Grueso, Gadea Mendez & Sezer, Julide (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 3 – Scandinavia Under Magnifier: Populist Radical Right Parties and the End of Nordic Exceptionalism?” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).June 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0006
This report is based on the third panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 28, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Scandinavian countries, namely Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the third panel of the series focusing on Scandinavian countries on the theme of “Scandinavia under magnifier: Populist radical right parties and the end of Nordic exceptionalism” which was held online on April 28, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Dr Liv Sunnercrantz, Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway, and included the following speakers; Dr Anders Hellström, Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden; Marie Cazes, Doctoral Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Dr Lise Lund Bjånesøy, Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway; Dr Susi Meret, Department of Politics and Society, University of Aalborg, Denmark.
Dr Anders Hellström: “The Sweden Democrats in Swedish politics – The Mainstreaming of Extremism”
“In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ (in Sweden) as theorised by Ruth Wodak: What was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.”
Dr Anders Hellström introduced how extremism has been mainstreamed in Swedish politics with the case of Sweden Democrats (SD). The main themes he addressed are: the nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats (SD) within Swedish politics, the ‘mainstreaming of extremism,’ the discussion about going ‘beyond’ Swedish exceptionalism, and what ‘the new normal’ may come to mean in Swedish politics.
According to Dr Hellström, there have been nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats. Before 2006 (1), the SD received very little media exposure, and when they were mentioned in the press, they were, at best, referred to as ‘devils in disguise’ or as ‘fascists in uniforms.’ Between 2006 and 2010 (2), the media interest in the SD escalated, and the other parties gradually abandoned their ‘cordon sanitaire’ approach to the party; but, even if these other parties wanted to attract SD voters, SD politicians were still referred to, in the political debate and the media, as either racists or ‘political clowns,’ sometimes both. In the third stage, between 2010 and 2014 (3), the SD got into the national parliament, and the national debate on Swedish identity issues, as a result, became highly polarised; the party gained a lot of media attention, and the public debate was rife with discussions around this ‘new’ political party. Between 2014 and 2018 (4), the party space in Sweden became significantly more multi-dimensional: instead of just a left-right socio-economic-political divide, there was now also a socio-cultural divide. Before this period, it was ‘the SD against the rest,’ in terms of political parties, but afterwards, the SD’s positions on certain topics like immigration became more eligible. In 2019 (5), the SD was getting increasingly tamed, and their policy positions thus came to be seen as normal by other political actors, and it became less shameful among the electorate to vote for the SD. Before the pandemic, the SD had, in fact, become the largest party in the Swedish national parliament.
However, the 2020 pandemic marked a sixth stage (6) in the SD’s development, and the SD lost voting support (the SD is now approximately 10% behind the Social Democrats). The theme of how Sweden handled (or mishandled) the pandemic was seen as something exceptional, not only by the SD but by many others in the public debate. For instance, Ebba Busch Thor, the leader of the Christian Democrats (KD), declared that the government had “with relieved courage” allowed a high spread of infection, which had severely negatively affected the old people in Sweden; at the same time, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the SD, had said that the government had conducted a “massacre” on the elders. Many other political actors besides the SD thus verbalised a similar criticism against the government.
In 2021-2022 (7), the SD became part of a bloc, together with the Christian Democrats, the Moderate Party (M) (which are mainstream right parties), and the Liberal Party (L), to pursue an anti-liberal agenda (the presence of the Liberal Party, in that sense, may seem ironic). The idea was to form a new conservative government to replace the Social Democratic government. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (8), far-right parties in Sweden (and elsewhere) suffered from their previous admiration of Putin. The Social Democrats benefitted from this and are now getting very high poll figures. Whereas before, immigration was their only relevant political issue, their rhetoric has shifted significantly when compared to their view of the topic of Syria in 2015, and the SD now speaks of the need to protect and allow Ukrainian refugees into Sweden (which was not the case for Syrian refugees). The national elections that will take place in September 2022 (9) will tell whether the political debate will foremost be on defense (and the issue of NATO membership), the climate or gang violence.
Dr Hellström interpreted the rise of the SD as an end to ‘Swedish exceptionalism.’ Indeed, he referred to the work by Jens Rydgren, who said that his explanations as to why Sweden did not have a leading anti-immigration party (like Denmark and Norway had) no longer apply. Working-class voters (and voters in the southern parts of Sweden and middle-aged men) have turned to the SD; and the salience of the socio-economic policy dimension in political competition is no longer hegemonic, as the political is now also about culture and identity. Moreover, there is today a growing consensus between the Left and the Right, as there has been a ‘moralisation of politics.’
In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ as theorised by Ruth Wodak: what was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.
According to Dr Hellström, there was, a decade ago, a meta-debate in Swedish politics, in which all the mainstream parties agreed that they should debate with the SD (even if they were deplorable). The consequence was that the average voter, who probably had not heard of the party, suddenly became aware of its existence thanks to the exposure awarded by that debate. Thus, Hellström remarked, such parties benefit from the truth contained in Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
But all is not lost yet, Dr Hellström reminds us: to understand what is happening around us, we need to understand both regressive and progressive sentiments. When we build toward a new normality, we should remember that “the future points in both progressive and regressive directions simultaneously”—and it is up to us to decide which comes to fruition.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Marie Cazes: “From Rural to Radical Right: A Brief Perspective on Finnish Populism”
Despite populism has always been present in the Finnish Parliament ever since the 1960s the support for the Finns Party seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion.
Marie Cazes presented a historical approach to populism in Finland, a country with a long relationship to the topic. She presented the main Finnish populist parties: the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP), which was created by Veikko Vennamo in 1959 under the name of Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue (Finnish Party of Small Peasants), came into the government in the 1980s and became bankrupt in the 1990s; and the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which was created in 1995 after the bankruptcy of the Finnish Rural Party and became very successful, winning its first major electoral victory in 2011 (from 4,1 percent to 19,1 percent of the vote), and taking part in the Sipilä government (Centre, National coalition) in 2015. In June 2017, the Finns Party split after the election of Jussi Halla-aho, who was considered too radical and even condemned for hate speech, as chairperson; thus, ‘Blue Reform’ was created.
As Cazes explained, the origins of Finnish populism were very rural, and it was a form of agrarian populism. The Finnish Rural Party was itself created in 1959 by Veikko Vennamo as a split from the Agrarian Union, due to divergences of opinion with then-president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen regarding the countryside: Kekkonen had a more conservative idea in favour of preserving traditional social rurality ‘as it was before,’ even though Finland was facing a deep rural/agricultural crisis in the 1950s-60s.
Thus, Finnish populism, linked to ancient agrarianism ideology, rose by presenting itself as the ‘defender of the forgotten people’ from the countryside, who had supposedly been neglected by the ‘elites’ in Helsinki. As such, it was constructed in opposition to other parties (and to Kekkonen, who had been president for 24 years), with a very strong anti-communist rhetoric. Some researchers have talked about these parties as “hegemony challengers” (see Palonen & Sunnercrantz).
Cazes then described the rise and fall of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP): after having some electoral success in the 1970s, it collapsed, and rose again in the 1980s, when, in 1983, it got a second breakthrough in the parliamentary elections. That time, its narrative had changed, and the party presented itself as a critic of corruption, as its main concern became less focused on rurality, and its electorate changed too, becoming a bit more urban (as there were cases of corruption in several big cities, for instance concerning the construction of the subway in Helsinki). Because Kekkonen was no longer president, and because the image of the party changed, so that Finnish politicians no longer considered the SMP as an extreme-right party, it ended up being part of two governments, from 1983 to 1987, and from 1987 to 1991, which fomented tensions within the party. In the end, the Finnish Rural Party only had 1 MP in the 1995 election, and finally went bankrupt.
Four members of the SMP decided to create a new party, and thus, the Perussuomalaiset, or Finns Party, was born. Until the 2000s, the party was following the heritage of the Finnish Rural Party, and its agenda of the critique of elites. In 2003, the party had 3 MPs, including Tony Halme (a former famous wrestler and actor), a charismatic character with ‘colourful’ rhetoric who opened the door to critiquing immigration, making homophobic statements, etc. This ‘turning point’ led to the incorporation of new members affiliated with nationalist associations, and to the prominent critique of immigration.
But the real breakthrough of the Finns Party was in the parliamentary elections of 2011 when they gained 15 percent of the vote (from 4 percent previously). One of the main reasons for this success was not only the criticism of immigration but also a deep Euroscepticism (with a strong reticence to helping countries like Greece through the EU). They accessed the government in 2015, which resulted in a dramatic loss of voter support, as they could no longer credibly criticise the policy of the government regarding the migration crisis. The split of 2017 and the election of Halla-aho as the leader showed the radicality of the party, which had undergone a steady radicalisation process through the 2010s decade: after this turning point, the party could no longer be characterised as a moderate populist party, and it truly became the anti-immigration, nationalist, nativist, welfare chauvinist party that we know today.
Currently, the support for the Finns Party in view of next year’s parliamentary elections seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion (of which they had been very critical in the past). Finally, Marie Cazes reviewed the main features of Finnish populism: its strong rural roots (which is still prevalent in Finnish nationalism), and the fact that populism (Finns Party and Finnish Rural Party) has always been present in the national parliament, ever since the 1960s.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Dr Lise Bjånesøy: “Public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway”
The Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration.
Dr Lise Bjånesøy presented public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway with a case study of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FRP). Bjånesøy started with a brief history of FRP stating that the party was established in 1973 by Anders Lange and in the late 1980s, it made strong anti-immigration policies part of its program and then started gaining more support. The party entered government for the first time in the fall of 2013 as the junior partner of the Conservative Party, stayed in the government coalition until 2020 and chose to leave the coalition just before the pandemic.
Dr Bjånesøy noted that the Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration. They have political candidates who are primarily concerned with other issues than immigration and minorities although policies for immigration and minorities remain very important for the party. What is interesting about the Progress Party, according to Dr Bjånesøy, is that there are two different wings in the party; one is a more libertarian wing, and the other is a clear populist radical right-wing, a situation which makes it difficult to label the party as populist radical right.
In the second part of her speech, Bjånesøy presented some results from two different studies in which Progress Party is included. Both studies using different concepts focus on different aspects of public perceptions of the populist radical right. One is political tolerance and the other one is negative partisanship. Political tolerance implies the willingness to put up with things that one rejects or opposes, and in this study, whether or not people allow the expression of opinions that they dislike is taken as the test for tolerance. The second study is related to negative partisanship, and this is concerned with negative effects or repulsion towards a political party. Negative partisanship reflects voting behaviour that one would never consider voting for that party.
As Dr Bjånesøy explained, the first study is designed to put political tolerance to the test in five different countries, inspired by a real-life scenario from 2010 related to the populist radical right party in Sweden; Sweden Democrats faced difficulty to find a venue for their election night gathering and they had to lie about the purpose of the event to secure the venue. In the experimental setting, they asked people about four different groups (mainstream right party, populist radical right party, one anti-Islamic group, and one neo-Nazi group) from five countries (Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden). They told people to imagine that one of these four groups has asked to rent a community centre to host a meeting for its members and asked how much they agree or disagree to rent it to these groups. The results show that everyone wills to rent the centre to centre-right parties, for the two extra-parliamentary groups; 80 percent of people disagree renting the centre to neo-Nazi groups and 50 percent disagree to rent it to an anti-Islamic group. The study included Progress Party in Norway, PPV in the Netherlands, FN in France, AfD in Germany and SD in Sweden to the list as populist radical right parties. The results show that there are large variations in public political tolerance of the populist radical right in European democracies and that tolerance does not only depend on the far-right in terms of ideology but also the party institutionalization matters; for example, the inclusion of populist radical right in the government brings in higher tolerance as is the case in Norway.
In the second study, Dr Bjånesøy investigates why many people would not consider voting for the populist radical right. The studies have found that populist radical right parties have a particularly high negative share of partisanship, and it seems that negative partisanship is an interesting tool to look at concerning populist radical right. Bjånesøy says, in her study, she takes Norwegian Progress Party as the case study and reminds us of the results of the first study she explained before (political tolerance) that Progress Party is the populist radical right party with the highest political tolerance. Using the data from Norwegian Citizen Panel, Dr Bjånesøy asked people if they would vote for Progress Party, and more than 50 percent said they would never consider voting for this party. While voters are asked to explain their reasons in their own words, four different categories have emerged: blank rejection; they strongly disagree with the party without stating a particular reason for it, immigration policy issues; they describe the party as prejudiced to migrants and racist, other policy issues; the voters pointed at the party’s stance on environmental issue and economic issues, political style; they expressed their dislike of the behaviour of the candidates and the tone used in the political debates.
Bjånesøy concludes her presentation by pinpointing that the Progress Party can be considered a borderline case in terms of being a member of the populist radical right party family. The voters strongly and consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies towards immigration and immigrants, but the policy issues it highlights are beyond the area of immigration. The party is fully tolerated by the public and, at the same time, it is the most disliked party with a high share of negative partisanship.
Reported by Julide Sezer
Dr Susi Meret: “From success to failure? The recent developments of the radical and populist right in Denmark”
“Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for the Danish People’s Party (DF) and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.”
Dr Susi Meret started her presentation by highlighting four points to explain why the Danish case is particularly important in terms of the populist radical right. In this line, Dr Meret mentioned: 1) Denmark is an established liberal post-war democracy with a developed welfare state system and with higher levels of wealth and wellbeing in comparison to the rest of Europe and is also known for high levels of trust and happiness. 2) Populist radical right parties fared well since 2000 and until recently, with the Danish People’s Party (DF), the main radical right-wing populist (RRWP) party in Denmark, consolidating its position within the parliament. 3) Electoral support for DF is rising in the years 2001-2015, reaching average levels between 15-20 percent. 3) DF has considerable political influence; it acted as a support for the minority cabinet (DK) between 2001-2011 and between 2015-2019, and now they are in opposition. 4) The issues on the agenda of DF are similar to the ones on the agenda of other RRWP parties in other Scandinavian countries; welfare-nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam politics, Euroscepticism and pro-NATO.
Dr Meret continued by pinpointing sentences from DF’s principal program which reflect the party’s populist radical right views; “The party’s overall goal is to re-establish Denmark’s sovereignty and freedom and to secure the Danish nation and the monarchy’s existence.” The program also has a strong anti-immigration stance; “Denmark is not and has never been an immigration country and DF is against the development of Denmark into a multicultural society. (…) to the extent immigrants can maintain themselves and their families, they can get a temporary permit to stay and to work (…) Refugees must not be turned into immigrants.” As seen from the party program, Dr Meret explains, DF is against immigration and holds an anti-Islam position for which the party’s strong opposition to the Syrian refugees’ permanent stay in Denmark is an example. DF was pushing hard for sending them back to Syria but met with resistance from civil society organisations. Per economic policy, it maintains a welfare-nationalist chauvinist approach and holds a critical position towards European politics, in particular against Schengen, free movement and the monetary union.
Then, Dr Meret focused on the question of what explains the rise and the consolidation of DF. In this regard, she pointed to the growing salience of value politics in the form of the old and new left and right, and particularly national identity, migration and recently climate change. Since the 1980s, electoral volatility/fluctuation has increased, and loyalty to political parties has diminished, which increased support for DF. Also, socio-economic and other divides are exacerbated and attention towards social cohesion and welfare nationalism has risen vis-à-vis increasing migration flows. From the 1990s onwards, as a consequence of bloc politics, the proportional electoral system has donated small parties with relatively strong power in the political structure, which also prepared a convenient context for the rise of DF. Dr Meret highlighted that the legitimization of populist radical right by Liberals in 2001 and by Social Democrats from 2015 onwards also helped in the increase of support for DF.
Dr Meret also discussed voting trends for populist radical right examining voters in terms of gender, education, class and income. While populist radical right gains more votes from white male voters and women are still left-wing leaning; the gap is closing between the two as RRWP has become more mainstreamed and normalized. Meret added that Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for DF and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.
Dr Meret indicated that radical right-wing populists in Denmark perform exclusionary populism; they stand against the elite, against the establishment and for “the people,” which are considered common denominators of populism, and the anti-immigration approach is coming as an additional denominator from the polls in the country. The definition of “the people” comes from an ethno-nationalist understanding of community and the people with a narrative of common roots encompassing belonging, shared history, and the same values with an emphasis on Christian values lately. The idea of “our Denmark,” in their understanding, refers to whites, which gets criticism from the civil society organizations. RRWP describes Denmark as a homogenous community whose grounds are challenged by globalization, Europeanization and migration flows and refugees. The anti-gender aspect of RRWP, Dr Meret argues, is an interesting and concerning development in Denmark and it has an emphasis on the Muslim veil. Concerning the LGBTQ issues, DF does not hold a contrasting position, but it expresses that the issue should have a limit and must not dictate the agenda.
Dr Meret says that DF’s new leader Morten Messerschmidt who held the office in January 2022 is internally challenged by the party members on the ground that he is not a good fit for the party, particularly in these times when the party is in crisis. The other right-wing populist party, New Right has also a female leader and follows a very conservative approach such that they present a hard-line anti-immigration agenda wanting to stop asylum altogether, on the other hand, they pursue an ultra-liberal economic agenda which is different from DF. Dr Meret also mentions the extra-parliamentary radical right-wing party “Hard Line” led by Rasmus Paludan, which run for the 2019 elections but could not get enough votes to enter the parliament. The party’s worldview is ethno-nationalist, racist and strongly Islamophobic defending the prohibition of Islam in Denmark. The party often uses social media and has a social media channel named “the Voice of Freedom” to mobilize the youth, they live-stream their demonstrations on online channels to get more attention, for example, they encouraged people to burn Quran in public spaces, which happened in Denmark before Sweden.
As another form of the populist radical right, Dr Meret talked about a transnational movement “Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordfront)” which derives from Sweden in 1997 and is represented in most of the Nordic countries. Their worldview encompasses racism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, and rallying for a ‘racially pure’ Nordic region against the extinction of the white autochthonous population. The movement, as it is written on their website, organizes “revolutionary national socialist combat organization.” They use vandalism and violent attacks as forms of their action repertoire for which bomb attacks on refugee housing and vandalism against Jewish graveyards are examples.
Dr Meret concluded her presentation by underlining the main takeaways from the case of RRWP in Denmark. The rise and electoral consolidation of RRWP (especially DF) should be considered in the long durée and in the light of the mainstream reactions. The current wave of RRWP emphasizes ethnic homogeneity and assimilationist models, and ethnic and religious groups are increasingly racialized, also by government policies. Extra parliamentary far-right milieus have proliferated in recent years but seem still weaker than in other countries. Far-right repertoires of action and organization are different, inspired by groups and organizations outside Denmark but also exporting their own products.
Reported by Julide Sezer
 Jens Rydgren, and Sara van der Meiden,“The Radical Right and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism,” European Political Science 18, no. 3 (2019): 439–455
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.
Blink, Melissa & Robinson, Tom. (2022). “Report on Panel #4 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Radical Right in Europe’s Heartland and the UK.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0005
This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on May 26, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three countries in Europe’s heartland, namely Germany, Austria, France, and the UK. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the fourth panel of the series focusing on heartland Europe and the UK, on the theme of “Populist radical right in Europe’s heartland (Germany, Austria, France) and the UK,” which was held online on May 26, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Dr Luke Cooper, Member of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at LSE, and included the following speakers; Dr Ralf Havertz, Associate Professor of International Relations at Keimyung University in South Korea; Dr Karin Liebhart, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, the University of Vienna; Dr Gilles Ivaldi, CNRS Researcher in Political Science at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po, Paris; Dr William Allchorn, Postdoctoral Researcher and Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, University of Leeds.
Dr Cooper, in his introductory remarks, noted that the case studies of the panel demonstrate the unevenness of the rise of the radical right in this century, which Cas Mudde has referred to as the fourth, and arguably most successful wave of the post-WW2 radical right. What distinguishes this wave, he says, is the degree of convergence between the mainstream centre-right and the new radical right. Also notable is the radical right’s success in taking over governments around the world and emerging as a formidable political force. Dr Cooper explained that he would be employing Cas Mudde’s distinction between the radical right and the extreme right. The former accepts the basic principles of democracy but launches a slow, steady incursion on its basic foundations, like the rule of law and constitutionalism. The extreme right rejects democratic principles altogether.
According to Dr. Cooper, one of the countries under discussion in this panel plays a special role in Mudde’s account of the fourth wave: Austria. After all, it was the rise of the Austrian Freedom Party (the FPÖ) and its entry into Austrian government that was met by diplomatic sanctions in the EU at the time. The attempted but failed cordon sanitaire was accompanied by sustained protests and demonstrations within Austria itself. It was, in other words, the moment the dam burst. Over the next two decades, we witnessed a gradual but uneven centre-right and radical right convergence. Mudde’s characterization is also valuable, according to Dr Cooper, because it avoids excessive focus on the 2008 financial crisis, reminding us that the origins of the rise of the radical right in this century extend further back than just 2008.
Germany’s radical right populism, in contrast, may look like a rapid response to the financial crisis. The AfD burst onto the scene, initially, as a Eurosceptic party, becoming increasingly extremist and white nationalist through gradual purges of its more moderate members. In many current discussions, Dr Cooper notes, the fall of the AfD is emphasized. After all, the story goes, Germany has demonstrated the strength and reserves of its democratic character, as well as the societal depth underlying its democratic institutions. He wonders how this prospect is seen by the panellists, especially in the context of the global shocks we might soon expect to see; inflation, for example, is a phenomenon often identified with the previous collapse of German democracy. That historic episode naturally haunts discussions of the far-right in Germany today, he notes.
The other two cases, Britain and France, also reflect the unevenness and complexity of the rise of the European radical right. Dr Cooper in his account of Britain’s current government, highlighted that the government is increasingly authoritarian but also appears to be in a state of genuine subjective confusion, he says. It sees itself as continuous with Thatcherism, although its main pitch to the electorate underlined the damage her government did to Britain and the damage that regional deindustrialization left behind. It has also committed to sharing Britain’s wealth across towns and regions more evenly. Dr Cooper points out another contradiction: the government sees itself as part of a great British tradition of liberty but has launched an attack on the human rights agenda, including, most prominently, the Human Rights Act, which brings the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. Furthermore, he notes, the British government seems to reject the foundational elements of international refugee law. Its most recent piece of legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the high-profile proposal to summarily deport refugees who arrive in the UK by irregular or informal means to Rwanda are both examples of this attitude. The current British government has, in sum, a “viciously authoritarian, very ethno-nationalist agenda”, although its political elites are nevertheless confused.
In his remarks on France, Dr Cooper pointed at Marine Le Pen and the Front National National Rally as the central focus of those studying French populism. However, he thinks the Macron project is also a curious case for students of populism and authoritarianism. After all, he says, Macron’s initial pitch to the French electorate had many elements, in terms of style, language, and appeal, of a ‘populist insurgency’ in the first round of 2017’s French presidential elections. Macron adjusted his language quite significantly in the second round, making a more unifying pitch to the electorate instead. Another interesting subject is the way that the radical right’s key priority, namely the alleged ‘Islamization’ of Western societies by non-white Muslim immigrants, is taken in France’s national political debate. French centrists, as well as France’s left and centre-left, seem to pitch themselves in very uncertain times when confronted with the topic. The French state has also recently been accused of repressing human rights organizations advocating for the rights of the French Muslim community, by levying defamation laws against them in an attempt to close them down.
Dr Cooper concludes the opening remarks by highlighting that in each of the cases, a series of ‘meanings and un-meanings’ seem to complicate the already complex and uneven picture of the radical right’s rise in Europe.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Ralf Havertz: “The Rise of Radical Right Populism in Germany”
Dr Havertz describes Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government or been tolerated or supported by minority governments. It is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism, and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.
Dr Ralf Havertz detailed the rise of radical right populism in Germany in his lecture at the panel. He starts by describing Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government (as in Austria) or been tolerated or supported by minority governments (as was the case with the Danish People’s Party in Denmark). This has not, to date, happened in Germany: no party on this side of the political spectrum has participated in government, nor has it supported governments so far. The cordon sanitaire had held up so far, although, Dr Havertz notes, talks take place behind the scenes between the CDU (Christian Democrats), the Free Democrats, and the AfD – especially in the east of Germany.
Currently, the AfD is a strong opposition party in Germany’s Bundestag, and movements such as Pegida and the Identitarian Movement have attracted many participants with their various organized activities. Dr Havertz notes one might almost speak of a division of labour between these groups: Pegida and the Identitarians are the organized movement side, whereas the AfD supports the radical-right populist agenda in the parliament. The current state of affairs shows that something in Germany has changed – for a long time voting and expressing support for the populist radical right (PRR) was stigmatized due to Germany’s experiences with the Nazi regime and its atrocities. It has, however, become much more common to voice radical right opinions in public, and people are less inhibited in voicing their rage against governments, policies, and ‘othered’ groups. So, it is more common to vote for radical right parties, and the AfD especially.
What has driven this change? Dr Havertz points to three broad changes that occurred in Germany, which were related to economics, culture, and media. The first was the economic transformation; a shift from Fordism to neoliberalism brought about higher competitive pressures, which created insecurities and uncertainties for workers, as well as changes to Germany’s social welfare system. The PRR instrumentalized the rage and resentment borne of these changes and channelled it against “the elite” or “the establishment” as it is sometimes called.
The second change Dr Havertz described occurred in the aftermath of the Student Movement of 1968, which triggered a phase of modernization and liberalization in German society, bringing about improvements for minority groups and those who were subject to discrimination, including refugees, and immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. The PRR again instrumentalized dissatisfaction with these changes and organized a cultural backlash, again directed at “the elite”, whose cosmopolitan character was the focus of populist ire. It was also directed at the minorities who were the beneficiaries of the changes described.
The third change occurred in the media environment with the emergence of the internet and social media, which have changed the way citizens communicate. Radical and extreme messages are much easier to express and disseminate broadly while simultaneously targeting specific recipients. The AfD and Pegida, especially, make use of this, whereby they have certainly contributed to the polarization of German society. All these developments converged roughly at the same time.
On this note, Dr Havertz mentions the AfD’s precursors. There were other radical right populist parties in Germany before the AfD; when they dissolved, they recommended their members to join the AfD instead, which is true for Pro Deutschland, for example. Some of these parties still exist on the regional level, though no longer on a national level. The same is true for Die Freiheit, Die Republikaner, the Bund Freier Bürger, and the Schill-Party. The AfD, on the other hand, can be considered the most successful radical right party in German post-war history, having reached the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in every election since 2014, on regional, national, and the European level. This means, also, that they earn money and can provide employment opportunities, not just for party members, but also for members of Pegida and the Identitarian Movement.
Then there were the crises: the global financial crisis, and the Euro crisis. The latter was particularly salient for the AfD, as it was initially primarily a Eurosceptic party. Its founders were dissatisfied with the German centre-right approach to European integration, and strongly opposed the ‘rescue package’ with which the EU responded to the Euro crisis and Greece’s fiscal problems. Angela Merkel’s support for this policy made her a central hate figure in the radical right’s protest marches. The AfD could, to some extent, even be considered an anti-Merkel party. Having now lost this hate figure, the AfD and German radical right more generally will need to find a replacement.
In its first two years, Dr Havertz says, the AfD’s orientation was primarily driven by the party’s ordoliberal leadership. Though there were other wings, including a national-conservatism group, it was initially described as a “party of professors.” It was considered a party with considerable competence in the area of economics, which is also how they portrayed themselves. In the party’s first years, its face was Bernd Lucke, one of its first three speakers (chairpersons) – an economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He was often on TV, discussing economic issues based on his credentials. But right from the start, there were also some conservative members and others from the new-right and radical right. Some right-wing extremists also joined the party, and 2015 marked a strong turn to the right when Lucke and several other economic-liberal members left the party. Frauke Petry challenged Lucke’s position as speaker and prevailed. This meant a strengthening of the party’s national-conservative wing and also brought about a power shift within the party, from West to East German members. Soon, the Eastern states’ party associations gained a dominant position in the AfD.
Relatedly, the AfD has performed much better in the East Germany than in the West Germany, on both federal and sub-national levels. Also notable is that the party has attracted significantly more male than female voters. The party’s gender gap is very wide and has increased in national elections over time.
Another important development in the party was the development of “Der Flügel (the Wing)” – a right-wing extremist party faction under Björn Höcke’s leadership – which resulted in deeper internal division into a mostly Western economic-liberal faction and a mostly Eastern national-conservative/right-wing extremist wing. After its classification as a certain case of right-wing extremism by the Federal Agency of the Protection of the Constitution (the domestic intelligence service), Der Flügel was forced to dissolve.
Dr Havertz then provided an overview of the AfD’s programmatic orientation and ideological features, namely populism, nationalism/nativism/anti-immigrant positions, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, antisemitism/historical revisionism, Euroscepticism, anti-feminism/anti-genderism, ordoliberalism/social populism as well as welfare chauvinism (which Dr Havertz notes as a contradiction), and Covid-scepticism.
He concludes that the AfD is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism (meaning that its populism has anti-democratic implications) and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Karin Liebhart: “Right-wing Populism and the New Right in Austria –– Recent Trends and Manifestations”
The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. However, radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.
Dr Karin Liebhart, in her lecture, outlined the history and current circumstances of Austria’s populist radical right. To begin with, she discussed the labels she finds appropriate for each of the players in Austria’s radical or extreme right parties. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. Radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.
The new extremist right is a label Dr Liebhart recommends for the Identitarian Movement, which is extreme right, racist, nationalist, anti-pluralist, and sees itself as a part of the global alt-right. It declared war on 1968’s cultural liberalization, which took place in Austria as well as in Germany. Its prime political aim is to fight the so-called “great exchange” and Islamization of Europe. The Austrian branch, founded in 2012, is a stronghold of the Generation Identity group, which seeks not electoral results, but rather seeks to influence wider public debate. They closely cooperate and collaborate with parties in parliament, like the FPÖ, and with student fraternities.
Dr Liebhart continued by discussing the more moderate side of Austria’s right-wing populist spectrum. In October 2017 the ÖVP, led by Sebastian Kurz, won the general elections. Journalists at the time noted that Austria was quite a curious case of populism; just months earlier Kurz had taken leadership of the centre-right ÖVP and rebranded the party as a political movement, “the Movement for Austria.” The movement focused entirely on Kurz’s personality, and he simultaneously directed the People’s Party sharply to the right. Votes saw a dramatic increase, from approximately 20 percent to approx. 30 percent. The elections ended in a right-wing populist coalition government; upon coming first place in the national elections, Kurz invited the radical right FPÖ to join as the junior partner in a coalition. Unlike in the years 1999 and 2000, when the FPÖ’s ascent to parliament was met with protests and diplomatic sanctions, 2017’s election outcomes were not met by significant protests from abroad.
Both parties, Dr Liebhart says, focused their election campaigns on anti-immigration policies and rhetoric. This strategy had been pursued by the FPÖ since the late 1980s but was fairly new for the ÖVP. Kurz essentially managed to occupy a political space until then monopolized by the FPÖ and soon made immigration his signature. The 2017 general election was incredibly significant, Dr Liebhart noted because it showed that right-wing populist attitudes were no longer limited to the fringes of the political landscape, becoming instead a mainstay of Austrian political culture. She says, in 2019 Cas Mudde said that the ÖVP has become “one of the most right-wing of Europe’s conservative parties,” while the FPÖ successfully shifted Austria’s political discourse firmly to the right.
Dr Liebhart then provided a brief history of the FPÖ. After Jörg Haider was elected chairman in 1986, the party became an explicitly radical right populist and Austrian nationalist party. Since it has direct roots in nationalist socialist ideology, Dr Liebhart feels that it does not belong to the ‘new’ type of radical right parties. Until Haider’s takeover, the FPÖ only played a very minor role in Austrian politics. Once in power, Haider focused on criticizing the political establishment, foregrounded immigration and integration issues, and rejected the idea of Austria as a subordinate subject of a larger German nation, promoting, instead, an ethnically defined Austrian national identity. Haider’s demagogic politics and focus on ethnonationalism did very well at the polls. He also ensured that the ‘Islamic threat’ became a particularly salient topic in Austria, which he combined with Eurocepticism and hostility towards the EU.
In 1999, the FPÖ joined the ÖVP as a junior partner in a coalition government for the first time. This was short-lived due to internal conflict, leading Haider and the FPÖ’s ministers to leave the party and found the “Alliance for the Future of Austria.” After Haider’s unexpected death in 2008, the Alliance lost significant electorate support and failed to reach the 4 percent threshold in the 2013 general elections. Haider was succeeded by Heinz Christian Strache, who further radicalized the party’s ideology, communication, and campaign strategies. This led to some renewed electoral success; the Alliance made it a junior partner to regional governments in upper Austria, for example. In 2006, 2008, and 2013, the party’s campaign posters were very racist, xenophobic, and focused on the construction of ethnic Austrian identity.
Returning to the 2017 coalition government between the FPÖ and ÖVP, Dr Liebhart noted that it operated harmoniously for more than a year, which was facilitated by the ÖVP’s shift to the right under Kurz’s leadership. Their policies were virtually identical regarding such as family politics or the restriction of asylum policies. Another example that demonstrates the parties’ convergence is the fact that both used the same slogan in the 2019 elections: “Someone who speaks our language.”
In any event, the coalition turned Austria into a Eurosceptic and outspokenly anti-immigration country, aligning it more closely with Poland and Hungary than with other Western European countries. The “Ibiza affair” of May 2019 – during which a secretly recorded video showing Strache and Gudenus of the FPÖ discussing illegal practices was made public – blew up the coalition. Interestingly, Dr Liebhart notes, the FPÖ lost significant votes but the ÖVP did not. The ÖVP’s slogan, “our way has just begun,” was widely successful. In the subsequent snap elections, the ÖVP gained 37.5 percent of the other share and joined a coalition with the Green Party. However, Kurz, Austria’s “most charismatic and successful politician” in decades, eventually had to resign in 2021 following bribery investigations.
Under Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ’s chairman since 2021, the party has managed to regain support amongst potential voters. This is partially because Kickl presents himself as the only representative of the opposition to the government’s COVID-19 measures, and the main politician trying to defend the people’s democratic rights against supposed incursions by the government. The FPÖ is very active in organizing anti-Corona-measure rallies. In this vein, it closely collaborates with right-wing extremist groups like Generation Identity, and even Neo-Nazis. Importantly, Dr Liebhart says, the Coronavirus and related rallies have offered the radical right a new stage. Speaking specifically on the Identitarian Movement, Dr Liebhart says that it has, especially in Vienna, taken over and appropriated the anti-Corona-measure demonstrations. One slogan often touted at the rallies reads “the government should control the borders, not the people.”
Dr Liebhart concludes her lecture by saying that “the lasting impact of the transformation of the ÖVP into a right-wing political force on Austria’s political landscape and culture should not be underestimated.”
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Gilles Ivaldi: “The Populist Radical Right in the 2022 French Presidential Election: Party Fragmentation and Electoral Outcome”
Marine Le Pen presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Eric Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.
Dr Gilles Ivaldi, in his presentation, provided an overview of the performances of the two populist politicians in the French Presidential election, Marine Le Pen (National Rally) and Eric Zemmour (Reconquête!) and the factors that contributed to their success and failures.
Dr Ivaldi began his speech by highlighting that Le Pen and Zemmour appeared in election champaigns in very different, divergent stances and platforms. On the one hand, Zemmour mixed populism, nativism, and authoritarianism and could comprise a very classical populist platform and manifesto. On the other hand, Le Pen, as Dr Ivaldi argues, presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.
The two candidates also diverged in the issues they attempted to tackle during the election. Le Pen focused, as stated previously, on the cost-of-living crisis currently impacting Europe and the rest of the world. Zemmour, instead, focused his attention on immigration, and law and order. This benefitted Le Pen because she was seen to take the reins on cultural and socioeconomic issues that voters prioritised.
When the results were declared, Le Pen came second to Emmanuel Macron, collecting 23 percent, with Zemmour falling short at the end of his campaign due to his close alliance with Putin on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “Altogether, Marine Le Pen checked many important boxes in this election – she responded to the traditional issues of the populist radical right agenda, she established a more respectable image for her party, and she checked the boxes of the cost-of-living issues for voters.” She also, importantly, narrowed the gender gap for populist parties historically in France – mostly men favoured Zemmour, whereas, both women and men voted for Le Pen through the election rounds. Similarly, where the young and old favoured Zemmour, Le Pen appealed to every age demographic.
When the election reached the second round of voting, this is where Macron prevailed. However, Le Pen did manage to earn the votes of around 13 million French citizens, most surprisingly, with many of those coming from traditionally left-wing voters. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “In this election, there were two fronts working against each other – the traditional Republican front and the anti-Macron front.” Although the former ended up winning, the latter provided a substantial threat to this ‘tradition.’
At the end of his speech, Dr Ivaldi provided very valuable insights into the future of French politics in the years to come. Firstly, he predicts that Le Pen will still be the dominant radical right party leader in France. Zemmour, however, will likely fade with political marginalisation. Lastly, French politics will continue to be polarised on three main fronts – the radical right and left and with Macron holding the centre-ground.
Reported by Tom Robinsons
Dr William Allchorn “From the Margins to the Mainstream: The UK Populist Radical Right at a Time of Transition”
Dr Allchorn offers three key takeaways from the journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century. Secondly, since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent. And finally, the contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.
Dr William Allchorn began his presentation by introducing a conception of UK radical right politics by Roger Griffin – the idea that the UK is still the “ugly duckling” of the European radical right (Griffin, 1996). By interrogating this claim with specific examples of electoral performance, Dr Allchorn provided a clear picture of radical right politics in the UK previously and in contemporary politics today.
Beginning with the British National Party (BNP) in the 1990s, the party rose to prominence due to its stances toward immigration and Muslim communities (demand-side) and its organisational moderation and ideological moderation (supply-side). The party peaked at the 2009 general election with 52 counsellors across the UK being elected but still without parliamentary representation. With the reduced salience of immigration as a political topic coupled with a neo-fascist legacy commanded by the divisive leadership of Nick Griffith, party popularity subsequently fell.
Following on from the BNP were the extremist radical right parties that were significantly fragmented. Parties included the English Defence League (EDL), National Action (NA) and National Front (NF). This extremist anti-establishment collective represented, what Dr. Allchorn labels, “a move towards a post-organisational space of anti-Islamic protest” in UK politics without much electoral representation or recognition.
With the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the UK saw a move towards classical populism and the prevalence of the ‘corrupt elite’ versus ‘the real people.’ On the demand-side, anti-immigration and anti-establishment viewpoints went arm in arm with a charismatic leader in Nigel Farage, on the supply side, a neo-fascist past and a strong rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal-conservative coalition government. Its popularity initially spiked in the 2009 European Elections and with notable successes in subsequent European Elections and various local and by-elections. At its height, they fielded 22 MEPs, 2 MPs and notable Conservative Party defectors such as Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell. In the 2014 European Parliament Elections, UKIP won with its populist stance and platform which contributed to the Brexit referendum.
The 2015 general election saw the fall of the UKIP party domestically without them winning a seat leading to Farage’s resignation and subsequent party infighting. Although they claimed victory following the outcome of the Brexit vote, the 2017 general election compounded their demise and UKIP was labelled radical with Theresa May’s Conservative Party consolidating right-wing, especially working-class voters. The 2019 general election further oversaw the radicalisation and mainstreaming of the extreme right in its support of the conservatives.
Dr Allchorn concluded his presentation with three key takeaways from this journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, referring back to Griffin in the introduction, he stated, “We can suggest that the British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true, but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century.” Secondly, “Since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent.” And finally, “The contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.”
Lordkipanidze, Mariam & Albrecht, Héloïse (2022). “Report on Panel #1 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0004
This report is based on the first panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on February 24, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars who are experts on populist politics in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) countries, namely Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the first panel of the series focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, on the theme of “Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU,” which was held online on February 24, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, and included the following speakers: Dominika Kasprowicz, Professor of Political Science, the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Poland; Zoltan Adam, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Economic Policy and Labour Economics, Institute of Economic and Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest; Dr Vassilis Petsinis, University of Tartu, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies); and Miroslav Mareš, Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.
Prof Dobek-Ostrowska opened the panel by defining ‘authoritarian populism’ as a political ideology whose beliefs include cynicism about human rights and hostility to the state, opposition to immigration, and an enthusiasm for a strong defense and foreign policy. Prof Dobek-Ostrowska continued her introduction by reminding attendees of the geographical scope of the ‘Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)’ which comprises 11 EU members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia), 6 Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania), and 4 post-Soviet Union states (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova). The moderator pointed out two overarching issues addressed by the speakers of the panel in the context of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Serbia; 1) the analysis of authoritarian populism in connection with the question of the quality of democracy in CEE, 2) mass media freedom in the region which sheds light on the questions whether populist authoritarian tendencies exist in CEE and If so, how strong they are.
Prof Dominika Kasprowicz: “Populism in Poland 2015-2021: A short journey from theory to praxis”
According to Professor Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included.
Professor Dominika Kasprowicz presented the case of Poland, seeking to understand the populism phenomenon through the framework of Communication and Media studies. In this regard, she particularly highlighted the impact of populist communication on social media and concluded that the tendencies of mass communication go in favour of the populists in the office.
Since 2015, Poland, among other countries in the region, is experiencing a progressing and very radical political and social change that has been dictated and designed by a mindset that we can easily define as ‘populist,’ as all the characteristics that normally distinguish the populist phenomenon are present: the appeal to ‘the people,’ the anti-elitist rhetoric, and the radical tactics in terms of pursuing political change. Prof Kasprowicz suggested that the process of radical political change started by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the country is now almost concluded, containing all three features of populist ideology. Contrary to what scholars might have expected, the Law and Justice Party is now still in power, and its popularity is not decreasing. Prof Kasprowicz cited two main reasons for this; first, the Law and Justice Party’s populist ‘appeal to ‘the people’ has proven to be extremely efficient, as their rhetoric was filling the void left by neoliberal centrist parties and they capitalised on the so-called ‘losers of transformation.’ Second, their political praxis of ‘welfare chauvinism,’ a very selective and ‘picky’ understanding of who is considered ‘good enough’ to be subsidised by public money, was proven to be very efficient in the Polish scenario and happens in all aspects of the important spheres of domestic life. Thus, the ruling party is biased and selective in funding the media, NGOs, and different social groups (e.g., cutting off subsidies to NGOs that are not close enough to the populist power and its goals, only subsidising citizens that belong to the target groups and social stronghold of the party in power). The reforms made by the party are designed and oriented to benefit particular groups considered to be allies of the ruling party.
According to Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party, as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included. Therefore, anti-migrant rhetoric is also a typical feature of the ruling party, and in the past 5 years, the artificial fears that were fuelled by the messages of the ruling party regarding, for instance, the Polish-Byelorussian border, have motivated pro-governmental sentiments.
The authoritarian tendencies in the country cannot be overlooked either, as the so-called ‘charismatic leadership and the ‘non-democratic praxis’ that is happening in the country, for Kasprowicz, have already “caused a radical and irreversible social change.” The lecturer concluded her presentation by expressing concern over this change, the state of democracy and civil liberties in Poland, as well as the diminishing balance of powers in the country. Finally, Prof Kasprowicz, expressed the challenge that scholars, practitioners, and citizens faces: How to handle the mainstream politics in para-democratic systems that have been invaded by the populist radical right?
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Prof Zoltán Ádám: “The Orbán regime after 12 years, before the April 2022 general elections”
“Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government, but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development.”
Professor Zoltán Ádám presented the case of Hungary as a prominent example of populism. He emphasised the importance of the Hungarian case and its populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a world-stage political actor who often meets with other autocratic leaders and likes to associate with leaders of the European far-right, as having an impact on surrounding Central European fellow populists and the wider context.
As Prof Ádám reminded us, there are many definitions of populism, but he opted to focus on historian Federico Finchelstein’s definition, which describes populism as a “form of authoritarian democracy for the post-War world,” finding a link between fascism and populism, in the sense that populism, Finchelstein argues, can be seen as a “democratic reincarnation of fascism,” as it exhibits the same majoritarian or totalitarian approach to power. One of the key characteristics of populism is the diminishment of liberal democratic institutions that could defend social and political minorities; therefore, in this definition, populism is a political system in which the liberties provided for minorities in a democratic society are increasingly endangered or eliminated. For Prof Ádám, this elimination of liberties, sometimes to an extreme extent, is what we are now witnessing in the world: an originally popularly and democratically elected political figure thus becomes an autocratic dictator, e.g., through the incarceration of their political opponents. Populism, then, is characterised, according to Finchelstein, by the cultivation of highly personalised political leadership, with charismatic leaders who dominate the political system, and tend to extend social rights, while eliminating political rights and freedoms.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary since 2010 is a prime example of that what Finchelstein describes. Orbán (from the Fidesz party) had been in power before between 1998 and 2002, but he did not have then what he has had since 2010: a two-term majority in the parliament. Indeed, when a coalition of parties control two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament, that coalition has very little to no constitutional constraints on its power. Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government—as a consequence, the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the EU Commission and other bodies of the EU have been a recurring phenomenon in the past decade—but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development (see Freedom House and V-Dem indexes).
Prof Ádám suggested that one of the potential explanatory factors behind this democratic underperformance is the ‘exclusive’ nature of the Hungarian political system: without strong opponents, Fidesz received 53 percent of the overall vote in 2010, 46 percent in 2014, and a little under 50 percent in 2018, which all three times translated into a two-thirds majority of the seats in the parliament. The Gallagher Index, which measures the discrepancy between votes received and parliamentary seats controlled by political parties, shows that Hungary exhibits a very high degree of discrepancy between the two, having a more distortionary electoral system than any other country.
The lecturer concluded his presentation with the perspectives of future Hungarian elections and the increased chances of the opposition. Indeed, an interesting political situation is now unfolding among Fidesz’s political opposition: the six major opposition parties, realising the distortionary nature of the country’s political system, started to coordinate. They fielded joint candidates at the 2019 local elections, winning a number of major cities, including Budapest, and held primaries for the 2022 parliamentary elections, even picking a joint prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. The polls showed that this time, the race between Fidesz and the united opposition was much tighter than in the past. (However, Orbán and his nationalist-populist Fidesz party won a landslide victory for the fourth time on April 3, 2022.)
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Dr Vassilis Petsinis: “Scanning the far right in Croatia and Serbia”
Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender” with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Turning to the post-Yugoslavian region,Dr VassilisPetsinis talked aboutfar-right politics in Croatia and Serbia, focusing on the following questions: Why are the radical and extremist right-wing parties in Serbia and Croatia weak? How has the engagement of the governing parties (the SNS in Serbia and the HDZ in Croatia) impacted the weak performance of the radical and extremist right?
Dr Petsinis started by making a tentative distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ right-wing parties on the basis of their political origins and active political engagement. He sketched out two categories: radical right-wing parties andextremist right-wing parties. According to him, radical right-wing parties were, in a lot of cases, the result of mergers between existing established parties, and so, are by-products of top-level formation processes and strive to promote their political causes through parliamentary and democratic institutions and procedures, having sometimes participated in coalition governments in their respective countries (e.g., Estonia’s EKRE, Latvia’s National Alliance, Sweden’s SD). In comparison, extremist right-wing parties often represent the culmination of bottom-up formation processes led by a political (occasionally semi-paramilitary) core, and so, they are more prone to a militant engagement in politics through systematic mass-mobilisation and patterns of policy-making that often harbour anti-democratic implications (e.g., early Jobbik in Hungary, ‘Our Slovakia,’ Bulgaria’s Ataka and Greece’s Golden Dawn).
Most importantly, the parties of the radical right ‘scrutinise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, but formally respect democratic institutions and procedures. In contrast, the parties of the extremist right ‘antagonise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, and often multiply attempts to subvert—or substitute—democratic institutions and procedures. However, this distinction became very ‘idiosyncratic’ within the party politics of Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely due to the protracted warfare and the wars of secession of the 1990s.
On the one hand, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), one of the oldest political parties in Serbia, oscillated, in the 1990s and 2000s, between the categories of radical and extremist right-wing party. It endorsed ‘Greater Serbia’ and even sent a paramilitary unit to the Croatian and Bosnian fronts, with recurring phases of partnership and tension with Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party (SPS). Between 2000 and 2007, the SRS bound together anti-Western nationalists, former SPSvoters, and various ‘losers’ of the transition, and so it became Serbia’s strongest opposition party. The turning point came in February 2003, when the leader Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić became the leading figures within the party. However, Nikolić and Vučić soon departed from the SRS and set up the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which putlower stress on nationalism, formally endorsed the EU accession process, and took advantage of the fragmentation of the centre and centre-right political parties in the country (DS, DSS, SPO, etc.).
The SNS overwhelmingly won the parliamentary (2016) and presidential (2017) elections, whereas the SRS started to become marginalised (with a mere 8.8 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections). The SNS consolidated its grip onpower in the 2020 parliamentary elections (61.60 percent of the vote), dominating a continuum that stretches from the liberal centre to the conservative right, relying on the pattern of political clientelism to secure support and on the opposition’s persistent fragmentation. The ‘deradicalisation’ of this segment that originated in the SRS and then evolved into the SNS led to the marginalisation of the SRS, which is not even currently represented in the Serbian parliament. There are, however, some extra-parliamentary parties and groupings of the more radical and extremist right in Serbia: the ‘traditional’ Serbian nationalism of Dveri, the National-Socialist fascist platform of Srbska Akcija, and peculiar cases like Levijatan, which combines elements of National-Socialism with animal rights and ‘anti-vax’ conspiracies.
On the other hand, in Croatia, a party comparable to Serbia’s Radical Party is the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), a party accused of historical revisionism, which in the 1990s endorsed ‘Greater Croatia’ and dispatched a paramilitary unit (HOS) to the Yugoslavian wars of secession. In contrast to the SRS, this party gradually lost popularity and became fragmented during the 2000s, and, despite its efforts to come back into political relevancy, it has not been represented in the Croatian parliament for years. As happened in Serbia, there was a process of reformation, as the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) consolidated its public appeal between 2012 and 2016, and a right-wing faction emerged within it. This factionslowly capitalised on the ‘socio-cultural Euroscepticism’ among certain segments of the electorate, focusing on the opposition to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, abortion, and EU refugee quotas. Thus, it has decisively marginalised the forces of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
Like the SNS in Serbia, HDZ consolidated its grip on power following the Croatian parliamentary elections of July 2020, relying on political clientelism. But there has also been a new party that emerged to the right of the HDZ: the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), currently the third-largest party in the Croatian parliament, led by Miroslav Škoro, a former singer and TV host. It presents a national-conservative program similar to the one supported by the right-wing faction of the HDZ: seeking to safeguard ‘Catholic values,’ wants to strengthen ‘law and order,’ and seeks to revise national legislation on minority rights. The gradual emergence of this party poses a challenge to the endeavours of PM (and leader of HDZ) Andrej Plenković to shift the party narrative of HDZ more firmly towards the centre, and it further marginalises the older and more traditional parties of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
To conclude, Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender”with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Reported by Héloïse Albrecht
Prof Miroslav Mareš: “Comparison of authoritarian and populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”
Prof Miroslav Mareš argues that there has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Prof Miroslav Mareš, in his speech, compared the authoritarian and populist trends in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.Even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s democracies may fare relatively well compared to other Eastern European countries, both countries face the challenge of the populist wave. Professor Mareš highlighted, moreover, that the right-wing populist parties in both countries have deep connections with the larger European populist right.
Prof. Mareš explained that he used a relatively broad concept of populism for his analysis because, while the impact of the populist far-right is strongly felt in both countries, other forms of populism (centrist and leftist populism) also play a role that needs to be considered to truly understand the populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He highlighted the fact that in both countries, the various currents of populism have developed with significant overlaps. Populism, identifiable as the “struggle for the unity of people against an alleged ‘establishment’,” has been dynamicallydeveloping in these countries in the post-1989 era. The partisan strain of populism has been the most dominant, but individual actors (e.g., Czech President Miloš Zeman, other non-partisan actors in the public space like the ‘anti-vax’ movement), as well as some media (the so-called ‘disinformation scene’), have also played a role in the spread of populism. Both countries present the basic division into right-wing extremism, right-wing populism, centrist populism, left-wing populism, and left-wing extremism.
The lecturer then presented a brief overview of the trend toward populism and authoritarianism in the Czech Republic. At the moment, it is important to mention that right-wing extremism in the country is relatively weak, if we look at the partisan level, without parliamentary or regional/local representation, and only some small hard-liner groupings linked to the anti-vax movement, partly pro-Kremlin and with a pan-Slavic orientation. However, the country now has a relatively strong right-wing populism, thanks to the parliamentary representation (9.56 percent in 2021) of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement, led by Tomio Okamura. Most importantly, centrist populism in the country is strong and has a strong presence in major newspapers; it is especially represented by the ANO (‘Yes’) party, which is currently the strongest party in the Czech parliament, a member of liberal structures at the European level, but which has been labelled as an ‘entrepreneurial party’ (term used by Hloušek, Kopeček, and Vodová, 2020) because it largely depends on one entrepreneur, its leader (and previous president of the country, now in the opposition) Andrej Babiš, who is the owner of important newspapers. On the other hand, left-wing populism is relatively weak in the political spectrum, but has some impact on the media. Finally, left-wing extremism (largely associated with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia[KSČM]), only has one member in the European Parliament after the 2021 elections, and no domestic national representation (3.60 percent).
In contrast to the Czech Republic, Slovakia has a relatively strong right-wing extremism, with the so-called ‘hard-liners’ of Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS)—rooted in the neo-fascist movement, despite some slight attempts at moderation in the last few years; it received 7.97 percent of votes in 2020, but some members of the party split from it in 2021 (distancing themselves from the strong ties to historical fascism of LSNS). Likewise, right-wing populism finds relatively strong representation in the country, with the national-conservative, “We Are Family (Sme Rodina)” party—which is a governmental party since 2020 (8.4 percent of the votes that year), strongly associated with the figure of its leader, businessman Boris Kollár—as well as the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (3.16 percent in 2020). The impact of centrist populism in the country is questionable. Left-wing populism in the country is strong, represented by the Smer–SD (Orientation – Social Democracy) party, a member of socialist international structures and of the Party of European Socialists, which received 18.29 percent of the vote in 2020, and is currently in the opposition. Left-wing extremism is still weak in Slovakia and mostly confined to the non-partisan scene, but important Smer–SD deputy LubošBlaha and his followers are well-known for their sympathies to some left-wing extremist entities.
Finally, Prof. Mareš, drawing a comparison between the two countries, concluded that: the strongest position comparatively is that of centrist populism in the Czech Republic, and that of left-wing populism in Slovakia; on the other hand, right-wing populism is strong in both countries, even though the ideological positioning of the parties on the ground (SPD and Sme Rodina) is different. There has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both countries is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Schütz, Imke & Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “Report on Panel #2 / Mapping European Populism: The Peculiarities and Commonalities of the Populist Politics in Southern Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0003
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements.
The panel, which opened by Dr. Erkan Toguslu’s welcome speech on behalf of European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), was continued with the overall assessments of Dr Daphne Halikiopoulouwho is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Reading over the populist politics and tendencies in these countries. Then, 2-hour panel went on with the striking presentations made by Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou on populism in Greece, Professor Oscar Mazzoleni on Italy, Professor Andrés Santana on Spain and Professor Susana Salgado on Portugal. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session. The panel was moderated by Professor Halikiopoulou.
This report is a by-product of this fruitful panel and intended to keep the record of this successful scholarly gathering. The report includes brief summaries of the speeches delivered by our panelists and, also, links to the full video of the panel. ECPS thanks Imke Schütz and Maximilian Wolf for writing the report.
Prof Sofia Vasilopoulou: “Greece: A Case of Populism in Decline?”
Prof Vasilopoulou argued that the 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse.
Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou, Professor of Politics at the University of York, sought to shed some light on the unique populist conjuncture in Greece, almost exactly 10 years after the “seismic” 2012 elections that saw the far-left and far-right reshuffle the playing field amid an ailing Greek economic situation marked by unmanageable debt, huge unemployment, and a war of words with the European Central Bank (ECB). She argued that it was that election — indeed two elections in rapid succession, in May and June respectively — that lastingly changed the party landscape in the country. The center-left PASOK, until that point one of Greece’s two main parties, came in third, ceding much ground to the more radical left SYRIZA, which became the largest opposition party. On the right, meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, running on an anti-democratic platform, managed to gain some 7 percent and almost 20 parliamentary seats in the process. By the time of the next round of elections in 2015, SYRIZA became the largest party, gaining over 35 percent of the vote as PASOK essentially vanished from the political scene, while Golden Dawn was able to solidify its hold in Greek politics. More surprisingly, SYRIZA finally formed an unexpected coalition with the radical-right ANEL, an unusual bedfellow for the left-wing SYRIZA in a country that historically has struggled with coalition governments.
Following this historic overview, Prof Vasilopoulou argued, however, that these 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse. Despite the discord between the party’s pre-electoral promises and its governmental record, Prof Vasilopoulou noted, they were able to consolidate their status as a major player in the Greek system, coming second in the 2019 elections. The story of Golden Dawn is even more complex: after their dramatic rise to the Greek parliament, a number of legal issues, including a five-year-long trial around the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in Greece and a number of violent attacks on migrants and political opponents, finally led to the imprisonment of a number of its leaders and the designation of the party as a ‘criminal organization.’
So how are we to interpret these developments? Prof Vasilopoulou’s work focused on the demand side of Greek politics, specifically voter attitudes around the values of liberal democracy. Data from the European Election Study 2019 indicated that significant portions of the Greek electorate held illiberal opinions. On the question of the value of a judiciary independent of political influence, some 10 percent were opposed while another 20 percent saw themselves as ‘on the fence.’ On whether a government should be able to prohibit a peaceful protest under certain circumstances, approximately a quarter of respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed fully.’ On a more positive note, freedom of public media free from political influence scored better, with only 5 percent disagreeing. Approximately a quarter of Greek respondents felt that ‘having a strong leader that bends the rules to get things done’ is a good thing, while, reflecting populist attitudes in the country, over half of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘the people and not politicians should make the most important policy decisions.’
Prof Vasilopoulou linked these sentiments to another important statistic which indicated that some 75 percent of the Greek population felt dissatisfaction with the Greek political system. In all, she argued that these persistent illiberal attitudes provide fertile ground for threats to Greek democracy in the future, particularly if they will again be able to find concrete political expression in anti-democratic movements like Golden Dawn.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Oscar Mazzoleni: “Italian Multiple Populism: Evidence, Causes and Impacts”
Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Professor Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Science at the University of Lausanne, reflected on Italy’s status as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ To begin, he explained why Italy can be considered a case of ‘multiple populism’ – Italian populism is not limited to the radical right; there exists a multiplicity amongst Italian populists. For one, populist parties have been persistently present in Italian politics since the 1990s. Second, both cooperative and competitive patterns evolved between populist parties as they competed in the country’s electoral arenas, for both parliament and government. Third, Italy’s populist parties espouse various ideologies: there are regionalist, radical-right, nationalist, left-wing, moderate, and syncretic populist parties. This highlights the ideological flexibility and the complexity of Italian populism.
So why does populism thrive in so many forms in Italy, despite parties’ diverse ideological and organizational features? Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Not only has the system shifted from proportional to majoritarian, but changing parliamentary coalitions exacerbate instability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum, especially when connected with anti-corruption stances. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Since the 1990s, populist trends in Italy have foreshadowed trends in other Western European democracies. According to Prof Mazzoleni, two of the most notable trends are the breakdown of the traditional party system with its mass party organizations after World War II and the permanent redefinition of the relationship between politics and the media. The former led to an unprecedented openness of the political system to new parties, while the latter introduced a strong media logic into politics. One well-known case combining these two trends is Berlusconi, who switched from the media to politics. For these reasons, Prof Mazzoleni argues, it is reasonable to label Italy as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ Another factor that contributes to Italy’s ‘multiple populism’ is the populist actors themselves. Living up to populism’s chameleon reputation, Italian populists stand out for their entrepreneurship and flexibility; both the political system’s insiders, like Salvini, Meloni or Bossie, and its outsiders, like Berlusconi, Grillo or Conte, are confronted not only with the uncertainty of their parties’ electoral success but must also deal with the challenges of managing their authority both inside and outside their parties. Furthermore, they have had to develop strong political marketing skills – when in government positions, populists tend to tone down their agendas and discourse, to ensure the party’s continued political success and authority.
Prof Mazzoleni recommends, then, that the study of populism focus on populism’s impact on policy and changes in the polity. Observing these dimensions, one might investigate the reciprocity of populist and mainstream parties’ performative styles. Changes in the latter’s performative style set the context in which populists must act and influence the framing opportunities they can take advantage of. This is particularly visible in Italy, where the populist performative style connects with anti-party attitudes. Slowly transforming democratic communication and reshaping constitutional and judicial rules, populists reshape their structural opportunities over time. Thus, it is important to connect the dimensions of polity, policy, and politics when examining populists’ success.
In sum, the case of Italy as a ‘laboratory for populism’ sheds light on populist actors’ myriad forms and paths. The openness of Italy’s political system to anti-establishment actors leads to the continuous presence of a multitude of populist actors. Extending the scope of populism research to include populism’s effects on the polity dimension could yield valuable insights and greatly improve our understanding of populism.
Reported by Imke Schütz
Prof Andres Santana: “Podemos and Vox: Opportunities and Challenges Posed by Left- and Right-wing Populism in Spain”
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for (right- and left-wing) populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Professor Santana, Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid turned the spotlight on the populist battleground of Spain. By way of introduction, he noted that Spain was not always a populist battleground: until 10 years ago there were two relevant parties in Spain, the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right PP; much like in the Greek case, however, the mid-2010s proved a fruitful conjuncture for populist movements on the right and left to gain and consolidate some ground. For a long time, Spain had considered itself “immune” to populist challenges.
All of this changed, however, in 2014 when — almost simultaneously — Podemos on the left and Vox on the right threw the “Iberian exception,” and Spanish democracy into disarray. Vox, born in late 2013, was initially as unsuccessful as many other small right-wing movements vying for influence in Spain, gaining a few percentage points here and there; however, Vox did not follow those others to what Santana called the “graveyard of small right-wing parties,” instead, becoming, some years later, a serious player in Spanish politics and polling as high as second in recent polls. Podemos, led by a university professor and born out of the ‘Indignados’ protest movement, came into being around the same time and, much more immediately than Vox, made an immediate impact on the Spanish political scene, winning some 1.2 million votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Despite both movements coming into being in the ‘populist moment’ of the mid-2010s that spawned many similar movements on the right and left throughout Europe, Prof Santana argued that, while many such movements have since faded into irrelevance again, this is unlikely to occur with Podemos and Vox. He noted that the Spanish electoral system generally rewards larger parties, meaning the barrier for new challengers is relatively high; this very mechanism, intended to strengthen and stabilize the winners of elections, has had the unintended consequence of generating a significant turnaround for medium-size parties: while, in 2015 and 2016, Podemos was able to secure some 20-25 percent of the vote, behind PP and PSOE, the next election in April 2019 saw their support crater to 14 percent and a new movement, Ciudadanos, taking third place; this was only to last until an election re-run in November of the same year, where Ciudadanos dropped to 6th place, while Vox — led by the enigmatic Santiago Abascal, leapfrogged the field to come third with 15 percent of the vote. This “dance,” as Prof Santana called it, attests to the fact that the Spanish electoral system is not built for five major parties; indeed, he argued, it struggles to accommodate three. In his estimation, Vox looks most likely to secure that coveted third spot in the political space, with Podemos relegated once again to a fringe movement.
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for both populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Susana Salgado: “Support for Right-wing Populism in Portugal: Protest or Deep-rooted Attitudes”
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. As Chega crushes this long-held view, Prof Susana Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
In the last contribution, Professor Susana Salgado, Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, investigates whether support for right-wing populism in Portugal is a manifestation of deep-rooted attitudes or if it is merely a protest phenomenon. To begin, Prof Salgado points to the nationalist and populist party Chega as a case study of Portugal’s right-wing populism. The party was founded a few months before the 2019 parliamentary election. As expected, Chega’s obtained vote share of 1.3 percent was insignificant. Despite this initially poor vote share, public support has been growing exponentially. In the same year, Andre Ventura, the leader of Chega, ran for president and increased the party’s publicity. He surprisingly received 11.9 percent of the vote, placing him close to the 2nd runner-up. The snap election in 2022 confirmed the trend of electoral support: Chega increased its number of MPs from 1 to 12 as the party with the third-most votes.
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. To explore whether latent populist sentiments existed prior to Chega’s emergence, Prof Salgado tested for latent populist sentiments amongst various Portuguese population groups in 2017. Her data revealed that Portuguese politicians, as a group, are most negatively regarded and blamed for many of the country’s issues, followed by the wealthy, then immigrants. These results suggested that an attitude of blame towards politicians could be a structural characteristic of the Portuguese population. Moreover, it appears that news items containing anti-elitist and right-wing populist content had a greater influence on the study’s participants than left-wing populist news items. Thus, Prof Salgado suggests that respondents were more susceptible to right-wing claims and potentially more prone to right-wing populism. She also found that anti-immigrant discourse activated more populist sentiments than anti-elitism discourses. Prof Salgado furthermore noted that Chega’s voters do not, according to self-assessments, consider themselves right-wing, and refuse the radical-right label. Moreover, they consider themselves less right-wing than voters of the Conservative party. Correspondingly, Chega integrates its supporters’ self-perception into its image as a conservative, nationalist, liberal and anti-establishment party.
To further explain Chega’s attractiveness to Portuguese voters, Prof Salgado turns to Ventura’s tactics and political discourse. Prof Salgado’s work reveals that voters’ main motive to vote for Chega was a desire for change. Chega voters evaluate Portugal’s state of affairs and economic problems more negatively than other voter groups. These attitudes correspond with the geographical distribution of Chega voters; districts with relatively high numbers of immigrants and few hospitals and schools showed the highest electoral support for Chega. Accordingly, Chega voters’ testimonies emphasize their desire for improving their regional situation, and for someone who cares about them. To gain popularity, Ventura taps into these desires; he promotes Chega as an anti-system party and uses typical populist discourses, such as exclusionary ideas, calculated ambivalence, provocation, appeals to a national identity, an ideal nation, and historical and religious symbols. While Ventura paints other parties as a syndicate apathetic towards the ‘authentic people,’ he presents himself as the people’s ‘true representative’ – a typical populist tactic.
Finally, Prof Salgado notes three interesting demographic characteristics of Chega’s voters. First, men tend to vote for Chega, while women tend to vote for left-wing parties. Second, voters with higher education tend to vote for right-wing parties; contrary to the belief that the uneducated are particularly susceptible to populism and right-wing parties, Chega’s voters are not the least educated. Finally, Portugal’s young voters tend to vote for new parties such as Chega. In conclusion, Chega crushes the long-held view that the Portuguese are immune to right-wing populism. Furthermore, Prof Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
Wolf, Maximillian; Grueso, Gadea Mendez; Robinson, Tom; Lortkipanidze, Mariam; Schutz, Imke; Sezer, Julide; Aelbrecht, Heloise and Blink, Melissa. (2022). “Symposium Report—The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0002
The ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium, titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022, and brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the Symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations.
This report is based on the ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” which was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022.
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 populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic—i.e., how populist leaders handled the pandemic, to what extent they could use populist strategies and tactics while dealing with pandemic-related issues, and what kind of challenges populist policies pose to global governance and democracy. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations.
The symposium was held under the auspices of Sir Graham Watson, Honorary President of ECPS, who delivered the opening remarks. Distinguished scholars in the field contributed their insightful speeches: Mark Findlay (Professor, Director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Data Governance, Singapore Management University), Manuel Funke (Kiel Institute for the World Economy), Aline Burni (German Development Institute), Eckart Woertz (Professor of Contemporary History and Politics, The University of Hamburg), Neil Robinson (Professor of Comparative Politics, The University of Limerick), Axel Klein (Professor of Social Sciences on East Asia / Japanese Politics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), Jens Maesse (Institute of Sociology, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen), Brett Meyer (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change), and Sheri Berman (Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University). The closing remarks were delivered by Hercules Milas (ECPS Advisory Board Member).
The symposium panels were moderated by: Eser Karakas (Professor of Economics, Strasbourg University, ECPS Advisory Board Member and Senior Research Fellow), Werner Pascha (Emeritus Professor of Economics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), and Naim Kapucu (Pegasus Professor, School of Public Administration & School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida).
Last, but not least, Professor Ibrahim Ozturk (Director, Resident Senior Research Fellow at ECPS) chaired the organization committee composed of ECPS staff members and interns. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the event and made it a real success.
Professor Mark Findlay: “Rehabilitating Globalization, Repositioning Populism, Proportioning Pandemics – Does Law Have a Place?”
To counteract mythologies, divisive languages and the structures of hate and exclusion, it is necessary to create safe spaces for informed dissent, the exercise of common sense, considered challenges to obsessive rationality, and allow for prudent doubts – a space for the collective flourishing of human consciousness.
Beginning with globalization, Findlay argued that critics and pessimists—whether populists or not—had fundamentally misunderstood what the term meant; globalization, he argued, is a process, one incredibly effective at tackling global crises. As such, it is not in itself good or bad; rather, how it is employed, what structures it engenders, and who benefits from them, are the more important questions. Findlay noted that the globalization of today has developed into a mechanism for proliferating a neo-colonial and neoliberal economic order—as such, it is seen by many, including but not limited to radical, disenfranchised protest movements, as the cause of savage exploitation, rather than as an opportunity to arrest the true sources of marginalization. Globalization, Findlay argued, has become a scapegoat, catching the blame for the insidious effects of neoliberal free trade, radical individualism, and co-option of legal protections for exclusionary private property rights which exploit the global North-South divide. Legally speaking, he argued that global law has become an accomplice to neoliberal expansionism, a consequence of neo-colonial political domination from the North and focused almost entirely on the protection of private property, rather than the defence of human rights.
Climate change and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have shown us that the shared consequences of global crises cannot be avoided through national protectionism. Globalization, Findlay suggested, needs to be re-thought as a process for international engagement which might provide legitimate legal pathways for wider representative governance and universal democratic rights. The internet has proven valuable in this regard, he argues, as it disrupted previous understandings of intellectual property and has changed the way in which we understand the concept of property itself; this has led to large-scale transformations in a number of legal structures and presents the ability of the law to adapt and transition. It is these transitions that might allow us to combat populist anxieties, and come to represent, he believes, “a new global moral culture,” away from the dysfunctional, individualist structures that fuel populist resentment and towards a communal understanding of wealth as well as of crises.
Law, if reformulated as a communal resource, can provide the foundational background for a transition into a normality that is more concerned about human dignity than it is about individualist and exclusive wealth creation, which has been the heart of populist politics in recent decades.
Thus, a new understanding of the law—and the necessary transitions it must undergo—might reclaim and rehabilitate globalization. At the moment, Findlay maintained, neoliberal globalization promotes power asymmetries and disaffection; cultural identity has become a battlefield—populism and ‘cancel culture’ are used as languages of criticism, and the necessity of multiculturalism is ignored. This new emotional grammar, a “taxonomy of disaffection,” aims to give a voice and a language to the experiences of resentment, indignation, and anger that a structurally flawed global system engendered. The issue is that, as it stands, this emotionally charged discourse misses the mark: neoliberalism, the true culprit in his eyes, is let off the hook in favour of superficial cultural grievances. So again, Prof. Findlay asked, how can we rehabilitate globalization? His answer: by settling the sources of disaffection with globalization. He expressed the hope that the ‘neo-statist’ impulse witnessed throughout the pandemic proved the insufficiency, rather than the usefulness, of protectionist logics.
Regarding populism, Prof. Findlay noted a number of paradoxes. Authoritarian populist politics are driven by a sense of economic injustice and exclusion, yet this is the essence of neoliberal wealth creation, which most right-wing populists nonetheless celebrate. Populism rejects conventional, establishment political remedies, but neoliberal elites capture political institutions and processes under populist governments. Findlay argued that inequality is essential for populism in order for an ‘other’ to emerge and the Manichean ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ discourse to function. In power, populists thus often perpetuate the very conditions they claim to combat.
The process that allows this apparent contradiction to sustain itself in paternalistic authoritarian regimes like Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s is what Prof. Findlay termed ‘anxiety governance.’ It is what got Trump elected and was the driving force behind the ‘Brexit’ movement. It is a sense of anxiety, set in the context of radical technological transformation and ever-accelerating economic shifts, fuelling a fear amongst populist voters that they are unable to access political spaces and will thus be left behind. The Canadian truckers’ protest, argued Prof. Findlay, is an example of this: the physical attempt to overtake the traditional spaces of governance occurred under the facade of ‘reclaiming liberal rights,’ when the protest was, in many respects, fed by populism, anxiety, and anger.
Populist populations have been told that their space is restricted, their economic power is shrinking, and that they must, therefore, rely on the authoritarians of the world to give that power back to them. In other words, Findlay explained, populist politics creates anxiety—and an anger against that anxiety—then offers a ‘politics of hope’ as an answer to it. It is the power of populist charisma, however, that Prof. Findlay considers the truly challenging dimension. This power rests on populist leaders’ mass-legitimized ability to create political narratives, name enemies, and bring “new tonalities into the political conversation.” Social media is crucial to these dynamics: ‘Twitter populism’ demonstrates the anxiety, echo-chambers, toxic feedback loops, and crowd-sourced funding that enable and strengthen populist leaders. Unfortunately, Findlay said, artificial intelligence (AI) has been co-opted into the populist machine.
What, then, can be done? And what is an antidote to anxiety? Findlay suggested a return to considerations of human dignity. It is essential, according to Findlay, that the inequality that underlies neoliberal economic politics, driving discrimination and exclusion, be revealed. Anxiety politics, he said, is the product of collective experiences, but it is bound together by a constructed confusion and maintains a mythological dimension. It is important, then, to expose and acknowledge the genuine risks to be feared and talk back at the voices who stir up misplaced anxieties for populist gain. He cited vaccine scepticism as an example of such misplaced fear; besides the danger inherent in such a public health discourse, we must combat the underlying structures that enable and strengthen the resonance of discourses of that kind. For this reason, finding and occupying (actual or digital) safe communal spaces is critical—transformed law, he says, might provide helpful signposting for this shift.
The pandemic, Prof. Findlay argued, proved a double blow against human dignity in two almost contradictory fashions: on one hand, the right-wing populists charge that public safety measures have eroded our libertarian rights grows stronger as the ‘new normal’ of day-to-day pandemic management lingers on; on the other, the facts two years into the crisis speak of an untold suffering and a lack of consideration for those populations, especially in the Global South, who are dying in their thousands due to lack of vaccines and effective protective equipment as global logistics’ slowdowns and ‘panic protectionism’ have again exposed the unequal dividing lines in the neoliberal economy Only by recovering human dignity as a guiding principle, enshrined in an adaptable and effective legal framework, can we provide the platform by which globalization could be turned into a positive tool that might yet engage the threats and challenges posed by the pandemic, global warming, and other global crises. This, in turn, should be embedded in a broader return to what Findlay termed ‘sociability’: pandemic risk, vaccine scepticism, and ‘economic realism’ are all products of a neoliberal individualist logic which diverts attention away from the importance of globalized sociability and solidarity. Human dignity can only be understood as collective and universal.
Reported by Maximillian Wolf
Populism and Governance in the Time of Pandemic
Dr. Manuel Funke: “Populist leaders, the economy, and the pandemic: What can we expect?”
Populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear. The key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity.
The first panel of the symposium came from Dr. Manuel Funke of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Kiel, Germany. Dr. Funke began his talk by addressing the fact that, although the academic scholarship on populism as a political phenomenon has grown exponentially over the past years, the research of what happens when populists are in power—and in particular, what happens to economies under populist leadership—remains somewhat undertheorized.
Much of Dr. Funke’s attempt at remedying this deficit centred around a 2020 paper co-authored with two Kiel Institute colleagues, Prof. Dr. Christoph Trebesch and Dr. Moritz Schularick, and succinctly titled “Populist Leaders and the Economy.” Their paper, he explained, sought to provide some concrete empirical data on whether the impact of populist governance was detectable in a number of key economic metrics. To achieve this, they sampled a vast database of articles on populism spanning some 60 countries over 120 years, finally classifying over 1500 leaders into a two-by-two matrix: ‘populist’ or ‘not populist,’ and ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing.’ Out of this mountain of data, said Dr. Funke, emerged 50 clear-cut populist actors. Some immediate trends became clear: populism reached its ‘peak’ popularity—primarily owing to the wave of Latin American populist regimes—in the 1950s and 60s; there has, however, also been a discernible uptick in instances of populist leadership since the 2000s, as new forms of right-wing populism spread throughout Western democracies. Dr. Funke added that the average time in power for populist leaders, at around seven and a half years, was nearly double that of non-populist leaders assessed in the same time span, and their rate of re-election, at around 30 percent, was also twice as high as their non-populist counterparts.
As concerning as those numbers are, they at least provide clear-cut timeframes in which Dr. Funke, and his team were able to accurately assess the economic impact of those populist leaders’ governance respective to control cases elsewhere. Dr. Funke noted that not only are populist campaign promises often centred around redistributive policies in favour of the ‘little man,’ but that those proposals often come in tandem with protectionism and economic nationalism. Overspending and fiscal mismanagement is rife, and checks and balances aimed to limit the power of government and restrict the leaders’ options with regards to monetary policy often come under threat over the course of prolonged populist rule.
While such tendencies are well-known and documented, Dr. Funke’s team sought to establish just how significant the impact of populist rule was in real terms. Turning their eyes to perhaps the most influential economic determinant of all, economic growth, the team examined national output indicators from those countries under populist rule and comparing them to the global average growth rate over the same period, finding a 1 percent output loss—a “growth gap”—over that period. The trend became even more pronounced after the team took a more rigorous methodology, constructing hypothetical counterfactuals—which Funke terms “doppelganger economies”; in such cases, populist leadership shows up to a 10-percentage point gap in economic growth indicators over a 15-year timespan. Their findings also showed a 10-percentage point increase in import tariffs, a greater debt-to-GDP ratio, and a marked erosion in indexes highlighting the functionality of the judiciary.
Although this historical approach is not completely compatible with the post-Covid landscape, Dr. Funke cited another paper by the Kiel Institute on the impact of populist governance on Covid management. That paper, assessing 11 populist leaders compared to 42 non-populist ones, found reduced containment efforts and an excess mortality rate that was twice as high in populist-run states at the end of 2020, per data by the Oxford University Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.
It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude, argued Dr. Funke, that populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear; the key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity. The ‘dual crisis’ of economy and public health precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous factors at play, means that even scientists have no access to the full picture; as Dr. Funke concluded: “We will have to wait and see.”
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Dr. Aline Burni: “Will the pandemic bring an end to populism? What are the lessons from the pandemic in a comparative perspective?”
From the outset I believed the claim that ‘the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions’ with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries… On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists. How effectively they can capture those new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, will have to remain to be seen.
Second on the panel examining the ties between the pandemic and populist politics was Dr. Aline Burni, researcher for the German Development Institute. Dr. Burni’s sought to illuminate, in a comparative perspective, how the political transformations brought about by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic two years ago have shaped populist discourse and its popularity.
In response to more hopeful commentators, Dr. Burni stated from the outset that she believed the claim that “the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions” with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries. She noted that the impact of Covid-19 on populist movements differed substantially from region to region and depending on whether the movement was in government or in opposition. While early evidence suggested that populists had lost popularity as a result of their own mismanagement of the crisis when compared to non-populists, for example, those initial studies focus on populists mainly in Europe and predominantly during the first wave of the pandemic; it would be premature, she argued, to draw long-term conclusions from these short-term trends.
According to Dr. Burni, the pandemic was, in many ways, new territory for all global political actors, not just populists. While the link between the emergence of crises and the resonance of populist discourse is well-documented, data from the early months of the pandemic showed a noticeable decline in popularity of populists in power, as scientific denialism and early mismanagement undermined the legitimacy of many populist governments in the West and elsewhere. While populists in opposition also struggled, their popularity stabilized rather quickly. Overall, however, Dr. Burni diagnosed a clear difficulty among populists to capitalize on the Covid-19 crisis: next to the inherent difficulties of mobilizing against a health crisis, she argued that citizens valued, above all, expertise and decisive leadership throughout the pandemic, and that most governments experienced a drastic ‘rally around the flag effect,’ particularly in the early months. Staples of populist discourse, like anti-immigration stances, also quickly faded into the background as many nations shut their borders to prevent the spread of the virus. All these factors, combined with obvious showcases of populist mismanagement in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), or Brazil, made for a potent anti-populist surge in many democracies worldwide.
As the Covid-19 crisis progressed, however, and the initial shocks made way to a ‘new normal’ of pandemic management, data—especially from Europe—showed a stabilizing of populist movements. While some populist-right actors, like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to weather the early stages of the pandemic without suffering much loss of support, others, like Chega in Portugal even gained support in the months that followed, with the party going from one MP to twelve in the 2021 elections. As pandemic politics persisted throughout many Western democracies and lockdown measures and vaccine mandates proved less and less popular, most populist actors in the West consolidated their positions. Populists in government were hit more lastingly, with Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, but even then, he received the second highest electoral tally in US history with over 74 million votes, behind only Joe Biden’s 81 million; Bolsonaro and Johnson, though weakened, remain in power. “Populists in government have been resilient despite their mismanagement of the pandemic, at least in these prototypical cases,” Dr. Burni concluded. “Therefore, in a nutshell, I do not think that [populism] will be defeated by the pandemic.”
To explain this stabilization, Dr. Burni pointed to several factors. First, the pandemic will likely aggravate economic and political conditions that populists thrive in—for example, see the impact of post-Covid inflation, slowed GDP growth, rising income inequality and shocks in the job market. Additionally, populists will likely bring cultural issues like immigration back on the agenda, especially in Europe. Other extant political conditions troubling many democracies—such as corruption, lack of trust, polarization, and cultural cleavages—remain and have, at times, been aggravated by the pandemic. The ‘anti-vax’ movement in the West, largely already captured by far-right populist actors, is a key example of old anti-system discourses receiving a fresh coat of post-Covid paint.
The old fault lines that energized the pre-pandemic ‘culture war’ discourse in the West not only remain in place but have been invigorated by a new anti-authoritarian thrust in response to lockdown measures and mandates. As mainstream parties who so successfully channelled the initial ‘rally around the flag’ effect mismanage the ‘new normal,’ the easier it will be for populist actors to adjust to their own ‘new normal’ and incorporate more failures of the status quo parties into their existing anti-elite discourse. As Dr. Burni concluded, “On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.” How effectively they can capture these new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, remains to be seen.
Reported by Tom Robinson
Panel 2 Pandemic of Authoritarianism/Populism: The State of Democratic Institutions, Rights and Freedoms
Professor Eckart Woertz: “The need for multilateral institutions against global challenges: The impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation 25 years after the Barcelona Process”
The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.
Panel II was inaugurated by Dr. Eckart Woertz, professor of Contemporary History and Politics at the University of Hamburg and Director of the GIGA institute for Middle East Studies. Dr. Woertz talked about the impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. To begin, Dr. Woertz pointed out that the idea of Mediterranean cooperation is not a politically neutral one. Indeed, the notion of ‘Mediterraneanism’ reverberated in Mussolini’s ideas and French colonial policies, and this baggage should be considered to a greater extent by the European Union (EU) and European politicians in general.
The 1990s marked the pinnacle of Mediterranean cooperation, with the Barcelona Process or Euro-Mediterranean Partnership that started in 1995 at the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean Conference. After the great European disunity regarding the Iraq war, European ‘Mediterranean cooperation’ shifted into a neighbourhood policy—a kind of ‘privilege bilateralism,’ where some countries (like Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, etc.) were regarded and treated as ‘good pupils,’ and others as ‘bad students’ (e.g., Algeria).
Another landmark was the establishment of the Union of the Mediterranean in Barcelona, which to this day functions as a vehicle of projects between European states and other regional actors. Here we find a tension between a drive towards a re-nationalization of policies by conceptualizing this as an exclusively Mediterranean union, and a push to make it a broader European initiative—which is why, today, we find non-Mediterranean countries like Sweden or Finland part of the Union for the Mediterranean. Therefore, increased institutionalization does not necessarily mean increased consensus when it comes to Euro-Mediterranean policy.
How has populism affected Euro-Mediterranean cooperation? Dr. Woertz argued that most of the impact has come from right-wing populism, with the topic of migration being a major stumbling stone. Populist leaders in Eastern European countries, in particular, have opposed the refugee quota system proposed by Angela Merkel. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has become a kind of bugbear of the EU, actively torpedoing a more unified stance and damaging the core brand of the EU as a model of democratic cooperation. Thus, it has been very difficult for the EU to push forward initiatives, for example regarding human rights and NGOs, not just in the Mediterranean, like in Egypt or Turkey, but also in Hong Kong, where Orban openly sided with European adversaries. As Dr. Woertz explained, this kind of personalistic populist approach can exacerbate existing tensions that are rooted in diverging national interests. Euro-Mediterranean cooperation is also affected, however, when Europe is on the receiving side of populism from the MENA region (e.g., Turkey, Israel under Netanyahu, Tunisia under Kais Saied).
The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence, argued Dr. Woertz. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.
In summary, Dr. Woertz outlined the extent of populist influence on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. Whether in power (most notably Eastern Europe but also in Italy, with Salvini as Minister of Foreign Affairs), or in opposition, populists still have considerable influence in terms of agenda-setting, perhaps best illustrated by French President Macron’s own co-opting of populist rhetoric on migration. Nevertheless, the weight of institutions behind Mediterranean cooperation has somewhat mediated the impact of populism, and the pre-existing national interests that remain provide a potent counterweight to the new wave of nationalisms taking hold. The situation remains dynamic, however: we have seen that the personalization of power within populism can exacerbate existing tensions and lead to the relative emasculation of the diplomacy-making bureaucracy necessary for cooperation.
Reported by Mariam Lortkipanidze
Professor Neil Robinson: “Future course of global governance under the rising hybrid regimes that cohabitate with populism”
According to Professor Robinson, possible solutions to populist problems will be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.
Next was Professor Neil Robinson of the University of Limerick, who spoke of the undertheorized connection between populism and what he called “hybrid regimes.” Introducing his subject matter, Robinson pointed to two ways in which populism today threatens the existing liberal order. First, populism is a threat to globalization as a process: in general, economic actors demand the facilitation of international trade and its regulation, as a key driver for creating and maintaining global governance; populists, as a threat to economic liberalism, jeopardize the economic actors’ ability to press for global mechanisms of regulation. Second, populism is a threat to political liberalism: while often themselves creating a demand for global governance issues like human rights, populists undermine the liberal NGOs and IOs that advocate for such values. Pointing out that populism in established democracies is predominantly driven by domestic changes, Prof. Robinson briefly explained the economic motivations that mobilize the economically disadvantaged. Referring to Trump voters or to supporters of Brexit, he described how communities that support populist main narratives frequently promote forms of sovereigntism.
Prof. Robinson then turned towards the cases where politicians use populism to exacerbate crises of democracy. Two cases were distinguished: in the first case, populists come to power and use this to make significant changes to the democratic order, leading to a “hybridization” of the political regime. He cited examples of such a turn in Venezuela, Hungary, or Poland. In the second case, politicians in power use populist discourse to secure power and to consolidate their position against challengers. Here, the political space gets constricted. In addition, their use of the populist logic of social and political antagonism often reformulates the basis of legitimate political agency. From the post-Soviet space to nowadays, Russia exemplifies this shift to authoritarian law. These countries are normally not perceived as being a threat to the international liberal order and to global governance because of their alleged peripheral or small economic position. Furthermore, they are not seen as actually affecting global governance or playing major roles in international organizations, or indeed, as is the case with Russia today, become pariahs whose very resistance consolidates the organizations themselves.
It is sometimes argued that such countries reject so-called Western modernity, because the international liberal order is based on its rules rather than on brute power. However, for Professor Robinson, it would be too simplistic to break this down into some form of revolt against the West and modernity. According to him, there are two key issues that need to be considered when trying to assess the impact of hybrid populist regimes on the liberal international order. First, one must differentiate between states that are “rule-benders” and states that are “rule-breakers.” In short, rule-breakers (e.g., Russia) endeavour to become the centre of new regional projects, both in terms of security and economy, carving out a zone of influence that lies considerably outside the liberal international order. The rule-benders (e.g., Hungary), on the other hand, are more constrained by a greater degree of relative democracy and international commitments with neighbouring states.
The second key issue of which to be aware is hybridization as a political rather than an economic revolt. Global governance and a liberal international order seek to enforce certain standards of political behaviour and promote certain types of issues in politics, such as human rights. Rather than opposing the global economy, hybrid states would reject the political elements of global governance. Being part of global financial systems and benefiting through revenues from global trade, hybrid regimes are economic actors. Thus, these hybrid regimes wish to decouple political issues or perceived political issues such as security from value-driven politics, which are often cherished by Western states. In short, depending on the power, type, and immediate environment of the hybrid regime, the degree of revolt against global governance varies.
The standard solution to populist problems is to advise the affected countries to sort out their problems at home, to get rid of their basis for populism. This answer, according to Professor Robinson, needs to be revised. Possible solutions would be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.
Reported by Imke Schutz
Professor Axel KLEIN: “Is there populism in Japan? A closer look at Asia’s oldest democracy.”
Polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely.
Dr. Axel Klein, Professor of Social Sciences on East Asian and Japanese politics at the Institute of East Asian Studies of the Duisburg-Essen University, dealt with the topic of populism in Japan, or, more concretely, the conspicuous lack thereof. As Dr. Klein pointed out in his introduction, Japan is not discussed when scholars talk about populism. In fact, some scholars, such as Ian Buruma and Jennifer Lind, have argued that there is no populism in Japan. Their arguments focus on the lack of elites in the country’s population, its society’s egalitarianism, its low immigration, and the government’s contribution to Japan’s economic growth. Another key for understanding Japanese politics is its political system: Japan has a one-party-dominant regime, in which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power for sixty-two years.
Nevertheless, some figures have been labelled as ‘populist’ in the Japanese public discourse. For instance, Shinzo Abe (2012- 2020), the longest-serving prime minister, is an example of such a politician. Indeed, Abe tried to push his opinions on national security legislation, and consequently, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan, Vox, labelled him a populist. Another example was prime minister Koizumi Junichiro (2001- 2006): his different leadership style, clashing with people in his own party for being too inflexible and against reform, as well as his media savvy and his ambitious reform projects, all led to him being called a populist. This is because, Dr. Klein explained, in Japanese public discourse, populism has come to refer to ‘mass opportunism.’ The discourse of mass opportunism occurs when the politician engages with the public generously, shows attention to public opinion, and tries to satisfy the target audience. So, promises to raise the child allowance or reduce taxes would be enough for a politician to be seen as a populist in the Japanese political landscape.
To counter this, Prof. Klein aimed to clarify this conceptual confusion by focusing on two of the more prominent definitions of populism in the literature today. First, the political-strategic approach sees populism as a strategy through which a leader gains support from unorganized followers and comes to encompass governmental power by establishing, or claiming to establish, unmediated links to these otherwise weakly attached mass constituencies. Second, the ideational approach pioneered by Cas Mudde and others sees populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ that divides society into two opposed groups, the ‘pure people’ and ‘the elite.’ The ideational approach sees populism as always aiming to be the expression of the general will of the people. Applying these two important concepts of populism to the Japanese politicians most often labelled as populist, Prof. Klein concluded that, in the absence of a ‘pure people vs. elite’ discourse, and of serious anti-pluralism or illiberalism, it would be difficult to seriously consider them as actual populists.
Prof. Klein therefore introduced the concept of ‘Populist In Name Only’ (PINO), to refer to such figures that may be called populist by those who seek to attack them politically but are not actually populists. Examples of this phenomenon include the Reiwa Shinsengumi Party and its leader Tarō Yamamoto, who argue that Japanese people lack love and money from the state; the Okinawa Party, whose goal was to remove US military bases; and Hashimoto Toru, the former leader of the Japan Restoration Party who was aggressive in attacking bureaucracy. But none of these have populist tendencies in the theoretical sense.
Consequently, the cultural and political background of countries plays a crucial role in determining and measuring populist figures and actions. Due to the political culture in Japan, some ways of competing politically and being outwardly in favour of reformist ideas may brand one a populist, whereas similar strategies may be seen as acceptable (and not populist) in a Western democracy. In fact, Dr. Klein concludes, there are no serious populist politicians or populist parties in Japan, according to any serious theoretical definition found in the literature today. The small number of phenomena discussed in Prof. Klein’s speech allows Japan to be considered as ‘low on populism.’ This, however, raises the question why there is so little populism in Japan. If one looks closely at the country, there are multiple opportunities to have populism in the territory: there is rising social inequality, one dominant party, and a ministerial bureaucracy that could be categorized as a ‘corrupt elite.’ Furthermore, Dr. Klein observed, the economic crises and negative effects of globalization should lead the population towards some political frustration that would eventually open space for populism.
Dr. Klein’s presentation demonstrated that polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, Prof. Axel Klein concluded that populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely.
Reported by Julide Sezer
What’s Next in a Post-COVID-19 World?
Professor Jens Maesse: “Post-neoliberalism in Europe? How economic discourses have changed through COVID-19 pandemic”
New institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the pandemic situation; a short-time allowance, ‘Kurzarbeitergeld,’ was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the ECB as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context.
In his presentation, Professor Jens Maesse from the Institute of Sociology at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany, presented his research and explained how economic discourses have changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Maesse outlined three different levels of neoliberal influence and analysed how they were impacted by the pandemic. In doing so, he examined the discursive logic and structure of institutions within the European Union, as well as the EU economy in the world global economy.
First, the Professor Maesse explained the context that allowed the collapse of neoliberalism during COVID-19, outlining a number of key reasons: the rise of China as a major economic partner, technological competitor, and systemic rival; Brexit-populism—a shock experience which changed the political majorities in the EU; various ambivalent experiences with crisis management since 2009; and, finally, climate change and the changing production chains within Europe since the 1990s. As such, he concluded, “the neoliberal competition state does not make sense anymore.”
Indeed, since the Covid crisis, there has been a sharp change in economic discourse in Europe. The first, according to Maesse, was one of temporality. Previously, institutional temporality created space for categorizations and evaluations over longer timespans; today, the virus has replaced discursive temporality in a logic of what he called “crisis-deixis,” a process of specification and localization. Second, the authority is no longer the same: during the pre-crisis period, in the neoliberal EU-Maastricht system, the authorities were in competition. However, the crisis has become a master signifier and a discursive authority. It has become a dominant element that challenges the neoliberal balance. Finally, the ethical themes within economic discourse have radically altered: there has been a shift from professional objectivity to more emotional investment and, indeed, sometimes hysteria. Thus, Professor Maesse holds, one of the pandemic’s consequences has been a major transformation in the way EU economic experts perceive the EU and its economic policy. There is a new discursive logic in Europe, based on reasoning, and it is this discursive shift that has further occluded populist discursive logics.
Moreover, he elaborated, new institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the ‘Corona’ situation; a short-time allowance, Kurzarbeitergeld, was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context in which it previously existed and thrived. In the world economy, however, there is a perpetuation of existing trends. Brexit, the crisis of the North Italian industrial structure, the ‘under-stratification’ of the central and Eastern European industrial suppliers, and the tourism crisis in Southern Europe show us that the world has not really changed, and that familiar problems persist. Professor Maesse argued that we, now, “observe an intensified path-dependency and further splits and fissures among European regions, classes and sub-economies,” a state of affairs that remains quite similar to the old one.
Professor Maesse concludes that Covid has had many consequences for European economic discourse. Firstly, according to him, “economic experts [now] speak in the name of the ‘crisis’ as authorization device and take measures that no longer follow a clear economic theory.” Second, institutions and their structures are constantly changing, and “there is no longer any decency and continuity possible in the institutional path.” Third, national societies and communities are now “dis-embedded and reticulated along post-national spaces of inequality.” Finally, the structures of the European and global economy are constantly creating new crisis events. Thus, he concludes that the post-neoliberal ‘new normal’ lies between the old and the new structure.
Reported by Heloise Aelbrecht
Dr. Brett Meyer: “An analysis of populist leaders’ responses to Covid-19”
Many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out.
Dr. Brett Meyer, research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, presented his research on populists’ performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Meyer’s research tracked the types of policies populist leaders pursued, how their countries fared in terms of cases and deaths, and how the pandemic affected support for populists.
At the start of the pandemic, many believed that the nature of the crisis would prove a problem for populist leaders, who tend to eschew expert advice and favour show over substance. Indeed, Dr Meyer found that 2021 saw the biggest decline in the number of populist leaders ever, down from seventeen to thirteen populist leaders in power, the lowest number since 2004. Correlation does not equal causation, but this trend provided an interesting topic for investigation.
In August 2020, Dr. Meyer published a report detailing populist leaders’ responses to the pandemic in its first few months. Most headlines stating that populists were doing poorly during the pandemic focused on the US’s Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom downplayed COVID-19. However, only five of the world’s eighteen populists downplayed the pandemic during the early months. The remaining thirteen took it seriously: most responded similarly to non-populist democratically elected leaders. Five of the thirteen, however, took ‘illiberal responses,’ involving punishing lockdowns, excessive emergency powers, and biased enforcement. Dr Meyer also looked into the responses of populists in Northern and Western Europe. Although there are no populists currently in power there, there are many right-wing populist parties. Like most populists around the world, they took COVID quite seriously.
Dr. Meyer also elaborated how COVID affected support for populists. In 2020, he looked at support for different types of parties in Western Europe over the first few months of COVID. He found that the lead parties in government enjoyed big boosts in support, but that other mainstream parties did not benefit from COVID. Right-wing populist parties suffered most. Dr. Meyer later expanded his sample to track support for leaders in both Western and Eastern Europe. He found that before the pandemic populist-led governments enjoyed higher support than non-populist governments. This immediately changed upon the onset of the pandemic and remained so throughout. Towards the end of the collected sample support flipped in favour of populists again, but by this time several populists in Eastern Europe had lost power.
Dr. Meyer also investigated how populist- and non-populist led governments polled against death rates in corresponding countries. He found that, at the first spike in mortality numbers during the pandemic, support for non-populists shot up, and remained at a high point throughout the pandemic. Support for populists suffered a gradual decline after the first mortality spike, a trend that continued after the second spike. Dr. Meyer referred to this as a “flight to seriousness,” foreshadowing the consequences COVID might have for populism. During crises like pandemics there is increased support for established politicians, perhaps because they are the ones who appear to follow experts’ advice and take responsible approaches to the crisis. Puzzlingly, populists did worse even when they took COVID seriously. This might, again, be explained as a lack of patience for populist leadership styles during uncertain times.
Finally, Dr. Meyer discussed populists’ prospects going forward and how the opposition might counteract populism. For one, many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out. Furthermore, Dr. Meyer found that of three of the four elections that populist leaders lost in 2021, the opposition parties had focused their campaigns entirely on ousting the populist leader, despite their very different goals and commitments. This was successful in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Israel.
An issue, however, is that an ideologically diverse opposition uniting may dislodge populism but lack the stability to form a lasting government once the populist has been ousted. Israel’s extremely diverse government is taking strategic policy steps, focused on implementing institutional changes designed to prevent populist retrenchment. Another issue appears in countries like Turkey, where populist leaders have set up significant institutional roadblocks, granting them institutional protection and increasing the chance of electoral corruption. Again, strategic institutional changes appear an advisable tactic.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Sheri Berman: “Populist and non-populist governance performance during the Covid pandemic and prospects for democracy in the West going forward”
Studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.”
Dr. Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, began her talk with a basic observation: COVID-19 appeared as a crisis at a particularly difficult time for democracy. Since approximately 2010, scholars have observed a period of backsliding or ‘autocratization’ during which numerous countries seemed to turn their backs to democracy. Data from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute also shows that satisfaction with democracy has been in decline over the past decades, a decline that is particularly prevalent in the US.
One manifestation of this dissatisfaction with democracy is growing support for populism, which tends to feed off dissatisfaction with the establishment. At the beginning of the pandemic some feared that the crisis would accelerate these negative trends. However, data sources like V-Dem and others did not find any broad trend towards leaders, populist or otherwise, using the pandemic to further erode the foundations of democracy. Particularly in Europe there was no acceleration of autocratization or general increase in support for populist parties. In the US, however, the health of democracy did continue to decline during the pandemic, and the populist portion of the Republican Party grew ever stronger, to the point where it is now a dominant tenor in the party. Neither, though, did the pandemic boost the fortunes of democracy; dissatisfaction with democracy remains quite high.
Professor Berman mentioned two notable connections. The first is that satisfaction with democracy is partially dependent on performance. She explains that democracy enjoys ‘systemic legitimacy’—people value it not only for its outcomes, but because they value its central goals and tenets. As such, democracy does not rely on performance legitimacy as much as contemporary dictatorships do, for example. Nevertheless, performance also matters. Dr. Berman cites data from the Bennett Institute, which found strong connections between actual crises and levels of satisfaction with democracy. When crises hit and governments seem unable or unwilling to deal adequately with incoming problems, satisfaction with democracy goes down. This was observed throughout the Euro and refugee crises, and again during the pandemic. Leaders who seemed to react clearly, effectively, and rationally were generally rewarded.
One might wonder why some leaders were better able to respond to the needs of their population than others. This leads to the second significant connection: both satisfaction and performance are linked to the variable of trust. One study, recently published in The Lancet, found that when citizens were more trusting both towards their government institutions and towards fellow citizens, pandemic outcomes were better because, Dr. Berman argued, individual citizens are more willing to sacrifice for the common good when they can expect politicians and fellow citizens to do the same. Trust creates a feedback effect, enabling governments to do better. The United States, Dr. Berman notes, is anomalous here: trust in government has plummeted, reflected in the way the pandemic played out in the US, as people were hesitant to follow rules, and suspicions about leaders’ and experts’ directions persisted. The politicization of vaccines was, according to Dr. Berman, another tragic result of this mistrust.
Finally, Dr. Berman commented on the contemporary situation: studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.” They can trigger right-wing fears, for example, as seen in the US and Canada. She also noted that these restrictions have negative effects on the left, too, where increasingly, many people are willing to support severe punishments for people who disagree with their views on necessary health measures.
Dr. Berman warned that we do not want to end up in a situation where the long-term implications of extensive government restrictions on freedom are tested: hardening views on the left and further triggering populist attitudes on the right and dissatisfaction with democracy overall. As such, Dr. Berman concluded, scholars and analysts would do well to turn their attention increasingly to the potential long-term consequences of the crisis on populism and other social and political trends.
I am honored to be writing this foreword for the first research report of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). This newly-founded, Brussels-based independent research organization investigates and analyzes the various manifestations of populism and the challenges posed by its increasing spread across the world.
The world has been suffering from the fatal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. This horrible and costly experience has reminded us that we really do live in a global village in every sense. A contagion that emerged in a wet market in one part of the world spread in a matter of months to all four corners of the earth and turned rapidly into a global pandemic. As of January 17, 2022, almost 329 million people have been infected, and over 5.5 million people from every walk of life and continent have died. It is evident that problems emerging in far-flung places have the potential to affect us all in ways we could scarcely imagine.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the rise and spread of the most recent wave of global populism carry many of the same characteristics and pose, in the view of many, no less a global threat than COVID-19. Alongside renewed racism, rising authoritarianism, and ongoing oppression, exclusion, mass persecution, extremism and radicalization, bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and climate change denial, populism has come to reinforce the sense that the world confronts a new age of severe global crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and which no country or region on earth can hope to avoid.
After all, who could possibly argue that the poisonous mixture of populism and religious bigotry we see today on the streets of Lahore does not affect the feelings and security perceptions of the people walking peacefully through the streets of Amsterdam? And who among us can ignore the fact that the anti-Islamic discourses and exclusionary populist narratives expressed from the comfortable rostrums of splendid buildings in European capitals have no impact on the Egyptian youths who watch TV in their lounge rooms and are mobilized by feelings of hate and enmity? Against this backdrop, we can readily see that opposing extremisms fuel each other and create fertile ground for a vicious cycle of worsening extremism that threatens to engulf the planet.
If we agree that the physical, offline world is a global village, it is no stretch to argue that the online world is a global town hall. And in this online global town hall, conspiracy theories, extreme emotions, and destructive discourses spread much faster than in the offline global village. So, the ECPS has decided to examine authoritarian religious populists and to research the dangerous nexus between faith and populism in cyberspace and, of course, its fatal effects in the offline world. I am sure that this report, as an impressive product of comprehensive research across five different Asian countries, will help us to understand the role of digital space in Asian democracies, especially concerning religious populism.
Being aware of the fact that the global rise of populism can lead to democratic decay, the spread of authoritarianism worldwide, and threats to global peace, security, and stability, I want to thank the scholars who have poured their efforts into preparing this report. I also sincerely hope that this report will fill a crucial gap in this research field and become a valuable resource for scholars and practitioners alike.
Dr. Bulent Kenes
ECPS Executive Director
4. Executive Summary
Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently moved toward populist authoritarianism. Populism —once considered a distinctively Latin American problem that only seldom reared its head in other parts of the world— has now found a home in almost every corner of the planet. Moreover, it has latched on to religion, which, as history reminds us, has an unparalleled power to mobilize crowds. This report explores the unique nexus between faith and populism in our era and offers an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place. The report focuses, in particular, on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in the five Asian countries we have selected as our case studies.
The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases is an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcase powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. This report compares internet governance in each of these countries under three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. These are the digital toolkits that authorities use to govern digital space. Our case selection and research focus have allowed us to undertake a comparative analysis of different types of online restrictions in these countries that constrain space foropposition and democratic voices while simultaneously making room for authoritarian religious populist narratives to arise and flourish.
The report finds that surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks—along with targeted arrests and violence spreading from digital space—are common features of digital authoritarianism. In each case, it is also found that religious populist forces co-opt political actors in their control of cyberspace. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. Religious leaders support these laws as a means to restrict “moral ills” such as blasphemy, pornography, and the like. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion. Some common themes found in all the case studies shed light on the role of digital space in shaping politics and society offline and vice versa.
The key findings of our survey are as follows:
The future of (especially) fragile democracies is highly intertwined with digital space.
There is an undeniable nexus between faith and populism which offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined.
Religion and politics have merged in these five countries to shape cyber governance.
The cyber governance policies of populist rulers mirror their undemocratic, repressive, populist, and authoritarian policies offline. As a result, populist authoritarianism in the non-digital world has increasingly come to colonize cyberspace, and events online are more and more playing a role in shaping politics offline.
“Morality” is a common theme used to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws and the active monopolization of cyberspace by government actors.
Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment, hurling abuse without physically seeing the consequences or experiencing the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on their victims.
Over 60 percent of the world’s population has access to the internet, with some 4.66 billion active users in January 2021. While there is a global divide in access to the internet related to income disparities and unequal human development, the overall growth remains staggering. The largest share of the planet’s internet users, nearly 52 percent, reside in Asia, with its dense population and steady increasing uptake of digital communication technology. Moreover, the widespread availability of cell phone technology and the rapid development of the mobile internet has meant that digital platforms are a well-integrated part of daily life. In 2009, less than 1 percent of internet traffic was generated by mobile phones compared to 50 percent in 2020. Internet use is forecast to grow again in 2022 and beyond. It is, thus, not surprising that governments are keen to adopt digital technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their governance strategies. As a result, political processes—including in the region’s democracies—are becoming highly intertwined with digital space.
At the dawn of the internet age, the global community shared a sense of optimism about the prospects for a bright digital future. Indeed, the web was often spoken about as an agent for democratization. Cheap and ready access to the internet was hailed by scholars as an inherently democratizing development that would ensure the widest possible dissemination of information to the people. The internet was supposed to facilitate the creation and expression of ideas and political views by ordinary citizens in a media ecosystem dominated by powerful corporate or state-controlled television, radio, and print media. Indeed, many democratic theorists cast the world wide web as a virtual Habermasian “public sphere” promising a global “society engaged in critical public debate.” The online network society was expected to serve as a forum for the formation of public opinions, like the coffee houses of Vienna (in Habermas’ original theory), in which all citizens would have equal access to influence public debate. Several mass protests in the late 2000s and early 2010s that were mostly organized and facilitated by digital social media further boosted this techno-optimism in developing countries. The Arab Spring, in which Twitter featured prominently as a mobilizing tool, saw the fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
This optimism over the increase in cyber activity and access to the internet came in the wake of the “third wave” of global democratization that began in the 1970s and peaked after the end of the Cold War. However, the first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a significant “democratic retrenchment” worldwide and the rise of an unprecedented wave of populist governments on virtually every continent. Unlike in the past, this new wave of populism has affected longstanding democracies once thought immune. For instance, America and India, the world’s two most populous democracies, have seen populist leaders rise within the democratic system. Moreover, despite unprecedented democratization since the mid-2000s, Pakistan and Turkey, countries with a history of military interventions, have chosen populist Islamist leaders.
Over the years, the populist wave has not only expanded but diversified as well. There are at least three broad categories of populism today. The most familiar is anti-establishment, where the “political elite” and other groups are demonized as part of the populist narrative. Socioeconomic populism is a center-left outlook featured in movements such as the Wall Street Protests and the leadership of political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The last and most widespread category is cultural populism, which pictures elements within society and outside the country as “the enemy” of the “pure people.”
Along the spectrum of cultural pluralism, religious populism is prominent and has been championed by leaders around the world since the early 2000s. While most major religions of the world have been politicized by populist leaders and religious movements, there is distinctiveness in how they manifest. When Islam is politicized and deployed as Islamism by populist leaders, it manifests not only as a way to distinguish “the pious people” from “the corrupt secular elite” but also wields a religious symbolism and style wherein followers are encouraged to adopt explicit religious morals and “traditional” lifestyles in everyday life. These populists are nevertheless adept at leveraging technology and have been at the forefront of political messaging in digital space. As early as the 2000s, political parties in Muslim-majority countries were exhibiting a greater online presence compared to those in non-Muslim countries. Given that democracy is in a precarious state across the Muslim world, introducing draconian measures is not difficult for such governments, even on digital platforms.
In non-Western, non-Muslim-majority countries, identarian populism, another form of religious populism, has arisen. It uses religion to demarcate a civilizational division between “the people” and “the Other.” Arguably the most pernicious example here is India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has long espoused a highly exclusivist and chauvinistic Hindutva politics, which declares Hindus to be “the true people” and non-Hindus by implication as “Other.” Despite its moralistic overtones, the BJP has shown little interest in moral reform but still champions a Hindutva construction of society as the epitome of “civilization.”
Consequently, in a world where democracy appears “in retreat,” the early digital optimism has given way among analysts and intellectuals to a kind of digital pessimism, or at the very least skepticism. While at one end, individual citizens can use social media and digital technology to stay informed and engage in online and offline activism, there is a growing concern that authoritarian (and democratic) governments can use digital tools to assert their control over this space. Extensive digital capabilities—especially AI and Big Data—are increasingly being utilized by governments to exert control over their citizens. Indeed, some observers are talking about the spread of full-blown digital authoritarianism —namely, “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to survey, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” In response to the rise of digital activism, authoritarian regimes—not just populist ones— have been fast to catch up and adapt, launching their own digital countermeasures of repression. Governments have been observed employing advanced digital technologies to undermine democracy in various ways, including surveillance, censorship, disinformation, cyber-attacks and hacking, internet shutdowns, and targeted arrests.
Against this backdrop, the present report contributes to our understanding of how emerging digital technologies affect, enable and undermine democracy, human rights, freedom, and the electoral process. While scholarship on the topic is in its infancy, the focus has generally been on Western democracies. Despite the scale of internet usage in Asia, this part of the world— and the Global South more generally— has been largely excluded from such studies. Thus, studies focusing on non-Western countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding under the rule or influence of authoritarian religious populists are sorely needed. In all the cases analyzed in the present report, digital platforms have been used intensely by governments and dissidents and can reveal much about the contested role of digital technology and the future of democracy.
States implement multi-layered and complex measures to manipulate the use of and access to cyberspace by people residing in their territory and to restrict online freedoms. The key measures in the toolkit of digital authoritarianism are:
Censorship includes “restrictions on what information can be publicized or viewed on the Internet.” Examples of internet censorship are blocking undesirable content, apps, and social media and passing laws that allow the removal of certain forms of content. Some countries have created so-called “sovereign internets,” facilitated by technology. Think of the “Great Firewall” of China and Russia’s Roskomnadzor, which enforces data localization, and Iran’s National Information Network (also called the Halal Internet).
Disinformation campaigns involve the spread of large volumes of false content by state-owned and regime-friendly media against the opposition. This can include social media manipulation through “cyber warriors” using bots and cyber-trolls. Examples include Iran’s so-called “cyber battalions” linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). Disinformation campaigns also involve the manipulation of elections, including voter engineering and influencing voter behaviors and outcomes by micro-targeting propaganda and individualized campaigns using AI and Big Data capabilities. The creation of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in elections can also undermine meaningful exchanges of ideas in electoral debates.
Cyber-attacks and hacking. Cyber-attacks include any “attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage. Cyber-attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within these systems.” Such attacks often target opposition groups’ data centers, networks, social media accounts, and computer systems to undermine their public image and spy on their campaigns. There are reports that the Iranian government has been proactively gathering intelligence on Iran’s opposition by hacking applications, even secure ones like Telegram, which uses sophisticated symmetric encryption.
Internet shutdowns. “An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.” Short of complete shutdowns, governments can disrupt the internet and other electronic communications through rolling blackouts or selected blocking/filtering of the internet and social media.
Targeted arrests and violence occur when “a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.” There are many reports of influential digital activists and actors being physically assaulted, arrested, and sentenced to jail.
Surveillance. In the digital realm, this usually takes the form of software that is specifically “marketed for or that can be used (with or without the authorization of the business) to detect, monitor, intercept, collect, exploit, interpret, preserve, protect, transmit, and/or retain sensitive data, identifying information, or communications concerning individuals or groups.” Today, this includes facial recognition technology (FRT), video surveillance, and so-called smart policing, monitoring communications and social media, tapping mobile phones, monitoring locations, using spyware, intercepting networks, biometric identification, and text/data mining.
There are several frameworks for monitoring and measuring restrictions on freedom on the internet. One of the earliest frameworks to investigate and analyze internet filtering and surveillance practices was developed by The OpenNet Initiative (ONI). Initially, the ONI focused on measuring internet filtering under four main categories: pervasive filtering, substantial filtering, selective filtering, and suspected filtering. Further elaborating the index, ONI distinguished filtering based on its locus—namely, whether blocking is conducted centrally and infrastructurally (at the level of the underlying internet architecture) or decentralized (at the level of ISPs). In their later work, ONI researchers studied how governments “shape, limit, and control the Internet.” Unlike the first-generation controls, which often focused on denial of access, the second generation utilized a repertoire of manipulation techniques to normalize and legalize control. These techniques included “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, targeted malware, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, and stringent terms-of-usage policies.”
A more detailed categorization, which is partly based on previous work by ONI, is used by Freedom House in its annual Freedom on the Net reports. Here, three areas are covered: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The current report follows Freedom House’s framework, which offers a comprehensive conceptual apparatus to investigate modern manipulations of the internet. The table in the Appendix provides a brief explanation of each category of violations of internet freedom based on the Freedom on the Net 2021 report.
Governments can erect several types of obstacles to restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. This includes making the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons. Governments can also exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure to restrict connectivity or impose legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers. Finally, national regulatory bodies can impose controls on service providers such that digital technology fails to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner.
The state can block or filter internet content—or compel service providers to do so. As well, state or non-state actors often employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content. Often, restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process. Limits can also be self-imposed, such as when online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship. There are also examples where online sources of information are controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest or where economic, regulatory, or other constraints exist that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online. Finally, the online information landscape may lack diversity and reliability such that conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues.
The constitution or other laws of a country may fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and may be enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence. Violations also occur when laws exist that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those protected under international human rights standards. In some countries, individuals are penalized for online activities, or the government restricts anonymous communication or encryption. Another concern is state surveillance of internet activities, which infringes on users’ right to privacy, and the monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies, which also infringe the right to privacy. In serious cases, individuals are subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or other actors concerning their online activities. Finally, the websites of government and private entities, service providers, or individual users may be subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack.
India’s current prime minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, worked at a tea stall in his childhood and rose to become the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies. His first taste of politics came during his meteoric rise within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindutva social movement linked to the BJP. In launching his election campaign in 2013, Modi emphasized social mobility and progress for a “new India.” An end to corruption, dynastic politics, and socioeconomic gulfs seemed tantalizingly close when he was elected as prime minister in 2014.
However, after nearly two consecutive terms, Modi’s promised “new India” has yet to materialize, while there has seen a drastic decline in democratic freedoms, mainly due to right-wing policies. According to the Freedom House Index, freedom for Indian citizens declined for a third straight year in 2020–21. With a ranking of 67, India has been downgraded from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. Ripples of deteriorating democracy are also felt in cyberspace. Nearly 58 percent of India’s population has access to the internet, and this is rising fast. The total number of internet users in India rose from 795.18 million at the end of December 2020 to 825.3 million at the end of March 2021. As the following discussion shows, despite widespread internet access and India’s positive track record of democracy, today internet freedom in India is severely compromised.
In 2014, Modi declared, “I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers,” a far cry from where the country stands today. During its second term (2019—present), the BJP government has increasingly resorted to full internet shutdowns. The most prominent example was the full shutdown in the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019. The only Muslim-majority state in India before its autonomy was taken away that same year, Jammu and Kashmir’s internet was totally blocked for almost five months. Even when restored, only 2G or 3G service was available in most places, making the opening only partial. The 4G internet service was only available after more than a year. Another service block in 2019 came during the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which was widely seen as targeting Muslims. Largely organized by civil society concerned over the discriminatory nature of the law, the protests soon spread all over India. Lasting well into 2020, many parts of the country saw massive internet shutdowns at the peak of the protests. As Figure 1 shows, India has recently had the largest number of internet shutdowns globally. Inspired by the federal government, the state authorities in India have also started using network curbs. In October 2021, in the state of Rajasthan, the districts of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Dhausa closed mobile network services and cell phone access to curb cheating in regional examinations. The country lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to internet shutdowns.
The Indian government frequently uses Section 69A of the IT Act 2000 to block websites. The 2009 blocking rules published by the Indian government are themselves vague and allow the government to withhold information on which sites are actually being blocked. There has also been a marked increase in the number of blocked websites. Some 633 websites were banned in 2016, rising to 9,849 in 2020. Investigative journalists have revealed that most blocked websites belong to human rights groups, separatist movements, feminist platforms, NGOs, and even sites linked to United Nations agencies. The government justifies most blocks on the grounds of “national security.”
The year 2020 was quite testing for India. In addition to the burden of COVID-19 and the continued economic downturn and massive unemployment, there was the Indo-China border clash, all of which presented the BJP government with a range of social and political issues to address. The government responded by cracking down in cyberspace. Between January and October 2020 alone, India blocked 100 websites, 1,364 online domains, and 157 Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Due to the extensive blockade of content, the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) has surged. Only 3.28 percent of Indian internet users used a VPN in 2020. In the first two quarters of 2021, 25.27 percent of users used one.In October 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the government ban VPNs in India. No action has been taken as yet.
India has one of the largest number of Facebook users globally, the third-largest Twitter population, and is the world’s largest market for WhatsApp. Under the government’s 2021 information technology rules, issued under the IT Act 2000, social media platforms are required to remove content identified as “illegal” by the government within three days, provide access to user information for law enforcement officials. The rules also extend the data retention period to 180 days and increase the penalties for non-compliance for the global platforms, putting end-to-end encryption in India at risk. These rules have been presented as necessary to protect individuals’ privacy, stop terrorism, riots, and breakdowns of law and order. Yet, the regulations give the government greater control over social media.
Since the law came into effect, firms have been obliged to share a monthly report with the government. These briefs showcase the amount of content removed. The first three months of published data revealed that Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and others removed a staggering 110.88 million posts. While content that is sexual or graphic in nature makes up a hefty chunk of the requested take-downs, there is also the question of what constitutes “terrorism” and “hate speech,” which the government frequently requests be removed from social media sites. Despite the tradition of rule of law in India, mob lynching of minorities triggered by misinformation via social media continues as well.
When India was struck by the Delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021, posts on social media that were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the virus were removed from these platforms because of the pressure from the government. Deemed “false statements,” these were posts from opposition leaders and concerned citizens over the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Online streaming services have yet to face legal reproach by the BJP government, yet the government has supported the RSS (and the broader Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalist movement, of which it is a part) in their protests against these services. The group targeted Netflix and Amazon Prime for offending Hindu religious sensibilities. The government has also done little to prevent harassment of producers and movie stars by Sangh Parivar attackers, who have bullied them in person and online.
Digital surveillance measures ranging from targeted to mass surveillance have been normalized in India. Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 2008 have justified these measures as necessary for “security.” Thus, the Central Monitoring System (CMS), an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social media engagement, and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications, was launched after 2008. Under the law, citizens targeted by it are not obliged to be informed whether their data has been intercepted. There are reports that the CMS has become a mass surveillance tool by the state without valid legal and constitutional authority. In addition, Indian police in several states have routinized the use of fingerprinting and FRT to stop and screen people on flimsy pretexts, turning vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones. The CMS and the FRT have frequently been used to profile and target protesters. These tools have been extensively used in the conflict-ridden zone of Jammu and Kashmir and for profiling people based on race, religion, and profession (among other factors) without legal permission.
Under such close monitoring, it is not surprising that journalists and social media activists continue to be arrested under terror or treason charges. Independent right-wing organizations, such as those of the Sangh Parivar, use these laws to file reports regularly against those opposing the government online. Legally speaking, right-wing factions act as “partisan supporters” reporting these incidents. Since 2016, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has slid from 133 to 142 in 2021. Moreover, India is seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job.
Along with the CMS, India has been using other ways to snoop and surveil its citizens. In July 2021, India was also caught up in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is Israeli software that has purportedly been used to spy on terrorists and marketed exclusively to governments. However, like many other governments worldwide, the Modi government has bought this spyware and secretly used it to spy on anyone considered a political threat. The Supreme Court of India has ordered an inquiry into the matter as of October 2021.
Indonesia’s recent surge in attacks on minority religions has been instigated mainly by right-wing Islamist movements who have enjoyed much greater freedom after the sudden collapse of the New Order regime in 1998. After a period of democratic flourishing in the 2000s, Indonesia has recently been in a steady state of democratic decline, as highlighted by its 2017–2021 scores by Freedom House. Further complicating the matter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has deliberately side-lined democratic norms in the interests of building a modern economy, which he and his supporters contend is a prerequisite for the future consolidation of democracy. The government’s reduced tolerance of criticism and discriminatory regulations against minorities has been an unfortunate consequence. Combined, both elements have led to increased abuses of religious freedom. Interestingly, Indonesia’s level of discrimination against religious and social minorities has seemingly remained unchanged since 1998. There are also signs of an increased Islamization with a rise in the visibility of Islamic gatherings, modest clothing, Muslim-only residential compounds, and Shariah-compliant banks.
Given shrinking public space, minorities have resorted to going online. Social movements such as those supporting LGBTQ+ or women’s rights have sought refuge on cyber platforms. While online communities enable like-minded individuals to interact, there are still limitations as the Indonesian government censored, regulated, and controlled the internet. Though Indonesia’s internet governance laws (see Table 1.0 in the Appendix) have been described to be well-intended, censorship regulations have created controversies. This highlights the presence of a specific moral compass being used by the government imposed on its citizens. Additionally, their loose definitional parameters also facilitate their instrumentalization by the government.
The Indonesian government has resorted to internet shutdowns to manage riots. In 2019 alone, there were three reported cases: one protesting the 2019 presidential election results, a successionist riot in Papua in reaction to the arrest and racist treatment of Papuan students in East Java, and a second similar riot in Papua triggered by racism toward Papuan students in Wamena. Of the three riots, the internet shutdown was the longest in the second riot spanning a two-week period from August 21 to September 4. While the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua in 2019 violated the law, the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise on October 27, 2021. In April 2021, internet access in West Papua was disrupted on three separate occasions coinciding with events related to Papuan successionist movements. These coincidental disruptions were blamed on a damaged sea cable in the area.
Indonesia continued its tactic of banning websites deemed inappropriate, including those that purportedly promote religious extremism, pornography, entertainment streaming websites, and websites promoting content piracy. This practice of selective blocking started in 2008 when the government attempted to prevent its citizens from accessing an anti-Islamic film, Fitna. In 2018 alone, nearly 3,000 websites disseminating extremist ideologies were blocked, and about 9,500 other sites were under review. Based on Google’s recent “Content Removal Transparency Report,” Indonesia submitted the largest amount of requests from January to June 2021 on all of Google’s platforms, including YouTube, Google Search, and Blogger. While the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is responsible for blocking sites found inappropriate, ministry officials do not assess the sites requested for review. Instead, agencies like the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) are responsible for the assessments. One potential issue is how such assessments are made and what happens when agencies disagree. Additionally, repeated blocking of popular websites has driven Indonesians to become au fait with countermeasures such as VPNs. In 2019, Indonesia had the most extensive VPN usage in the world. In addition to website blocking, the government banned homosexual emojis in 2016, citing its potential for public unrest.
Indonesia recently passed an internet bill that mandates online service providers to remove or block content on their platforms when requested by the government. According to Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, the law is essential to address disinformation and the destabilizing effects of “fake news.” Under the new rules, service providers must also register with the government by the end of 2022 to obtain the licenses required to operate. This is not the government’s first attempt. Indonesia threatened to ban Blackberry (a handset maker) in 2011 and Telegram (a messaging service) in 2017 on security grounds. These mandatory registrations and the threat that licenses will be withdrawn enable the government to exert control over multinational companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. In complying with Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, these companies are required to ensure that their platforms do not contain or facilitate the distribution of prohibited content. Unfortunately, as with other censorship laws, defining what is prohibited is problematic due to its broad definition.
One of Indonesia’s cyber laws, known as UU ITE, severely threatens civil liberties. This law, passed in 2008, has been used more frequently by Jokowi’s administration than previous administrations in response to the growing polarization on social media and to counter accusations against it such as corruption and misconduct. In November 2020, it was reported that since 2016, more than 300 criminal cases had been brought under UU ITE. The key issue with the law is its broad definitions. Though its stated purpose is to safeguard the populace against immorality through its criminalization under Article 27(1) of UU ITE, what is deemed immoral is not clearly defined, leaving it open to manipulation. Similarly, in this article and Article 27(3), “transmission” of immoral content is open to interpretation, thus, enabling even private consensual sharing of “immoral” content to be considered an offense. Not only has the government leveraged UU ITE, but also the police, government officials, and business people who form the three largest cohorts to make use of the legislation to pursue their interests.
In Indonesia, cyber harassment is a common way to target “the Other.” The weak legal framework for combating cyberbullying emboldens trolls such as the Muslim Cyber Army, which has a history of harassment and intimidation of individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. Numerous members of this group who go by a multitude of aliases were arrested for crimes such as spreading false reports and inciting racial and religious discrimination. In such an atmosphere, LGBTQ+, non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and other marginalized groups commonly self-censor.
For six decades under the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, Malaysia functioned as a hybrid regime. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated Barisan Nasional in the general elections, and for the first time, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition in government. The contested Anti-Fake News Act in December 2019 was also repealed as part of the reform promised by the new government. Unfortunately, the PH experiment lasted for a mere 22 months before a soft coup by the Malay Muslim establishment. Since then, Malaysia has dropped in the rankings on various measures of democratic freedoms. The overly broad, colonial-era Sedition Act remains in place. The change in government and the COVID-19 pandemic actively prevented private media from covering events. However, Malaysians enjoy greater freedom online than they do offline. It is also worth noting that despite the 2020 soft coup, the Perikatan Nasional government has maintained a relatively open space for dissent online.
Returning to the prime ministership in 2018, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad—introducing his new agenda—promised no internet censorship under Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (hereafter the CMA). However, over the years, there has been an increase in laws that govern cyberspace (see Table 1.0 in Appendix for detailed laws).
The Malaysian government has yet, to completely shut down the internet. The closest the government was accused of affecting the entire network was in 2012 when mobile phone usage was disrupted during a rally. Officially slow internet speed was blamed for the disruption. Another reason given in 2016 was that the government was more focused on providing greater coverage across the country than on increasing the internet speed. In general, Malaysia suffers from a relatively low mobile internet speed, which was 31.34 Mbps on average in September 2021 (the global average was 63.15 Mbps). Slow internet connections were exacerbated during the lockdown period in 2020 and 2021 as more people went online. The government remains committed to improving this by introducing 5G technology in Malaysia in 2023.
The Malaysian government has actively blocked thousands of web pages that fit the definition of the “offensive” contained in the CMA Act 1998. As of April 2021, 18 websites were confirmed blocked in the country, whereas many others face anomalies, ranging from pornography to websites that criticized Islam. From 2018 until 2020, 2,921 pornographic websites were blocked, while 4,277 pornographic websites were blocked from 2015 until 2016. Most of the banned websites included terrorist-backed platforms, gambling sites, and the like, which infringe the Muslim ethos of the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocks websites when it receives complaints and applications from government ministries and agencies. This means that the MCMC may abuse its power against the opposition. For example, during the general election in 2018, the MCMC ordered 11 internet service providers to block three websites of Malaysiakini, a popular online news portal known for its neutrality (and thus not being a proxy for the government), on live updates of the election results for fear it could affect “national stability, public order and harmony, and economic stability.”
Compared to the other case studies, the Malaysian government has been less restrictive toward social media companies. In 2018, 97.3 percent of internet users owned a Facebook account, making it the most popular social networking site, whereas 98.1 percent of users preferred WhatsApp as a communication channel. At the same time, the MCMC had requested social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to take down content violating local social and cultural norms. For Twitter, 275 legal demands were made to remove or withhold content from 2012 until 2020.Interestingly, out of the total, 153 requests, or 55.6 percent, were made from July through to December 2020, a huge spike compared to previous years. The same trend is observed with Facebook posts with 376 items of content restricted between January and June 2020, more than double the previous count at 163 from July until December 2019. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the government to clamp down on critics under the guise of combating fake news. This is done through the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021, which was enforced throughout the Emergency Ordinance period from January until July 2021.
The government has also prosecuted online news portals. The latest major case would be the Federal Court’s finding in February 2021 that the online news portal Malaysiakini is liable for contempt of court over five readers’ comments that the court alleged “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity.” This goes beyond proxies to individual users as well. The 2012 amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 enables enforcement of Section 114A against social media organizations, online forums, news webpages, or even public places that provide wifi, all of which may be liable to legal action from an online user’s action. Although Malaysiakini was fined an exorbitant RM500,000—beyond the RM200,000 sought by the prosecution—they were able to crowdsource the fund within a few hours after the judgment.
Prosecution and harassment of users are the most common methods for the Malaysian government to control the internet. In 2020, six journalists from Al Jazeera were investigated for alleged sedition, defamation, and transmitting offensive for airing a critical documentary. Al Jazeera’s staff were faced with abuse and death threats for allegedly sullying Malaysia’s image. Similarly, a Bangladeshi national, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was arrested and later deported for criticizing the government’s treatment of undocumented migrants in an interview. Individuals are commonly charged and prosecuted under Section 233 of the CMA 1998 or the Sedition Act 1948. Fahmi Reza, a well-known graphic designer, has been investigated at least nine times by the police for his satirical artworks criticizing the government. Even a 17-year-old, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who exposed a male teacher on TikTok for allegedly making a rape joke in class, was served with a defamation suit and called on by the police to make a statement apologizing for “breaching the peace.” Ain also faced cyberbullying. During the pandemic, civil servants were barred from sharing online comments critical of the government.
In 2020, the Department of Community Communication (J-KOM) was awarded a budget of RM40 million. The opposition accuses J-KOM of being the government’s propaganda machine and of funding “cyber troopers” who are paid to create positive content for the government and ruthlessly criticize the opposition. It is also true that bots flood social media, spread disinformation, and engender further social polarization at the behest of the state.
In this environment, self-censorship is common in Malaysia. To make matters worse, the MCMC released a statement in January 2021 reminding internet users not to post anything offensive involving the “3Rs”: royalty, religion, or race.
The decolonization of British India in 1947 and its subsequent division into two countries, India and Pakistan, was a highly traumatic event that took millions of lives. In the over seven decades since, Pakistan’s politics has been very turbulent, with long periods of military-led dictatorships and hybrid regimes interspersed with a few short periods of democracy. The 2018 general elections brought a new party to power, but the military remains the most potent political force, and while this remains the case, the prospects of true democratization in Pakistan remain thin. After more than three years in power, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has largely failed, and misgovernance and corruption have increased. In a populist fashion, the last three years have seen increased curbs both in and out of cyberspace by the government as it seeks to consolidate its position in office.
The digital footprint of Pakistani citizens has drastically increased in the last decade, with cheap cellular and internet packages becoming available. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 98 percent of households own a mobile phone. In addition, there was a 17 percent growth in internet usage in just one year, with 90.1 million users recorded in October 2020. Despite this development, the future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall, is bleak in Pakistan due to the ever-increasing rules that control cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, the military establishment, backing the PTI government, has warned the public about “internal enemies” carrying out “fifth-generation warfare” online to justify the curbs.
Pakistan has a high rate of internet outages. Blackouts on social media and the internet are not uncommon in Pakistan. Since 2005, the state has used blackouts to restrict information from the public. There are three types of shutdowns. First, there are regular internet shutdowns on specific dates, primarily religious and national holidays, as the government argues that there is a greater likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. Second, there are regional shutdowns in areas where there is insurgency or threat of insurgency, such as border areas close to Afghanistan (merged districts, formally known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) and areas in Balochistan. Finally, there are local internet shutdowns, usually for a few hours when the government perceives a threat of terrorism or communal violence. Such shutdowns usually happen at times of protest. In 2012 alone, an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) were lost due to internet outages during Eid (a religious festival), and another 500 million rupees were lost during curbs designed to discourage Ashura processions, a Shia religious practice. Despite these mammoth losses, such blackouts are justified as necessary for “security.”
Long-term shutdowns are usually disciplinary mechanisms. Areas experiencing extended shutdowns are usually the ones where those that the state treats as “Other” tend to reside. Nevertheless, the latest annual report from the PTA has no information about the internet shutdowns.
The censorship of websites is one of PTA’s key activities. A hefty chunk of the blocked content is done so based on “indecency” such as pornographic websites and content that threatens Islam or the state. The exact number of websites blocked is unclear as PTA reports give contradictory numbers. They vary between 824,000 URLs to 418,139 URLs.This banning trend has escalated in the last four to five years.
In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published a report called “Anti-State Trends,” which highlighted websites and trends from June 2019 to August 2021 it considered “anti-state.” The report accused separatist movements, political opposition, critical Tweets, and India of colluding with separatists in waging a “fifth-generation warfare” against Pakistan. In reality, these movements are less “anti-state” and more critical of the present government. There are trends of blocking the websites lending support to these factions.
PTA is armed with legislation to ban the operations and content of intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and many more. It usually forces these companies to remove materials and restrict their content based on local laws and sensibilities. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies can be blocked.
One of the most famous episodes of this kind of censorship was when YouTube was banned in Pakistan in September 2012 after refusing to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie, “Innocence of Muslims.” The ban continued for more than three years. During this time, the National Assembly passed a non-binding but unanimous resolution to lift the ban, and courts also ordered negotiations, but the ban was not lifted till 2016. More recently, TikTok has been a target of repeated bans because of its potential to “corrupt” and “misguide” the youth due to its dance dub mashes, pro-LGBTQ+ content, etc. In addition, it has become a routine matter to suspend messaging applications on social media during times of protests or huge processions. The big social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not completely banned nowadays, but they continue to be banned for very short periods as a “security measure.” For instance, in April 2021, a major social media blockage was put in place when the militant religious organization Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) carried out protests in Punjab.
On the pretext of stopping fake news and criminal activity, the PTI government enforced the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content in 2020. This highly problematic regulation compelled the Asia Internet Coalition to write an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to condemn the measure and its consequences. These regulations demand that big tech firms open a local office in Pakistan, mandate storing Pakistani users’ data within the country and oblige companies to remove content when ordered. The near future will indicate the degree to which this law has been instrumentalized.
Over the years, Pakistan has earned the title of a “surveillance state.” The “war on terror” alliance with the United States allowed Pakistan to enhance its surveillance capabilities with modern standards. As a result, a mass surveillance network has been built in Pakistan since 2005, with the government obtaining technology from both local and foreign surveillance companies, such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8, and Utimaco, to use against its citizens. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and feminists, among others, now suffer at the hands of this well-designed apparatus.
Through content monitoring and interception, social media have led to cases of enforced disappearances and harassment of journalists and human rights activists who have used platforms, such as Twitter or YouTube, to challenge state narratives and criticize the state. In addition to the “establishment” (i.e., the nexus of politicians and the military), the PTI’s online followers are known for harassing anyone from opposition leaders to journalists critical of PTI facing cyberbullying at their hand. These insults are highly derogatory, and chauvinistic sexism is rampantly used to target women victims. In addition, those who oppose the army, take a positive stance vis-à-vis India or show “liberal” tendencies also encounter similar hostility in online space. Despite the explicit abuse, to date, there are no records of actions taken to curb this bullying under cybercrime laws.
A glimmer of hope was visible for democracy in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the odds by defeating the Kemalist hegemony in Turkish politics.With peace-building processes to reconcile with historically marginalized communities, reforms to improve human rights, and a commitment to join the European Union (EU), the odds of democratization seemed promising when the AKP came to power.
However, after 2010, the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian path. The narrative of the ruling government instils fear and insecurity to legitimize growing authoritarianism. These changes that increasingly curb dissent, criticism, and muffle debate are present both on and offline. Since 2016, 150,348 individuals have been dismissed from office, with 500,650 being criminally investigated, with 96,885 arrested, while 3,003 educational institutions and facilities closed, 6,021 academics have been driven out of their jobs, 4,463 legal professionals such as judges and prosecutors have been terminated, 319 journalists arrested, and 189 media outlets completely closed. In addition to massive crackdowns, it is common for the state to use military custody, and various people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, both inside and outside the country, without reasonable evidence in many cases.
By 2020, cyberspace had become an essential space of resistance in Turkey. Between 78 and 82.6 percent of the total population uses the internet. In addition, some 54 million people, 64 percent of the total population, use various forms of social media, with the average time spent on the internet per day averaging 7 hours and 57 minutes in 2021. Turkey’s digital realm is thus a highly contested political space. It is, thus, not surprising that the digital realm has been meticulously regulated and increasingly surveilled by the AKP government through various measures.
The Gezi protests in 2013 marked the beginning of internet closures to curb the ability of civil society and activists to organize in Turkey. The aftermath led then Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan to label Twitter the “worst menace to society.” What followed was a marked increase in internet governance. Internet blackouts are one of the many ways of controlling the space, and the newly formed Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK) looks over these procedures. While the government insisted that internet curbs are in place to combat “terrorism,” there was also a political motivation behind some of these.
The Turkish government’s internet shutdowns peaked between 2015 and 2017. The eastern regions faced the major brunt of internet and cellular shutdown during this period. During high-risk security incidents, such as the 2015 Suruç suicide bombing and the 2016 Atatürk Airport bombing, localized internet and cell phone blocks were put in place. With the government’s growing authoritarian approach, digital anti-terrorism laws are increasingly used to persecute marginalized groups such as the Kurds. Most shutdowns have occurred in the southeast, where Kurdish resistance is firmly grounded. One example was the 2016 landline and internet closure in 11 cities in the region with 6 million citizens devoid of access following the arrests of the mayor and co-mayor of Diyarbakir, which led to protests. Additionally, these internet shutdowns cost millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Even though internet shutdowns have decreased from six in 2016 to only one in 2020, the cost is still high, at US$51 million in 2020.
The political climate in Turkey has given birth to many “threats” manufactured by the AKP government, such as “FETOists” following 2016, demonizing youth activism during Istanbul’s Bogazici University events of 2021 or the Gezi protests along with pre-existing hostilities toward minorities.
Human rights organisations have reported that the right to privacy online and offline in Turkey has been increasingly under threat. In April 2014, Turkey passed a new law that expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) that was given sweeping powers to amass private data, documents, and personal information in all forms without a court order. Working in tandem, the BTK and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) have targeted pornographic websites, weblinks belonging to armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and since 2016 have targeted sympathizers of the Gülen movement, and LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish voices.
In addition to the lack of transparency, since the website owners do not always receive clear reasons for blocks, they cannot appeal the decision. Without accountability, mere suspicion and precaution are considered sufficient reasons to block a website. From just four websites being blocked in 2006, the number jumped up to 1,014 in 2008 when Law No. 5651 was initially introduced, a dramatic annual rise was visible in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with respective annual blocks of 19,715, 36,287, 27,812, which coincided with the Gezi protests, the corruption exposés and a wave of terrorism in Turkey. From 113,137 websites blocked in October 2016, the number more than doubled in three years to 288,310 in December 2019. Similarly, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 Tweets have been banned in Turkey during 2020. While this pace of blockage has slowed down, the laws in place still play a key role in regular surveillance of websites that are taken down in thousands on an annual basis. Even information platforms such as Wikipedia faced a ban in Turkey when Ankara’s 1st Criminal Court found that certain articles linked Turkey to “terrorist organizations.” The court demanded that relevant articles be edited before the website could function again in Turkey. The ban was lifted in 2020.
Social media intermediaries in Turkey have faced various types of restrictions. It was reported that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all temporarily blocked or throttled in 2016 until they agreed to remove “objectionable” content. Even as early as 2014, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) was mobilized to urge Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to remove critical information that was impacting the AKP’s chances in the future local elections. While Facebook was quick to comply, Twitter and YouTube were blocked nationally for several hours before they eventually complied. Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals. Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.
In addition to social media, the search engine Google has since complied with the thousands of content removal requests by the Turkish state, which peaked in 2016. The government has further cemented its hold on these entities by allowing them incentives to open data centers in Turkey that are obliged to follow Turkish laws under Decree-Law No. 678. Moreover, over-the-top media services (OTTs), such as Netflix, PuhuTV, and BluTV, are now regulated by BTK, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issues mandatory licenses to OTTs before they can stream content in the country. In October 2020, Law No. 7253 with harsher requirements for social media companies was introduced. The impact of this new law is still to be seen.
While keeping pressure on social media, the Turkish government has also kept the prosecuting individuals for their internet activity open. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, many people faced the government’s wrath. Six months after the coup, the Ministry of Interior stated that more than 10,000 individuals were investigated, 3,710 faced some legal action, and 1,656 people were arrested for their online activity. More recently, in the two months between mid-January and mid-March 2018, 6,342 social media accounts were investigated, and 2,177 individuals were subjected to legal action. Another report states that, between 2013 and 2018, there were more than 20,000 cases against citizens because of their social media activity. They are sometimes indicted under “terrorism” under Article 314(2) on association with an armed organization and Article 147(5), which concern crimes associated with terrorist organizations and aims.
Essentially limiting space for AKP opposing voices has left a void for healthy debate, and pro-AKP voices tend to dominate physical and digital space. In a blunt move during May 2020, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications warned Turkish citizens that even liking or sharing a post could lead to trouble. Journalists, scholars, opposition leaders, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government are more likely to face prosecution. A large number of arrests has a chilling effect and has given rise to self-censorship. Law No. 7253 not only asserts control over social media companies, it also makes individuals using social media ever more vulnerable to the legal system as “the legal or natural person who facilitates its users to create, view, and share content such as text, image, sound, or location to enable social interaction” are open to scrutiny.
While the AKP is also blocking users from digital space, there is also a parallel attempt to leave AKP trolls quite ungoverned as they indulge in cyberbullying. Academics, journalists, and artists who have criticized AKP have found themselves attacked under a culture of “digital culture of lynching and censorship” by the AKP army of trolls. A significant number of trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It has been reported that these individuals receive regular payments, and there are also traces that pro-AKP networks further provide benefits to successful trolls, which include entities such as TRT and Turkcell. In addition, AKP has used bots to boost its presence in the digital space, leading to its narrative overrepresentation on online platforms. It was revealed that on a daily average, some 26.7 percent of the top ten trends of Twitter were made by fake accounts or bot trolls. In the same year, the highest impact of these accounts led them to constitute 47.5 percent of the top five Twitter trends.
Religious leaders and movements wield influence, leading to pressure on governments in how they govern digital space. These curbs are justified in civilizational terms, drawing on various themes, including morality, religion, nationalism, and the like. Consequently, many rationales are provided on religious–nationalist lines for cyber governance.
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) has attempted to facilitate self-censorship on two occasions. In 2017, the MUI issued Fatwa No. 24 of 2017 to guide Muslim interactions online, prohibiting the spread of hoaxes. Previously, in 2016, the MUI’s branch in Central Sulawesi prohibited married Muslim women from uploading their photos online. It was believed that such acts could “have negative impacts on the individual and their families.” These groups also drive movements that claim to make one a better Muslim with trending hashtags such as #antiselfie, #indonesiatanpapacaran (literal meaning: Indonesia without dating)—this movement advocates singles marrying without courting in advance—as well as #hijrah and #akhwatbercadar (meaning, veiled Muslim ladies).
While highly diverse culturally, Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority. Since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, Islam has been institutionalized within the state apparatus. Consequently, the administration of cyberspace involves justification that has Islamism logic. The MCMC has been deliberating censoring Netflix shows with themes of nudity, sex scenes, and LGBTQ+ content on the platform. Politicians and the government also condemn fake news and justify internet curbs, especially through self-censorship. The ministry deems “fake news” as “fitna” (slander). A religious term is thus instrumentalized to target opposition and critical groups.
In Pakistan, the narrative has become dense in terms of justifying cyber security. In addition to claims that online spaces promote “fifth-generation warfare” against the country by foreigners, religious justifications are being used for cyber governance. The 2020 law has excessively focused on preserving “decency and morality” and promoting “Islamic culture” as opposed to “Western rock and roll” culture. Thus, around 95 percent of the websites banned in 2019 were because of religious reasons.
The Erdoğan regime has always focused on raising a “pious youth” as part of its ideological program. Typically adopting religious connotations in his language, Erdoğan has repeatedly delegitimized public demonstrations against the government, from the Gezi protests in 2013 to those at Bogazici University in 2021, arguing these are Western ploys to bring down the country. Using the same rhetoric that Western values are “corrupting” the youth, AKP trolls have targeted LGBTQ+ communities online. While it has never been illegal to be gay in secular Turkey, the AKP has requested that TikTok’s local moderation ban LGBTQ+ content. “Cleaning up social media” platforms of “questionable” advertisements from Twitter, Pinterest, and the Turkish PeriscopeCo are quite common. This prevents LGBTQ+ and other opposition forces from generating advertisement-driven revenue from the platforms that support them. The anti-queer “moral” jihad also saw Netflix pressured to cancel a Turkish series with an LGBTQ+ storyline.
In 2011, the government ran a “Safe Use of the Internet” campaign, which mandates that organizations offering public internet access (e.g., libraries, cafes) use a Turkish-built filter called the “family filter.” Essentially designed to block foreign and domestic sites containing adult content, the law was positioned to safeguard young children from age-inappropriate content. By 2017, the BTK had blocked some 1.5 million websites in areas such as cafes and refuses to share a list of the websites it blocks.
Interestingly, religious leaders and popular figures that hold power to sway public opinion have a paradoxical stance toward the internet. In countries where they warn against the “evils” of cyberspace, they use the same space to communicate their messages to followers. Of course, each country differs in this regard, yet overall, these religious figures seem to hew close to the line of populist governments and find justifications for the authorities’ authoritarianism.
Religious leaders in Malaysia have usually not taken any firm position regarding restricting online freedom. Instead, they encourage self-censorship to avoid invoking the wrath of God. The highest order of muftis via fatwas have permitted social media usage, but it is deemed prohibited when the platforms are used for actions such as calling someone a bad name, insulting and degrading others, betraying and lying, slander, and malicious gossip. In a less centralized manner in 2014, two muftis, in vain, urged the National Fatwa Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, to release a fatwa prohibiting conversation through social media or messaging apps between unmarried men and women.
In India, beyond religious leaders, Bollywood celebrities have also played a key role in adopting the Hindutva ideology and defending the BJP’s questionable actions. The most prominent of them is Kangana Ranaut. An active Twitter user with millions of followers, she has been suspended on the platform in the past for Islamophobic Tweets. However, since 2014, Ranaut has actively defended the BJP’s politics. Recently she declared that “India got freedom in 2014” (since Modi’s victory) rather than 1947. India’s vast entertainment industry, which influences millions of Indian citizens, has many pro-BJP voices both in front of and behind the camera, which give full support to the BJP, whereas those who question them face a massive backlash from RSS-affiliated online trolls.
In Pakistan, the religious political parties have never done well, politically never managing to gain more than 10 percent seats in general elections. However, religious movements such as TLP that advocate for severe blasphemy punishments and right-wing clerics such as Maulana Tariq Jamel, Farhat Hashmi, and late Dr. Israr Ahmed have millions of followers on their social media. Ironically while they use these platforms actively, these individuals have repeatedly warned against the “dangers” of “Western technology” and have expressed concern over “anti-Islamic” sentiments of “misguided” liberal youth and Westerns.
Internet governance is also justified by pro-government religious institutions and scholars in Turkey. During the last two decades, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the centralized religious authority, has provided faith-based explanations to back Erdoğan’s moral crusade against the “external” and “internal” enemies. For example, in 2016, the “Social Media and the Family in the Context of Privacy” forum was held to guide Turks on building strong Muslim families, including the rights and responsibilities of each member to avoid the dangers of social media. The President of Diyanet at the time, Mehmet Gormez, directly targeted social media in his opening speech. More recently, Diyanet has published a booklet, “Social Media Ethics,” which advocates for stronger control of the realm and the use of Islam as a yardstick. Ali Erbas, the current president, often uses his bully pulpit to promote pro-AKP stances. His inflammatory comments on LGBTQ+ youth “spreading HIV” became a polarized Twitter debate. Erbas has also used his Twitter to participate in AKP-led political campaigns highlighting Islamophobia. In 2021, a Twitter post targeting Islam by far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders led top AKP leaders and Erdoğan himself to criticize the Dutch firebrand, and Ali Erbas was also found following the trend of condemning Wilders.
Beyond Diyanet, a host of pro-AKP Islamic scholars have echoed similar narratives. These figures include a close AKP circle of individuals such as Nihat Hatipoglu, a TV show host, and Hayrettin Karaman, a columnist, both Islamic scholars. They use these mediums to sow the idea that social media is full of misinformation targeting Turkish national interests, and it harbors the ability to mislead youth. Karaman has gone as far as publishing a highly emotive poem in his column that warns readers of the dangerous pull of capitalism and immorality of social media, while Hatipoglu has issued a so-called “tele-fatwa” warning of ethical ways of exchanging messages between unmarried women and men.
Faith being a highly emotive subject, once instrumentalized, it seems to hold power over millions. Our case studies show that populists have a nuanced approach that creates a moral or religious crisis. Consequently, they justify their authoritarianism as means to “save” “the people.” These real-life realities are echoed online and, for many, lead to serious consequences such as losing personal safety and possible legal prosecution.
There is no blasphemy law in India, but hate speech is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. However, rather than formal punishment targeting minorities (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs), it is common for the BJP and its pundits to encourage or overlook the questionable acts of the pro-Hindutva “cyber volunteers.” In the country, 87.4 percent of fake news spreads via social media, which sometimes results in communal rioting or targeting harassment and killing of individuals accused of consuming beef known as “cow lynching.” Most events of mob killing by BJP representatives have been dismissed or have led to blatant victims blaming who “asked for it” because of their “hurtful” actions.
In other regions, explicit blasphemy laws are in place that permit curbs on freedoms online. In Indonesia, blasphemy is covered by Articles 156 and 156(a) of KUHP (criminal code) and in the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965) on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. As outlined in Article 156(a), those “who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuse or defame a religion recognized in Indonesia,” face a maximum of five years imprisonment. When an online video of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), a Chinese Christian, discussing Qur’anic verse surfaced during his election campaign in 2016, Ahok was charged and later sentenced to 20 months in prison for insulting Islam. It led to the end of his political career. In 2021, an Indonesian Christian preacher landed in hot water after uploading a video stating that he was the “26th Prophet,” while in Europe, Interpol’s assistance was sought to extradite and trial him. Unfortunately, this encouraged some clerics to demand the “head” of the accused. Additionally, the pornography law has been used to target the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the loose definition, the law aids in identifying “suspects” and sometimes leads to public humiliation such as being strip-searched, photographed, and forced to march naked into police vehicles.
Malaysia also has strict laws on blasphemy. Under the law, Sunni Islam is recognized, with Shiites, Ahmadis, and those from al-Arqam being “deviant.” There is evidence of groups spreading sectarian hatred. One such example is Gerakan Banteras Syiah, with more than 25,000 followers. The government has also suspended a Tamil-language daily for mistakenly printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette under the law. More commonly, the laws have been instrumentalized to target the LGBTQ+ community. There has been some discussion steered by the minister of religious affairs to regulate LGBTQ+ activity online, yet nothing has come out of it. There is no law against simply watching porn online in Malaysia, but the MCMC is active in blocking the websites, and in 2013, two persons who were charged for posting pornographic images of themselves on their blog were charged and tried.
Similarly, the colonial-era blasphemy law enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution is misused by right-wing clerics and movements both off and online. These groups have mainly targeted minorities and democratic voices. It is common for people to face imprisonment and, in the worst cases, be issued death sentences if their internet posts or cell phone messages show “questionable” remarks about Islam. While governments and political parties have stayed away from making anti- or pro-comments, the grassroots clerics and their movements have used cyberspace to pressure the state judiciary to target these individuals by running online campaigns.
While Turkey remains secular via its constitution, blasphemy charges have been made possible under a 2016 amendment to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). While no specific religion is mentioned in the legislation, it is usually used to “defend” Islam. For example, under the amended article, the pianist Fazil Say was tried and sentenced to a jail term for tweeting his skepticism over Islamic values, while actress Berna Lacin was charged with blasphemy for contesting capital punishment in a Tweet in 2018 (she was acquitted after two years). Also, two journalists were each handed two-year sentences for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo sketches satirizing Islam under the law in 2016. In 2020, Enver Aysever, a journalist, was arrested and charged for mocking clergy and their attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, people who shared the video of “Bella Ciao” being played in an Izmir mosque were also warned to take off the posts or otherwise face charges by Izmir’s Chief Public Prosecutor.
The countries that display direct targeting of minorities are mainly confined to India and Turkey. In the former, the hurried abrogation of Articles 35a and 370, in August 2019 from the constitution of India, the region of Kashmir administered by India, has witnessed one of the world’s worst forms of suppression of freedoms, lasting 213 days. The region alone accounts for 90 percent of internet shutdowns in the country. The curbs are justified as means of primitively controlling jihadist activity in Kashmir. Despite the crippling impact on tourism, healthcare, education, and the overall economy, the curbs continue. Between January 2012 and March 2021, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far. In Turkey, the internet shutdown that explicitly targets a region is based on ethnicity rather than religious conflict. Due to the prolonged conflict with the Kurdish community, the regions with Kurdish resistance pockets, as mentioned above, have faced the largest brunt of internet blackouts. However, like India, these are explained as measures to curb “terrorism,” whereas it is rooted in an ideological conflict between the Turkish state and the right of the Kurdish people to exist freely.
Change is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Once considered a Latin American issue or a rarity, the most recent wave of populism has resulted in a drastic global political transformation so much so that it looms large in two of the world’s largest democracies (the United States and India). Impressively, if worryingly, it has latched on to religion which has the power to mobilize crowds and cloud judgment regarding the capabilities of populists in power. This report has brought to light a unique aspect of this nexus between faith and populism, and it offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which events are taking place.
Religion and politics merge in each country to shape cyber governance. For most countries, the last two decades have been dominated by the introduction and rapid adoption of digital technology. Thus, there is still debate about where laws should and should not intervene. The wading of religion into politics in context, it has to be said, usually begins with the right intentions—to regulate cyberspace in the interest of citizens. However, over the years, both politicians and political movements have used relatively lax legal frameworks to their partisan advantage.
Nevertheless, partisan entities have exploited the law in an instrumentalized fashion to curb opposition, exert control, and use the space for growth in popularity. Most populist governments’ cyber governance politics mirror their offline undemocratic policies. For stakeholders outside the ambit of power, cyberspace allows them a medium of connection to spread their ideology. Ironically there is a love-hate relationship with social media. Most of these leaders organize and communicate with their followers using digital media, yet, at the same time, constantly warn against the “ills” of such platforms. Essentially, morality has been a common theme used by all stakeholders to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws. Moral panics about digital space simply juice up widespread anxieties and catalyze populist appeal while simultaneously acting as a curtain for their undemocratic actions.
Mirroring and interconnectedness of cybers and offline spaces in quite evident. Firstly, it is noteworthy that populists understand the value of digital space. Thus, in most cases, we notice an active monopolization of the realm that uses both religious and security-driven justifications to limit space for opposition and civil society and at the same time reclaim that space for themselves and their allies. With total control over an alternative space, populists replicate offline socio-politics there. Essentially, this sees populist authoritarianism migrate to the digital realm and also plays some role in shaping offline events such as the case of cow lynching in India or Tweets leading to trials under blasphemy laws in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
The future of democracies is highly intertwined with digital space. The narrative that plays a part in bringing a movement to life or aiding political victory is determined in this realm to a great degree. While the overall picture of free digital space seems precarious in the near future, on the other hand, the individual differences in each case study offer some hope that a move toward democracy might lead to a reconsideration of digital authoritarianism. However, the degree of social damage they are causing is hard to determine. Today Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment where they can hurl abuse without even physically seeing any consequences or feeling the victim’s plight.
IHSAN YILMAZ is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the European Center for Populism Studies (Brussels). He has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism (Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, India); securitization; “sharp power”; nation-building; citizenship; Islamism; ethnic-religious-political minorities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); Muslim minorities (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; Turkish politics; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; and intergroup contact (Australia). Professor Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008–2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001–2008), and was a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999–2001). He is the author of Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
RAJA M. ALI SALEEM is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
MAHMOUD PARGOO is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
SYAZA SHUKRI is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. She has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at [email protected].
IDZNURSHAM ISMAIL, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a Master in Strategic Studies and a First Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
KAINAT SHAKIL is a non-resident Research Associate at the European Center for Populism Studies. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. A large part of her work was qualitative research mapping to understand the public’s perceptions, feelings, reactions, and engagement with government policies and vice versa. Shakil also develops interactive cultural, historical, and political curricula for middle school pupils with a focus on inclusivity. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
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