as related to wide support among the Swedish public for EU membership. Several polls in recent years have suggested that the majority of Swedes are still in favor of EU membership – in fact, support for the EU surged in the wake of Brexit turmoil, as happened in other continental European countries. In an October Eurobarometer poll, a total of 77 percent of Swedish respondents said that EU membership is a good thing, Sweden’s highest recorded level since 2007, according to the survey. Among other factors, the British incapacity to deliver Brexit and the negative coverage of Brexit made Europeans more pro-EU (The Local, 2019 & Fernández, 2019).

Conclusion

Jimmie Åkesson and his party are not yet authentically democratic – in fact, they’re not close. The Sweden Democrats and its leader are still “the same old iron gang as usual” (Ledarredaktion, 2018) despite concerted efforts to change their image. One should always remember that Åkesson himself was in contact with the Swedish Democrats for the first time in 1994, when the party was still marketing itself as overtly racist. Of course, Åkesson has steered the SD away from the Nazi movement onto a more parliamentary path. But its essence – alarmist resistance to immigrants and Islamophobia – has remained the same, and there is still no solid indication that Åkesson has matured or moderated over the years. On the contrary, he has emphasized that it was among the Sweden Democrats he found his home (Ledarredaktion, 2018).

Åkesson and his party struggle to be perceived as sincere because they do not want to face their dark past or talk about it. Every time the naked racism of an SD representative has been exposed, the SD claims it’s an isolated incident, perpetrated by a rotten egg. But the pattern has repeated again and again; there are too many rotten eggs in the party. Although Åkesson once promised to have a white paper drawn up, he has never delivered on this promise.

Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats (KD) and the Moderates (M) have considered seeking power with the potential support of Åkesson and his party. Of course, Åkesson has more ambitions than supporting others in their success. He primarily wants to push through his politics, and in the long run give the anti-immigrant, racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic SD as much influence over Sweden as possible. Therefore, Dagens Nyheter’s editorial argues “that’s why he smiles. He knows that it is not enough to channel people’s anger and fear. If the SD is to be the biggest, it must be popular for real. He should approach power step by step. He is a wolf in lamb’s wool sweater” (Ledarredaktion, 2018).

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Viktor Orbán: Past to Present

Today, Hungary could be defined as, at best, an “illiberal democracy.” Some even argue that the country is now a crude autocracy. Orbán is personally described as “irredentist,” “right-wing populist,” “authoritarian,” “autocratic,” and “Putinist.” He’s also been called a “strongman” and a “dictator.” Orbán has outmaneuvered his opponents and tightened his clutch on power. He makes no secret of his plans to rule Hungary for the foreseeable future.

By Bulent Kenes

On June 16, 1989, over 200,000 Hungarians filled Heroes’ Square in Budapest. They gathered for a memorial observance leading to the reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 Revolution. Nagy was a staunch Communist, but he had not lost his national pride; Hungarians had looked to him as a reformer capable of freeing them from the Stalinist grip of Matyas Rakosi. Nagy had been tried in secret, hanged on June 16, 1958, and buried in an unmarked grave (Congdon, 2018). 

The mass gathering, which was a mix of ceremony and demonstration, was broadcast live on Hungarian television and ended with six speeches. The final speech was delivered by Viktor Mihály Orbán, a little-known 26-year old activist sporting a scruffy beard. He spoke for only seven minutes but electrified the crowd and the people watching at home (Lendvai, 2019). At the time, there were still 70,000 Soviet troops occupying Hungary; despite their presence, Orbán gave the most courageous speech of the gathering:

"Today, 33 years after the Hungarian Revolution and 31 years after the execution of the last responsible Hungarian prime minister, we have a chance to achieve by peaceful means everything that the ’56 revolutionaries gained in a bloody battle, if only for a few days. If we believe in our own strength, we are capable of bringing the communist dictatorship to an end. If we are determined enough, we can compel the ruling party to submit to free elections. If we have not lost sight of the ideas of ’56, we can vote for a government that will immediately enter into negotiations leading to the immediate beginning of Russian troop withdrawals," (Magyar Nemzet2014). 

An Idealist or a Budding Opportunist?

According to Paul Lendvai, Orbán, whose rhetoric so stirred Hungarians in 1989, was no idealist; he was, rather, a budding opportunist getting an early taste of power. Gabor Fodor, an Orbán rival who was once his close friend, observed that even as a young man, Viktor Orbán “was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today.” But, Fodor noted, “he was, in addition to all of this, sincere and likable.” It is a combination of traits that suggests a certain ambivalence in Orbán’s character, which perhaps helps explain the ease with which he transformed his political persona later in life (Lendvai, 2019).

Viktor Orbán was born in Szekesfehervar, in Hungary’s Transdanubia region, but he grew up in the nearby villages of Alcsutdoboz and the somewhat larger Felcsut (Congdon, 2018). Initially, his family lived in the cramped house of his paternal grandparents. When Orbán was ten, as a consequence of arguments between his mother and grandmother, the family moved to a dilapidated house at the end of Felcsut’s main street. The circumstances in which he grew up were orderly but very poor. Orbán has recalled how hard he and his siblings worked in the fields as young children: pulling beets, sorting potatoes, feeding the pigs and chickens. The house had no running water. Years later, Orbán described the “unforgettable experience” of using a bathroom for the first time, at age 15 and getting hot water by simply turning on a faucet (Lendvai, 2019).

According to Paul Lendvai, Viktor Orbán, whose rhetoric so stirred Hungarians in 1989, was no idealist; he was, rather, a budding opportunist getting an early taste of power. Gabor Fodor, an Orbán rival who was once his close friend, observed that even as a young man, Viktor Orbán “was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today.”

The Orbán family’s fortunes improved in the 1970s and 1980s, as his father earned a university degree and climbed the ranks of the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party. Orbán was a bright student, and his parents sent him to a selective grammar school. But years later, he described himself in an interview as an “unbelievably bad child. Badly misbehaved, cheeky, violent. Not at all likable.” He added: “At home, I had constant problems with discipline; my father beat me once or twice a year.” Throughout his youth, his brief compulsory stint in the military, and his university years, his maxim remained unaltered: “If I’m hit once, then I hit back twice” (Lendvai, 2019).

After completing gymnasium studies in Szekesfehervar in 1981, he performed one year of military duty before enrolling as a law student at Eotvos Lorand (Budapest) University. He was among those who founded the Istvan Bibo Special College in 1983, where young scholars studied law and politics. One of the college’s patrons was the Hungarian-born American investor and philanthropist Gyorgy (George) Soros, who also generously subsidized a student-run journal, language courses, and trips overseas. At the college, Orbán became part of a tightly knit group of liberals. He even found a part-time job in Soros’s organization, which later became the Open Society Foundations (Lendvai, 2019 & Congdon, 2018).

Orbán began to work for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture after completing his degree in 1987. On March 30, 1988, he and thirty-six other Bibo College fellows founded Fidesz (Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege — Alliance of Young Democrats) as an independent organization aimed at regime change. In 1989, three months after his famous speech at Nagy’s reburial, Soros’s foundation awarded Orbán a scholarship to study politics and conduct research on the idea of civil society in European political philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford. At the time of his arrival in England, Margaret Thatcher, the uncompromising “Iron Lady,” was prime minister – and a role model for the young Hungarian (Lendvai, 2019 & Congdon, 2018).

A Long and Bumpy Political Journey Begins

In October 1989, Orbán took part in the Fidesz congress that voted to transform the youth organization into a political party, allowing it to participate in the free elections scheduled for the following spring. Although his scholarship was good for nine months, he, his wife Aniko Levai, and their four-month-old daughter permanently returned to Budapest in January 1990. In the April elections, Fidesz won 22 of 386 seats in parliament, while the Magyar Szocialista Part (the Socialist Party, the successor to the Communist Party) took 33. The conservative Magyar Demokrata Forum captured 165 seats and formed Hungary’s first freely elected government under Jozsef Antall, a man of character who had eked out a living as a librarian and editor after playing an active role in the 1956 Revolution (Congdon, 2018).

In opposition, Fidesz remained true to its youthful image: Orbán and other politicians in the party kept their beards, long hair, jeans, and open-neck shirts. They advocated liberal reforms and were quick to condemn nationalist and antisemitic undercurrents in the governing coalition. Orbán himself scoffed at the populist rhetoric of the ruling parties, whose leaders “reject criticism of government policy by suggesting the opposition or media are undermining the standing of Hungary, are attacking the Hungarian nation itself,” he said. This was a fair description of some elements in the Antall government and a prescient foreshadowing of the populist style that Orbán himself would later adopt (Lendvai, 2019).

Lendvai wrote that despite their avowed liberalism, Orbán and his Fidesz circle had an uneasy relationship with an older generation of liberals, especially those of the Alliance of Free Democrats, many of whom were academics from bourgeois (and often Jewish) families. They were well-read, open to the world, and fluent in foreign languages – a stark contrast to the Fidesz leaders, who were mostly lawyers from rural areas or small towns. Orbán and his friends initially admired the older liberals but soon came to see them as overweening. 

Eleven years after his marriage by simple registry, Viktor Orbán and his wife consecrated their union in a church ceremony. There is ample evidence that Orbán’s religious conversion was genuine, but it is also true that his contacts with his countrymen had convinced him of the national importance of Christianity.

In 1991, a poll showed that Orbán, who was not yet 30, was the third most popular politician in Hungary. Two years later, he became the president of Fidesz. However, in the 1994 elections, the party suffered a crushing defeat. The former communists of the Hungarian Socialist Party quintupled the number of votes they had received in the prior election and formed a coalition with the Free Democrats; together, the two parties held over 72 percent of the seats in Parliament. In contrast, Fidesz had become the smallest party in Parliament, with only 20 seats. Seeing no other path to political survival, Orbán committed himself and the party to a rightward political shift. The erstwhile rebels of Fidesz began dressing conservatively and styling their hair neatly. Their speeches were now peppered with professions of faith in the nation, in Magyar tradition, in the homeland, in national interests, in respectability, in middle-class values, in the family, and in the love of the mother country (Lendvai, 2019).

“This was the first major step in Orbán’s decades-long transformation into an autocratic right-wing populist. There seemed to be no deep ideological soul-searching involved – just clear-eyed calculations about what it would require to win power,” wrote Lendvai (Lendvai, 2019). Orbán even changed his party’s name to Fidesz – Magyar Polgari Part, or “Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Party,” in April 1995. Furthermore, two years later, and eleven years