ECPS-MGP9

Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Please cite as:

Nguijoi, Gabriel Cyrille & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0051                    

 

This brief report provides a summary of the 9th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives,” which was held online on January 25, 2024. Dr. Syaza Shukri moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished scholars specializing in populism from the aforementioned countries.

Report by Dr. Gabriel Cyrille Nguijoi & Neo Sithole 

This report gives a summary of the 9th session of the ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series titled “Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives,” which took place online on January 25, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Syaza Shukri, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia, the panel featured speakers by Mr. Bobby Hajjaj, Department of Management, North South University, Bangladesh, Dr. Maidul Islam, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, Dr. Rajni Gamage, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, and Dr. Mosmi Bhim, Assistant Professor at Fiji National University.


In her opening speech, Dr. Syaza Shukri provided an overview of populism and authoritarianism in the three South Asian countries under discussion. She emphasized that civilizational populism and religious authoritarianism have become entrenched as a societal process shaping the contemporary geopolitical landscape of the Indian subcontinent. According to her, this phenomenon represents a convergence of populist parties through languages, civilizational narratives, and religious identity.

Dr. Shukri highlights a significant observation: an examination of these three countries suggests similar populist economic statuses and rationales for the effectiveness of civilizational populism and religious authoritarianism. These phenomena are not only domestic political strategies but also significant instruments for regional stability and international relations. This reality is evident in Bangladesh, where the narratives of conservative Islamic elements have at times dominated constitutional obligations and assumed political control.

Dr. Shukri further specifies that the political landscape in Sri Lanka has been characterized by the cultivation of national sentiments, which have exerted significant influence on the government and often resulted in different policies, violent conflicts, civil wars, and communal clashes. Nationalist groups sometimes redefine national identity and frequently marginalize minority groups such as the Tamils, Veddas, and Muslims. This has led to an increase in conservative religious norms, tensions between economic liberalism and religious conservatism, and conflicts between global connectivity and local religious political dynamics.

Bobby Hajjaj: “Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh”

Bobby Hajjaj highlights the growing possibility of an Islamist populist movement gaining ground in Bangladesh, albeit slowly. Some see this as the sole alternative to Bangladeshi authoritarianism. Nevertheless, many others remain skeptical due to the lack of comprehensive governance and associated agendas within Islamist populism.

As the first speaker of the panel, Bobby Hajjaj’s discussion emphasizes the reasons and nature of national identity formation in Bangladesh, specifically how and why it has been constructed as we perceive it today. Hajjaj began his introduction with a brief overview of the populist configuration in Bangladesh.

For Hajjaj, two main ideas prevail in the construction of this identity, significantly influencing the development of populist movements over the last sixty years in the country. The first is language-based (Bengali), and the second is religious-based (Bangladeshi). Language serves as the foundational element that gave rise to Bangladesh as a nation. However, over the last fifteen years, there has been the emergence of a new kind of populist movement with a significant opposition base: religious extremism. Meanwhile, religious extremism has been influenced by two important elements, both within and outside the mainstream political agenda. Different perceptions and reasons are discussed to illustrate how things are viewed in a certain way in the literature, structured around institutions, historical context, and international developments.

The nature and creation of institutions play a significant role in the development of populist movements in Bangladesh. Institutions often function as top-down mechanisms, reflecting the country’s status as a patrimonial state, which in turn shapes these institutions.

Historically, the Muslim identity in Bangladesh has undergone various transformations over the last sixty years. Initially, there was a Muslim Bengali identity that was portrayed as a cultural identity in the country. The rise of the Bangladesh Liberation Movement also fostered the development of a cultural identity based on Bengali, creating a void where legislative elements were required. 

However, since 1977, the new leadership under President Ziaur Rahman attempted to introduce a new form of Islamic nationalism. This occurred during the Cold War era when ideological expansionism was favored. Consequently, Salafist Islamism began to emerge as a significant element in the country, coinciding with a large-scale migration from Bangladesh to the Middle East. This migration contributed to the dissemination of conservative Salafist ideas among Bangladeshis abroad, leading to the rise of conservative Islamism, or political Islamism. Many of these ideas were propagated through the leadership of political parties, resulting in the formation of identity narratives such as “us” versus “them.”

These developments also played a crucial role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh, particularly originating from the middle-class and upper-middle-class families with non-Aliya Madrassa education. These factors significantly influenced identity formation and facilitated the proliferation of radicalized ideas. The interplay of historical and global developments has influenced perceptions of Islamism and extremism, shaping the idea of national identity.

Hajjaj also underscores the polarization of national identities instigated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the primary opposition party that championed the idea of nationalism and began distancing itself from Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The rise of Bangladeshi authoritarianism has influenced the level of acceptance of Islamism within society today. However, there is a growing compassion for Islamist parties observed. One significant issue is that Islamic parties lack a comprehensive political agenda; instead, they focus on narrow and specific Islamic agendas. Therefore, the emergence of a significant Islamic political movement in Bangladesh poses a challenge for future governments, particularly regarding how the Bangladesh Awami League is creating an authoritarian space. Over the last three consecutive national elections, held every five years, there has been a desire among the populace for a populist movement to challenge the Awami League’s grip on power. This sentiment intensified in the last six months of 2023, with attempts at populist movements seeking to distance themselves from religious political parties, which the BNP attempted but failed to achieve. This failure could be interpreted as a setback for non-Islamist parties, especially considering the secular agenda being promoted in certain areas, such as education policy, by the Bangladesh Awami League. These dynamics are influenced by the global scenario, particularly with the marginalized status of Muslims in Palestine and incidents such as the demolition of a Babri Masjid to build a new Hindu temple in India.

In conclusion, Bobby Hajjaj noted that these factors collectively contribute to the increasing likelihood of an Islamist populist movement gaining traction in Bangladesh, albeit gradually. Some view this as the only alternative to Bangladeshi authoritarianism. However, many others remain skeptical as Islamist populism lacks comprehensive governance and related agendas.

Dr. Maidul Islam: “Religious Extremism and Islamic Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh”

Dr. Maidul Islam reflected on recent developments of Islamic populism in Bangladesh’s political landscape and pondered the future trajectory of Islamist populism in the country. He noted that it remains largely a historical remnant, sporadically manifesting in mobilizations. Currently, there isn’t substantial resonance or favorable response to such surging Islamic populism in Bangladesh.

The second speaker on the panel, Dr. Maidul Islam, took a transversal approach, examining the historical dynamics of Religious Extremism (RE) and Islamist Populism (IP) in Bangladesh. His presentation began with a definition of the two concepts under discussion: RE and IP.

Religious Extremism, as he defines it, involves the use or manipulation of religious sentiments to incite individuals to commit violent acts. It encompasses a range of behaviors, including targeted attacks on religious minorities, persecution of sexual minorities, and involvement in outright terrorist activities. Islamist Populism, on the other hand, represents a peaceful approach to political mobilization within diverse segments of the Muslim population. It leverages the symbolic language of Islam against secular nationalist governments in Muslim-majority countries. This movement frequently participates in democratic elections, mirroring Religious Extremism within the Muslim world.

Dr. Islam highlighted a resurgence of extremist groups such as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in contemporary Bangladesh. These organizations operate as religious extremist entities. The presentation underscored the roots of the Islamic Extremism crisis in Bangladesh, which began with the 1960s elections and evolved into a new form of terrorism by 1985, during General Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s dictatorship. Dr. Islam provided statistical insights into the dynamics of Religious Extremism in the country. Notably, the peak periods of RE occurred in the 1990s and between 2013 and 2016. The presentation revealed that Bangladesh witnessed a total of 743 terror-related incidents between 1971 and 2020, attributed to both religious extremist and non-religious extremist entities.

In 1996, the reported number of terrorist incidents was 150, marking a significant increase from 22 incidents in 1990 and 161 in 1996. The trend showed a gradual rise from 42 incidents in 1991 to 71 in 1992, 68 in 1994, and 74 in 1995. The escalation of terrorist activities coincided with the emergence of Islamist populist groups like the Army league, which came into power the same year.

From 1997 to 2012, Religious Extremism activities in Bangladesh remained below 50 per year. However, starting from 2013, these activities began to rise again, reaching 138 incidents in 2013 and 130 in 2014. The peak was observed in 2015, with 479 recorded incidents, the highest in the country’s history. This period coincided with the trial of several Islamic leaders by the International Crimes Tribunal. Subsequently, from 2016 onwards, the incidence of RE started to decline, with 89 incidents in 2016. Since 2017, the number has consistently been below 50 per year, with 41 incidents in 2017, 26 in 2018, 32 in 2019, and 30 in 2020.

Furthermore, Dr. Islam highlighted that the dominance of the Awami League party’s populist policies has posed challenges for political Islamist populist parties like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. He clarified that this circular approach of the Awami League should not be equated with the Western model of secularism, which advocates for a clear separation of religion and politics. In Bangladesh, negotiations between political and religious leaders are common, with religious leaders often resorting to religious symbols and accommodation while attempting to promote the principles of Islamic populism. However, such political struggles between Islamist and national populist forces are not unique to Bangladesh but are prevalent throughout the Muslim world. This historical struggle can be traced back to the 1975 elections, which led to the banning of Sheikh Mujib’s Single Party, considered the largest Islamic populist party in the country at that time. Subsequently, in the 1979 elections, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party emerged as a significant political player in the country.

In his conclusion, Dr. Islam reflected on recent developments of Islamic populism in Bangladesh’s political landscape and pondered the future trajectory of Islamist populism in the country. He noted that it remains largely a historical remnant, sporadically manifesting in mobilizations. Currently, there isn’t substantial resonance or favorable response to such surging Islamic populism in Bangladesh.

Dr. Rajni Gamage: “Civilizational Populism and Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lankan”

Dr. Rajni Gamage, delved immediately into characterizing the concepts of populism and civilizational populism while seeking to contextualize the historical background and contemporary manifestations of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. She explored the intricacies of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse, which she identified as the primary vehicle for civilizational populism in the country. Within the Sri Lankan context, this discourse echoes the anti-colonial rhetoric commonly found in the Global South.

The discussion by the panel’s third speaker, Dr. Rajni Gamage, delved immediately into characterizing the concepts of populism and civilizational populism while seeking to contextualize the historical background and contemporary manifestations of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. Dr. Gamage noted that while populism is not a recent phenomenon, it has garnered increased attention due to its resurgence, particularly in Western democracies. This renewed focus is often attributed to economic disparities and perceived declines in national status, with leaders emerging from outside the political establishment and challenging democratic institutions.

First, Dr. Gamage’s presentation provided a recap of populism and civilizational populism, highlighting how populism mobilizes people around narratives of threat, often framing issues in an “us versus them” paradigm. Dr. Gamage also emphasized the trend of populist leaders coming to power by positioning themselves as ‘outsiders’ to the existing political order but then undermining democratic institutions once in power, leading to a weakening of democracy. Recent populist movements exhibit distinct features in how they frame themselves, typically focusing on economic inequalities and the erosion of democratic norms. These movements capitalize on anti-establishment sentiments and often target minority communities.

Similarly, civilizational populism extends the narrative to encompass perceived threats at a civilizational level, transcending national boundaries. This concept draws on historical discourses of imperialism and domination, particularly evident in post-colonial contexts. In countries like Sri Lanka, civilizational populism intertwines with anti-colonial sentiments, targeting Western values and minority groups. Dr. Gamage highlighted how the historical divide between the Global West and the Global South has contributed to a unique form of civilizational populism. In the Global South, the shared history of colonialism fuels a civilizational populist discourse infused with anti-colonial sentiments.

When discussing how civilizational populism is expressed in Sri Lanka, Dr. Gamage explored the intricacies of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse, which she identified as the primary vehicle for civilizational populism in the country. Within the Sri Lankan context, this discourse echoes the anti-colonial rhetoric commonly found in the Global South. Dr. Gamage provided an analysis of figures like Anagarika Dharmapala, illustrating how civilizational concepts are employed within Sri Lankan populist discourses. Dharmapala’s rhetoric challenged colonial narratives by portraying Western colonizers as “barbarians” and emphasizing the cyclical nature of history. His ideas laid the groundwork for Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, significantly shaping the country’s political landscape.

Dr. Mosmi Bhim: Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?”

Dr. Mosmi Bhim highlighted the characteristics of populism under President Abdulla Yameen, including anti-pluralism and illiberalism, which eroded democratic norms and institutions. Despite losing the 2018 elections to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen’s legacy of religious nationalism and authoritarianism continues to influence the political landscape in the Maldives.

In this final presentation, the audience were introduced to the presence of religious nationalism and populism in the Maldives. Dr. Mosmi Bhim began by providing a contextual overview, sharing a personal experience of visiting the Maldives in 2017. He highlighted the densely populated nature of the capital city, Male, and emphasized how urban density can contribute to political instability during contentious issues or elections. Dr. Bhim also discussed the Maldives’ transition from a Buddhist nation to an Islamic state, its historical reliance on fishing and tourism, and its colonial past under British protection.

During her field trip, Dr. Bhim navigated a delicate situation due to the authoritarian rule of President Abdulla Yameen at the time, emphasizing the risks associated with researching democracy in such an environment. These risks persist despite the Maldives gaining independence in 1965. According to her presentation, the Maldives did not experience democracy following the independence, with power concentrated in the hands of autocratic rulers until the introduction of multi-party elections in 2008.

Dr. Bhim’s presentation focused on the leadership of Presidents, beginning with Ibrahim Nasir, who invoked nationalism to gain independence from Britain, and President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who introduced political Islam and laid the groundwork for Islamic nationalism in the Maldives. Under Gayoom’s rule, there was a regression in women’s rights, a focus on re-Islamization, and the stifling of political dissent. Following was a section looking at President Abdulla Yameen, who continued the trend of religious populism and authoritarian rule, aligning himself with Islamic nationalism and forging closer ties with authoritarian regimes. Yameen’s government promoted religious intolerance and undermined democratic institutions, leading to widespread repression and human rights abuses.

Throughout, Dr. Bhim highlighted the characteristics of populism under President Yameen, including anti-pluralism and illiberalism, which eroded democratic norms and institutions. Despite losing the 2018 elections to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen’s legacy of religious nationalism and authoritarianism continues to influence the political landscape in the Maldives. President Solih, while initially signaling a commitment to democracy, has faced challenges from Islamic extremists and political opponents, leading to questions about the future of democracy in the Maldives. In wrapping up, Dr. Bhim discussed recent developments, including Solih’s India-out campaign and the ongoing tensions between religious nationalism and democratic governance.

ECPS-MEP-Video-Panel8

Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe

Please cite as:

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Report on “Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0050           

 

This brief report offers a summary of the 8th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” which took place online on January 26, 2023. Professor Dr. Agnieszka Graff moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism and gender scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides a brief overview of the eighth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” held online on January 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr.Agnieszka Graff, Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, and a feminist activist, the panel featured speakers Dr.  Elżbieta Korolczuk, Associate Professor in Sociology at Södertörn University, Sweden, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, Professor in the Department of French & Italian and affiliated with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis, Nik Linders, PhD candidate at Radboud Social and Cultural Research for Gender & Diversity Studies, Dr. Pauline Cullen, Associate Professor in sociology at Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland.

Panel moderator Professor Agnieszka Graff began her speech with an overall assessment, choosing to define the word “gender” with two distinct meanings. Firstly, she explained its function in gender studies within the field of sociology. Secondly, she addressed the meaning that gained popularity following the rise of anti-gender campaigns across Europe, ascribed to the word by both right- and left-wing populist parties. Specifically, gender is portrayed as something unsettling, casting doubt on liberalism itself and warranting challenge. In essence, it represents excessive individualism, consumerism, and the erosion of communities due to declining fertility rates.

Professor Graff’s speech focused solely on the cultural repertoire amassed by anti-gender campaigns. According to Graff, this repertoire varies across different countries: Italian anti-gender imagery exudes chicness; Polish anti-gender repertoire leans towards raw, peasant-oriented themes; the French anti-gender narrative often incorporates references to the French Revolution. Despite these differences, there are resonances between these images, with recurring motifs such as dissolving families juxtaposed against images of united families often depicted in silhouette. Additionally, there are perverted image of people whose gender is ambiguous and threatening, along with disturbing portrayals of alienated and suffering children, sometimes represented by fetuses but more commonly as four or five-year-olds appearing terrified or even being depicted as for sale with barcodes attached. The underlying idea behind these images is to establish a link between gender equality, sexual rights, and the capitalist system, portrayed in its most menacing form. Consequently, anti-gender propaganda presents itself more as a cultural phenomenon rather than a collection of arguments. It operates in close alignment with populism on various fronts: one being the association of gender with elite versus ordinary people gender conservatism, and another in the economic dimension where both discursive and political-institutional connections come into play.

Professor Graff then presented three significant examples from European countries, each illustrating the collaboration between politicians and ultra-conservative organizations in targeting gender ideology to mobilize electorates. The first example is from Poland, where several local authorities staged protests in response to the mayor of Warsaw signing a declaration against discrimination towards sexual minorities. The second example comes from Spain, where Vox has collaborated with HazteOir, a conservative Catholic community founded by Ignasio Arsuaga. Together, they launched a campaign known as the ‘stop feminazis buses’, arguing that the issue pertains to domestic violence rather than gender violence specifically. The third example is from Hungary, where parliamentary elections coincided with a referendum on children’s education, gender identity, and sexuality. Citizens had to vote on whether to support the implementation of events concerning sexual orientation for minors in public education institutions without parental consent. The referendum aimed to legitimize Viktor Orban and his party as defenders of children. These examples demonstrate that populist actors strategically use anti-gender rhetoric with both long- and short-term objectives: the former to portray themselves as defenders of ordinary people adhering to traditional gender roles against perverse elites, and the latter to intensify campaign efforts to garner a larger share of votes.

The aim of the introductory speech is to not only inquire about the impact of gender on populists but also to explore the consequences when individuals label those parties, often referring to them as illiberal movements, using the concept of populism.

Dr. Elżbieta Korolczuk: “Explaining the Relation Between Populismand Gender in Europe”

The adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity.

In her presentation, the first panelist, Dr. Elzbieta Korolczuk began by emphasizing that the rise of the anti-gender movement can be attributed to the alignment of far-right parties with populism, particularly their adept adoption or proposition of a populist version of anti-gender rhetoric. The objective of her speech was to explore the theoretical connection between populism and gender, highlighting the gaps in existing literature on this subject. These gaps stem from the predominant focus of analyses on either the supply or demand side. For instance, some scholars argue that gender is significant for the supply side, as the presence of a charismatic leader is often crucial in populist politics. However, exceptions like the case of the uncharismatic Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński challenge this notion. On the demand side, women have been increasingly identified as more inclined to vote for right-wing populist parties in recent years.

Dr. Korolczuk suggests that the most insightful conceptualizations of the relationship between gender and populism are currently being proposed by scholars engaged in anti-genderism or anti-gender campaigns. Some propose viewing anti-gender rhetoric as a means to sanitize extreme discourses, while others advocate for an engendering approach, focusing on ethnic scandals, the gendered nature of social inequalities, or even the concept of gender colonization. Additionally, scholars discuss populism as a project of masculinist identity politics, underscoring the effectiveness of right-wing parties in identity politics compared to the left. 

Another perspective is to examine the common roots of populism and illiberal anti-gender mobilization in both their economic and cultural dimensions. These conceptualizations enable us to recognize similarities between different movements while also cautioning against oversimplifications, advocating for a dynamic and relational approach. In essence, the proposal articulated is not merely to explore how populism is ‘gendered’, but rather to examine the role of gender in shaping relationships and specific discursive structures employed by populist leaders. An important aspect here is also the organizational and financial dynamics of this relationship.

In summary, according to Dr. Korolczuk, the adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity. In conclusion, these narratives enable populist leaders and parties to bridge the cultural and economic arenas, as seen in the cases of Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, positioning themselves as protectors of social welfare provisions for children.

Dr. Eric Louis Russell: “Language of Reaction: European Populist Radical Right and LGBTQA+ Rights”

Language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

The panel’s second speaker, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, approached the topic from a slightly different angle, drawing on his background as a critical linguist and his research agenda focused on how language activity reflects Weltansichten, or cognitive contexts. Expanding on this, language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

Regarding discourse, according to Dr. Russel, it can be viewed in various ways: as textual, oral, or multimodal; as the ‘bounded residue’ of language action in a specific domain; and as describable using linguistic methods. Based on this, certain core features of populist discourse can be distinguished: the representation of a ‘strong man’ as a savior; the reframing of modernity juxtaposed with the ‘allochthonous Other’; the portrayal of autochthonous people as under threat; a narrative of role reversal with victims depicted as victimizers, such as LGBTQ+ communities; and complex intersectionalities with hegemonic structures.

A final theoretical consideration is the phenomenon of enregisterment, the process by which a linguistic repertoire becomes associated, within a culture, with particular social practices and individuals engaging in those practices. In this sense, the populist linguistic repertoire serves to connect different cultural domains with various practices. The mechanism operates through the circulation of register, its clasp, relay, and grasp. In other words, it links to areas of social action, connects across different arenas, and ultimately implants into a new arena, often with superficial or contradictory meanings.

The first example presented pertains to Dewinter’s populism in Flemish Belgium and his discourse. The warranting principles rely on superficially pro-LGBTQ+ stances, while in reality being homophobic, thus reinscribing LGBTQ+ people as instruments of both populism and illiberalism. This represents a table-turning strategy, re-articulating them in a manner that can be perceived as homophobic. 

Another significant example is Poland, where discourse revolves around using gender to denote an ideologized ‘Other’ by the Law & Justice Party (PiS). The clasping of registers of nationalism and historical victimization is employed to rearticulate traditional discourse formations of sex, personhood, and belonging to the Polish nation. These example illustrates how populist discourse practices ultimately extend into various domains, portraying gender ideology as a threat to Polish existence.

A final example concerns Italy after the election of Georgia Meloni as Prime Minister, which sheds light on key elements of the linguistic landscape surrounding non-binarity and non-binary linguistic interventions in Italy. While the predominant populist reaction denies the potential expansion of identity beyond man/woman binaries, other reactions assert various mechanisms of representation through language. Here, the articulation of language is crucial, as it reflects both the actor’s ideational world and their material reality, including or excluding categories and possibilities.

Dr. Russell also provided some concluding remarks on the issue of futurity. Given the central role of language in populism, there should be greater focus on the ecological systems of meaning-making and how they can be disrupted, as well as on the pathways through which illiberalism hybridizes and grafts onto pre-existing meaning-making processes, and how these can be disrupted.

Nik Linders: “Gender & Sexuality in Dutch Populist Voter Profiles”

While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

As the third panelist, Nik Linders focused on examining the attitudes towards gender and sexuality among the Dutch popular radical right electorate, and how these attitudes intersect with other beliefs often associated with populist radical right politics. Pim Fortuyn, the first Dutch populist radical right politician to gain popularity, positioned himself as a gay politician, arguing that his sexual orientation uniquely qualified him for leadership and presenting a form of progressive radical right-wing populism. While his positions were primarily directed against immigration and Islam, they were also informed by the amalgamation of Dutch identity with what he termed ‘sexual modernity.’ His somewhat progressive stance and legacy on gender and sexuality continue to resonate in parts of the Dutch electorate and contemporary political parties.

Turning to the present and the 2021 elections, we observed three populist radical right parties with varying positions on gender and sexuality: PVV, FVD, and JA21. The PVV is the most progressive among them, consistently supportive of gay and lesbian rights as well as transgender rights, even outside discussions on Islam or immigration. FVD, on the other hand, is the most conservative on the topic, as evidenced by their sarcastic campaign slogan “how many genders do you have today?” However, they still publicly position themselves as pro-gay rights. As for JA21, while they do not explicitly address gender and sexuality, when they do, they appear to be more progressive than FVD.

The speaker discussed how these positions were correlated with the preferences of the Dutch electorate, utilizing nationally representative survey data from the Dutch parliamentary election study and employing latent class analysis. In his study, along with other colleagues, they identified different voter profiles within the populist radical right electorate. They selected respondents who not only claimed to have voted for these parties but also expressed the intention to do so.

The first item extracted from the dataset measures whether the respondent supports adoption by same-sex couples. The second item assesses support for sex change operations, while the third item examines whether the respondent believes there is something wrong with individuals who identify as neither man nor woman. These items serve as pivotal points in the Dutch public political debate and thus act as reliable proxies for gender and sexual preferences.

To complement these measures, according to Linders, other issues such as nativism, colonialism, nationalism, anti-Islamism, and anti-immigration were included. It’s important to note the distinctions between nativism and nationalism: while nationalism refers to the belief that anyone could theoretically assimilate into the national identity through adaptation to the idea of national hegemony, nativism specifically pertains to individuals born in the Dutch context, i.e., in the Netherlands to Dutch parents, who are considered the only ones legitimately entitled to become part of the citizenry.

Linders stated that the researchers identified five profiles of voters: gender-conservative; solely nativist; undecided or divided on gender; gender-moderate; and atypical for the populist radical right, yet gender-moderate. One key finding is that only 9% of the electorate consider voting for parties that are truly gender conservative. Despite some evidence of increasing sentiment in this direction, the majority of people still generally don’t feel threatened. Consequently, an important distinction between progressive and moderately progressive voters can be drawn on three levels.

First, there appears to be an overlap between conservative or orthodox religiosity (Christianity) and the more gender conservative outlook, as evidenced by the relatively higher popularity of the Dutch Orthodox party among the small gender conservative group.

Second, considering that 60% of the profiles are men, it’s notable that the most gender-progressive group consists of 55% women, while the most gender-conservative group is composed of approximately 73% men. This indicates that the anti-gender sentiment remains closely linked with an overrepresentation of men and masculinity.

Third, while all groups consistently exhibit highly nationalist conservative tendencies, only the truly conservative group and the group that is undecided or divided on gender and sexuality attitudes demonstrate ethno-nativist thinking. This suggests that individuals with gender-progressive values are placing less stringent demands on what nationality means to them, and that gender essentialism aligns with traditional ideas about the family and nativist notions about citizenship.

In conclusion, Linders offered an analysis of the relationship between anti-gender sentiment and populism. While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

Dr. Pauline Cullen: “Populism and the backlash against gender equality: Feminist responses to right-wing populism in Europe”

The resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. There is also a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice. Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations, their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

As the final speaker, Dr. Pauline Cullen presented the findings of her paper published in the Journal of European Politics and Society. The central question addressed in the research was how the rise of populism has impacted political opportunities for civil society organizations in the European Union (EU). The study focused on feminist civil society organizations, specifically an urban women’s lobby with a transnational scope, funded by the EU and emblematic of European elite technocrats.

The main argument of the paper is that feminist opposition to anti-gender equality interests and ideas is complicated by the co-optation of constructions of gender justice by right-wing populists, along with the proximity between right-wing populist ideas and feminist critiques of economic governance based on austerity. The findings suggest that while feminist and pro-gender organizations work to counter right-wing populist grievances, they are still constrained by EU imperatives and weakened by multiple crises.

Furthermore, the study highlights that these grievances, along with the ideas, actors, and institutions behind them, benefit from the absence of a strong political commitment to gender equality at the European level, the neoliberal instrumentalization of gender equality, and the lack of tactics from the center-right flank.

From a sociological perspective, European integration can be viewed as a relational ecosystem comprising organized societal groups that often benefit from the financial opportunities provided by the European Commission. This enables these organizations to serve as agents of policy integration and disseminators of EU policy ideas. As a result, women’s and feminist civil society organizations have experienced a decline in influence, particularly in terms of access.

Conversely, populist forces have created a challenging environment for these organizations. Currently, we observe a more crowded and conservative landscape of right-wing competitors operating at the European level and exerting influence across European institutions.

In response to this evolving landscape, according to Dr. Cullen, these organizations have attempted to adapt, drawing on insights from the social movements literature. Strategies include adaptation, exit, abeyance, professionalism, radicalization, and the adoption of new managerial and communication techniques. Furthermore, there are emerging collaborative efforts to establish common frameworks and approaches while maintaining strategic differentiation based on the focus of each civil society group.

The challenge lies in avoiding the reinforcement of right-wing populist anti-feminist frames and staying focused on equality and democracy. This involves minimizing conflict, engaging in less visible front-stage actions, and emphasizing more informal and backstage initiatives, resulting in a general decrease in their formal presence.

Dr. Cullen’s paper also explores the dynamics of the relationship between feminism and populism at the national and regional levels. There is a growing recognition of a backlash narrative, acknowledging the long-term impact of these processes, which have become embedded in the institutional fabric, reinforcing social gender conservatism and nationalism. This perpetuates existing patriarchal power relations through the guise of seemingly reformist agendas.

Ultimately, European civil society groups face challenges when aligning with EU values that are often technocratic and insufficient for their broader scope and goals.

One notable aspect, Dr. Cullen said, is that both European feminist civil society groups and right-wing populist movements share a common critique of the European project, viewing it as undemocratic, disconnected from the realities of European women, and committed to austerity measures. The challenge for feminist organizations is to craft frames that acknowledge the limitations of EU integration for gender equality while avoiding alignment with right-wing populist narratives of Euroscepticism.

Merely employing tactics of vilification, debunking, and frame-saving may not always suffice, as they tend to construct adversaries in a negative light. The central argument suggests that by employing specific framing and counter-framing techniques aimed at depoliticizing gender equality, particularly as a European ideal, and portraying feminism as a project for the common good, it is possible to revitalize a stagnant policy context. This approach can be directed towards EU elites to highlight the link between illiberal threats to gender equality and broader threats to European democracies.

In other words, gender equality should serve as the battleground for shaping Europe’s future. By reframing the discourse and emphasizing the importance of gender equality in safeguarding European democracies, feminist organizations can contribute to a more inclusive and democratic European project.

Dr. Cullen’s conclusion highlights that the resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. Additionally, there’s a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice.

Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations (CSOs), their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

Some current strategic developments include the emergence of “feminist Europe 2.0,” represented by organizations such as the European Institute for Gender Equality. Other strategies involve incorporating gender experts into policymaking, fostering feminist critical voices within EU and national institutions, disseminating feminist critiques through academia and research, and empowering and establishing feminist think tanks.

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

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 3: Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia

Please cite as:
Ashirbekova, Zhanyl & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 6, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0049          

 


This report is derived from the third event of The European Center for Populism Studies’ (ECPS) monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series which was conducted online in Brussels on May 25, 2023. The panel, themed “Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia,” convened five distinguished scholars specializing in populism to delve into various facets of the subject. Serving as an outcome of this insightful panel, the report encapsulates overviews of the presentations delivered by the panelists.

By Zhanyl Ashirbekova & Neo Sithole

This report is derived from the third installment of the “Mapping Global Populism” monthly panel series, conducted online in Brussels on May 25, 2023, under the theme “Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia.” Co-organized by the ECPS and The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), the panel featured five distinguished scholars from Australia and Indonesia. As an outcome of this insightful panel, the report encapsulates concise summaries of the presentations delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz, Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, and included the following speakers: Dr. Inaya RakhmaniDirector of Asia Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia; Dr.Pradana Boy Zulian, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang, Indonesia; Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi, Senior Researcher at the Research Center for Politics, National Research and Innovation Agency – BRIN, Indonesia; DrI Gede Wahyu WicaksanaSenior International Relations Lecturer in the Department of International Relations Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Airlangga, Indonesia.

Dr. Inaya Rakhmani: “Main Drivers of Populism in Indonesia”

Dr. Rakhmani emphasized the growing concern among scholars in Indonesia and Asia about the factionalization of progressive voices that traditionally critique the decline or setbacks in democracy within Southeast Asia. This factionalization also extends to identity politics, where some progressive academics, public intellectuals, and civil society advocates who support democracy find themselves divided along religious and racial lines, often fueled by social media and messaging platforms. In her perspective, these divisions are closely tied to inequalities and the concentration of wealth. The expression of these divisions on social media is viewed as a symptom of deeper economic and social disparities.

As the first panelist, Dr. Inaya Rakhmani began her introduction by discussing the rise of Islamic populism in Indonesia. She highlighted the occurrence of the largest religious mass demonstration during electoral politics in the capital city of Jakarta. She pointed out that the surge in Islamic expression has been evident since the 1990s, leading to the fragmentation of the authoritarian government under Suharto, followed by the democratization and decentralization period. Dr. Rakhmani noted that economic growth has been accompanied by increasing social inequalities, and the equality promised by democracy has not translated into economic equality. These disparities are expressed along religious and racial lines, with comparisons drawn to Turkey, Egypt, and India.

According to her speech, Dr. Rakhmani incorporates Bob Jessop’s cultural political economy framework into her work to understand the moments and reasons behind mobilizing certain discursive narratives into material conditions. Since 2014, she has focused on studying the evolution of the middle class, often portrayed as a bastion for moderation in literature, especially from the US and Western Europe. Dr. Rakhmani highlights that the commercialization processes in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s introduced global products from northern countries into Southeast Asia and various large cities across Indonesia. These consumer products played a significant role in expanding the middle class of the 2000s, enabling it to adapt and thrive in a new volatile and precarious world. The “halal” label, legitimizing their purchases and consumerist behavior to navigate everyday life in neoliberal conditions, served as an index guiding them on where to go, which products to consume, and whose perspectives to trust, providing a sense of safety.

During the presidential campaign in 2019, the current president Jokowi received more direct support from Islamist political parties. Vice President Ma’ruf Amin is associated with the two largest Muslim organizations known for their pluralistic inclinations. Dr. Rakhmani noted that at these moments, there can be political legitimacy following demonstrations, even though these mobilizations were based on lexicons without a strong social and political basis either in support of or against the Christian Chinese Governor. Nevertheless, these demonstrations crystallized into political positions, solidifying the stances of Islamist leaders in the 2019 presidential elections.

Concluding her speech, Dr. Rakhmani emphasized the growing concern among scholars in Indonesia and Asia about the factionalization of progressive voices that traditionally critique the decline or setbacks in democracy within Southeast Asia. This factionalization also extends to identity politics, where some progressive academics, public intellectuals, and civil society advocates who support democracy find themselves divided along religious and racial lines, often fueled by social media and messaging platforms. In her perspective, these divisions are closely tied to inequalities and the concentration of wealth. The expression of these divisions on social media is viewed as a symptom of deeper economic and social disparities. Unfortunately, in her opinion, this condition is likely to persist not only in Indonesia but also in many parts of the world.

Dr. Pradana Boy Zulian: “Radicalism, Extremism and Civilizationalist Populism in Indonesia”

Dr. Zulian posed a question: “How does religious literacy populism on the internet contribute to the spread of extremism and radicalism?” He observed that studying religion on the internet provides instant thinking and answers, making it preferable for many people. Moreover, the internet is influenced by conservative orientation activists. Research indicates that approximately 60% of internet Islamic content in the Indonesian context is dominated by conservative groups, with less representation from progressive voices in the online Islamic discourse.

Dr. Pradana Boy Zulian’s presentation delved into the connection between populism, religious literacy, and their impact on religious life in Indonesia. His talk highlighted three key points: i) Exploring how populism in religious literacy is linked to extremism and radicalism. ii) Examining the role of the internet as a new public sphere for religious discussions, leading to fundamental changes in how Islam is studied. This shift not only alters the approach to studying Islam but, according to Dr. Zulian’s observations, also dismantles the traditional hierarchy of religious authority figures. iii) Addressing the preference for Islamic symbolism over Islamic values and the influence of conservatism in the digital realm, suggesting that populism in religious literacy could potentially contribute to the proliferation of extremism and radicalism.

Dr. Zulian commenced his speech by introducing the concept of “Internet Islam.” He referred to it as a religious dynamic shaped by the digitization of human life, where the internet serves as the primary source of Islamic learning for the public. Various studies by scholars across generations have sought to examine the impact of the information technology revolution on the formation of religious orientation in contemporary Muslim societies. Dr. Zulian cited Zizi Papacharissi’s 2018 speech, portraying the internet as a virtual space transformed into a public sphere.

In the political context, traditional citizens are now joined by “netizens,” citizens of the digital world. However, Dr. Zulian drew a distinction between citizens and netizens based on substantive characteristics. While citizens are accountable for their words and actions, following a rational logic of thinking, netizens are characterized by a predominantly authoritarian nature. This implies that in constructing discourse, they display a level of irresponsibility and immaturity.

Dr. Zulian highlighted the substantial number of internet users in Indonesia, particularly in provinces like West Java, Central Java, and East Java, where around 88 million users constitute approximately one-third of the country’s population. He pointed out that the challenge posed by the internet lies in the fact that the truth of discourse is not defined by the logic of rational thinking.

Addressing the question of how the internet challenges religious institutions and authority, Dr. Zulian emphasized that the most serious impact of populism in religious literacy is the challenge it presents to traditional institutions and authority. Drawing on his personal experience as a supervisor for a student organization from 2015-2018, he recounted an incident involving students planning an “Islamic Law Clinic.” The students intended to act as muftis, providing consultative dialogue on Islamic law issues, claiming expertise acquired through internet study. This revelation startled Dr. Zulian, leading him to reflect on how Islamic religious literacy populism significantly contributes to a sense of religious maturity and existence within Muslim societies.

In the concluding part of his speech, Dr. Zulian posed the question: “How does religious literacy populism on the internet contribute to the spread of extremism and radicalism?” He observed that studying religion on the internet provides instant thinking and answers, making it preferable for many people. Moreover, the internet is influenced by conservative orientation activists. Research indicates that approximately 60% of internet Islamic content in the Indonesian context is dominated by conservative groups, with less representation from progressive voices in the online Islamic discourse.

Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi: “Gender Roles in Indonesia’s Religious Populism”

Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi provides insights into how the interplay of gender, populism, and politics is actively influencing Indonesia’s political terrain. With the approaching 2024 general election, candidates face the challenge of negotiating these intricate dynamics while addressing the varied concerns of the electorate. The significance of women in politics is expected to gain prominence, mirroring a larger societal shift towards gender equality and social justice in Indonesia.

The third speaker on the panel, Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi, shared insights derived from her research and recent observations of Indonesia’s political landscape. Commencing her discussion, Dr. Dewi delved into the 2019 general elections, which marked a pivotal event due to the simultaneous occurrence of legislative and presidential polls. This election showcased two prominent candidates, each addressing issues pertinent to Indonesian mothers, or “mamas.” Notably, approximately 50.6 percent of voters were female, underscoring their substantial role in determining the electoral outcome.

The discourse during this prominent election brought attention to the intersection of gender, populism, and politics. For instance, debates arose among Indonesian women activists regarding the representation of women in politics. Divergent views emerged regarding the term “mama” as a political symbol; while some perceived it as empowering ordinary women, others criticized it for perpetuating traditional gender roles.

Dr. Dewi delved into the evolving role of women in politics, noting its increased visibility through various media outlets and the growing awareness of women’s issues within electoral processes. However, this discourse has encountered complexities, as different factions within women’s movements hold divergent views on how to address gender issues in politics. Having established this, Dr. Dewi shifted focus to the 2024 general elections, where the political landscape continues to undergo transformation, with gender issues intersecting broader societal concerns.

Amidst the political atmosphere in Indonesia, the ascent of conservative groups, particularly concerning LGBTQ rights, has become a contentious issue in Indonesian politics. Consequently, presidential candidates are expected to navigate these issues with care, aiming to appeal to Muslim voters while simultaneously addressing concerns about family values and religious conservatism.

Another key point in the presentation emerged when exploring the substantial influence of religious and political groups in shaping the narrative surrounding family values and social conservatism. This influence becomes particularly evident in the opposition to events or movements perceived as conflicting with conservative values, as exemplified by the cancellation of an LGBTQ conference in Indonesia.

Highlighting the aforementioned religious conservatism, Dr. Dewi redirected attention to how, in the approaching 2024 elections, candidates are likely to capitalize on issues that resonate with conservative voters. According to her, this approach may potentially polarize the electorate along religious and social lines, posing challenges for candidates aiming to balance the demands of diverse interest groups while upholding a cohesive political platform.

To offer a comprehensive understanding of the Indonesian political landscape, emphasis was placed on the role of social media in shaping public discourse. Underscoring the significance of social media as digital platforms that amplify voices across the political spectrum, Dr. Dewi highlighted how women’s groups, in particular, have utilized social media to advocate for greater representation in politics and to counter regressive policies. Despite the challenges outlined, Dr. Dewi expressed optimism among women activists regarding the potential for enhanced women’s representation in politics. This optimism has spurred numerous efforts to mobilize support and raise awareness about gender issues, signifying a growing awareness of women’s rights among the electorate.

In conclusion, Dr. Dewi revisited the ongoing impact of the intersection of gender, populism, and politics on Indonesia’s political landscape. As the nation gears up for the 2024 general election, candidates face the challenge of navigating these intricate issues while addressing the diverse concerns of the electorate. The role of women in politics is anticipated to gain prominence, mirroring a broader societal shift towards gender equality and social justice in Indonesian society.

Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana: “Populism and Foreign policy: The Indonesian Case”

Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana highlighted the significant role of ideologies in Indonesian foreign policy, emphasizing nationalism as the dominant feature and populism as a lighter version of nationalistic ideologies. He acknowledged that while populism may have influenced the state’s foreign policy in specific historical moments and political events, its impact is constrained by pragmatic economic interests and the realities of the global and regional context.

The last speaker of the panel, Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana, commenced his speech by highlighting two key points related to the study of populism’s impact on foreign policy in Indonesia. Firstly, he emphasized the scarcity of published works on the foreign policy dimensions of populism in Indonesia, despite its significant influence on politics. He suggested that this lack of in-depth examination might be attributed to the absence of adequate theoretical and methodological tools for studying this area. Secondly, he expressed his interest in contributing to this field of study, particularly due to the intriguing connection between Indonesian foreign policy and ideology. Dr. Wicaksana noted that ideologies play a pivotal role in Indonesian foreign policy, with nationalism being the dominant feature and populism representing a lighter version of nationalistic ideologies.

Dr. Wicaksana highlighted that the practices and expressions of populist leaders in Indonesian international affairs differ from those of leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, or Duterte in shaping populist foreign policy identities. Nevertheless, he asserted that populism does play a role in how some leaders in Indonesia conduct international relations. Dr. Wicaksana aims to explore three significant constraints on populist rhetoric and actions in Indonesian foreign policy.

According to him, three major constraints on populist rhetoric and actions in Indonesian foreign policy are rooted in historical legacies, economic cooperation, and the current international order. Indonesia, as a post-colonial state, emerged amidst domestic ideological and political conflicts among three main political forces: Islamic political forces, secular nationalists, and socialists. The newly formed Republic of Indonesia grappled with the challenges of navigating the Cold War power dynamics between the Soviet Union and the United States. Various literature has explored how these dynamics shaped Indonesian foreign policy. Consequently, nationalist leaders, notably Mohammad Hatta, positioned Indonesia as an independent state with an active foreign policy, rejecting external dictates and solely pursuing its national interests.

In the formative years of Indonesian nation-building (1945 to 1965), pragmatism characterized Indonesian foreign policy. However, in Sukarno’s final years, there was a revival of political ideology, and to some extent, he adopted populist rhetoric and actions. Sukarno exhibited traits typical of a populist leader: he portrayed the West as imperial elites and rallied third-world countries as those striving for autonomy in international politics. During Sukarno’s leadership, which involved revising the domestic political system and redirecting Indonesian foreign policy, the pragmatic course was redefined. Sukarno, indifferent to ideology, sought economic aid and financial assistance from the West and aimed to maintain stability in Southeast Asia.

In a recent study on populism published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Dr. Wicaksana argued that pragmatism is an advanced expression of populism in Indonesia’s foreign policy. Transitioning to the second factor, “economic cooperation,” he emphasized the historical significance of economic interests in Indonesia’s foreign affairs. According to him, maintaining economic stability and fostering peace in Southeast Asia have always been crucial aspects of the country’s international relations, regardless of the president or ministers in power. Dr. Wicaksana noted that Jokowi, the current Indonesian president, exhibits pragmatism in foreign policy by cultivating close relations with China, the US, and improving ties with the Middle East and Europe.

Concluding his speech, Dr. Wicaksana asserted that Indonesia’s position as a populist foreign policy state is further constrained by the regional and international order. With the escalating competition between China and the US, Indonesia cannot adopt a populist stance that confronts China while aligning with the US. Dr. Wicaksana emphasized that China is acutely aware of potential conflict zones that could threaten Indonesian national sovereignty. In summary, he stated that while populism may have had an impact on the state’s foreign policy in certain historical moments and political events, it remains restricted by pragmatic economic interests and the realities of the global and regional context.


ECPS-MGP-Panel6-Video

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 6: Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore

Please cite as:
Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 25, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0048       



This brief report offers a summary of the sixth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore” which took place online on October 26, 2023. Professor Garry Rodan moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the sixth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore” held online on October 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr. Garry Rodan, Honorary Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland) the panel featured speakers Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Professor of Political Science, University Sains Malaysia, Dr. Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia, Dr. Kenneth Paul TanProfessor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University and Dr. Shanon ShahVisiting Research Fellow at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London.

In his opening remarks, Professor Gary Rodan examined the interplay between authoritarianism and populism in the contexts of Malaysia and Singapore. Dr. Rodan argued that, generally, the origins of authoritarianism can be linked to colonization. He noted that, despite brief periods of vigorous contestation in the early stages of independence, these two countries diverged in their trajectories toward authoritarianism. In contrast, he highlighted the limited exploration of populism in these countries in the existing literature.

Professor Rodan underscores a significant observation that an examination of the literature on the correlation between authoritarianism and contemporary manifestations of populism in Malaysia and Singapore suggests distinct characteristics and rationales for the effectiveness of authoritarianism. In the early stages of independence in Malaysia, Professor Rodan notes that the political agenda of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which later emerged as the predominant ruling coalition, necessitated the development of a political project fostered by an ethnic Malay bourgeoisie and guided by ethnic Malay bureaucrats.

In contrast, as Professor Rodan points out, Singapore witnessed a scenario where a cadre of technocratic political bureaucrats had to contend more strenuously for power, relying on an ideology of elitism centered around meritocracy as the primary justification for the legitimacy of their ruling coalition. Nevertheless, despite these distinctions, both cases experienced challenges stemming from capitalist development over time. Notably, the state capitalist models in the two countries were accompanied by a surge in material and social inequalities.

Continuing with the Malaysian case again, Professor Rodan notes that pervasive corruption has frequently exacerbated cleavages, whether related to or separate from social class. The persistent challenges faced by the ruling coalition over several decades have led to the emergence of new coalitions attempting to contest the dominance of the UMNO within the formal political sphere. However, these challenges have arisen from groups advocating for either democratic reforms or from proponents of the authoritarian political regime rooted in the political supremacy of Malays, with Islamic religious nationalism as its foundation.

Professor Rodan emphasizes that in 2018, amidst escalating political polarization, Malaysia witnessed its first change in the ruling coalition since gaining independence in 1957. The newly formed coalition that assumed governance included the Pakatan Harapan Alliance of Hope and the United Malaysian Indigenous Party. However, this coalition proved short-lived and was subsequently replaced in 2022 by a collaboration between Pakatan Harapan and UMNO, with Anwar Ibrahim serving as prime minister. Despite the involvement of some democratic forces in coalitions, these entities were grappling elements, either striving to protect themselves from democratic forces or to shield themselves from those claiming to be champions of Islam. In essence, there is an intense power struggle over the boundaries of permissible political conflict, favoring a reassertion of authoritarianism in Malaysia’s political landscape.

In Singapore, Professor Rodan notes a recurring shift against the ideology of meritocracy promoted by the People’s Action Party (PAP), particularly by individuals who perceive themselves as having been excluded from the purported economic miracle. The political legitimacy of the PAP faces challenges stemming from conflicts that the party has not entirely addressed, despite some redistributive policies. This differs from the less sophisticated approach observed in Malaysia, highlighting the continuously evolving model in Singapore characterized as a new state-controlled form of participation known as consultative authoritarianism.

In summary, Professor Rodan contends that while Malaysia and Singapore represent different types of regimes, they are both encountering comparable pressures. The central inquiry of the panel revolves around whether, and to what extent, the contemporary nature and trajectory of authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore are influenced by populism. Drawing on insights from Anne Munro-Kua’s 1996 book, Authoritarian Populism in Malaysia, Professor Rodan suggests that the political economy of Malaysia since the 1970s has cultivated a communal foundation for political populism, intricately tied to the specific capitalist model.

Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid: “Political Islam and Islamist Populism in Malaysia: Implications for Nation-Building”

“Contrary to historical patterns, extremism in Malaysia has historically exhibited a high degree of acceptance for pluralism, and instances of violence are rare. Despite notable support for ISIS among Malay Muslims, the country demonstrates low cases of terrorism or violent extremism. Malaysia, being a multiethnic and multireligious nation, enjoys considerable political stability. The data suggests that extremism in Malaysia is primarily attitudinal, with non-violent extremism representing a vocal stance disavowing violence as a matter of principle.”

In his presentation as the first panelist, Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid shifted the focus towards NGO-based populism rather than party politics. Additionally, he sought to establish a close connection between populism and extremism, delving into the concepts of nativism and Islamism, both crucial factors in either jeopardizing or fostering populism in Malaysia.

The initial part of his presentation was dedicated to a conceptual analysis of certain terms. In the context of Islamist populism, Professor Abdul Hamid clarified that it involves a politically arbitrary interpretation of Islam rather than a direct reference to Islam itself. Populism, in this context, signifies the exploitation of the popular sentiments primarily among indigenous Muslims. As for the concept of Islamism, it can be defined as a political ideology advocating for the establishment of a juridical Islamic state governed by Shariah, aiming for practicing Muslims to realize the ideals of Islam as a comprehensive way of life.

In connection to this, extremism, as explained by Professor Abdul Hamid, views politics from a supremacist perspective, delineating boundaries between in-group and out-group categories, often based on race and religion but not exclusively so. Extremism is also considered as an anthropological concept, presupposing the existence of a silent enemy opposed to the dominant or hegemonic force.

In this context, according to Professor Abdul Hamid, Malaysia presents an anomaly due to its history of peaceful Islamic propagation influenced by Sufism. Contrary to historical patterns, extremism in Malaysia has historically exhibited a high degree of acceptance for pluralism, and instances of violence are rare. Despite notable support for ISIS among Malay Muslims, the country demonstrates low cases of terrorism or violent extremism. Malaysia, being a multiethnic and multireligious nation, enjoys considerable political stability. The data suggests that extremism in Malaysia is primarily attitudinal, with non-violent extremism representing a vocal stance disavowing violence as a matter of principle. However, it is crucial to recognize that non-violent extremism poses risks, as it may lead to violence and potentially encourage others to engage in violent forms of extremism.

Viewed from this perspective, there is little distinction between populism and non-violent extremism; the differentiating factor in the Malaysian context is nativism, which upholds the concept of Malay supremacy. Nativist responses in Malaysia have arisen to safeguard Malay identity against perceived threats stemming from globalization and collaboration with non-Malay populations.

Preceding independence, Malay nationalists considered their rights as derived from an implied social contract, recognizing Malays as the original inhabitants in exchange for extending citizenship to non-Malays. This notion is reinforced by constitutional provisions acknowledging Malay indigeneity, as evident in the designation of Islam as the religion of the federation in article 3.1. of the constitution.

The disentanglement of the UMNO as the guardian of Malay interests has challenged this conception. Consequently, Islamist conservative groups have gained prominence, offering populist interpretations of Islamist politics with right-wing extremist elements. This trend commenced in 2008 when UMNO weakened and lost its two-thirds majority. Another surge occurred in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, leading to the emergence of the Islamic group ISMA.

While ISMA explicitly disavows violence, its extremely assertive public discourse has the potential to incite violence among discontented elements of Malay-Muslim society. This risk arises for two reasons: it blurs the line between violent and non-violent extremism, and its asymmetrical stance on special privileges and non-Muslim citizenship rights is rooted in an extreme interpretation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the powerful penetration of ISMA’s discourse into general Muslim society, it has not translated into significant actions. Regarding the medium and methods of ISMA’s discourse, noteworthy is the production of the film “Mat Kilau,” the highest-grossing film of all time in Malaysia. The film was produced by Studio Kembara, whose director, Abdul Rahman Mat Dali, was a former Vice President of ISMA.

In conclusion, Professor Abdul Hamid suggests a disciplinary bias in asserting that extremism or populism is inherently nonviolent. When addressing the challenge of populism, Muslim countries should prioritize local indigenous resources, categories, themes, strategies, strengths, and narratives. The foundation must be indigenously developed, not globally imposed, human rights. The shortcoming lies in the inability to redefine the terms of this discourse in concepts that hold more significance for Muslims residing in the Islamic world.

Dr. Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri: “Islamist Civilizationism in Malaysia”

Professor Shukri highlighted several key points during her presentation: ethnonationalism surged after the race riots of 1969 in Malaysia; Mahathir Muhammed’s ambition to become a Muslim world leader set the stage for Islamist civilizational populism; domestic issues contributed to the rise of Islamist populist politicians in the country; in our globally connected world, these Islamist populist politicians utilize civilizational discourse to position Malaysia within the larger Ummah, all while targeting a primarily domestic audience.

The second panelist, Professor Syaza Shukri, centered his discussion on the Islamic civilization in Malaysia, specifically examining the evolution of Islamist civilizational populism. Theoretically, the country’s majority population is legally obligated to be Muslim, so discussions about (native) Malays implicitly involve Islam. Dr. Shukri’s key argument is that developments since the 1960s have paved the way for Malaysian political leaders to adopt a discourse on civilization as a populist strategy in the twenty-first century. In this context, the Malaysian discourse on civilization to the Malay people functions as part of a broader and sacred framework of Islamic civilization and ethno-nationalist populism.

To clarify her argument, Dr. Shukri provided a historical overview. In the past decade, this ethno-nationalist populism has evolved into Islamic civilization populism. This shift means that, rather than solely focusing on defining Malays by their majority, the emphasis is now on Malays as Muslims. The Islamist populists have situated the Islamic identity of Malays within the broader civilization narrative of the Islamic Ummah. This populist narrative designates Malaysia’s majority Malay population as the ‘true people,’ while the Chinese are labeled as the ‘others.’ Following the populist narrative, which pits elites against the people, the Chinese, due to their perceived economic and ethnic dominance, are viewed as the dominant elite against whom Muslim Malays are in opposition.

An important observation pertains to the deliberate use of emotions to evoke fear and resentment, particularly directed towards Chinese economic dominance, said Dr. Shukri. According to her, these populists employ religion to define Islam within the framework of their civilizational rhetoric. They have successfully united Malays against a perceived threat, leveraging the unifying appeal of Islamic civilization. In essence, Islam has been co-opted into a cultural identity.

It is crucial to remember, said Dr. Shukri, that the peninsula and even the Borneo region have been multicultural since at least 500 AD. However, due to their ancestors arriving on the peninsula around 3000 years ago, Malays are considered the original inhabitants of the region. During British colonization, the harmonious relationships among major ethnic groups eroded. When Chinese elites sought entry into the civil service, the British declined. Consequently, special rights were granted to the Malay indigenous population, ensuring, under Article 3 of the Constitution, Islam as the Federation’s religion.

Another pivotal development occurred during the 1969 racial riots, leading to subsequent policies such as the Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy. These policies mandated non-Malays, including Chinese individuals, to assimilate into Malay culture and adopt Malay customs.

The significant cultural and religious renaissance among Malays took place during Mahathir Mohamad’s administration in the 1980s. According to the presentation of Dr. Shukri, his objective was to cultivate employees and leaders across various industries who adhered to value-based duties in accordance with Islam. The institutionalization of Islam in the 1980s strengthened the Islamic identity, laying the groundwork for the subsequent flourishing of Islamic civilization populism in recent years. According to Dr. Shukri, without the rise of Islamization, there wouldn’t have been an audience for such populist grievances. Global challenges such as 9/11 and the war on (religious) terrorism have also played a role in shaping this civilization narrative. Social media, being a significant factor, amplifies beliefs that are at times perceived as persecuted by the actions of Westerners.

In addition to these major events, Dr. Shukri underscored that one of the most significant purported crises facing Malay-Muslims in Malaysia is the rise of Malay political opposition, specifically the Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS). Since 1999, when Anwar Ibrahim launched the reform movement, Malaysia’s opposition has steadily gained support and strength. In 2008, the ruling Barisan National Party failed to secure a two-thirds majority, and in 2013, it did not secure the popular vote, which was instead won by the PAS opposition.

An historic change occurred in 2018 when a segment of the government led by the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party raised the secular Malaysian narrative and ideology. Exploiting this development to its advantage, the Pakatan Harapan used it to assert that Malay Muslims were under attack, aligning with the Islamic civilization populist narrative.

Analyzing other prominent political figures, following Cas Mudde’s description, Abdul Hadi Awang (leader of PAS) can be characterized as a typical populist. He has proclaimed that it is forbidden to be aligned with enemies of the religion and the Ummah. Additionally, he has made robust statements against Ukraine’s actions in the Donbass region, drawing parallels to Israel’s ‘genocidal’ policy against Palestinians. Hadi Awang has also criticized Western nations for not aiding Turkey after the 2023 earthquake, accusing them of neglecting to offer assistance to a Muslim country in need.

Another noteworthy example is Muhyiddin Yassin, former president in 2020 and 2021, who asserted that Christians and Jews sought to convert Malaysia into a Christian nation for the purpose of gaining votes. He also accused some orientalist scholars of Islamophobia.

In conclusion, Professor Shukri highlighted several key points: ethnonationalism surged after the race riots of 1969 in Malaysia; Mahathir Muhammed’s ambition to become a Muslim world leader set the stage for Islamist civilizational populism; domestic issues contributed to the rise of Islamist populist politicians in the country; in our globally connected world, these Islamist populist politicians utilize civilizational discourse to position Malaysia within the larger Ummah, all while targeting a primarily domestic audience.

Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan: “Authoritarian Populism in Singapore”

Professor Tan argues that to build a mass support base, the PAP leaders might instigate moral panic, outrage, and become primary purveyors of conspiracy theories against the elite and minority communities. In an environment that has consistently lacked transparency and access to information, coupled with online falsehood laws, there is a risk of heightening the credibility of censored information. The authoritarian technocrats in power may be much less restrained in resorting to moral panic as a diversion from their weaknesses and mistakes. 

Professor Kenneth Paul Tan delivered a speech on the panel discussing authoritarianism and populist trends in Singapore. Dr. Tan highlighted that the Singapore state has garnered an international reputation for political stability, social cohesion, economic prosperity, and international correctness. It consistently ranks among the top nations globally and serves as a source of admiration and emulation by others. The success is often attributed to pro-business and globally oriented policies.

The People’s Action Party, which has been in power for an extended period, operates within a one-party-dominant state, securing an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats in regularly held general elections, providing the incumbent with significant systematic advantages. However, Dr. Tan emphasized that political legitimacy in Singapore is primarily contingent on the state’s ability to meet the citizens’ basic physiological and security needs at an exceptionally high level of satisfaction.

Since the 1990s, some of the most pointed liberal criticisms of Singapore’s approach to democracy, freedoms, and human rights have been gradually overshadowed by a neoliberal celebration of the Singapore governance model. The PAP government takes pride in its ability to pursue policies it deems necessary for Singapore’s long-term interests, even if they are unpopular. The term “populist” is used contemptuously by the PAP and its supporters to accuse critics and opponents of engaging in political posturing that irresponsibly caters to the demands of ordinary people, often characterized as selfish, ignorant, and shortsighted.

Dr. Tan argues that in Singapore, populism remains primarily a derisive term in party political rhetoric, routinely wielded against the ruling party’s opponents, regardless of the merits of their arguments. However, this characterization has become somewhat self-fulfilling. The highly uncompetitive nature of general elections and the growing perception among ordinary Singaporeans regarding the quality of life and personal prospects have created conditions conducive to the emergence and spread of authoritarian populism, with early signs already apparent.

Singapore has a population of about 5.9 million, with only 3.6 million being full citizens. As a postcolonial, multi-ethnic nation-state and a cosmopolitan global city, Singapore presents itself globally as a city of opportunity, but domestically, it portrays itself as a vulnerable nation with significant deficiencies that necessitate opening itself to the world for access to crucial resources and opportunities. This narrative of perpetual anxiety naturally contributes to propagandistic justifications for why the PAP must continue to lead and do so with substantial power.

Dr. Tan states that migration stands as a crucial issue in Singapore, with immigration policies and the presence of foreigners occupying a central place in the public imagination. In essence, an expanding pool of migrant workers exerts downward pressure on the wages of the poorest Singaporeans, while the increasing presence of foreign talent and the super-rich elevates the salaries of top earners. Consequently, this widens the income gap, resulting in Singapore’s Gini index being significantly higher than the OECD average. As the gap widens, there is a growing expectation that social mobility will be reduced in an increasingly dysfunctional meritocracy.

Dr. Tan said Singapore has evolved into one of the most expensive cities globally, with median wages experiencing sluggish growth over the past few decades. This has led ordinary Singaporeans to consistently express concerns about the rising cost of living. Despite being one of the wealthiest cities, visible signs of both relative and absolute poverty persist, yet there are no official poverty line calculations or a strong endorsement for a minimum wage policy.

While Singapore has transformed into a luxurious playground for the affluent, ordinary citizens often perceive a decline in their overall quality of life. Even foreigners have noted the stressful work environment in Singapore, with reports ranking Singaporeans among the top globally for the longest working hours and shortest hours of sleep. Struggling with high stress levels and constant exhaustion, many Singaporeans express deep concerns about their mental health. Presently, these are often cited as reasons by younger Singaporeans for hesitating to start families and have children, contributing to one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Consequently, Singapore turns to immigration as a swift solution to address and sustain a critical mass of labor and talent.

To Dr. Tan, two developments associated with authoritarian populism are evident. Firstly, xenophobic sentiments are triggering latent feelings of racism that have been suppressed by decades of multi-racial conditioning. Emotionally compelling nativist arguments, particularly those directed against the PAP’s immigration policies, can easily find fertile ground for germination. Secondly, even in a traditionally high-trust society like Singapore, there are clear signs of incredulity and resentment towards the elite, or more broadly, the establishment, who seem entitled, self-serving, heartless, and arrogant. In general, ordinary Singaporeans are confronted with a stark view of how the wealthy and powerful live. While Lee Kuan Yew and his leadership were careful to cultivate an image of austerity in the early decades of independence, today’s highly paid political elite find it challenging to conceal the opulence of their lifestyles. Their elitist attitudes are often exposed by numerous pro-PAP individuals that barely escape the scrutiny and publicity of social media.

To conclude his talk, Professor Tan presented some speculations. As today’s elite circles become increasingly closed and protected, one can anticipate institutional decay along with cultural and intellectual exhaustion. Public skepticism has been openly expressed about the competence and moral authority of the next generation of PAP leaders emerging from this decadent elite. The emergence of demagogues, fueled by growing intra-elite rivalries, can be expected. These figures may channel popular energies and frustrations against the traditional establishment and the plural society. To build a mass support base, they might instigate moral panic, outrage, and become primary purveyors of conspiracy theories against the elite and minority communities. In an environment that has consistently lacked transparency and access to information, coupled with online falsehood laws, there is a risk of heightening the credibility of censored information.

Finally, the authoritarian technocrats in power may be much less restrained in resorting to moral panic as a diversion from their weaknesses and mistakes. This not only is expected to increase in frequency but will also be much harder to conceal and deny.

Dr. Shanon Shah: “Populism, Religion, and Anti-LGBTQ+ Attitudes in Malaysia”

Dr. Shah also emphasized the utility of spatial metaphors in distinguishing populism from nationalism. These metaphors are helpful in identifying arguments that manifest in the constructions of opponents or enemies during Malaysia’s current political transition. According to populist conceptions, the construction of in-group out-group relationships is vertical (elite vs. underdog), while in nationalistic conceptions, the relationship is horizontal (pure vs. polluting). Both of these elements contribute to competing narratives of Malaysian nationhood.

The final panelist of the session, Dr. Shanon Shah, sought to apply insights from studies of populism to gain a better understanding of the process of Malaysian Islamization. He referred to the concept of populism as a moral politics, centered around controversies and issues of high significance from a religious or moral perspective, often closely tied to hotly contested elections. This concept was invoked in the context of Pakatan’s Malaysian electoral campaign in 2018, characterized as “savior politics,” framing the elections as a critical moment (elections were framed as a “do or die / now or never”) to save Malaysia from corruption and degeneration.

Dr. Shah also emphasized the utility of spatial metaphors in distinguishing populism from nationalism. These metaphors are helpful in identifying arguments that manifest in the constructions of opponents or enemies during Malaysia’s current political transition. According to populist conceptions, the construction of in-group out-group relationships is vertical (elite vs. underdog), while in nationalistic conceptions, the relationship is horizontal (pure vs. polluting). Both of these elements contribute to competing narratives of Malaysian nationhood.

In the political transition between the 2018 and 2022 elections, a significant number of previously suppressed contenders began articulating their goals based on democratic reforms, achieving success at the ballot box. Following the 2018 elections, the Harapan government faced criticism from nationalist opponents, particularly from AMNO, accusing it of being pro-LGBTQ. This criticism could be seen both as a vertical argument against nationalist adversaries and as a horizontal argument against other parties accused of exceeding their government boundaries.

The Pakatan Harapan government found itself on the defensive when attempting to assert its political administration of Islam, particularly using LGBTQ issues as a testing ground. In 2022, the dynamics shifted as the first shot fired was a personal attack against Anwar Ibrahim, alleging a sexual past. The intent was precisely to portray the prime minister as a proxy of foreign agents.

Dr. Shah extensively discussed the term “Islamization,” acknowledging its lack of clarity. However, when viewed through the lens of populism, it becomes a tool to reveal and highlight ongoing developments in Malaysian society. Zainah Anwar’s paper, co-founder and executive director of the Islamic feminist group Sister in Islam, questions the current state of affairs after years of Islamization. While assuming the existence of Islamization as an ongoing process for decades, her argument suggests that it has detrimentally impacted Malaysian politics, facilitated and endorsed by the political establishment. This perspective can be characterized as the ‘getting worse thesis,’ representing a vertical argument.

On the other hand, anthropologist Michael Peters presents a second narrative, examining long-term trends and noting significant improvements in the delivery of Muslim women’s rights, particularly under Islamic family law. Peters attributes these improvements to both vertical forces (the administration of Sharia courts) and horizontal forces, crediting the long-term activism of groups like ‘Sisters in Islam,’ which he believes has a positive impact on Muslim women. This perspective can be labeled as the ‘getting a bit better thesis.’

The third narrative remains an open question, labeled as the ‘Pandora’s box thesis.’ It explores the potential direction of far-right politics in Malaysian political life, especially with the influential role of social media. Given the familiarity with cyber troopers and trolls, the question arises about how new motifs from far-right hyper-nationalist movements will influence the country’s political landscape and social norms.

The recent political transition in Malaysia has resulted in the Malay population introducing public discourse on issues such as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, rhetoric portraying Chinese individuals as natural outsiders in the country and attempts within the Indian narrative to reinterpret certain aspects of Malaysian history. This phenomenon is genuinely horizontal in nature. The central question remains whether populist politics have influenced the public debate, considering that Islamization has traditionally been assumed to correlate with an anti-LGBTQ stance in the country. Dr. Shah concluded the presentation with a speculative and open question: Are LGBTQ controversies emerging as new rituals of confrontation in the ongoing Malaysian political transition? 

MGP-Panel7-Thailand

Mapping Global Populism – Panel 7: Democracy in Thailand – Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism

Please cite as:

Guidotti, Andrea. (2023). Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0047      

 

This report offers a summary of the seventh event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism,” which took place online on November 30, 2023. Dr. Michael Montesano moderated the panel, featuring insights from three distinguished panelists.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the seventh event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism,” held online on November 30, 2023. Moderated by Dr. Michael Montesano, Associate Senior Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, Yusof Ishak Institute – ISEAS, the panel featured speakers Dr. Petra Alderman, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and Research Fellow of CEDAR, Itsakul Unahakate, PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and Lecturer at Thammasat University, and Pattanun Arunpreechawat from NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Michael Montesano delved into the unique nature of populism in Thailand, emphasizing its distinctiveness and the challenges it poses for comparative analysis. He noted that while Thai populism may seem peculiar, it is crucial to understand movements like populism and authoritarianism within their specific local context to draw meaningful comparisons. The entry of populism into Thailand’s political discourse gained prominence over two decades ago with Thaksin Shinawatra’s premiership in 2001. Thaksin’s extravagant program, particularly targeting rural ties, introduced policies such as a moratorium on village development funds for farms and low-cost access to healthcare. Despite being perceived as unprecedented welfare measures for rural Thailand, they were often misunderstood and overlooked by commentators at the time.

Dr. Montesano explained that since Thaksin and his party introduced populist ideas and programs, policies deemed populist have been replicated in the platforms of almost all Thai political parties and even by the military dictatorship that took power in Bangkok in 2014. The key to Thaksin’s policy success lies in his ability to align programs with rhetoric and behavior, emphasizing his direct connection with the Thai people. Furthermore, this unmediated relationship with the Thai people was seen by many in the Bangkok elite as a challenge to another figure attempting to build a connection with the people, namely the Monarch.

Dr. Montesano highlighted that the question of mediation, or lack thereof, between the people and the government in Thailand is crucial not only to populism but also to manifestations of authoritarianism in the country. According to him, understanding Thai authoritarianism is more challenging than understanding Thai populism because pinpointing its precise onset is difficult. Does it date from the early 1890s when King Chulalongkorn reformed the government, endowing Royal absolutism with unprecedented power? Does it date to the 1930s when a small civilian military faction abolished the Thai absolute monarchy? Or does it date back to the long series of military governments from just before the Pacific War up to the very recent past, giving the country its current reputation for coups and dictatorships?

He concluded by emphasizing that the critical point is that both in the 1930s and during the Cold War era, high authoritarianism was, in fact, centered on the same concerns as Thaksin’s populism. The faction of civil servants and soldiers that seized power from the absolute monarchy in 1932 did so in the name of the people. Similarly, the counterinsurgency doctrine that the military-led government in Bangkok unveiled in 1980 espoused a version of democracy rooted in an unmediated relationship between the state and the people. Even the military dictatorship of 2014 to 2019 inherited this same idea regarding the relationship of the state to the Thai people from the counterinsurgency era.Hence, it can be stated that Thai authoritarianism has often been rooted in an effort to address the same need that underlies Thai populism: the necessity to establish connections between the demos and the state without the mediating structures of liberal democracy.

Dr. Petra Alderman: “Political Legitimation and Authoritarian Nation Branding in Thailand”

Dr. Petra Alderman stated that Thailand embraced nation branding during Thaksin’s premiership. This adoption was influenced by the premier’s business-oriented approach to politics and his association with numerous marketers. Thaksin’s brand presented an alternative strategic myth to the conservative triadic Thai expression of national identity, typically formulated as a nation-religion-king triad. The traditional triad is rooted in principles of deference, obedience, and strict social hierarchy. In contrast, Thaksin’s “nation economy” brand promoted the idea of a successful and competitive Thailand filled with business-minded individuals, aspiring to be on par with Western industrialized nations.

As the first panelist, Dr. Petra Alderman presented the key ideas from her book Branding Authoritarian Nations: Political Legitimation and Strategic National Myths in Military-Ruled Thailand, which focuses on nation branding in Thailand but is also broadly applicable to various authoritarian contexts.

Dr. Alderman explained that nation branding involves a unified way of representing a country, often through slogans like ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain is great,’ as well as logos and visuals. A clear example is a poster from Great Britain in a campaign which was launched back in 2015 at the time of David Cameron government. The concept of branding nations as products or corporations originated in the late 1990s in American and British branding circles, with Simon Anholt considered a key figure. Initially, the idea was for countries to engage in nation branding to enhance their global competitiveness, attracting more tourists and investors. The focus has often been on the external projection of countries, overlooking the domestic dimension of nation branding.

She highlighted three key points. First, nation branding is a profound political practice that merits careful study. Second, a shift in perspective is needed, moving away from an excessive focus on external manifestations to understanding its domestic implications. Third, discussing authoritarian nation branding is most effective when viewed through the lens of political legitimation. The potential for legitimation in nation branding lies in its capacity to generate strategic national myths—selective interpretations of the nation’s past and present character. These myths encompass future visions and aspirations, often rooted in a blend of economic and cultural goals. Their strategic nature is evident in how they aim to influence perceptions of the country’s elite, their interests, and the functioning of domestic power arrangements.

Dr. Alderman then contextualized this practice in Thailand, noting that the country embraced nation branding during Thaksin’s premiership from 2001 to 2006. This adoption was influenced by the premier’s business-oriented approach to politics and his association with numerous marketers. Thaksin’s brand presented an alternative strategic myth to the conservative triadic Thai expression of national identity, typically formulated as a nation-religion-king triad. The traditional triad is rooted in principles of deference, obedience, and strict social hierarchy. In contrast, Thaksin’s “nation economy” brand promoted the idea of a successful and competitive Thailand filled with business-minded individuals, aspiring to be on par with Western industrialized nations.

Dr. Alderman stated that significant changes were implemented by the NCPO after the 2014 military coup, adopting a different approach driven by distinct needs. The new regime focused on information operations, targeting perceived enemies, and attempting to alter their mindset. In Thai context, the enemy was often the domestic audience, particularly those opposing the coup and the regime. The NCPO aimed to delegitimize the “nation economy” Thaksin brand, steering people back toward the more conservative expression of Thai identity symbolized by the nation-religion-king triad. The NCPO introduced a new strategic national myth depicting a creatively modernizing but culturally and socially traditional Thailand. This narrative urged Thai people to reject the Shinawatra family, provincial identities, and social aspirations in favor of semi-authoritarian rule under the new regime.

As an illustration of the NCPO’s strategy, Dr. Alderman highlighted “Thailand 4.0,” a relatively short-lived project launched in March/April 2016 as Thailand’s flagship economic policy. It had a robust external component, signaling to the world that Thailand was aligning with the global trend toward Industry 4.0 and was an attractive investment destination. Simultaneously, Thailand 4.0 had a substantial internal dimension, initially presented as an economic policy but primarily serving as a tool for political legitimation for the NCPO. Essentially, Thailand 4.0 presented an enticing vision of the future to Thai people in exchange for their support, trust, and loyalty to the military government. It was basically narrating that it is not just the Thaksin government that could deliver all these exciting economic visions but also the NCPO is able to do the same. 

Itsakul Unahakate: “Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center”

Unakahate: The audience in Thailand is introduced to four state-centered responses: direct communication, fact-checking (systematic assessments of claims made by public officials and institutions with an attempt to verify their accuracy), content removal or blocking, and criminal sanctions. In democracies, journalists or third-party fact-checkers often play a role, with government support provided through funding or coordination with independent bodies to avoid partisanship. In contrast, authoritarian regimes strive to act as the Ministry of Truth by establishing their own fact-checking agencies, which may lack guaranteed independence.

The second panelist, Itsakul Unahakate, presented a pre-recorded session titled ‘Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center,’ which delved into the operations of anti-fake news centers in Thailand during the Covid-19 pandemic. His research is grounded in the notion that fake news can have social consequences, particularly during the pandemic, potentially justifying government intervention. This raises concerns about the potential impact on freedom of expression and democratization, especially in authoritarian regimes. While many studies examine the effects on civil liberties and freedom of expression, only a few explain the reasons behind the use of these responses. Different responses take various intrusive forms and affect freedom of expression differently. The research question is: What explains the variation in the state’s responses to fake news, and when does the state refrain from taking action?

The audience is introduced to four state-centered responses: direct communication, fact-checking (systematic assessments of claims made by public officials and institutions with an attempt to verify their accuracy), content removal or blocking, and criminal sanctions. A noteworthy distinction is observed between democratic and Asian countries in their approach to information correction. In democracies, journalists or third-party fact-checkers often play a role, with government support provided through funding or coordination with independent bodies to avoid partisanship. In contrast, authoritarian regimes strive to act as the Ministry of Truth by establishing their own fact-checking agencies, which may lack guaranteed independence.

Scholar Unahakate also detailed the methodology employed in the study. Data collection occurred between March 2020 and September 2022, encompassing the first six months after the declaration of a state of emergency under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, which granted the government additional administrative power due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The decree allowed for criminal charges, including imprisonment, against offenders. The data were sourced from two fact-checking centers: Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Centre (AFNC) and AFP Thailand. The coding process followed the International Fact-Checking Network’s principles of non-partisanship and transparency, ensuring that fact-checkers justify why and how they select and assess claims. Finally, data were analyzed using qualitative Nvivo content analysis, comparing the patterns of AFNC and AFP reports to understand their approaches to fact-checking news.

Regarding the findings, during the first three months after the emergency decree’s announcement, the AFNC primarily focused its infection reports on the government’s Covid-19 policies and measures, as well as virus prevention and treatment. In the subsequent three months, there was a shift towards health-related news. A similar pattern was observed in AFP reports. However, noteworthy is that certain issues, such as protests, were only covered by AFP Thailand reports. In terms of sources, the AFNC often does not specify claim origins, frequently using unspecified sources. At best, the AFNC may select a less important claim than the available options; at worst, it might fabricate a claim to serve government agendas. Conversely, AFP utilized various sources, with AFNC often referring to government agencies like the Ministry of Public Health or the Department of Public Relations.

Unahakate concluded by highlighting the research outcomes. There are notable differences between the reports of the two fact-checking centers: around one-sixth of the claims in the AFNC are considered true, while none are in AFP. In essence, substantial disparities exist between the reports of the two fact-checkers. The AFNC appears to be a deficient fact-checker, at least based on the standards set by the IFNC Code of Principles regarding transparency and impartiality. Furthermore, the AFNC may have concealed objectives beyond its fact-checking responsibilities.

**

Pattanun Arunpreechawat: “Youth Perspective: Is Populism for the People? An Ecofeminist Movement from Thailand”

Pattanun Arunpreechawat’s central argument posits that many Thai populist policies lack inclusivity, disproportionately benefiting specific segments of society. In this context, feminism is defined as the eradication of factors contributing to the ongoing systemic domination or subordination of women. Ecology, on the other hand, signifies an environmental philosophy valuing all living beings for their intrinsic existence, not solely for their utility to humans. Ecofeminism, therefore, asserts that there are significant connections—historical, experiential, symbolic, and theoretical—between the domination of women and the domination of nature.

As the final panelist, Pattanun Arunpreechawat presented from a youth perspective, focusing on a specific definition of populism related to macroeconomic strategies prioritizing economic growth, national development, and fair income distribution. Politicians implementing these populist policies often target the rural poor and claim to represent the interests of the people. The key question revolves around who truly benefits from these populist policies and in what ways. Her presentation narrowed its focus to bilateral trade agreements, highlighting positive impacts such as promoting growth, creating new jobs, increasing GDP, and attracting foreign investments. On the flip side, negative impacts include environmental degradation, job displacement, and unequal distribution, sometimes leading to land disputes.

Her argument is framed within an ecofeminist framework, which examines the interconnection between environmental issues and the challenges faced by marginalized groups, such as women and the rural poor. This perspective highlights how certain populist policies overlook the exploitation and oppression of these groups. The central argument posits that many Thai populist policies lack inclusivity, disproportionately benefiting specific segments of society. In this context, feminism is defined as the eradication of factors contributing to the ongoing systemic domination or subordination of women. Ecology, on the other hand, signifies an environmental philosophy valuing all living beings for their intrinsic existence, not solely for their utility to humans. Ecofeminism, therefore, asserts that there are significant connections—historical, experiential, symbolic, and theoretical—between the domination of women and the domination of nature. In this regard, Elisabeth Warren contends that environmental issues are feminist because the environment is intricately linked to rural and household economies governed by women. Additionally, women tend to be more reliant on natural resources than men due to societal norms and gender roles, and they bear a disproportionate burden from environmental degradation and the destruction of forests.

Arunpreechawat presented a compelling example from Thailand that illustrates the intertwined patterns of domination over both women and nature—the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), which became effective in 2005. Through this agreement, the corporation Kingsgate Consolidated obtained a concession from the Thai government to mine gold ore in three provinces: Phichit, Phitsanulok, and Phetchabun. Akara Resources, a Thai subsidiary of the Australian mining company, initiated mining operations in 2001 in Phichit under the project named ‘The Chatree Mining Complex.’ Due to the use of Cyanide, a toxic chemical substance, in gold extraction, villagers filed a lawsuit against the company in 2016, alleging violations of the National Environmental Quality Act.

Amid reports and under the Prayut government, Thailand decided to halt the mining operation in 2017, citing health and environmental concerns. However, this victory for the villagers and environmental activists was short-lived. Thailand faced a lawsuit from Kingsgate Consolidated itself, demanding over 30 million baht (USD 866 million) through the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), an agreement mechanism that grants the company the right to sue a nation.

She then delved into the various implications arising from this example. Concerning health, numerous studies revealed that there were elevated levels of heavy metals exceeding healthy standards in the bloodstream, a high level of cyanide contamination was observed, mining workers experienced health deterioration, and long exposure to such toxins through inhalation could lead to central nervous system toxicity. Regarding the environment, the mining sites released toxic leakages into the environment and paddy fields, causing high concentrations of metals in the lotus pond and paddy fields, along with elevated levels of air pollution. In terms of society, a significant clash unfolded between mining supporters and anti-mining activists: while free trade agreements or mining sites created jobs and reduced poverty, the detrimental health impacts were severe. Many villagers were instructed to relocate, and the activists who filed the lawsuit faced defamation charges.

In conclusion, Pattanun Arunpreechawat emphasized that this case is not isolated, as women in agriculture and other provinces often lead the fight against environmental injustices that affect not only women but also men and children. This process can be perceived as a form of slow violence, as it may not be immediately apparent. In this context, ecofeminism serves to uncover the connections between issues of oppression, environmental domination, and women, illustrating that these problems cannot be addressed in isolation. The empirical evidence demonstrates how populist policies (such as FTAs) with poor environmental practices impact women’s lives, highlighting the conflict between national economic growth and the rural poor. It also underscores how mainstream policies often reflect, reinforce, or create practices that devalue, subvert, or render invisible the actual needs and contributions of women and the underprivileged.

ECPS-SZABIST University-OrtakPanel

Panel by ECPS & SZABIST University: Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World

Please cite as:
Zaman, Zahra & Shahid, Syeda Abeeha. (2023). Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and SZABIST University. December 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0046     

 

This report offers an overview of the panel on “Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World,” jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists.

Report by Zahra Zaman* & Syeda Abeeha Shahid**

This report offers an overview of the panel on “Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World,” jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists. 

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Fizza Batool, Assistant Professor at SZABIST University, Karachi. Panelists comprised Dr. Andrej Zaslove (Associate Professor of Empirical Political Science at Radboud University, Netherlands), Dr. Bert N. Bakker (Associate Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research), Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (Associate Professor at the London School of Economics), Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui (Associate Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad), and Dr. Salim Cevik (Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, SWP in Germany).

 

Dr. Andrej Zaslove: “The Radical Right and the Radical Left in Anno 2023: What Does Populism Got to Do with It?”

Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

Dr. Andrej Zaslove discussed the diverse and constitutive elements of populism, emphasizing its implications in the electoral achievements of both left- and right-wing populist parties. Advocating for systematic measurement approaches, he introduced an instrument designed by him and colleagues to assess populism within political parties. Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

The presentation emphasized the necessity for empirical measures on both the supply and demand sides of populism. Dr. Zaslove shared insights from a recent study in which he utilized two instruments for measuring the supply of populism: PopuList, employing a dichotomous measure, and POPPA, which used a continuous approach with five items based on a thin-centered ideology. To gauge the demand side, the Akkerman scale was employed to assess populist attitudes in the public. The study revealed that mainstream populist parties scored lower on POPPA compared to radical right populist parties. The results indicated variations in the degrees and dimensions of populism, shedding light on the identity of populist parties and voter choices. While populism had limited impact on political praxis, it broadened its application to multiple actors, showcasing its ability to align parties along the left and right axes and garner support for diverse political entities.

In conclusion, Dr. Zaslove underscored the importance of employing a mechanism in a systematic and streamlined manner. Populism, as a political mechanism, plays a crucial role in shaping the interaction of political actors and institutions, as exemplified in Italy. Drawing a contrast between Georgie Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the presentation highlighted the impact of insider-outsider dynamics on popularity and emphasized the paramount role of populism in defining political representation for individual voters. It was noted that parties can modify or relinquish their populist identities depending on their governmental status, and populist voters may become less populist based on the varying motives and actions of political parties. Importantly, this does not imply a diminishing significance of ideology as a political mechanism. The evolving stances and political statuses of figures like Meloni and Wilders illustrate that populism will continue to dominate the political landscape, rooted in party establishment within institutional structures.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker: “Psychological Roots of Populist Voting”

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker delved into the psychological underpinnings of populism, highlighting the central role of anti-establishment rhetoric and people-centric themes in populist political discourse. He explored the implications of psychological dispositions, noting a positive correlation between openness and conscientiousness. Specifically, he associated dogmatic adherence to conservative policies, especially in cultural domains, with narrow-mindedness and conscientiousness.

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people. Statistical and correlational evidence suggests that those with lower agreeableness are more inclined to vote for populist parties, a pattern observed in the USA, the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland. Additionally, the lower agreeableness trait is linked to anti-establishment rhetoric. It’s crucial to note that authoritarianism moderates the effect of ideology measures, distinguishing ideology as the factor between authoritarianism and populism.

Dr. Bakker highlighted physiological responses to political rhetoric, explaining how individuals physically react to speeches by populist radical right politicians. He suggested that those with lower education levels might be more susceptible to political manipulation, swayed by a leader’s charisma rather than the substance of the argument. Dr. Bakker emphasized the need for additional research to examine the role of emotions in politics, exploring how political ideology and populist discourse shape people’s perceptions and the mechanisms of politics.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington: “The Psychological Appeal of Populism”

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington argues that collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington presented on the political psychology of populism, examining the impact of groups, hierarchies, and emotions. Her research delved into populism as a mobilizing discourse, emphasizing its psychological appeal in terms of intergroup relations, hierarchies, status concerns, and collective emotions. Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington elucidated the significance of groups and identity formation in her theoretical framework, drawing from social dominance theory to explore the role of hierarchy within groups and its connection to status concerns as a potential explanation for populism. She argued that populist leaders act as identity entrepreneurs, constructing narratives that align with populist rhetoric.

The research shared by Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington involved a combination of thematic analysis, content analysis, and rhetorical analysis of 163 speeches from election campaigns, including UK General Elections (2017, 2019), the Brexit referendum, and US presidential Elections (2016, 2020). These speeches were delivered by leaders of radical right populist, radical left populist, right-wing mainstream, and left-wing mainstream parties. The analysis revealed that mainstream parties emphasized national unity, while concerns about hierarchy manifested differently based on political orientation and populist status. Left-wing parties were more focused on social justice, with no significant difference based on populist status. Both left- and right-wing parties expressed concerns about system rigging, and emotional mobilization was more pronounced in the rhetoric of populist leaders compared to mainstream leaders. 

In both populist and mainstream parties, politicians discussed ingroup and outgroup dynamics in their speeches. However, collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui: “Electoral Populism in Pakistan and India”

Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui explored electoral populism in India and Pakistan, focusing on populist trends and nuances evident in the election manifestos of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Pakistan. The discussion delved into the nature of populism, its societal impacts, and various aspects observed in the political landscapes of both countries.

Dr. Siddiqui commenced his presentation by emphasizing the unique characteristics of populism and nationalism, underscoring the analytical distinctions between these two ideologies. Populism, he explained, establishes a vertical division within society, separating elites from the general population, while nationalism creates a horizontal differentiation between people within and outside the nation’s borders. Addressing a potential critique, he acknowledged the argument that far-right parties in Europe, which are anti-immigration and anti-immigrant, may intertwine populist and nationalist discourses, challenging the clear-cut analytical differentiation between the two.

He elucidated the characteristics of populism, emphasizing its reliance on the instrumentalization of hate and differentiation within political populist discourse. Dr. Siddiqui focused on the simplification of complex socio-political issues, the appeal to emotional sentiments, and the manipulation of electoral sensitivities as key elements of populism in shaping public opinion. His presentation underscored the role of populist leaders in effectively navigating the political landscape, often at the expense of social cohesion. Furthermore, he delved into the contributing factors to the rise of populism in India and Pakistan, highlighting the institutional weaknesses of political parties as a significant factor.

Examining the developmental populism in India through an analysis of the BJP election manifesto, Dr. Siddiqui highlighted its combination of class and caste systems, with a particular focus on the middle class and consumerist neoliberal capitalism. He emphasized Narendna Modi’s vision of a “New India” as a sustaining narrative for populism in the country. The presentation also delved into the rise of religious populism in Pakistan, exemplified by the manifestos of PTI and TLP. The implementation of blasphemy laws targeting the Ahmadi community was discussed as a singular focus of TLP to preserve the sanctity of the Prophet. Finally, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Salim Cevik: “Populist Strategies of Erdogan in 2022 Election”

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats.

Dr. Salim Cevik’s presentation covered three aspects: Erdogan’s employment of mixed populist strategies, the concept of Erdogan remaining a populist leader for 20 years in power, and his techno-nationalism as a political strategy. 

First, he analyzed Erdogan’s election strategies as a populist leader and his electoral victory in 2023. Dr. Cevik portrayed how Erdogan remained in power for 20 years with reference to the inherent ambiguity in the definition of populism. His talk highlighted the controversial usage of populist methods in Turkey. Accordingly, Erdogan’s policies appealed to emotional sentiments rather than material well-being. Second, he discussed how Erdogan sustained his populist appeal by redefining the establishment narrative, shifting it from a national to a global level, portraying himself as a leader fighting against a global elite opposing the rise of Turkey.

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats. From his successful election strategies to implementing policies in Turkey, Erdogan adopted and adjusted populist language over decades by addressing the emotional and sentimental needs of the voters.


(*) Zahra Zaman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at the Department of Social Sciences, SZABIST University, Karachi. She has demonstrated active engagement in both academic and co-curricular activities, previously serving as a Prefect, Proctor, President of the Literary Society, and Head Girl during high school. At SZABIST, Zahra has held various leadership roles, including Program Representative of the Social Sciences Department, General Secretary, Treasurer, and President of the SZABIST Student Council. With a strong interest in International Relations, she aspires to pursue research in areas such as security studies, foreign policy, and diplomacy, employing both comparative and case study approaches to comprehend global politics.

(**) Syeda Abeeha Shahid is an undergraduate Social Sciences student majoring in International Relations at SZABIST University, Pakistan. Her graduate research project focuses on examining the use of cultural diplomacy and soft power tools by populist leaders, employing a comparative analysis of two Asian populist leaders in power – Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Her primary areas of interest encompass diplomacy, foreign policy, and intergovernmental organizations. Fueled by an unwavering passion for understanding the complexities of global relations, shaped by political choices and culture, she actively engages in social work initiatives through volunteer activities aimed at supporting socially deprived segments of society.

Symposium

Symposium Report: Impacts of Global Power Transition on Authoritarian Populism and Multilateralism

Please cite as:
Nguijol, Gabriel Cyril; Sithole, Neo; Kastoriadou, Konstantina; Guidotti, Andrea; Diethelm, Johann Mathies and Mancini, Luca. (2023). “
Symposium Report: Impacts of Global Power Transition on Authoritarian Populism and Multilateralism.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 23, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0045    


Achieving a peaceful hegemonic change and power transitions, perhaps for the first time in history, requires Herculean efforts. In this context, a realistic reform agenda against the ongoing negative trends should focus on i) implementing better regulatory regimes for environmental protection, the spread of epidemics, and financial stability; ii) protecting the most fragile and “forgotten” people through improving global income distribution; iii) providing equal opportunities in global collective responsibility areas through relevant international public goods based on the principles of pluralism, participation, and transparency; iv) strengthening national sovereignty and the autonomous decision-making capacity of nation-states vis-a-vis globalization.

Introduction

This report is based on the ECPS’s Second Annual International Symposium titled ‘Impacts of Global Power Transition on Authoritarian Populism and Multilateralism’ which was held online in Brussels on March 30-31, 2022. 

Contrary to expectations, following a short period of revival in democratic governance in the post-Cold War era, “the third wave of authoritarianism” has gained momentum, particularly since the great recession of 2008-2009. For the first time in post-World War II history, there are more authoritarian states globally than democratic ones. This shift can be attributed, among other factors, to the rise of alternative powers with different norms and values in the emerging multiplex/multipolar world, the excesses of so-called hyper-globalization, and the failures of post-war multilateral cooperation mechanisms in addressing various global challenges.

The essence of the topic lies in the globalization of problems, coupled with the weakening of the liberal multilateral order (LMLO). This weakening has brought regional, national, and individual solutions to the forefront. Consequently, it sets the stage for alternative hybrid political-economic systems with different values and norms, creating a new space for populist politics that appeal to the people. Under the unpredictable, arbitrary, and contingent decisions of authoritarian populist leaders, the power transition process becomes more precarious, reminiscent of the painful memories of the recent past.

As we observe, the last hegemonic force, the U.S., has itself been threatened by populism. Conversely, with its authoritarian state capitalism, China has been aggressively defending its interests, positioning itself as a new power with a different interpretation of hegemony. Additionally, a long-consolidated authoritarian regime in Russia ultimately invaded Ukraine after unlawfully and forcibly annexing a strategically significant part of it, Crimea, in 2014. Lastly, the EU attempts to balance the emerging trends through alternative strategic partnerships with like-minded global partners to uphold its principles and values rooted in human rights, democracy, the rule of law, rule-based governance, and a free-market economy.

There are additional factors exacerbating the situation. Recent developments during and after the pandemic lockdown (2019-2022), such as disruptions in global value chains, a dangerous surge in global inflation, the associated energy-food crisis, accumulating debts, and a sharp deterioration in global income distribution, have the potential to influence the future course of populism and, consequently, the liberal multilateral order (LMLO).

Achieving a peaceful hegemonic change and power transitions, perhaps for the first time in history, requires Herculean efforts. In this context, a realistic reform agenda against the ongoing negative trends should focus on the following topics: First, implementing better regulatory regimes for environmental protection, the spread of epidemics, and financial stability. Second, protecting the most fragile and “forgotten” people through improving global income distribution, such as introducing universal income and welfare tax. Third, providing equal opportunities in global collective responsibility areas through relevant international public goods based on the principles of pluralism, participation, and transparency. Lastly, strengthening national sovereignty and the autonomous decision-making capacity of nation-states vis-a-vis globalization.

Considering all these issues, under the coordination of Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk and the auspices of Sir Graham Watson, our then-Honorary President, the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) organized this symposium on March 30-31, 2023, focusing on “the Impacts of Global Power Shift on Multilateralism and Populism.” The symposium brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of global power transition on authoritarian populism and multilateralism. Distinguished scholars in the field contributed their insightful speeches. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to document the symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and links to the full videos of presentations.

Welcoming Remarks by Prof. Cengiz AKTAR

Professor Cengiz Aktar says: Populism appears to rival roof-based international order, human rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, gender equality, social and environmental justice, transparency, and accountability. Unfortunately, it gains ground in a vertiginous space everywhere in our contemporary world. Populist politics and authoritarian tendencies are all over the world, ranging from developed to developing countries. As with most of the problems we face today, there is no magic stick to counter its evils.

Professor Cengiz Aktar, Professor and Senior Researcher at Foreign Policy Program of the ECPS, articulated how populism is undoubtedly one of the most important words of our times and a topmost adversary of liberal democracy and the democratic way of being. According to Professor Aktar, populism appears to rival roof-based international order, human rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, gender equality, social and environmental justice, transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, it gains ground in a vertiginous space everywhere in our contemporary world. Populist politics and authoritarian tendencies, according to him, are all over the world, ranging from developed to developing countries. As with most of the problems we face today, there is no magic stick to counter its evils. So, solutions cannot come from the feelings of human beings.

Furthermore, Professor Aktar highlighted that while the threat from populist movements is concerning, collective efforts from institutions like the ECPS have intensified to raise awareness about its dangers. These initiatives aim to translate academic research into more accessible formats for various stakeholders, including intellectuals, media, and policy-making communities. Engaging in a global effort, the ECPS serves as a knowledge hub and a platform for discussion, contributing to public goods and conducting evidence-based research in collaboration with relevant stakeholders. The goal is to provide timely alerts for the early identification of populist tendencies challenging democratic governments and to support an open society, market economy, multilateralism, the rule of law, and liberal democracy. Prof. Aktar concluded his welcoming speech by emphasizing that the annual conference aims to assess and take stock of these ongoing endeavors.

Opening Speech by Sir Graham WATSON

Addressing the response of liberal democracy to the challenges, Sir Graham Watson stressed the need for respect for universal principles against the politics of selfishness and resentment. He advocated for policies rooted in compassion, generosity, openness, and goodwill towards others. Moral education, the separation of church and state, and opposition to the political abuse of religion were identified as essential components.

In his opening speech, Sir Graham Watson, then-Honorary President of ECPS, underscored the pivotal role played by the ECPS in addressing global concerns and challenges. Sir Watson pointed out that nearly three-quarters of the world’s population now lives under autocracy, a significant increase from half a decade ago, highlighting the pressing nature of these concerns. He attributed this shift to two main factors discussed in the symposium: i) the decline of multilateralism resulting from a power shift, and ii) the exploitation of modern technologies and communications to evoke negative human emotions, causing adverse effects on liberal democracy.

Sir Watson identified many regions, both in Europe and beyond, as cradles of autocracy and illiberality. He cited examples such as China, characterized by illiberality under despotic rule, and Russia, described as a monster of autocracy involved in war crimes. Africa, hosting 40 of the world’s 59 authoritarian governments, was also mentioned. Despite challenges related to democratic recession stems from resurgence of intolerance based on ethnic, religious, or other affiliations, Sir Watson stressed the importance of a global sense of community. He cited Brexit as a recognized mistake, highlighting the continued global spread and rooting of democracy.

Sir Watson also highlighted the fact that modern conflicts challenged liberal democracy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us of how conflict is the most destructive behavior to liberal society as it is responsible for the murder of unarmed civilians, torture, abduction of children, destruction of homes and livelihoods, obliteration of infrastructures, all are costly in financial, physical and psychological terms. The danger of escalating is still there. This invasion and other conflicts elsewhere crystallize the battle between closed and open society, though peaceful resolution remains a high priority.

Addressing the response of liberal democracy to these challenges, Sir Watson stressed the need for respect for universal principles against the politics of selfishness and resentment. He advocated for policies rooted in compassion, generosity, openness, and goodwill towards others. Moral education, the separation of church and state, and opposition to the political abuse of religion were identified as essential components. Sir Watson outlined the foundation of an open society on moral principles, including equality, opportunity, social participation, and the rule of law for the benefit of all. He condemned intolerance and discrimination, emphasizing the importance of trust in the people.

Despite the challenges faced by these principles, such as the abuse of power and social inequalities, Sir Watson expressed optimism in the potential for reform and restructuring. He concluded by asserting that liberal democracy is not a lost cause but requires vigilance and resilience from its advocates to rebound and become stronger than ever.

Report by Gabriel Cyril Nguijol

 

Keynote Address

Věra JOUROVA: “Saving Multilateralism and Democracy Under Global Power Transition and Rising Authoritarian Populism.”

Věra Jourová’s address encompassed a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from global development goals, human rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the rule of law, countering disinformation, EU enlargement, and unwavering support for Ukraine. The comprehensive nature of her speech underscored the EU’s steadfast commitment to international cooperation, the advocacy of democratic values, and addressing the multifaceted challenges of the contemporary world.

Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency and former European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality, commenced her address by addressing the profound challenges facing the world today, notably the Russian Aggression and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. She underscored the setbacks experienced by global development goals due to these crises. The commitment of the European Union (EU) and its member states in preparing for the 2024 EU Summit, with a focus on the ambitious “Pact for the Future,” was highlighted.

Turning to the sustainable development goals (SDGs), Jourová emphasized the EU’s dedication to accelerating the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda. She referenced the EU’s voluntary National Review of SDG implementation presented at the United Nations Higher-Level Political Forum in July 2023. Stressing the interconnection between peace, security, and SDG achievement, she asserted that goals such as human rights, gender equality, climate change mitigation, and ensuring water, energy, and food security hinge on the attainment of peace.

Jourová also expressed robust support for human rights, emphasizing the human rights dimension within the common agenda. Acknowledging the United Nations’ commitment to promoting and protecting global human rights, she highlighted the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. These milestones were seen as opportunities to strengthen the UN framework for human rights, urging adherence to international laws and rules to bolster multilateralism and development.

Transitioning to the rule of law, Jourová underscored the core values underpinning the EU, prominently featuring human rights. She outlined various tools employed by the EU to address rule of law concerns within member states, including annual rule of law reports, reforms embedded in recovery and resilience plans, infringement procedures, and Article 7 procedures addressing systemic rule of law breaches. The speaker also referenced the budget conditionality mechanism designed to safeguard the EU budget against risks arising from violations of the rule of law.

The Vice President of the Commission addressed the European Democracy Action Plan, launched in December 2020, aiming to uphold free and fair elections, protect independent media, and combat disinformation, especially electoral manipulation. She emphasized the plan’s focus on enhancing journalist security and introducing legislation against abusive litigations targeting media outlets. Jourová discussed disinformation countermeasures, such as the Code of Practice against Disinformation, boasting 38 signatories, including major digital platforms, civil society organizations, and media entities. The EU’s approach centers on fostering societal action, including demonetization and fact-checking, rather than dictating truth or falsehood. The discussion expanded to financial inflows and their impact on European democracies, acknowledging their potential role in compromising electoral integrity. Jourová advocated for increased transparency in international donations and funds to prevent election interference.

In addressing disinformation challenges, Jourová drew a distinction concerning AI-generated disinformation, asserting the necessity of stringent measures due to its non-human origin. She highlighted the dual challenge: AI-generated content not only tests freedom of speech limits but also contributes to disinformation by producing convincing media forms that deepen societal divisions.

Regarding EU enlargement, the evolving geopolitical situation was elucidated, she acknowledged the EU’s past hesitance toward enlargement but emphasizing its current necessity in light of global dynamics. Ongoing discussions with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were disclosed, with a focus on evaluating their progress toward EU integration. Jourova underscored the imperative of providing EU support, technical assistance, and a phased accession perspective for these nations, placing particular emphasis on supporting Ukraine.

The speaker commended the unity and bravery displayed by the Ukrainian people and their supporters in the pursuit of security and democracy. The EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine encompassed military aid, macroeconomic assistance, sanctions, and a robust reconstruction plan. Recognizing the EU’s role as a partial contributor to Ukraine’s reconstruction, discussions are underway concerning the use of frozen assets and funds for this purpose. The objective is a substantial contribution to Ukraine’s recovery, considering its significance in securing the European neighborhood and upholding democratic values. Coordination among global donors for Ukraine’s recovery was deemed vital, with the EU actively engaging in the multi-agency donor coordination platform. Additionally, European cities are collaborating with Ukrainian counterparts to ensure inclusive and effective reconstruction efforts. Věra Jourová revisited the issue of human rights in Ukraine, highlighting ongoing investigations and prosecutions of alleged war crimes by Russia at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Two attendees expressed concerns about the EU’s weakened position in effectively addressing challenges to democracies, citing recent elections in Hungary and Turkey, where allegations of ‘undemocratic and authoritarian’ government practices arose. Additionally, apprehensions were voiced regarding China’s asymmetric economic influence potentially swaying smaller future EU members, particularly in the Balkans, away from European values. This raised questions about the effectiveness of existing EU mechanisms in enforcing established democratic values.

In addressing these concerns, Věra Jourová emphasized the pitfalls of creating a blacklist or whitelist to identify safe or at-risk countries. She highlighted the challenge that the Union, the Commission, and their affiliates often have limited insight into the causes of authoritarian shifts until they become evident at the national level. She cautioned against overlooking countries such as the United States, despite its alliance with the Commission, noting its potential to pursue its divisive agenda. Stressing the importance of financial transparency as a vital control measure, she acknowledged that while it might not eliminate the issues, it would help gain a better understanding of unfolding developments.

Věra Jourová directed attention to the EU’s preventive enforcement measures when disciplining members. While acknowledging that preventative measures may not entirely resolve issues, she pointed to cases like Hungary and Poland, where enforcement measures such as sanctions or limiting EU funds played a role in addressing democratic backsliding. These examples underscored the utility of enforcement measures in curbing potential challenges to democratic principles.

Another participant voiced concerns regarding freedom of expression and media across all EU member states, prospective members, and neighboring allies like Turkey. The inquiry questioned whether the EU is doing everything within its power to safeguard these rights. The need for a delicate balance between the autonomy of various media platforms, both traditional and contemporary, and oversight procedures by the EU, Commission, and member states was underscored. The participant highlighted the fine line between verified facts and disinformation, emphasizing the necessity to reinforce this boundary.

The discussion also addressed the challenge of content removal, predominantly initiated by governments rather than citizens, creating a potential for the abuse of oversight mechanisms by authorities. While acknowledging the role of professional media and other entities, including states, in debunking disinformation, the complexity of this task within the context of the ongoing “information war” was underscored. The participants recognized the importance of handling this issue with care, considering its implications for European values. They stressed that an excessively stringent response by states could encroach upon freedom of speech, presenting a significant victory for illiberal leaders, such as Vladimir Putin.

The discussion delved into the persistent issue of populism surging across the EU, despite the efforts of organizations like the European Commission for Values. The inquiry focused on whether the speaker believed the populist trend would persist and if the EU’s actions were sufficient to counter its rise in member countries. The response indicated that populism is likely to increase, particularly in instances where governments fail to address the needs and concerns of their citizens and voters.

Drawing on the example of Greece, the discussion highlighted how populist sentiments surged due to escalating feelings of inequality, unaddressed anxieties toward technological changes, abuse of power, unchecked corruption, and a media landscape inundated with false and emotive content. It was emphasized that each of these factors is manageable when addressed promptly, but if left unattended, the outcomes become predictably unfavorable.

In conclusion, Věra Jourová affirmed that the Commission fulfills its mandated responsibilities to the best of its abilities within the established rules and competencies. While acknowledging the scope for improvement, she emphasized that any enhancements must align with the regulatory framework governing the Commission’s actions. This sentiment extended to other EU organs, each with distinct competencies, where a more activist role, as seen in the EU Parliament, could be exercised.

In summary, Věra Jourová’s address encompassed a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from global development goals, human rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the rule of law, countering disinformation, EU enlargement, and unwavering support for Ukraine. The comprehensive nature of her speech underscored the EU’s steadfast commitment to international cooperation, the advocacy of democratic values, and addressing the multifaceted challenges of the contemporary world.

Report by Neo Sithole

 

Panel -I-

Multilateralism: The Past and the Future

The First Panel of the Symposium, moderated by Dr. Aline Burni, a Policy Analyst on International Relations at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels, featured three distinguished speakers. The speakers, in order of appearance, were Dr. Mattias Kumm (S.J.D. Harvard, Research Professor for Global Constitutionalism, WZB Berlin Social Science Center), Dr. Richard Clark (Associate Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University), and Dr. Werner Pascha (Professor of Economics, Duisburg-Essen University, Institute of East Asian Studies-IN-EAST).

During her introductory speech, Dr. Burni underscored the significance of recognizing that, despite populist opposition to multilateral and international cooperation, these approaches remain crucial. She emphasized that multilateralism stands as the most effective means for the international community to address escalating global threats, such as climate change and digital challenges, which transcend national boundaries and necessitate collaborative efforts.

Dr. Mattias KUMM: “How International Law Enables Great Power Domination and Great Power Competition and Chat Can Be Done About It”

Dr. Mattias Kumm states that, “for a committed international community wanting to hold great powers accountable, there are paths to move forward, significantly enhancing the capacities of the international system to judiciously hold great powers accountable.” These three factors—1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional problems related to both a general court (comprising the ICJ and the ICC), and 3) The issue of unaccountability arising from the threats of the use of nuclear weapons—are, according to him, “the core structural features that enable the kind of great power competition we have in the present.

Dr. Mattias Kumm, S.J.D. Harvard, Research Professor for Global Constitutionalism at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, delivered a presentation focused on the evolving dynamics of international relations over the past decade. He explored the structural enabling features of the current international legal order that have contributed to these changes. Dr. Kumm contends that a crucial issue lies in the lack of recognition that International Law itself requires reform. Supporting his argument, he began by citing the example of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and analyzing the reactions provoked by the conflict. The aim was to gain a deeper understanding of the Contemporary International Legal Order (hereafter: CILO). Despite widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion by many nations (142 out of 190+ states), Dr. Kumm emphasized the absence of a compelling argument advocating for the reform of International Law.

Regarding reform, Dr. Kumm highlighted three core structural features that underpin the current state of great power competition: 1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional issues related to the General Court, encompassing the ICJ and the ICC, and 3) The challenge of unaccountability stemming from the potential use of nuclear weapons. It is essential to emphasize the inherent interconnectedness of these points.

Before delving into an analysis of these three factors, Dr. Kumm provided the audience with contextual information about the CILO and its formation. He traced the origins of the idea that the international order needed reform back to former U.S. President Roosevelt during the Second World War. Despite the initial reluctance of the United States to be directly involved in the war, it played a significant supporting role, acting as the “armory of democracy” by providing weapons, organizing coalitions, and offering support against aggressors. However, Dr. Kumm stressed that, by 1941, Roosevelt recognized the inevitability of U.S. involvement in the war. He underscored that, beyond immediate actions to support the Allies, particularly the UK against Germany, Roosevelt’s focus shifted to the mid- to long-term need for a transformation of the international order to prevent such conflicts from recurring.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the establishment of the UN Charter and other multilateral forums, including the Bretton Woods institutions, signaled a recognition that the crisis at hand was indicative of a broader deficiency within the existing international legal order. This acknowledgment led to the understanding that the International Legal Order needed reform “to ensure that this type of thing, which has happened for a second time in a short period, and how to make sure that in both cases the USA was drawn into the conflict, [won’t happen again].” Thus, the connection between intervention and the imperative for a transformation of International Law was established. Dr. Kumm’s presentation underscores the pivotal role played by the United States in shaping the CILO.

Regarding the first core issue, Dr. Kumm argues, “If we ask: ‘Who are the great powers, who are likely to get away with murder, war crimes, they are not only those five, but others will get away only if they are under the protection of those five. So ultimately, the possibility to cast a veto and to ensure that condemnation or collective mobilization and the authorization of sanctions of various kinds can take place, is a very, very important part of ensuring unaccountability.”

While he deems the abolishment of the veto as utopian, he asserts, “there are other ways, that as a lawyer we could get into more discussions relating to the potential role of the UN General Assembly, as we already have here, under the uniting for peace process, but there are other legal techniques – the idea that certain vetoes casts are invalid and thereby should not undermine all the UN Security Council authorizing actions and so, there are a number of steps one might think of […] there are ways to address it through legal interpretation and legal creativity, which does not involve something utopian.”

His second argument focuses on jurisdiction as a contributing factor to the “unsatisfying state of affairs.” In a scenario where a state claims its rights are internationally violated, it can take the matter to an impartial and independent tribunal to assess the legality of the actions. The challenge arises from the fact that international courts only have jurisdiction if there is consent.

Dr. Kumm highlighted a historical context, stating, “there was a time in history where both the USA, Britain, and France had accepted the general jurisdiction of the ICC. But the US, after being condemned for its aggressive war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, withdrew. Similarly, when the French were criticized by the ICC for engaging in a nuclear weapons test in a way that arguably violated human rights, they also withdrew.”

The last argument pertains to nuclear weapons. Dr. Kumm contends, “The current conflicts would be unthinkable in a context with no nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are perpetually used as a threat in the background, as has been the case with Russia.” He proposes that in the scenario of Russia’s invasion, there might not have been a war in the first place if not for nuclear weapons, suggesting that NATO would have intervened. In the preceding point, he asserts that nuclear power serves as a destabilizing factor in the existing balance of power arrangements.

He concludes that, “for a committed international community wanting to hold great powers accountable, there are paths to move forward, significantly enhancing the capacities of the international system to judiciously hold great powers accountable.” These three factors—1) The UN Security Council Veto, 2) Jurisdictional problems related to both a general court (comprising the ICJ and the ICC), and 3) The issue of unaccountability arising from the threats of the use of nuclear weapons—are, according to him, “the core structural features that enable the kind of great power competition we have in the present. Unless we contemplate and actively address these challenges, we risk stumbling from one crisis to another, with a genuine danger of a major global conflagration as a consequence.”

Dr. Richard CLARK: “On the New Paradigms of Cooperation in the Rising World of Multiplexity in Countering Populism”

The key takeaway from Dr. Richard Clark’s presentation is his belief that populists are unlikely to exit or completely abandon IOs. Instead, they will engage with these organizations strategically, leveraging aspects like regime complexity to avoid policies they find intrusive or stringent. Populists will choose forms of engagement that offer them the best deal—a policy package that is least intrusive and erodes sovereignty minimally. This allows them to appeal to their base while interacting with international organizations.

The presentation by Dr. Richard Clark, Associate Professor at the Department of Government at Cornell University, focused on a chapter he is contributing to the upcoming Oxford Handbook on the International Monetary Fund titled “Regime Complexity and the Populist Challenge to Global Governance.” The central question he posed was: “Does populism truly signify the demise of international organizations (IOs)? How do populists navigate governance complexity?”

The key takeaway was his belief that populists are unlikely to exit or completely abandon IOs. Instead, they will engage with these organizations strategically, leveraging aspects like regime complexity to avoid policies they find intrusive or stringent. Populists, according to Dr. Clark, will choose forms of engagement that offer them the best deal—a policy package that is least intrusive and erodes sovereignty minimally. This allows them to appeal to their base while interacting with international organizations.

Dr. Clark highlighted the traditional populist opposition to IOs, emphasizing how populists often pit the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” This elite can be domestic or international, encompassing business figures. The “pure people” typically represent working-class individuals, often less affluent, and sometimes even the middle class in the US, who feel left behind by trends like globalization, international trade, and economic interconnectedness. International organizations, in this context, serve as popular scapegoats for populist leaders. They are identified as highly technocratic institutions employing experts, and these experts, being highly educated individuals, become the perfect scapegoats in the populist narrative framing the corrupt elite, particularly because they are seen as part of the international elite.

According to Dr. Clark, both right-wing and left-wing populists target international organizations (IOs), as these entities are often perceived as incompatible with populist ideologies. Left-wing populists, characterized as redistributionists, seek to redistribute wealth from the affluent elites, either domestically or in the global economy, back to the common man. This perspective leads redistributionists to oppose IOs, viewing them as primarily benefiting the wealthy on an international scale. On the right-wing side, nativists oppose international or foreign power groups, making IOs an ideal target since they represent a foreign elite or out-group. The argument is that IOs allegedly benefit foreigners more than the citizens governed by populist leaders.

Dr. Clark explained the concept of “regime complexity” as the governance by multiple international bodies with overlapping mandates. In simpler terms, it refers to the involvement of numerous international bodies with shared responsibilities. Using the World Bank as an example, he noted that what was once the sole multilateral financing forum for infrastructures has now expanded to 28 overlapping forums. He highlighted those countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan regions, can be members of multiple forums, allowing them to choose the most favorable deal or shift operations between regimes to minimize adjustment costs.

In his research, Dr. Clark focuses on the conditionality of policy requirements attached to foreign aid, whether from bilateral sources (such as China, the US, or the EU) or multilateral institutions (like the IMF and World Bank). These requirements may involve how funds should be spent to prevent corruption or governance features such as democracy and human rights. Populist leaders often view these conditions as intrusive to state sovereignty, which is a primary reason for their hesitation and dismissive stance towards IOs.

In the contemporary landscape, countries can strategically utilize the array of international forums, even employing the threat of forum shopping to generate bargaining leverage, according to Dr. Clark. Various regional forums, such as The Chiang Mai Initiative, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, BRICS institutions, and the European Monetary Institution, offer alternatives. A country might signal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it is considering substituting its financial support from another source, thereby potentially obtaining funds on terms more favorable to its preferences and reducing conditions that could threaten sovereignty. Dr. Clark contends that there are strong theoretical reasons to believe that populists are particularly inclined to pursue this strategy, seeking to avoid adjustment costs that erode sovereignty and distancing themselves from IOs rather than engaging in negotiations, which are often highly public, especially in the context of loan programs, which is the primary focus of his research.

Furthermore, Dr. Clark emphasized the IMF as an ideal target for populists due to its highly technocratic and bureaucratic nature. He underscored that the IMF imposes stringent conditions on countries under loan programs, including mandates for privatizing state-owned enterprises, cutting wages, and implementing measures that may lead to short-term adjustment costs such as unemployment and currency devaluation. These consequences can have significant political ramifications, potentially jeopardizing the positions of leaders, whether populist or not, particularly in democratic countries. Dr. Clark also highlighted instances, such as in Hungary, where the presence of IMF bureaucrats for routine surveillance became politicized, with leaders like Orbán emphasizing the importance of distancing oneself from these IOs.

In a presented graph, Dr. Clark illustrated that countries with non-populist leaders have a 10% chance of entering an IMF program, whereas those with populist leaders have a 7% chance. Although he didn’t present specific data, he argued that populists are particularly prone to avoiding these programs when they have alternative options. According to reports from sources like the New York Times and Financial Times, there is a growing indication that China is emerging as a significant competitor to the IMF.

In a second graph, he demonstrated that “populist leaders can negotiate fewer conditions,” resulting in a nearly 20% reduction in the number of conditions imposed in a program when transitioning from a non-populist to a populist leader within a given country. This suggests that populist leaders, despite their critical stance toward elites and international organizations, maintain engagement with the IMF. They do not outright leave these institutions; instead, they have representatives working behind the scenes, fulfill their financial obligations, participate in voting, and, in essence, act as responsible members of these institutions.

In conclusion, Dr. Clark emphasized that “populists engage with IOs despite their hostile rhetoric, but they leverage regime complexity to minimize the costs of doing so.” He highlighted the material costs associated with economic reforms tied to loans, especially at the IMF, and reducing conditions serves as a strategy to alleviate these material and short-term costs. Populist leaders also aim to minimize audience costs or the inconsistency between their rhetorical criticism of IOs and their practical engagement with these organizations.

By portraying their engagement as a favorable deal or by exploring alternatives in less stringent forums, populists seek to mitigate the dissonance between their words and actions and present this as a strategic move to the public. However, Dr. Clark pointed out that such an approach limits the ability of IOs to promote reforms and fulfill their mandates, leading to negative consequences for these organizations.

Nevertheless, according to Dr. Clark, maintaining superficial engagement, even if it involves populist leaders, is preferable to their outright exit or cessation of cooperation with IOs. A widespread revolt, considering the prevalence of populist leaders globally, could be severely detrimental to the liberal international order. The advantage of keeping a level of engagement, even if it appears merely symbolic, is that when non-populist leaders assume power, it becomes relatively straightforward to repair these relationships. This has been demonstrated, for instance, in the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration in the United States. There exists a method to preserve the legitimacy and vitality of these institutions, ensuring their collective acceptance through repairable means after populists leave office.

Dr. Werner PASCHA: “Mini-literalism in the Indo-Pacific as an Alternative to Multilateralism and Bilateralism? The Role of Public Support and Populism”

According to Dr. Werner Pascha, there is a notable co-evolution of minilateralism and populism. He posited that the promotion of minilateral schemes is something populists would attempt if they wielded sufficient influence, as not all countries can engage in such initiatives for various reasons.

Dr. Werner Pascha, Professor of Economics at Duisburg-Essen University, Institute of East Asian Studies-IN-EAST, explored a theme closely aligned with Dr. Richard Clark’s presentation, examining the correlation between populism and minilateralism. The central question he addressed was whether populism serves as a catalyst for the development of minilateralism in the region, and what the implications might be, backed by empirical evidence.

He began by defining minilateralism as the association of a small number of countries with each other. Unlike multilateralism, minilateralism involves the smallest number of countries necessary to have the most significant impact on solving a specific problem. This concept is rooted in efficiency, as minilateralism is expected to be more effective, arguing that with a small number of like-minded countries working together informally, it becomes easier to address issues compared to dealing with larger entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

He argued that some of these minilateral groups may be regional, while others may not. However, typically, as a small number of countries, they serve a specific and targeted purpose in areas such as trade, infrastructure, security, international security, and the environment. Importantly, they do not attempt to substitute entities like the World Trade Organization (WTO) but rather focus on specific ideas within their designated domains.

According to Dr. Pascha, minilateral events in the Indo-Pacific region began emerging gradually since 2013, exemplified by MIKTA—an informal cooperation involving non-G7 and non-BRICS members of the G20, including Turkey, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, and Indonesia. MIKTA is an illustration of groups extending beyond regional borders. Notably, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in 2017, involving Australia, India, the US, and Japan, is one of the most prominent minilateral events. While it is perceived by some as directed against China, its primary focus revolves around the open seas, the rule of law, and freedom in various contexts. The Australia-Japan-India Trilateral Agreement (AJI) in 2015, focusing on supply chain resilience, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, involving Southeast Asian countries and China, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, demonstrate the potential for minilateralism among non-liberal democratic countries. Lastly, the AUKUS grouping in 2021, similar to the Quad but without India, focuses on military cooperation. Under AUKUS, the US and the UK are supplying Australia with nuclear power, submarines, and other military capabilities.

Dr. Pascha then posed the question, “Why do we have these kinds of minilateral events?” The conventional argument is rooted in the perceived deficiencies of multilateralism, as mentioned earlier by Dr. Clark. These deficiencies are often attributed to the formality of multilateralism, leading to clumsiness, and the challenges countries face in navigating it. The complexity of bilateralism, often referred to as the “spaghetti effect,” and the intricacies of multilateralism further contribute to the appeal of minilateralism. Dr. Pascha argued that the shortcomings of these alternatives ultimately drive the preference for minilateralism based on considerations of effectiveness and efficiency. The informality of like-minded partnerships is seen as expediting processes, offering flexibility, modularity, and the opportunity for experimentation.

However, he also highlighted the downsides of minilaterals, including their potential to undermine multilateral mechanisms, engage in forum shopping, lack transparency in accounting for agreements, be perceived as toothless, and pose challenges when dominated by one partner, potentially leading to an unfair association. Thus, the crucial question emerges: “Are minilaterals a meaningful alternative or not?” Dr. Pascha asserted that the answer depends on the political process behind it and who drives for minilaterals.

The preceding question led him to explore the idea that populist governments exhibit a strong interest in minilaterals, particularly due to the simultaneous rise of populism and minilateralism. To establish a connection between populism and minilateralism, he delved into the reasons behind the emergence of populism, asserting that it is intertwined with the economic aspects of international relations. 

Dr. Pascha pointed to inequalities resulting from globalization, concentrated specifically among certain characteristics such as low-skilled workers and certain regions. He argued that multilaterals struggle to address these issues and crises effectively. The challenges related to migrants and refugees further exacerbate the problems, creating a sense of dissatisfaction with multilateral schemes. He aligned with Dr. Clark’s observation that there is tension in the current international order. However, he phrased it as a dissatisfaction with multilateral schemes, and for populists, there is a perceived need or hope to find an alternative that can be presented as an easy solution. In this context, Dr. Pascha asserted that minilateral schemes become the preferred option for populists.

To support this argument, he presented the case of the US and Japan in the Indo-Pacific region, contending that they play a primary role in the proliferation of minilateral agreements, with other countries reacting to their initiatives.

In the case of the US, AUKUS and QUAD represent perhaps the most notable attempts to establish like-minded partnerships in the region, according to Dr. Pascha. Initiated during the Trump Administration, these endeavors align closely with the argument presented. They are linked to a rejection of multilateral mechanisms, as evidenced in official documents, where it is explicitly stated that existing multilateral schemes, or what has been termed the international rule of law, are deemed ineffective. There was an expectation that the US would assume a dominant political role in these partnerships, emphasizing the need to find like-minded countries. Consequently, said Dr. Pascha, it is evident that the populist United States, in practice, became a leader in minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific.

The case of Japan is somewhat more intricate due to the question of whether Japan can be considered a populist country. Dr. Pascha referred to Prof. Axel Klein’s presentation in ECPS symposium from the previous year, noting that according to Klein, Japan, in terms of ideology, ideas, strategy, and other aspects, “cannot be considered as a populist country.” However, Dr. Pascha disagrees with this assessment, particularly based on definitions 3 and 4 (communication style and policies). He focused on the styles of Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe, citing Koizumi’s public approach, often described as a “lion,” as indicative of a populist style. In terms of policies (definition 4), he pointed to Abenomics, characterized by expansive economic measures that generated criticism from conventional economists. Dr. Pascha views this as a typical populist policy seeking an easy solution that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Additionally, he highlighted Abe’s attempts to change the constitution and the presence of anti-migration sentiments during the period of interest. Consequently, the question remains somewhat ambiguous on this matter.

Dr. Pascha concluded that there is a notable co-evolution of minilateralism and populism. He acknowledged the challenge of quantitatively studying this co-evolution due to the difficulty in precisely defining both multilateralism and populism. Nevertheless, he argued that a co-evolution exists between them and suggested that he could demonstrate a connection between the rise of minilateralism and domestic political effects. He posited that the promotion of minilateral schemes is something populists would attempt if they wielded sufficient influence, as not all countries can engage in such initiatives for various reasons. As he argued in the beginning, it’s not quite clear whether the pros or other cons effects of minilateralism are most striking.

Reported by Konstantina Kastoriadou

 

Panel -II-

Power Shift, Multiplex World, and Populism

The second panel of the first day of the symposium was titled “Power Shift, Multiplex World, and Populism” and moderated by Professor Emilia Zankina, Interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement and Dean at Temple University in Rome. 

Dr. Sara CARIA: “Cooperation Regimes and Hegemonic Struggle: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries”

Dr. Sara Caria: Functioning within the ambit of US hegemony, United Nations’ 2030 SDG Agenda strives to perpetuate the primacy of GDP trade growth and integration into the global value chain as the primary drivers of global economic development. Furthermore, this framework advocates for homogeneous global macroeconomic models, establishing common goals for the world irrespective of the diverse developmental stages of countries. It also sustains identical rules, thereby maintaining developing countries in impoverished and subordinate conditions.

Dr. Sara Caria, Research Professor at The Center for Public Economics and Strategic Sectors at the Institute of Higher National Studies, initiated her presentation with an overview of the key cooperation frameworks utilized by countries to extend or preserve their international leadership. These frameworks also function as specific types of regimes, offering insights into how they evolve into arenas of hegemonic dispute and how different countries functionally employ them as rhetorical devices.

According to Dr. Caria, regimes encompass the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures that converge around actors’ expectations within a given issue arena. Moreover, they articulate a worldview, set praxis, define behaviors, establish decision-making procedures, and reflect the stability of the international world order. Notably, regimes delineate expected behaviors for stakeholders and the allocation of resources among different actors and participants. In this context, the concept of hegemony assumes significance, denoting a situation where state relationships are balanced in a way that enables one party to impose rules over others across economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural domains. These rules are established to favor the interests of the hegemon.

Dr. Caria stated that the initial cooperation framework within the 2030 SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Agenda was established in 2015 under the UN and the dominance of Western countries. It encompasses 17 primary goals and 169 targets to be achieved. Functioning within the ambit of U.S. hegemony, it strives to perpetuate the primacy of GDP trade growth and integration into the global value chain as the primary drivers of global economic development. Furthermore, this framework advocates for homogeneous global macroeconomic models, establishing common goals for the world irrespective of the diverse developmental stages of countries. It also sustains identical rules, thereby maintaining developing countries in impoverished and subordinate conditions.

For this reason, it aligns with the neoliberal project forged in the 1980s, giving primary consideration to economic growth and regarding wealth inequality and ecological concerns as marginal. Nevertheless, China is currently attempting to gain leverage within the framework. Developing countries have successfully incorporated certain principles, albeit at a rhetorical level only, such as standard and differentiated responsibilities and policy coherence.

The second cooperation framework is South-South cooperation, which is centered on collaboration between developing countries. It encompasses two primary understandings: (i) cooperation as collective self-reliance, involving coalition building among developing countries to disrupt the power dynamics of the Global North within the UN assembly; (ii) technical cooperation based on technological transfer and capacity building, grounded in the belief that developing countries, while heterogeneous, share very similar needs. Some key concepts of this framework include solidarity, respect for national sovereignty, and a commitment to non-interference in domestic affairs. These principles are considered more important than the necessity to quantify the amount of cooperation to provide and the resources to be mobilized. This sometimes leads to a preference for an authoritarian allocation of resources rather than market-based assignment mechanisms. In summary, this cooperation framework is particularly advantageous for regional leaders as it enables them to function as global actors within their respective regions.

The third cooperation framework, according to Dr. Caria, is international cooperation for structural change, with China playing a central role. The core principles of this framework revolve around the concept of a New Structural Economy, which places economic growth at the center of development but assigns a guiding role to the state in the process. The underlying assumption is that China serves as a more accessible and benevolent model for developing countries to follow. Consequently, the focus shifts from multilateral relations to the ability to choose bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, multilateralism still holds certain advantages for developing countries, providing opportunities to build alliances and access a diversified cooperation landscape with various financial prospects. On the flip side, adhering to multilateralism poses challenges, including dependence and marginal roles for developing countries, along with the need for more political consensus on development policy. This contributes to institutional and fiscal fragility in the face of international market mechanisms.

Dr. ZHANG Xin: The Chinese Perspective of Multilateralism, Power Transition, and the So-called New World Order

Highlighting the four levels of connotation regarding the concept of multilateralism, Dr. Zhang Xin stated that China positions itself as the champion of genuine multilateralism. This stance is guided by the ‘Silk Road spirit’ of openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutual benefit, positioning China as the defender of ‘free trade and globalization’. To achieve this, the Chinese discursive approach focuses on values such as ‘whole-process democracy’ and ‘total security’, built upon the effort to disseminate China’s ‘indigenous knowledge’ to the outside world.

Dr. Zhang Xin, Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Deputy Director of the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai, focused his intervention on how the concept of multilateralism shapes China’s foreign policy. In other words, he delved into how the Chinese government takes, uses, and perceives diplomatic and multilateral political strategies in its foreign policy and international relations.

According to Dr. Zhang Xin, we can observe four levels of connotation regarding the concept of multilateralism. First, multilateralism is most often contrasted with unilateralism and is used in conjunction with either protectionism or hegemonic thinking. Second, multilateralism has been associated with the concept of multipolarity. An interesting case is Russian foreign policy, where the term multipolarity is extensively used. Concerning China, multipolarity emphasizes the concept of the pole as singular and unique and is understood as a way to avoid the idea of a world consisting of different and several poles with specific spheres of influence related to them. Third, multilateralism represents a possibility of socialization against isolation, as China experienced, especially in the 1980s. Fourth, multilateralism expresses an institutional or rule-binding behavior instead of non-institutionalized behavior.

Historically, Chinese multilateralism underwent diverse phases. In the 1980s, there was a clear strategy based on observation, learning, and a careful disposition to wait actively before engaging. By the 1990s, a gradual shift occurred, and the rate of participation in joining organizations slightly increased, leading to a deep engagement in international institutions by the early 2000s. From the mid-2000s, there was an effort to establish parallel institutions, followed by a progression towards openly proposing policies and reforms. Eventually, China sought to maneuver existing regimes in new directions. In summary, the evolution witnessed an initial avoidance of contact with multilateral practices, a reactive and conservative attitude, and then a shift towards more actively shaping and employing the concept.

Regarding multilateral practices, according to Dr. Zhang Xin, Chinese behavior can be characterized as neo-revisionist. Neo-revisionist powers are generally dissatisfied with the hegemonic nature of the current inter-state system. They often support and abide by the foundational principles of the ‘primary institutions’ of the current international society without directly challenging the logic of liberal internationalism. The strategy involves constantly questioning the practices and the main actors for deviating from the principles underpinning these practices. Sometimes, the results of that strategy are contradictory, leading to a systemic stalemate and deadlock situation. Consequently, the international system is often stuck in a sub-optimal condition that leaves most international actors dissatisfied. An example is the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO (World Trade Organization) about free trading negotiations: rising powers were increasingly participating, but the anti-hegemonic stance of the previous rounds of negotiations blocked further progress.

More recently, as stated by Dr. Zhang Xin, multilateralism has been employed alongside the concept of global governance and integrated into the idea of a ‘Community with a Shared Future for Mankind’. Additionally, American hegemony is criticized for engaging in what is perceived as fraudulent multilateral practices, including the unequal relationship between big and small states, the formation of bloc alliances, and violations of the UN Charter and international law. In other words, ‘fake multilateralism’ is viewed as undermining the international order and fostering confrontation and division under the guise of agreed-upon rules. This perspective is reinforced by the narrative that there was no real liberal international order to begin with. Consequently, China positions itself as the champion of genuine multilateralism, guided by the ‘Silk Road spirit’ of openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutual benefit, and as the defender of ‘free trade and globalization’. To achieve this, the Chinese discursive approach focuses on values such as ‘whole-process democracy’, ‘total security’, and is built upon the effort to disseminate China’s ‘indigenous knowledge’ to the outside world.

Dr. Ibrahim OZTURK: The Belt and Road Initiative: Tracing China’s Perspective on Globalization and Multilateralism

Dr. Ozturk explained that because China is employing a mercantilist approach characterized by visible exclusion from its lucrative markets, enforced partnerships and technology transfers, weak property rights, and restricted information flows, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should not be considered a game-changer. Nevertheless, the BRI has been used and abused by some governments for kleptocracy, corruption, and shaping governmental policies to dominate the use of technology and cut foreign competitors. It is also detrimental both for citizens and global stability, serving as a form of debt-trap diplomacy with many countries failing to pay back their debts.

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of East Asian Studies, and ECPS Senior Researcher, focused on the Chinese multilateral strategy from the perspective of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this context, the BRI is considered a governance attraction and, following the logic of a global public good argument, a reincarnation of the Chinese historical world system approach based on the Investiture System. According to this concept, China has been actively working to increase its global influence. For instance, it attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume their diplomatic relations. Additionally, China has been strengthening strategic partnerships with Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, while also seeking to persuade Saudi Arabia to join the Shanghai Security Organization.

According to Professor Ozturk, as both a local and global public good, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should encompass core activities aimed at addressing collective problems faced by countries and motivating them to tackle global challenges. To achieve this, China should offer updated knowledge platforms, material technologies for energy transformation, and artificial intelligence tools. Specifically, an open platform should be provided for exchanging information, articulating joint behavior to achieve convergence among various actors’ preferences, and enhancing the ease of compromise to secure high-quality contracts in principal-agent relations.

Describing the Chinese strategy, Dr. Ozturk highlighted the idea that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is attempting to position itself between Western liberal multilateral practices and socialist ones, aiming to construct a new and distinct governance structure. While the initiative is expected to adhere to some established international rules, China is also anticipated to export some of its unique terms and conditions. In essence, Chinese state capitalism embodies unfair economic protectionism by implementing liberal economic principles outside of the country while adopting protectionist policies internally. It also involves selective market opening, licensing, and restrictions on foreign investments. Consequently, the share of state-owned firms in terms of bank loans granted has risen to almost 70 percent, while the share of the private sector has stagnated. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has imposed some of its party members on the boards of private companies (mainly foreign ones) to oversee and control their business strategies. This is reflected in the asymmetric and hierarchically shaped transactional world that the BRI seeks to achieve. Partner countries are not compelled to participate in such a scheme but are incentivized by the potential trade and security benefits.

From the Chinese rhetoric and perspective, there exists a community of common destiny, emphasizing relational interactions, responsible behavior, generality, and equality. The choices made should be independent from one country to another, but actions should be interdependent, facilitated through a memorandum of understanding. Consequently, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is characterized by the absence of conditionality and enforcement, a lack of delegation of sovereignty, no binding everyday decisions, and no autonomous reviving committee. In essence, it is built on institutional minimalism with high flexibility and bargaining.

From the UN’s viewpoint and in accordance with sustainability criteria, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) must offer an updated knowledge platform for data classification, adhere to common standards such as transparency, fair competition, local inclusion, social responsibility disclaimers, and employ a multi-factor assessment of projects. Additionally, it should prioritize multidimensional capacity building in developing countries. As an illustration of weak accountability-related issues, almost 75 percent of Chinese companies operating abroad, including those involved in the BRI, do not disclose corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.

The BRI initiative is thus encountering some systemic problems, according to Dr. Ozturk. Firstly, China needs to gain global experience in creating local public goods; it excels in national complementary activities but is weaker in core activities that possess a cross-border nature. Secondly, the projects are often of significant size and complexity. Additionally, government involvement in these contracts, the concealment of work, entrenched national interests, and opportunities for skimming, corruption, fraud, and money laundering hinder the achievement of set goals. Thirdly, limited local capacities, coupled with asymmetries with China’s opaque behavior and the non-transparent, authoritarian governments involved in the projects, undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of the initiatives themselves. As an outcome, BRI’s contracts are susceptible to ‘pressure-resistance-negotiation-pragmatism,’ leading to a weaker structuring of principal and agent relations.

Summarizing his presentation, Dr. Ozturk stated that China is employing a mercantilist approach characterized by visible exclusion from its lucrative markets, enforced partnerships and technology transfers, weak property rights, and restricted information flows. As a result, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should not be considered a game-changer or a pathbreaker. In any case, due to several asymmetries, the project is destined to rejuvenate the Chinese Tributary Investiture System in the upcoming years. Moreover, the BRI has been used and abused by some governments for kleptocracy, corruption, and shaping governmental policies to dominate the use of technology and cut foreign competitors. Finally, the BRI is detrimental both for citizens and global stability, serving as a form of debt-trap diplomacy with many countries failing to pay back their debts and thus undermining their financial stability.

Reported by Andrea Guidotti & Johann Mathies Diethelm

 

Panel -III-

The ‘New Globalization’ and Countering Populism

The third panel of the symposium, titled “The ‘New Globalization’ and Countering Populism,” was held on March 31, 2023, with Dr. Helmut Wagner, Professor of Economics at Fern Universität in Hagen, serving as the moderator. The three presentations collectively provided stimulating insights into the latest developments of the “new globalization,” denoting the high growth rates of international markets and their interconnections, with a specific focus on the reactions of populist parties to these transformations.

Dr: Oscar MAZZOLENI: Economic Populism and Sovereigntism: The Rise of European Radical Right-wing Populist Parties

Dr. Oscar Mazzoleni’s presentation provided an enriching new perspective on the issue of economic populism. The scholar emphasizes the importance of considering this phenomenon as a specific dimension of populist claims. Economic populism, according to Dr. Mazzoleni, addresses contemporary societal problems and plays a pivotal role in explaining electoral support for European populist radical right parties, particularly concerning economic stability and security.

Dr. Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne, commenced the Third Panel with a presentation that illustrated the linkages between populist radical right (PRR) parties in Europe and economic aspects, developing an analytical framework for this phenomenon. His approach involved exploring the populist standpoint on economic issues through an unconventional discursive lens, examining socio-psychological reactions of voters.

Dr. Mazzoleni aimed to elucidate the support for PRR parties from both the supply and demand sides by assessing the significance of economic factors, such as economic crises, unemployment, socioeconomic conditions, public policies proposed by populist actors, and protectionist measures for citizens. Rather than concentrating on material economic conditions or public policies, as canonical studies do, his work delves into socioeconomic discourses and citizens’ attitudes regarding wealth and prosperity, examining how populist economic narratives sway individuals to vote for PRR parties.

Economic populism is characterized by a discourse framework that relies on the traditional opposition between “the pure people” (representing the ultimate holder of democratic legitimacy) and “the corrupt elite” (seen as betraying the people’s interests). This dichotomy is infused with economic elements, where “the people” correspond to the national economic community of consumers and taxpayers. The economic well-being of this community is perceived as being damaged, ignored, or betrayed by “the elite,” which could include neoliberal forces or globalizing elites. Populist parties, operating within this framework, pledge to restore prosperity by purportedly defending the people’s interests. In this context, two central concepts are pivotal: “producerism” and “sovereigntism.”

Producerism frames the dichotomy in economic terms, dividing society into “producers” and “parasites,” where producers contribute to the economy, and parasites exploit the work of others. Economic populism positions the “real people” as producers. Sovereigntism, on the other hand, presents the people as sovereign over their destiny, political life, and prosperity. In essence, this framework advocates for the reclaiming and restoration of a fair society where people can enjoy prosperity.

Through a survey conducted in Switzerland and France, Dr. Mazzoleni, in collaboration with Dr. Gilles Ivaldi (SciencesPo Paris), examined the impact of producerism and sovereigntism on voters’ attitudes. Specifically, they aimed to highlight the statistical relevance of what they termed “Economic Populist Sovereigntism” in mobilizing and influencing voters of PRR parties in France and Switzerland. On the supply side, the authors identified the significance of the “Threatened Producers” frame, suggesting that individuals’ prosperity is in jeopardy, and mainstream parties’ economic policies and decisions are detrimental to it. Additionally, PRR leaders advocated for greater citizen involvement in decision-making processes related to economic issues.

Overall, Dr. Mazzoleni’s presentation provided an enriching new perspective on the issue of economic populism. The scholar emphasizes the importance of considering this phenomenon as a specific dimension of populist claims. Economic populism, according to Dr. Mazzoleni, addresses contemporary societal problems and plays a pivotal role in explaining electoral support for European PRR parties, particularly concerning economic stability and security.

Dr. Micheal LEE: “Populism or Embedded Plutocracy? The Emerging World Orders”

Dr. Michael Lee briefly explained how populist governments interact on the world stage. He described that, at the international level, governing populist parties are not isolated but cooperate in unusual and informal ways. In other words, these actors do not use more institutional channels or tools typical of the current international order, which relies on cooperation through institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in the case of economic crises.

Dr. Michael Lee, Professor at CUNY-Hunter College, New York, presented an interesting comparison between populist and non-populist governments in the international economic scenario at the national and international levels. His speech revolved around two key questions: “Do populist parties govern differently from non-populist actors?” and “How do populist parties interact on the world stage, particularly concerning financial and economic issues?” 

Lee began with a definition of populism as an ideology dividing society between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” He argued that the central challenge in democratic politics is providing public goods to secure the next election. While liberal democracy is theoretically suitable for producing and broadly distributing public goods, the reality is more complex due to various socioeconomic and sociopolitical cleavages in a democratic society. These divisions pose obstacles for leaders developing policies, forcing them to select specific strata of society, thereby increasing competition among parties.

Dr. Lee also argued that after the economic crisis of 2008/2009 and the European debt crisis in 2011/2012, many populist parties worldwide gained power, challenging the functioning of democratic regimes. He contended that while populism is thin at the level of elites (being a political strategy to gain votes), it is not necessarily thin at the level of the people. However, understanding the triggers for voters to form the notion of “the people” remains puzzling. Moreover, for elites, populism is advantageous as it effectively persuades citizens, while liberal democracy is not, given its need to divide public goods and face various obstacles and delays inherent in the democratic process. Liberal democracy often involves delegating power, such as to scientific experts during the decision-making process in Covid-19 pandemic years or giving autonomy to Central Banks on financial issues, which can lead to potential discontent among the citizenry.

Hence, Dr. Lee argued that populism serves as a tool to construct a narrow but solid electoral base. However, parties inevitably need to broaden their electorate to win elections. To stay true to their nature, populist actors maintain a Manichean dichotomy of us-against-them but adapt to contingencies by modifying their positions or ideas on particular themes. The distribution of goods is intended to be a tool to gain votes and win elections, but even the most populist party must be open to adaptation (e.g., the Italian Five Stars Movement supporting Mario Draghi’s government). This adaptability has been observed in various instances, including Matteo Salvini in Italy, the institutionalization of Brexiters, the softening of Eurosceptic parties, and the approaches of leaders like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.

In conclusion, Dr. Michael Lee briefly explained how populist governments interact on the world stage. He described that, at the international level, governing populist parties are not isolated but cooperate in unusual and informal ways. In other words, these actors do not use more institutional channels or tools typical of the current international order, which relies on cooperation through institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in the case of economic crises.

Dr. Marcus TAUBE: “Chinese “Hub and Spoke” – Multilateralism and the Notion of Populist Economic Policy”

According to Dr. Marcus Taube, as in the typical populist dichotomy, China claims to represent the “global south” against the “elitist Western multilateralism” (but mainly the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, then, it is conceivable maintaining that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is a mere economic reaction towards the US political and economic (assumed) hegemony and that Beijing is attempting to spoil it by allying with underdog countries.

Dr. Marcus Taube, Professor of East Asian Economics/China at the Mercator School of Management, Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST), Duisburg-Essen University, offered an overview of Chinese populist multilateralism, an economic reaction towards Western markets’ implementation policies during his presentation. His presentation provided an unusual and thrilling perspective on a hot topic in current politics: the (economic) opposition between Washington and Beijing and, more generally, on the latest international relations moves of a central player within the current global order.

Referring to the visit of the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to China and her meeting with Xi Jinping in early 2023, Dr. Taube emphasized the importance of the EU-China relationship in terms of commercial cooperation, as an attempt to dissuade Beijing from supporting Vladimir Putin too far in his invasion of Ukraine. However, the first notable developments of Chinese multilateralism must be traced back to Donald Trump’s presidency and the harsh protectionist norms that forced China to change its attitude towards the global market. Contrary to what several columnists thought, China did not retreat from the international economic scenario but developed its populist multilateralism, according to Dr. Taube.

Indeed, in recent years, Western economic measures, particularly US protectionist norms, have compelled China and Chinese elites to defend their case. The famous Trumpian slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” prompted a Chinese reaction through decoupling and the imposition of protectionist barriers. Western countries established a form of “qualitative multilateralism,” explained Dr. Taube, based on the respect for shared principles, the indivisibility of the group’s beliefs, and the acceptance of diffuse reciprocity. This Western “qualitative multilateralism” is driven by mutual trust and shared principles, fostering cooperation among Western nations to achieve long-term goals.

In contrast, China has developed a form of “true multilateralism” that does not necessarily include shared values. Instead, China recognizes clauses such as the respect for national sovereignty, the recourse to consultations to manage global affairs, and opposition to international sub-groups that rely on values beyond the UN Charter. China’s “populist multilateralism,” as Dr. Taube argues, implies a concentric and asymmetric relationship where Beijing is always at the center. This dynamic is evident, for instance, in many of China’s multilateral initiatives, such as the Global Development Initiative (2021), the Global Security Initiative (2022), and the Global Civilization Initiative (2023).

Therefore, China has established various “hub-and-spoke” systems with asymmetric power relationships, where China holds the most significant influence in the dialogue. Undoubtedly, China is distributing goods, but it is also wielding political influence and influencing national decisions. It achieves this through the “civilization process,” disseminating Chinese technological know-how to expanding areas of interest.

In conclusion, Dr. Taube explained that China organizes its identity-building process by presenting a narrative of itself as a knight fighting against evil powers and protecting the most vulnerable countries hierarchically positioned below China. According to Dr. Taube, these metaphorical arrangements are nothing more than the externalization of the Chinese Communist Party’s national populist rhetoric. In this typical populist dichotomy, China claims to represent the “global south” against “elitist Western multilateralism” (primarily the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, it is conceivable to argue that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is merely an economic reaction to assumed US political and economic hegemony, with Beijing attempting to undermine it by aligning with underdog countries.

Indeed, as in the typical populist dichotomy, here, China claims to represent the “global south” against the “elitist Western multilateralism” (but mainly the US), which establishes protectionist barriers and increases military tension, akin to the Cold War. In other words, then, it is conceivable maintaining that Chinese “populist multilateralism” is a mere economic reaction towards the US political and economic (assumed) hegemony and that Beijing is attempting to spoil it by allying with underdog countries.

Reported by Luca Mancini

 

Closing Keynote Speech

Dr. Jan Nederveen PIETERSE: “Multipolar Globalization, Learning Curves and Populism”

Dr. Jan Nederveen Pieterse: Developmental-centered states in the global South, characterized by pragmatism and investor-friendly approaches, leave minimal room for populist posturing. Exceptions are found in national governments and national security states that tend to restrict divergent voices, which may be more prone to populist expression. Latin America stands out as an outlier, exhibiting a historical tradition of left-wing populism, making populism somewhat ‘native’ to the local politics.

In this comprehensive overview, Dr. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Mellichamp Chair and Distinguished Professor of Global Studies & Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, examines various aspects of the current international order. His analysis encompasses multipolar globalization, populism, its occurrence in advanced economies, and the dynamics of political economy across different regions.

The inquiry begins by exploring whether there is a global surge in populism, particularly in the global South, or if there is a leaning towards nationalism. Dr. Pieterse notes that developmental-centred states in the global South, characterized by pragmatism and investor-friendly approaches, leave minimal room for populist posturing. Exceptions are found in national governments and national security states that tend to restrict divergent voices, which may be more prone to populist expression. Latin America stands out as an outlier, exhibiting a historical tradition of left-wing populism with figures like Juan Perón, Julio Vargas, Lula da Silva, Hugo Chávez, Christina Fernández and Nestor Kirchner, Evo Morales, Maurice Lévy, and Pablo Castillo, making populism somewhat ‘native’ to the local politics.

Shifting focus to Asia, which represents 60 percent of the global population, populism is generally absent, with outliers like the Philippines. Dr. Pieterse emphasizes the unique position of the Philippines, which is characterized by a security-oriented government, aligning more closely with Latin America than other Asian nations, influenced by historical factors such as Spanish and American colonialism.

The examination delves into South Asia, particularly India, where institutions beyond the media often characterize the government as populist under Narendra Modi. However, it is argued that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as an established political entity and the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has deeper historical roots and broader agendas beyond populism. The discussion extends to Asia’s populist figure, Imran Khan in Pakistan, known for his agenda of anti-corruption, Islam, and a welfare state. Dr. Pieterse further explores the topic of electoral authoritarianism, mentioning studies of ‘spin dictatorships’—a term used to describe dictatorial states encompassing media, social media, and technology deployment in countries like Hungary, Russia, Singapore, and Israel.

In the closing speech, the Middle East was characterized as generally devoid of populism, dominated instead by national security states. Syria and Israel were cited as examples, each with a heavy focus on security and distinct political landscapes. In Africa, populism was described as scarce, with established or rising parties often relying on ethnic mobilization.

Turning to Russia, the presentation highlighted that the political landscape allows room only for nationalism. Entities such as the Wagner Group, Alexei Navalny, and anti-corruption nationalists were noted as potential influences. Interestingly, Dr. Pieterse observed that populism is most prevalent in high-income advanced economies. This raises the question of what enabling factors contribute to this trend. Brief points were discussed, including destabilizing political economy, post-industrialism, de-industrialization, and the collapse of stable correlations as contributing dynamics.

A broader consideration was given to the political economy dynamics associated with populism. The discussion encompassed financialization, shadow photos, and derivatives as representations of chaos capital without enduring commitments, leading to the creation of a billionaire world. The role of disruptive technology in influencing politics was also emphasized, with media portrayed as more aligned with show business than truth business. Global inequality, wars in the Middle East, and the European Union’s response to these challenges were discussed as part of the wider context. A general point was then made about learning curves and professionalization in populism, noting that populism represents a shift toward the center, where right-wing populism adopts conservative family values and moderate economics. This pattern is observed in various European countries and the United States, with populism responding to crises like the 2008 financial downturn.

In wrapping up his analysis, Dr. Pieterse presented a cross-regional focus covering the Atlantic economies (the US and the UK), Continental Europe, Eastern Europe, and Mediterranean Europe. Each region was examined in terms of its economic structure, political landscape, and the rise of right-wing populist movements.

In the final segment, the speaker addressed the issue of ethnicity and populism, drawing parallels between ethnic mobilization and the organized efforts of ethnic entrepreneurs. The importance of effective organization, leadership, methods, technology, and timing was underscored in the context of populism. The discussion also touched upon the organizational differences between established parties and emerging populist movements.

The presentation concluded with reflections on the representation of events in a ‘cartoon world,’ emphasizing the significance of entanglements that may not be readily apparent. Dr. Pieterse highlighted the roles of intelligence, think tanks, donors, parties, factions, and media in shaping narratives. An illustrative example involving selective information sharing between American and Australian intelligence about China and subsequent geopolitical developments was presented, underscoring the complexity and interconnectedness of global events. The session ended with reflections on the challenges posed by Taiwan, asserting that China may adopt a patient approach, stretching the timeline over several years rather than seeking a short-term resolution.

Following the conclusion of Dr. Pieterse’s talk, the floor was opened for questions, allowing participants to seek further clarification and engage in a more interactive discussion on the presented topics. One question addressed the relationship between globalization and multilateralism, prompting Dr. Pieterse to acknowledge the varied forms of multilateralism, distinguishing between the multilateralism of law and the multilateralism of power. He highlighted China’s emergence as a geopolitical player, citing strategic moves in brokering talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, presenting a peace plan grounded in the UN Charter, and seeking participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Dr. Pieterse noted China’s unique historical perspective, patience, and millennia-old status, suggesting a different approach to global affairs compared to more recent powers. In response to another question regarding Dr. Pieterse’s prior work, references were made to published books, including “Globalization and Culture” and “Globalization or Empire,” acknowledging the focus on sociological perspectives.

Reported by Neo Sithole

 

PTI supporter at Jinnah Cricket Stadium during a political rally of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan on March 23, 2012 in Sialkot, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 5: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan

Please cite as:
Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 5: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0044   

 

This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism in Pakistan. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the distinguished panelists.

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

This report summarizes the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, which featured renowned scholars on populism and authoritarianism in Pakistan, was moderated by Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) and the speakers were Dr Samina Yasmeen (Professor, Head of Department of International Relations, Asian Studies and Politics in University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences), Ramsha Jahangir (A media professional and researcher), Dr Fizza Batool (Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at SZABIST University, Karachi, Pakistan), Dr Raja M. Ali Saleem (Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan) and Dr Afiya Shehrbano Zia (Pakistani feminist researcher on gender and social development).

 

In starting the panel our moderator for this session Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) provided us with a brief introduction where it was articulated that Pakistan has been considered one of the four nations of the forerunners of the mainstreaming of populism in Asia.  As such, Pakistan holds particular importance in giving focus to populism in non-Western regions considering the domination of populist scholarship in European, American, and North American scopes of populism that largely exclude other aspects of populism found in populism elsewhere. 

Dr. Samina Yasmeen: “Imran Khan’s Populist Narratives”

The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Samina Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order.

In her presentation, Dr. Samina Yasmeen delved into the populist models of Imran Khan, drawing parallels between his popularity rooted in military activism (pre-2018) and other populist figures worldwide who employ militant narratives. However, she emphasized the inherent limitations of this model.

Dr. Yasmeen initiated her talk by outlining the dynamic between ‘master narrators,’ responsible for crafting populist narratives, and ‘informal narrators,’ individuals connecting to and disseminating these narratives. Imran Khan’s narrative, as identified by Dr. Yasmeen, portrays Pakistan’s current state as stagnant, necessitating a transition to its ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this ‘ideal state’ is articulated with strong Islamic undertones, asserting that Pakistan’s true potential lies in embracing its Muslim identity.

This narrative underscores the existence of obstacles hindering the realization of the ‘ideal state,’ primarily corrupt political elites are portrayed as the archetypal antagonists in populist rhetoric: Corrupt political elites who had deprived ‘the people’ of the right to a comfortable life and as hinderances of reaching to the ‘ideal state.’ Imran Khan intertwines this elite corruption with the notion of a Western conspiracy, collaborating with local leaders who oppose Khan’s Islamist views and defend a more liberal Pakistan. The judiciary becomes part of this group when Pakistan Supreme Court ruled against Imran Khan’s attempt to dissolve parliament.

Another dimension of Khan’s populist narrative, according to Dr. Yasmeen, is the elevation of the military, suggesting a collaborative effort between the civilian and military sectors to achieve the ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this narrative predates Khan’s falling out with the military, which had allegedly assisted in his 2018 election victory.

Dr. Yasmeen highlighted Khan’s strategic language use, combining Western liberal ideas for societal elites and Islamic principles, phrases, and metaphors for the broader population. This linguistic approach, coupled with Khan’s utilization of social media and mass rallies, significantly bolstered his popularity.

The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order. Despite differing interpretations, Imran Khan’s fiery speeches, mixing colloquial and modern ideas, played a significant part in shaping Pakistan’s current environment.

In conclusion, Dr. Yasmeen argued that while Khan’s narratives engaged the youth, they also sowed seeds of division in the country. Whereas the current environment demands a more united approach to address Pakistan’s challenges, emphasizing the need to move beyond divisive narratives. His narratives grabbed attention but led to division, which the current environment cannot afford.

Ramsha Jahangir: “Media and Populism in Pakistan”

Journaslist Ramsha Jahangir’s findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous “others.” Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.

In this second panel presentation, Ramsha Jahangir offered a journalistic perspective on populism in Pakistan, drawing from a 2022 study analyzing 1,035 English-language tweets by Imran Khan between 2018 and 2022. The study aimed to understand Khan’s communicative style on Twitter and identify populist characteristics within his tweets. 

Jahangir utilized three indicators for assessing populism: references to the people, positioning, and exclusion of dangerous others. The findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous others. Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.

Examining Imran Khan’s communication style while he was Prime Minister, the study identified an engaging and intimate approach, characteristic of populist personalities. Khan’s tweets showcased his endorsement of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) officials, engagement with party members, updates on government policies, promoting his sentiments and opinions with his followers. He actively promoted youth empowerment, offering personal recommendations including encouraging them to read specific books, watch shows or make reference to other activists and showcasing his informal online engagement rooted in his background as a former cricketer.

In summary, Ramsha Jahangir highlighted that the study’s findings aligned with literature on personality politics and populism due to findings which show that Khan’s style was more informal and conversational even when promoting PTI. However, she emphasized the uncertainty of whether Khan personally posted these tweets, acknowledging the involvement of social media teams and raising questions about the results’ validity.

Before concluding, Jahangir explored the impact of Khan’s communication style on social media’s political landscape in Pakistan. Post-PTI’s downfall, social media politics intensified and became more divisive. PTI’s success in using digital media for political communication by running coordinated campaigns against opponents. This situation has raised concerns about media pluralism and the safety of journalists, as critical speech has become less tolerated. PTI’s success prompted other parties to become more active on social media, though their campaigns have not matched PTI’s sophistication and impact. This extensive use of social media has both positive and negative implications, creating space for various forms of communication but also posing challenges in controlling misinformation due to the openness of social media platforms and regulatory difficulties.

Dr. Fizza Batool: “The Land of Pure: Islamic Populism in Pakistan’s Identity Project and the Rise of Radical Islam”

Dr. Fizza Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.

This third presentation redirects the discussion from narrative building to the manipulation of Islam in Pakistan’s populism. Dr. Fizza Batool initiates the presentation by framing populism as a discursive phenomenon, examining how politics is communicated. She emphasizes viewing populism as a phenomenon rather than a tool for defining populist parties or leaders, referencing Laclau’s concept of ‘Empty Signifying’ and its application by populists.

Dr. Batool explores how populists define the nation as a framed concept, distinguishing ‘the people’ as a population separate from others while nationalists define what the nation is. Populists often use ‘the people’ ambiguously, blending meanings without clarification. In this context, Dr. Batool focuses on ethnos when discussing ‘the people,’ specifically related to nationalist discourses. While nationalist and populist discourses overlap, they differ in defining the nation as a concept.

Addressing Islamic populism in Pakistan, Dr. Batool delves into the intricate relationship between Pakistan and Islam. The country’s name, ‘Pakistan’ (‘the land of the pure’), reflects a strong connection to religiosity, with the creation of separate Muslim states linked to the original vision which resulting in the use of the term ‘Muslim’ as a criterion for differentiation. The inherent meaning of being a good Pakistani or a pure Pakistani aligns with being a good Muslim, creating a link between Pakistan and Islam. Dr. Batool explores how radical religious movements and parties justify their goals in line with their vision of a ‘pure’ Pakistan, contributing to the moralism and antagonism ingrained in the national identity and this narrative continued to pit Muslims against Hindus.

Using examples such as the Kashmir movement, Dr. Batool illustrates populist elements in the discourse that emphasize Muslims’ differences from Hindus. This populist narrative permeates Pakistan’s political history, fostering ambiguity and moralism in its identity.

Dr. Batool contends that ‘the people’ has become an empty signifier, with political parties offering their definitions of a ‘pure Pakistani’ based on their beliefs. This ambiguity extends to elected and non-elected regimes contributing to various interpretations by different political actors, including religious radicals and moderate liberals. Religious radical movements like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) see themselves as purifiers of Pakistan, but their interpretations of ‘purity’ differ. Even moderate or liberal political actors such as the People’s Party suggest a form of Islam based on their beliefs.

In conclusion, Dr. Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.

Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem: “Military and Populism in Pakistan”

Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a “messy divorce” between Khan and the military.

The fourth presentation in our panel delves into the global role of the military and populism within a historical context. Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem explores the intertwined history of populism and the military in Pakistan, focusing particularly on Imran Khan and his association with populism. Dr. Saleem identifies two key connections between the military and populism: First, military generals or coup leaders directly adopting populist actions, often stemming from anti-colonial struggles or socialist movements where the generals were also decolonial leaders and leaders of the left-wing. Second, the military indirectly supporting or opposing populism, playing a role in the modernization of post-colonial societies as a part of the middle class in search of education, lifestyle upgrading and interaction with international militaries.

Dr. Saleem’s presentation highlights a historical period (1930s to 1960s) when military leaders embraced populism to bolster their governments and vilify adversaries. Notable figures include Juan Perón of Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, often leaning toward left-wing populism. There were fewer instances of right-wing populism, such as the regime of Konstantinos Karamanlis in Greece.  The role of the military in the newly independent countries was often that of a modernizing force. They aimed to revolutionize and develop their nations. However, by the 1970s, the military in post-colonial countries transitioned into a status quo force, prioritizing rule and stability over revolutionary change.

In the case of Pakistan, populism initially emerged in the eastern part (later Bangladesh) of the country as opposition to the military, with leaders like Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. West Pakistan witnessed its first populist leader in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s saw confrontations between populist leaders from the eastern wing and the Pakistan military. The late 1970s marked a shift, with the military supporting right-wing populist leaders like those from the Jamaat-e-Islami, disrupting politics and challenging democratic governments. 

By the 1990s, the military adopted tactics of coercion and influence to align popular electables with their preferred political parties. They aimed to win support for their preferred parties. The entry of Imran Khan brought about a significant shift, portraying him as the savior of Pakistan and heralding a ‘New Pakistan.” That led to a marked shift in Pakistan’s political landscape. Part of this shift can be attributed to the heavy involvement of the military in media and social media, creating narratives to shape public perception which saw Pakistan’s military being praised for its effective use of media in the so-called fifth-generation warfare. 

Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. The military allowed other political parties to take action against Imran Khan. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a “messy divorce” between Khan and the military. 

In conclusion, Dr. Saleem emphasizes the challenges of using populist leaders as tools for the military. Populists, due to their fluid nature, are difficult to fully control, retaining followers and manipulating perceptions to their advantage. The unprecedented criticism faced by the military in response to Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric has left it divided for the first time in Pakistan’s history. This shift complicates the military’s support for any future populist leader, as populists are less likely to become subservient to a powerful establishment, given the charismatic nature of populism, as evidenced by the disruption caused by Donald Trump in the US Republican Party.

Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia: “I Am Democracy’: The Appeal of Imran Khan’s Populism for Pakistani Women”

Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia emphasizes that Imran Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Imran Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.

In the last presentation of the panel, Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia explores the intricate connections between Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric and its resonance among Pakistani women. The session begins with visual context-setting through short videos, enhancing the audience’s understanding (refer to the recorded panel for visual references). Dr. Zia’s content unfolds across three overarching themes: Khan’s appeal to women, Victimhood and Competitive Sovereign Subject, and Political Magical Realism.

The first theme revolves around Khan’s appeal to women, grounded in notions of Muslim morality and piety. Dr. Zia emphasizes that Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.

The second theme explores victimhood and the concept of the competitive sovereign subject in Khan’s narratives. His vision of the ideal state of Medina taps into Pakistani Muslims’ nostalgia for the egalitarian era of Islam, which is perceived as an equal rights-based and democratic that was later corrupted by patriarchal misinterpretations, colonialism, and modernity. His rhetoric positions women as symbols preserving and actively reproducing the nation. Khan’s warnings against feminism and criticism of culturally alien movements, such as women’s marches, contribute to the narrative of women safeguarding Islamic culture. In this context, Khan promises to rescue the post-colonial subject from a multitude of influences, including what he terms ‘infidels,’ the pernicious influence of Bollywood culture, and even the lurking designs of change propagated by the US. Women’s bodies and gender roles must be controlled and protected from various forms of occupation, including the infiltration of Western ideas, Western dress codes, and aspirations. Khan’s warnings against feminism and his criticism of culturally alien movements like women’s marches all form part of this narrative. All of these push the idea that women are the bastions of Islamic culture.

The third theme, Political Magical Realism, encompasses elements like myth-making, iconic representations, rumors, references to black magic, and Khan’s own sex appeal. These elements shape Khan’s appeal and image, offering unique opportunities to strategize for strengthening civilian democracy over military hegemony, improving gender relations, and promoting feminist ideologies.

Beyond these themes, Dr. Zia explores women’s expressions of despair and intense emotional responses in the videos, highlighting their impact when presented in the public domain and on social media. Pious female sentimentality, often described as ‘affect’ and ‘agency,’ has historically played a pivotal role in various facets of Pakistani society. The concept of “piety populism,” a performative mourning that acquires distinct value and impact, is introduced. Dr. Zia delves into the historical role of female agency and affect which have played a critical role in military recruitment and in the narrative of the sacrifice of sons to continue to protect mothers through Jihad efforts and terrorism.  

This encompasses the regular enlistment of individuals into the Pakistani military services, as extensively detailed in the scholarly work of researchers like Maria Rashid. Notably intriguing is the utilization of mothers’ agency for making sacrifices in support of jihad, a phenomenon elucidated by scholars such as Samina Yasmeen. The perceived dignity of women as active contributors to their own and their community’s advancement has emerged as a foundational rationale for backing radical groups. For instance, in 2005, women in Swat, Pakistan, rallied behind Taliban commander Fazlullah, actively financing his campaign for Sharia law. This engagement provided them with a sense of political autonomy by challenging local patriarchal norms. A parallel scenario unfolded in 2007 when radical women from the Jamia Hafsa madrasa in Islamabad engaged in moral crusades against perceived immorality in the capital, showcasing their continued exercise of pious agency and embodied virtue.

Khan’s appeal targets politically disenfranchised women, especially those from urban middle-class backgrounds, who publicly perform feminist and revolutionary poetry for their conservative male leader. Dr. Zia points out that Khan has mobilized more women into political and public spaces compared to many other leaders. This expansion and legitimization of women’s freedom of expression and political agency have distinct implications, especially as seen in the post-Imran Khan era, where his removal from the prime minister’s office triggered public debates, including those within veteran military families.

The presentation also addresses cognitive dissonance within Khan’s woman support base, where conservative positions are defended despite their detriment to women’s wellbeing. The defense often comes from both men and women, arguing that Khan’s views are taken out of context, showcasing the success of Khan’s appeal to conservative values.

In summary, the three highlighted themes provide profound insights into Imran Khan’s populism, revealing a co-opting of liberal ideals and elite elements that effectively shift towards the right. This shift minimizes the gap between the right and left in Pakistan’s political landscape.


(*) Neo Sithole is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).

An army of Hindu Sanyasis is geared up for battle to protect their dharma at any cost. Illustration: Young Moves Media (Shutterstock).

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Report on Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0043  

 

This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India,” which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism from India. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

This report summarizes the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism”: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India, which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide. The panel, which featured renowned scholars on populism from India, was moderated by Dr Priya Chacko, Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the speakers are by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Maggie Paul (PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia),  Dr Anuj Bhuwania (Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India & currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin), Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta (Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales, Sydney) and Dr Shweta Singh (Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India). 

During the introductory remarks, Dr. Priya Chacko provides a much-needed overview of the profound impacts that authoritarian populism has had on Indian political life. These effects range from stifling organizational work, where NGOs and research centers have had their licenses revoked, to constraining critical thought and free speech. Scholars, journalists, and students have faced charges of sedition and languished in jails, while the few remaining independent media houses have been threatened with tax investigations or defamation lawsuits. Additionally, laws related to religious freedoms are under threat, taking the form of laws that restrict interreligious marriages or the consumption of beef, with one of the more troubling developments being the revocation of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, the introduction of religious-aligned citizenship laws, along with anti-Muslim actions, has raised concerns. Opposition parties have often been portrayed as opposition elites backed by Western authorities, depicting them as enemies of Hindu and thus Indian advancement. All of these are just a few developments that have taken place over the last decade; the following report provides a brief outline and description of the presentations and arguments shared by the presenters during the panel.

 

Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India’”

Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In this opening presentation, Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy draws inspiration from his new book entitled: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India.’” The book delves into the hypothesis of whether populism can achieve this through appeals to everyday ethics and latent emotions, exploring how Hindu populism manages to accomplish both objectives simultaneously.

Dr. Gudavarthy sets the tone of the panel well, kicking off by briefly going over Laclau’s conceptual approach to populism, recounting the equivalence drawn between fragmented social demands used to create an authentic people’s group and the inherent antagonism between them and the elites, in a thorough political manner before globally emphasizing the relationship between traditional authoritarianism and social solidarity in India. To better develop his thoughts, he started by asking a main question: “Does Indian politics continue to remain authoritarian, or does it have elements that continue to reinforce social hierarchy?” The answer to this question was divided into two main narratives that Hindutva is adopting: the intercultural nation between caste and religion that tries to re-inscribe the traditional hierarchy and the adoption of nationalism as a new or civic religion.

The presentation emphasizes the Indian context where Hindu-aligned politics is emerging as a new form of civil solidarity that transcends caste divisions and has extended its appeal across religious and linguistic groups, even making appeals to Pasanda Muslims. Given the vibrancy of Indian society, it’s no small feat for populism to generate such majoritarian consciousness. However, the study highlights the contradictions within populist manifestations as they often maintain and operate along conservative lines, preserving social hierarchies and serving the interests of the established social powers and elites. Nonetheless, they have successfully appropriated the normative universality of cultural registers.

Dr. Gudavarthy articulates the growing sharpening of conflicts between subclasses and linguistic conflicts, or a resurgence of social conflicts triggered by these populist ideologies. Hindu populism challenges earlier notions that suggested the impossibility of a confessional majority in the Indian context, based on the enduring fragmentation of latent caste differences. What is happening today can be precisely characterized by the emergence of such a confessional majority made possible through the reinterpretation of caste and religion, not in terms of traditional religious identities, but rather as a way of life. Part of this stems from the heterogeneous interpretations based on Gandhi’s approach which emphasizes the preservation of collective living and cultural life aimed at dismantling the caste system from within, rather than relying solely on external liberal state measures and economic changes.

The ease of narrative restructure in the Indian case is made possible using populism’s lack of explicit critique, which allows for the reinterpretation of hierarchies and divisions as a unified collective supporting authoritarian constructions. By ‘re-signifying’ caste and religion as a way of life instead of rigid cultural identities, lower segments of society, such as Dalits, identify with these narratives and show little drive to change the oppressive societal structure. It also sheds light on the rejection of leftist liberal secular scholars who view it as an authoritarian top-down project.

When speaking on the adoption, or rather reformation of nationalism as a new civic religion, Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a kind of contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In conclusion, we are exposed to thought-provoking findings from the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research 2021 on religious tolerance and segregation, reportedly the largest post-independence survey in India that includes a cross-section of castes, religions, and regions. Dr. Gudavarthy’s breakdown mentions how it highlights that 70 percent of respondents believe diversity is vital for democracy and value secularism. However, when asked about concrete living arrangements, 65 percent of respondents expressed a belief in segregated living, symbolizing the concept of living separately, which vindicates their position of how the narratives of Hindu majoritarian populism have successfully reinforced ethnic and caste divides.

Maggie Paul: “Ram Rajya 2.0: How Nostalgia Aids the Populist Politics of Neo-colonial Hindutva Futurism”

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity.

This presentation is informed by a paper that is still in development, which articulates the role of nostalgia in populist discourses through the retrieval, valorization, and recovery of ‘golden age symbols,’ both historical and mythological, which have been central in contemporary Indian populist politics.

The aim of the paper and presentation, according to Maggie Paul, was to identify the frequent and growing force of nostalgia in Indian populism used as a mobilization force for electoral means and then to draw out the links between nostalgia, affect, and populism, thereby better theorizing the affective politics of authoritarian populism in India and contributing to the burgeoning literature on nostalgia and populism. Pivotal to this conversation is the idea that in populist studies, ideational approaches are prevalent, and in these approaches, the importance of emotions is stated as crucial but is not given much in terms of theorization. Also, the study outlines the scope as being limited to Europe and Turkey; the work on Turkey, in particular, focuses on religious sentiment.

Opening the presentation is a quote from Prime Minister Narendra Modi given at the inauguration of the new parliament in May 2023, where Modi evokes an image of a glorious past when India was heralded as the most prosperous and splendid nation of the world, and how after centuries of slavery and colonization, India is turning that glorious stream of ancient times towards itself, filling the Indian people with pride. Following this, the presentation goes over how nostalgia is associated with the ‘recent past,’ like times when political correctness was not present or rife, a time when society was more homogeneous, or a time of the welfare state, especially amongst right-wing ideologies. Different types of nostalgia, like restorative or reflective, are more dominant in right-wing populism, taking a more ideational approach.

Her framework is based on the idea that populism is analyzed as a logic of political articulation according to Ernesto Laclau, and emotions, according to Sarah Ahmed, are considered as cultural practices. However, Maggie Paul highlights the limitations of Laclau in adequately addressing the emotional aspects of populism, with an emphasis on collective grievances and antagonism in generating collective identities; this is weak, but collective identities require strong collective emotions. In addition to things like fear and hate, love and happiness are also needed within identity. In doing so, we are made alert to the importance of understanding how emotions work to create groups and form collective identities.

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity. Ram Rajya is articulated as a pinnacle of morality, ethics, and good governance, in line with the principles of the Constitution. However, it also encompasses aspects that may involve restricting religious minorities like Islam, such as introducing Ramayana into school syllabi, declaring Thursday as the official weekly day off, and observing a national Hindu day. Additionally, it mentions efforts against religious conversions, the banning of Madrassas, and the removal of reservations for minorities.

Building on the presentation given by Dr. Gudavarthy, Maggie Paul discusses how the populist co-opting of Ram Rajya aims to unite different groups and create a vision of a glorious future. However, it’s worth noting that this sometimes involves the reinterpretation of religious mythology as actual history, despite pushback from the scientific community.

Continuing the presentation elaborates on how cultural infrastructure plays a significant role in invoking cultural and religious unity and futurism and the antagonistic frontiers that emerged at certain moments in Indian history when discussing figures like Lord Ram was avoided, which in turn led to infrastructural decay tied to religious places and cities—a decay that Indian populists argue can only be rectified through a politics and political state infused with the character and lessons of Lord Ram. It also emphasized how the willpower and determination associated with Lord Ram can lead the country to new heights, promoting values based on unity, development, and faith.

Before ending, the cultural dimensions of Indian populism and cultural renaissance were expanded upon and shown to involve monumental infrastructural projects aimed at promoting the coexistence of past and present India. This includes the restoration of temples, the creation of mega corridors with modern amenities, and the incorporation of local deities, gurus, and indigenous warriors to foster a unified cultural resurgence. This cultural revival serves to create a sense of heritage and identity while simultaneously fostering a sense of hatred for past invasions and destruction of cultural sites by Muslim invaders, with the dual aim of creating an enduring Hindu identity that dismisses the existing diversity and pluralism within Hinduism.

Dr. Anuj Bhuwania: “Constitutional Roots of Judicial Populism in India”

According to Dr. Bhuwania, the Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. Therefore, the Indian constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has also enabled Modi to do what he does now.

This presentation shifts the panel’s focus from the religious aspects and behaviors of populism in India towards the implications of populist endeavors on the judiciary, taking an interesting spin on normative discussions around the institutional erosion caused by populists, particularly in relation to the courts and legal autonomy. 

Seminally, Dr. Bhuwania suggests that in India, the reverse is true: Courts act as populist actors themselves. Central to this argument is the notion that constitutionalism has been less of a stumbling block on the path to Hinduism in the past decades than what populist scholars might have thought. Currently, global populist discourse often turns to countries like Poland or Hungary when analyzing what populism means for democratic backsliding, often noting that these regimes paired their populist discourses with constitutional changes, which then enabled populist leaders to chip away at the liberal foundations in those countries. What stands out from this ‘norm’ is that India, in comparison to other populist regimes, has experienced relatively minor changes to its constitution, a phenomenon that indicates that Prime Minister Modi has been able to advance his political agenda without introducing major alterations to India’s fundamental legal document. The study highlights the surprisingly high level of compatibility between the Hindu majoritarian agenda and the Indian constitution.

Dr. Bhuwania articulates the ability of the Indian constitution to be used as a populist tool, attributing it to the constitution’s inherent malleability, which allows India’s religious populism to make use of it with arguable ease. In some ways, this malleability also substantiates political claims made by Indian populist actors of wanting to uphold and seek to advance the Constitution, embracing the political legitimacy that comes with India’s constitutional pliability.

In displaying how the Indian constitution lends itself to the populist forces, Dr. Bhuwania refers the audience and panel to the ongoing matter related to the constitutional status of Kashmir, currently being heard before the Indian Supreme Court. This matter revolves around the changes brought about in August 2019 when the Government of India revoked the special autonomous status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by Article 370 of the Indian constitution, essentially facilitating their conversion into territories of India. This was done through the vote of a simple majority, a fact that is central to this part of the presentation. Dr. Bhuwania begins to unravel the dangers of the current state of the Indian constitution by reviewing how the constitution allows for unilateral changes to the very structure of states through a simple majority. Adding that it’s important to note that India has already become a Hindu majoritarian state, electorally speaking, meaning there is little standing in the way of allowing the Indian government currently to alter territorial lines without the need for constitutional changes.

Dr. Bhuwania also discusses India’s peculiar federalist nature, calling it a quasi-federalist state, considering the looseness of the federal characteristics. In addition, it is argued that India, through its federalist constitution, became a model for federalism for most multiethnic countries, with this idea peaking in the concept of the state-nation that became prevalent in 2012. The Indian Union’s ability to accommodate the demands of various ethnic communities displayed the flexibility and strength of the federal system by forging new states in the North-East of India. This underscores the importance of design choices when it comes to federalism.

The Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. The presentation also attempts to provide an understanding of why key provisions in the Constitution were not entrenched. One explanation is that the constitution, at least at the time of drafting, was a wartime constitution, likely referring to the height period of conflict in India, from independence movements to the Indo-Pakistani war.

Before closing, Dr. Bhuwania unpacked how being a single-party majority/dominant constitution breeds a threat to constitutional growth through change, noting the fact that in most single-party dominant systems, a single party dominant constitution sees no possible future of having any other party dominating the constitution, which means they have little cause to change the constitution. This also interestingly gives stability to the Indian constitution as well, as the usefulness means there is little reason to further align themselves with the global populist right and generate unwanted attention by attempting to introduce massive changes to the constitution. The constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has enabled Modi to do what he does now.

Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta: “India’s Refugee Policy Towards Rohingya Refugees: An Intersectional Approach to Populism”

The presentation outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the Modi Government in India. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation.

In this joint presentation, Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta showcase their interest in the interconnection between populism and foreign policy, specifically concerning the issue of refugees. They are working on a draft paper on the subject that is still in the process of completion. Central to their contribution is their focus on the relationship between populism and domestic refugee policies, which have international implications. Their research centers on how populism affects the foreign policy preferences and outcomes of governments in power.

To begin the final presentation, Dr. Singh outlines the novelty of their work, emphasizing its contribution to the international dimension of populism studies related to refugee policy. Central to the argument presented by Dr. Singh is that in the context of populist studies, the issue of refugee politics/policies stands out as a marginalized discourse globally, referring to how we look at refugee policy and foreign policy and how we see this policy about populism internationally. The presentation recounted how few studies investigate the link between population and foreign policy shedding light to review three gaps found in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature while asking how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees seen as foreign policy, and how is it connected with the case of India? She mentions that while populism literature has covered the international ramifications of populism, the issue of refugee politics and policies remains a marginalized discourse in global populist studies. The presentation identifies three gaps in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature and explores how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees in India.

The first gap is related to the conceptualization of populism, particularly its application in non-Western contexts like India. It’s important to note that many studies that view populism as a thin-centered ideology face limitations when applied outside Western contexts. Additionally, a continuation of this initial gap pertains to the process of signification by referring to Laclau’s approach, which defines populism as a political logic centered on empty signifiers, most studies acknowledge the antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite. However, where they often fall short is in defining the category of “the people.”

Expanding upon Laclau’s work, Dr. Singh delves into the concept of populism as a political logic based on discursive identity assemblages. These assemblages are characterized by various constellations, which in this context refer to societal groupings. The presentation briefly touches on what makes Modi’s populism effective—namely, the existence of overlap in the discursive language used to bridge gaps across race, ethnicity, religious divisions, as well as class and caste. This overlap provides valuable insights into the complex formation and categorization of “the people,” taking into account the diversity of sub-groups within this broad and multifaceted term.

The second gap concerns the narrow conceptualization of foreign policy, which has primarily focused on bilateralism and multilateralism, largely neglecting issues related to refugees. Dr. Singh and Dr. Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta aim to review how refugee policy affects both conflict outcomes and cooperative relations among states in South Asia, such as India-Bangladesh, India-Pakistan, and India-Afghanistan. For these researchers, refugee policy is a foreign policy. 

The third gap discussed pertains to the lack of contextualization of populism and foreign policy. Dr. Singh explained that when examining the conceptualization of foreign policy, it’s essential to consider how contextual specificities related to various global variants of populism are taken into account. This approach offers the potential for an intersectional analysis. The focus on refugees arises from the argument that migration is a core function of a state’s foreign policies and is implicated in international agreements that recognize the rights of refugees through international treaties. In the context of South Asia, where many states, including Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, have led South Asian countries to adopt different positions on global refugee protection instruments, our understanding of refugees becomes influenced by the extent of populist narratives present in government.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Barthwal-Datta discusses how the paper outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the BJP Modi Government. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation. These legislative changes have been accompanied by shifts in discourse, with BJP leaders and other senior officials framing refugees, particularly Rohingya refugees, as threats. In conclusion, Dr. Barthwal-Datta emphasizes the significance of considering the various identity constellations at play, such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which influence the creation and approach to refugees. This aspect is crucial when attempting to adopt an intersectional approach to international populism and refugee-related issues.


(*) Neo Sithole is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).


Panoramic view from the sea to the right bank of the Bosphorus at sunset in Istanbul, Turkey on December 7, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock.

Populism’s Building Complex; or: Is There Such A Thing As Populist Architecture?

Abstract

This article argues that there is a distinctive populist approach to the built environment.  Populists claim that they alone represent what they often call “the real people.”  Hence, there is a need for them to specify who “the real people” are.  If they have sufficient power (and time) while in government, they will reshape the built environment – architecture, no less than urban and rural environments more broadly — in line with their understanding of “the real people.”  In particular, they will create spaces (some obviously political, some not so obvious, such as football stadiums) that can serve as sites for the collective affirmation of a particular understanding of peoplehood.  The article also asks how post-populist governments should relate to a built environment reshaped by populists.


By Jan-Werner Müller*

In the run-up to the momentous parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey in spring 2023, one part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s record received special scrutiny: the building boom over which his AK Party had presided for the past two decades.  The earthquake on February 6 – in which more than 50,000 people perished – made many Turks painfully aware of the dark side of that boom: not just shoddy buildings, but also wide-spread corruption and the creation of construction industry oligarchs ready to cement the power of the ruler (Bechev 2022).

 However, Erdoğan is not the only right-wing populist leader who has relied crucially on the building business: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are others.  One little-noticed side-effect is that such long-ruling figures have systematically transformed the built environment – especially city centers, but also small towns and villages – in line with their understanding of who the “real people” are.[1]  If such populists lose power – a big if! – new governments will face many urgent tasks.  But on their agenda must also be the question whether they should dismantle the symbolic landscapes populist leaders have constructed.

This article investigates what I shall describe as an elective affinity between populism and a particular approach to the built environment (I take the latter to include architecture and urban as well as rural planning). My approach differs from previous attempts to think about architecture in conjunction with populism; such accounts rely on an understanding of populism as “giving people what they want,” or as egalitarian housing policies, or as somehow relating to popular culture (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s attempts to “learn from Las Vegas,” and postmodern architecture more broadly, have often been described as “populist”) (Venturi, Brown and Izenour 1972; Lefaivre and Tzonis, 2006; Frausto and Szacka, 2021).[2]

Instead, I shall first offer an approach to populism that identifies the phenomenon with a particular claim by leaders and parties uniquely to represent what populists often call “the real people” or also “the silent majority” (Müller 2017). Clearly, every populist has to say something about “the people” – the people needs to be demarcated somehow (which also shows why those who call a particular policy “populist” – for instance economists criticizing an economic approach for supposedly being inflationary or protectionist – are really making a value judgment; they are not describing anything specifically related to a claim about the people).[3] In a second step, I shall argue that populists with sufficient power (and time) in government will try to reshape the built environment in line with their conception of “the real people.” Put differently, they will seek to establish cultural hegemony (an effort not unique to them, of course) in a distinctly anti-pluralist manner.[4] Needless to say, building is not the only way of doing so; there are also films, soap operas, museums, textbooks in schools, etc.[5]

I shall suggest further, drawing on a number of contemporary examples, that spaces created by populists often serve as sites for affirming a particular understanding of peoplehood.  While populism, as I conceptualize it, has an inbuilt authoritarian tendency qua being anti-pluralist, the approach to generate consent through culture by populists in the twenty-first century is notably “softer” than what we know from the experience of twentieth-century dictatorships. Hence this article also confirms recent theories in comparative politics about the peculiarities of today’s authoritarianism. These theories highlight systematic differences between twentieth-century “fear dictatorships” and twenty-first century “spin dictatorships,” with the latter being demonstrably less violent and primarily focused on manipulating public opinion (Guriev and Treisman, 2022): particular artists and architects (and styles and symbols) might be shunned; monuments and buildings might be dismantled — but nobody is sent to prisons or camps. Finally, I want to suggest some ways in which governments that come to power after populist regimes have transformed the built environment might address the question how to relate to that particular populist legacy. Here I shall claim that much depends on the specifics of transitions back to democracy (which is not to suggest that all democracies before populists came to power were perfect!). But it can be said that, in general, post-populist governments should resist the temptation of iconoclasm, which is to say: simply erasing edifices built by populists. There are some important exceptions to this suggestion, though.

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