Young activists participate in an opposition rally during the Ugandan presidential elections, organized by the FDC (Forum for Democratic Change), opposing the ruling party NRM in Mbale, Uganda on February 14, 2011. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa

Sithole, Neo; Nguijol, Gabriel Cyril & Micozzi, Martina. (2024). Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0056    

 

This report provides an overview of the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” which took place online on May 9, 2024. Moderated skillfully by Dr. Chipo Dendere, the panel included experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. They offered a comprehensive examination of the largely overlooked phenomenon of populism in Africa. Through their insightful presentations, the panelists analyzed the various forms and behaviors of populism on the continent, tracing its historical role as a galvanizer during anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its current impacts on social and political affairs. A common theme emerged: as both Africa and the globe witness a decline in democratic integrity despite the rise in populist movements, it is crucial to understand the complex roles populism plays—both beneficial and detrimental—in shaping local political landscapes.

Report by Neo SitholeGabriel Cyril Nguijol & Martina Micozzi

This report summarizes the second regional panel organized by the ECPS titled “Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy and Emerging Populism in Africa,” held online on May 9, 2024. Expertly moderated by Dr. Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who studies the factors that influence party survival and democratization in the developing world, the panel featured experts from Southern Africa, Central Africa, and beyond. Each provided a diverse look into the understudied phenomenon of populism on the African continent.

Dr. Dendere forwent an opening speech to dive straight into the presentations, allowing more time for discussions. The panelists examined various unique aspects of populism in Africa. In order of presentation, Dr. Henning Melber, Professor, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala; Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, gave an introductory overview of populism’s historical place in Africa, focusing on the narratives used by populist actors, particularly in Southern Africa.  Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, researcher and Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, explored the possibility of progressive populism in Africa. Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo, a political scientist specializing in international relations and strategic studies at the University of Yaoundé II, illuminated the relationship between populism and the challenges in African governance, emphasizing the tendency of populists to erode institutional stability.

Continuing the theme of governance from populism’s ‘supply side,’ Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh, an English law lecturer at the University of Bertoua, Faculty of Law and Political Science, discussed how government failures in services, welfare, and employment create fertile ground for populist support. Dr. Derick Fai Kinang, a Political Scientist, Jurist, Conflict Resolution Specialist, and Crime Expert with the Cameroon National Council of Crime Experts, reviewed how populist narratives further inflame hate speech and fuel societal divisions. Lastly, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, a senior lecturer at the University of Dschang, Cameroon, examined how African populist actors reinforce patriarchal norms, undermining women’s and girls’ rights and undoing decades of gender-based societal progress.

Through their insightful presentations, each panelist provided thorough analyses of the shape and behaviors of populism in Africa, from its historical role as a galvanizer and unifier during the continent’s anti-colonial struggles for self-determination to its contemporary impacts on societal and political affairs. A unifying thread emerged: as the continent, and indeed the globe, experiences growing democratic decline despite the rise in populist expression, it is vital to understand the multifaceted roles populism plays—both positive and negative—in shaping Africa’s local political realities.

Dr. Henning Melber: “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian, and Nationalist Trends in Africa”

According to Dr. Henning Melber, the populist parties in Africa frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic.

In the opening presentation, Dr. Henning Melber emphasized that populism in politics is far from a new phenomenon, despite the recent increase in scholarly attention likely driven by new communication technologies that enhance populism’s reach (such as ‘new media’ which are often effective tools for spreading populist messages). He pointed out that populism’s presence in the political sphere is not limited to African contexts. In reality, populist politics has manifested in various historical settings across numerous societies and ideological frameworks worldwide.

As is customary when discussing populism, Dr. Melber explained his understanding of the term. He stated that beyond its specific subjective content, which is typically context-dependent, populism operates through a distinctive kind of rhetoric that addresses the people simply and directly. According to Dr. Melber, populism gives people the impression that they matter, count, and are more important to the populist actors. He also noted that populist forms of mobilization are not necessarily despotic or authoritarian, as they are often perceived. Sometimes, populism can promote liberal democracy (either intentionally or deceptively) while remaining illiberal at its core.

Next, Dr. Melber shifted focus to populism in Africa, unpacking the behaviors and narratives of populist messages. In Africa, the transmission of populist messages often relies on personal appearances and face-to-face mobilization, highlighting a vital aspect of populism: the presence of leaders who personify populist policies and invite identification with individuals as much as with policy programs. Generally, there is a close affinity between forms of populism and strong nationalist-oriented forms of government and governance. Dr. Melber argued that this connection is rooted in the continent’s political history, where the fight for political self-determination cultivated strong nationalist tendencies that played a substantial role in nation-building. He further articulated that contemporary forms of populism on the continent are situated within established democracies, where populist figures mobilize against the establishment and appeal to the sentiments of those who are suspicious of the elites in the government.

To provide a mental picture of populist messaging and its relationship to Africa’s history of self-determination, Dr. Melber referred to former liberation movements in Southern Africa that now stand as the ruling parties in their respective governments, such as the African National Congress in South Africa and the South West Africa People’s Organization in Namibia. These parties frequently rely on the continued heroic narrative of former liberation movements, seeking to connect the electorate with the country’s past to legitimize the present political realities. They appeal to a still-present struggle against foreign domination, marketing themselves as the only true alternative and promise of a better future—a concept Dr. Melber labeled ‘retrospectively applied populism.’ Additionally, Dr. Melber articulated that outside of retrospectively applied populism, African liberation movements still retain a movement-like character while in government, often combining this with charismatic leaders and vivid individuals who make politics personal and immediate instead of remote and bureaucratic. 

 

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu: “Taming the Lion: On the Conditions of Possibility of a Progressive Populism in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially.

Our second panelist, Dr. Sergiu Mișcoiu, began by revisiting the centrality of nationalist-popular sovereignty for liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that many of these movements included authoritarian or even totalitarian components, whether from extreme ideas of Marxist-Leninism or ultra-nationalism. In this context, Dr. Mișcoiu posed the question, “Is progressive populism possible in sub-Saharan Africa?” and if so, what would its articulatory form and discursive contents be, and where would its main proponents emerge from?

Before answering, Dr. Mișcoiu unpacked how populism is understood in the context of his presentation. He explained that his understanding is derived from populism ‘discourse theory,’ built on the works of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Ranciere. Dr. Mișcoiu emphasized that populism can be defined not as an ideology but rather as a discursive register with a hegemonic vocation. Aligning with the general consensus, it is based on an “us vs. them” narrative, where on one side there is “the people,” who should align with populist leaders, parties, intellectuals, and those expressing demands for justice, redistribution, and morality. On the other side are the “non-people,” comprising the elites, the rich, foreigners, and minorities who are perceived as preventing the people from being themselves.

Progressive populism, however, was described as the virtuous articulation of the popular identity that includes all groups and individuals who were previously oppressed or marginalized, or as Ranciere calls them, “the part of no part.” Progressive populism is not devoid of exclusion; those excluded are the forces that prevent unity and democratic consistency among the people. In this case, progressive populism can be emancipatory, aiming at the economic and political empowerment of the people, as well as being liberal democratic, establishing a tolerant and inclusive participatory system of collective decision-making.

In setting the scene, Dr. Mișcoiu reviewed the evolution of populism across the continent, beginning in the 1950s with the first emancipatory anti-colonial platforms. He highlighted the 1960s wave of independence, which initially sparked societal enthusiasm but soon waned as democracy was sacrificed on the altar of Cold War alignments. This period led to the rise of populist movements under Marxist-Leninist or ethno-nationalist ideologies, culminating in the 1980s with the growth of authoritarianism and widespread political repression.

Having established a conceptual foundation of progressive populism and contextualized the historical background of African populism, Dr. Mișcoiu addressed his earlier question by examining the case of Senegal’s recently elected president, Ousmane Sonko. Sonko has exhibited aspects of progressive populism by advocating for a political platform rooted in deliberative democracy, social and economic progressivism, and a stance against elitism, corruption, stagnation, and neo-colonial dependence. His foreign policy prioritizes state interests over broader African values. However, Sonko’s platform falls short of being fully progressive due to its ambiguity around cultural and societal emancipation and its moral and cultural conservatism, particularly concerning women’s rights.

In closing, Dr. Mișcoiu shared results from research conducted in 23 sub-Saharan African states aimed at understanding the conditions necessary for the emergence of progressive populist movements. The findings revealed a generalized mistrust in existing leaders, perceived to be under Western influence, alongside support for movements focused on improving material conditions and removing current elites from power. Respondents emphasized the need for former colonial powers to fully acknowledge their historical responsibility and support development projects effectively and impartially. However, they also noted that while reconciliation and tolerance are essential, they cannot come at the expense of radical reforms. 

Conversely, these results also highlight more harmful aspects, such as support for populist movements rooted in essentialist ethno-religious traditions and skepticism about the sustainability of democracy in Africa. Some respondents advocated for strong leadership, order, and discipline as necessary guarantees of freedom. 

 

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo: “Populism and the Challenges of Democratic Governance in Africa”

According to Dr. Yogo, who examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa, these leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Edouard Epiphane Yogo’s contribution to the panel focused on the link between the rise of populism and the challenges of democratic governance in Africa. Dr. Yogo began by mapping the African political landscape, which he characterized by various challenges, including governance issues, socio-economic disparities, and post-colonial legacies. He noted a recent rise in populism in Africa, structured around charismatic leaders leveraging popular grievances to gain power. This trend has significant implications for democratic governance in Africa, shaping political discourse and influencing policy decisions.

Dr. Yogo noted that populism in Africa can be seen as a political movement emphasizing the interests and needs of the common people against those of established elites or perceived outsiders. Populism generally involves charismatic leaders employing discourses that appeal to emotions, identity, nationalist rhetoric, anti-elite sentiment, and promises of rapid changes or transformation, rather than rational policy solutions.

Dr. Yogo further explained that populism in Africa can be better understood through several factors, such as socio-economic and historical contexts. Persistent socio-economic inequalities foster the rise of populist discourses, as marginalized populations express their grievances. Corruption also plays a significant role, weakening trust in traditional political institutions and prompting people to seek alternative leaders who promise to eradicate corruption. Additionally, post-colonial legacies, including ethnic divisions and weak state institutions, exacerbate social tensions and provide opportunities for populist leaders to exploit identity politics.

Dr. Yogo also examined the strategies contributing to the success of prominent populist leaders in Africa. These leaders often employ nationalist rhetoric that emphasizes national pride and sovereignty, tapping into sentiments of patriotism to gather support. They capitalize on anti-elite rhetoric, portraying themselves as champions of the people against corrupt or out-of-touch political elites. Furthermore, populist leaders in Africa frequently promise simple solutions to complex issues, offering quick fixes to deep-seated problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate public services.

Dr. Yogo further discussed the consequences of populism on democratic governance in Africa. According to him, populism weakens democratic institutions, such as the separation of powers, which is essential for maintaining checks and balances within a democratic system. Populist leaders may attempt to consolidate power by undermining the independence of the judiciary, sidelining legislative bodies, and concentrating authority in the executive branch. They also contribute to political polarization and social fragmentation by framing political discourse in terms of “us” versus “them.” Populist leaders often appeal to a narrow segment of the population, fostering divisions along ethnic, religious, or regional lines. Additionally, populism impacts the rule of law and human rights by resorting to repression, such as the arbitrary detention of political opponents, censorship of the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression. 

To address the dynamics of populism in Africa, Dr. Yogo elaborated on several perspectives. He emphasized that African states should:

1.         Strengthen democratic institutions and inclusive governance:

– Promote the separation of powers.

– Guarantee the independence of the judicial system.

– Protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

2.         Promote transparency and accountability:

– Implement robust mechanisms such as oversight bodies and whistleblower protections.

– Rebuild citizens’ trust in the political system.

3.         Combat misinformation and political manipulation:

– Invest in promoting media liberty and critical thinking skills to empower citizens to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation.

– Promote collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and technological companies to combat misinformation and preserve the integrity of democratic elections and public discourse.

4.         Encourage citizen participation and political education:

– Facilitate access to information through transparent government communication channels and public forums.

– Foster dialogue and collaboration between government officials and citizens through public consultations and participation in decision-making processes.

In wrapping up, Dr. Yogo called for action to fight against populism in Africa. He emphasized that these actions should focus on preserving democracy and strengthening democratic institutions. He advocated for collaborative efforts between governments, civil society, and citizens to uphold democratic principles, protect human rights, and promote inclusive governance.

 

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh: “Democratizing Africa: Navigating Populist Trends, Building Trust in Institutions, and Promoting Stability through Inclusive Governance”

Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support.

In her presentation, Dr. Nchofua Anita Nyitioseh introduced the triangulation between populist trends, the strengthening of institutions, and the promotion of stability through inclusive governance. According to her, this triangulation renders the democratization process in Africa very complex and fragile. She outlined, much like Dr. Yogo, that populist leaders are often charismatic figures who exploit public disappointment with the status quo and challenge established institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh described populism in Africa as a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. She explained that populism manifests in various forms and ideologies but often involves simplifying complex issues and using emotional rhetoric to gain support. Dr. Nyitioseh highlighted this form of populism during the Kenyan elections in 2017, where President Uhuru Kenyatta used populist rhetoric to consolidate his power base.

During the field trip, Dr. Nyitioseh navigated the delicate situation surrounding the causes and consequences of populism in Africa. According to her, populism is driven by socio-economic inequalities, characterized by a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and reinforced by resentment toward elites perceived as indifferent to the struggles of ordinary people. She illustrated this by referencing the Gini coefficient in South Africa, which has been used to indicate significant income inequality between the elites and the general population. The Gini coefficient was around 0.63 in 2009, remained the same in 2022, and continues to reflect substantial disparities in income distribution in the country.

Corruption is also a significant factor in the rise of populism in Africa, as it weakens institutions and destroys public trust. Dr. Nyitioseh cited examples such as Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime’s corruption and mismanagement led to economic collapse, driving public disappointment and paving the way for populist movements. In Nigeria, widespread corruption among political elites favored support for populist figures like Muhammadu Buhari, who promised to tackle corruption. In South Africa, the ANC’s corruption scandals under Jacob Zuma’s presidency contributed to the rise of populist opposition parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Youth unemployment also creates fertile ground for populism in Africa, as disillusioned young people may turn to charismatic leaders offering simple solutions. Populist leaders often exploit these frustrations by simplifying complex issues and identifying scapegoats. While they may initially appear responsive to citizen concerns, their rhetoric can exacerbate social divisions and undermine democratic institutions. Dr. Nyitioseh illustrated this with the example of Julius Malema in South Africa, who gained popularity among unemployed youth by advocating for radical economic policies and land redistribution. In Nigeria, the “Not Too Young to Run” movement emerged partly in response to high youth unemployment rates, reflecting a desire for political change among the younger generation. A similar trend was observed in Zimbabwe with the creation of the “This Flag” movement, led by Pastor Evan Mawarire, who highlighted youth frustrations with unemployment and government corruption, calling for united support for change.

Dr. Nyitioseh then outlined the best strategies to combat populism in Africa. She emphasized the importance of establishing and consolidating the rule of law through the fair and impartial application of laws, regardless of social status. For instance, South Africa has undertaken constitutional reforms to strengthen institutions and uphold the rule of law, while Liberia has made efforts to reform its judicial system after the civil war. Ensuring that the judiciary is free from political influence is crucial in this regard.

She said Rwanda and Ghana have implemented robust anti-corruption measures, essential for promoting transparency and accountability, key elements of the rule of law. In Kenya, vibrant civil society movements advocating for legal reforms and accountability have contributed to a stronger rule of law. Dr. Nyitioseh also highlighted the importance of promoting human rights and fighting corruption as vital components in eradicating populism in Africa. Countries like Rwanda, Botswana, and Mauritius have established anti-corruption commissions to address these issues effectively.

Dr. Nyitioseh reminded us that African countries must promote good governance by empowering civil society and encouraging effective decentralization, as seen in Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia. She stressed the need for investing in mass education, as democratization in Africa is an ongoing process. In conclusion, Dr. Nyitioseh asserted that if African countries address the root causes of populism, foster trust in institutions, and promote inclusive governance, they can build more stable and democratic societies free from populism.

 

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang: “Populism Discourse and the Proliferation of Hate during Elections in Central African Sub-region.”

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during the election periods in Africa undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

Dr. Derick Fai Kinang’s presentation focused on the relationship between populist discourse and the proliferation of hate speech during elections in the Central African sub-region. He began by noting that populism has existed in Africa in various waves, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Dr. Kinang, one of the most dangerous waves emerged in the early 1990s with the advent of multi-party politics in Africa. During this period, the use of populist discourse became prevalent as rulers sought to conquer and exercise power.

Dr. Kinang referenced Danielle Resnick (2010) to highlight how the imposition of multi-party politics led to the adoption of populist strategies, often accompanied by hate speech, as a means to achieve and maintain power. This approach, he argued, has significantly impacted the political landscape in the Central African sub-region, contributing to increased tensions and undermining democratic processes.

Before delving into the intersection between populism and hate speech during elections, Dr. Kinang defined populism. Citing Jane Mansbridge and Stephen Macedo, he explained that populism involves the people in a moral battle against the elites. This dynamic, where political leaders using a populist approach encourage people to see their political engagement as part of this moral battle, can sometimes devolve into hate speech.

Dr. Kinang noted that there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech but often refers to the one provided by the United Nations. According to the UN, hate speech is “any form of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative and discriminatory language concerning someone’s religion, ethnicity, color, descent, nationality, gender, or identity factor.” In Dr. Kinang’s opinion, hate speech is any form of communication that attacks, discriminates against, or denigrates someone because of their background.

Furthermore, Dr. Kinang emphasized the significance of elections, highlighting their crucial role in understanding how populist discourse, particularly through the use of hate speech, manifests during election periods. Using Ewang’s (2008) definition, he stated, “elections can be considered as the mechanism by which power is given to certain individuals to govern the people.” Populist discourse, through the use of hate speech, has been a widely used political strategy to conquer and exercise power during elections in Africa, especially in the Central African sub-region. During the electoral calendar, political populism often reaches its peak during presidential elections.

Dr. Kinang highlighted the 2018 presidential elections in Cameroon as an example of deep national polarization. He pointed out that the use of ethno-tribal stereotypes and hateful clichés during these periods undermines social cohesion, fuels tensions, and can lead to conflict. He emphasized the need for reforms to promote justice, democratic values, and socio-economic development to counteract the harmful effects of populism and hate speech. By implementing these measures, societies can become more resilient and capable of discerning between populist and democratic ideologies, ultimately fostering sustainable peace and development.

 

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor: “The Protection of Female Rights and the Rise of Populism in African Democracies: A Need for a Reformed Society”

Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Panel’s last presenter, Dr. Ama-Ambo Chefor, focused her presentation on the challenging intersection between the protection of women’s rights and the rise of populism in African democracies. She divided the presentation into four parts, each highlighting populism’s implications on women’s rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Dr. Chefor began by defining populism, noting that while the concept can carry various meanings, she adopted a simpler approach, viewing populism as “the will of the people” and equating it with public opinion. By adopting this definition, Dr. Chefor aimed to illustrate how populism contrasts with traditional democratic representation. She described populism as a system where politicians or political leaders tend to depend on the will of the people, often against their representatives, whom they portray as corrupt.

Dr. Chefor raised the question of whether populism is legal or has legal backing. She noted that while populism appears to be legally supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly its provisions for freedom of expression and opinion, it raises doubts about its impact on society. Specifically, she pointed out that populism can either benefit or harm societal values, particularly by undermining the rule of law.

Subsequently, Dr. Chefor proceeded with the second part of her presentation, examining the rule of law and arguing that it is a system where law is supreme, and society should be governed by the statute of law. She emphasized that the rule of law is essential for maintaining societal order and ensuring gender equality, highlighting its incorporation into many African constitutions. For example, Dr. Chefor mentioned the Maputo Protocol, which protects women’s rights and sets a minimum age for marriage to prevent early marriages. Despite these legal frameworks, cultural norms and biases in Africa continue to suppress women’s voices, affecting their rights and status.

Dr. Chefor argued that these difficulties persist due to the advent of populism, which tends to reinforce traditional patriarchal beliefs that women should not have a voice or an opinion. This led to the third part of her presentation, where she addressed the implications of the failure of democracy. Dr. Chefor explained how populist tendencies can disrupt the rule of law, leading to failures in democratic processes. This disruption is evident in outdated or biased laws, such as those in Cameroon’s penal code before 2016, which reflected deep-seated societal biases that hinder gender equality and justice.

To counter these challenges, Dr. Chefor emphasized the need for accurate and necessary information for a successful society. An informed public can better navigate the challenges posed by populism and ensure the effective implementation of democracy and the rule of law.

ECPS-MGP12-China

Populist Authoritarianism in China: National and Global Perspectives

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0055      

 

This report provides a summary of the presentations delivered during the twelfth installment of ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” The event, held online on April 25, 2024, undertook a comprehensive examination of China’s dynamic political terrain. Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, adeptly moderated the panel, which featured a distinguished lineup of scholars. Each expert contributed unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism, drawing from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

By Christo Pretorius Radoslav Valev

The twelfth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives,” convened online on April 25, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of China’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism from diverse disciplinary lenses.

Dr. Steenberg initiated the discussion by contextualizing the rise of populism within China, tracing its trajectory over the past decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Highlighting themes of nationalism, surveillance, and internal suppression, Dr. Steenberg elucidated the complex interplay between populist rhetoric, state power, and societal transformation, emphasizing China’s assertive global posture and its implications for domestic governance.

Subsequent presentations delved into specific dimensions of China’s populist authoritarianism. Dr. Kun He, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Linguistics Group within the University of Groningen, scrutinized the intricate dynamics of populism within China’s socio-political landscape, delineating its manifestations and distinguishing features. Dr. Martin Lavička, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, illuminated the state’s regulation of religion under Xi Jinping, underscoring its implications for religious practitioners and broader societal dynamics. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen, elucidated China’s global populist endeavors through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unraveling its geopolitical implications and coercive strategies. Lastly, Dr. Yung-Yung Chang, Assistant Professor at Asia-Pacific Regional Studies at the National Dong Hwa University, explored the intersection of technology and populism, shedding light on China’s digital authoritarianism and its ramifications for global governance.

Through nuanced analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panelists navigated the contours of China’s populist authoritarianism, unraveling its complexities and global reverberations. As geopolitical landscapes continue to evolve, understanding China’s populist authoritarian trajectory assumes paramount importance, offering critical insights into the unfolding dynamics of global politics and governance.

Dr. Rune Steenberg: “Rise of Populist Authoritarianism in China”

Although the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Rune Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

The panel moderator, Dr. Rune Steenberg, started the session by stating that he has seen the rise of populist authoritarianism in China during his work as an anthropologist, which has allowed him to investigate the issue from a broader anthropological perspective. He indicated that populist authoritarianism in China has been on the rise for at least ten years, often connected to Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,’ certain forms of nationalistic propaganda, competition to the United States, which all coincided with internal suppression of individual rights, freedom of expression, and the expansion of surveillance. Dr. Steenberg also noted that there is a popular support for ‘imperial ambitions’ on Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang that is often hard for outside commentators to understand. 

Highlighting one strain of analysis, Dr. Steenberg notes that the use a Chinese historical perspective to explain China’s rise to power is often used – notably the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, which emphasized hiding one’s strength until become strong enough to assert oneself on the global scene. Commentators, such as Andre Gunder Frank, state that China is currently emerging from the shadows, a narrative often linked to the reversal of the ‘Century of Humiliation.’ In connection to this is China’s policies to go abroad, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its connection and cooperation with Latin American and African countries, and the framing of China as an anti-colonial power, all while furthering its own colonial policies in the process. 

Dr. Steenberg questioned how much of these policies come from grassroot elements compared to state elements. To frame this question, he indicated that there are certain reminders of the joint state and grassroot “Cultural Revolution” that can be found in the re-education camps in Xinjiang, which can be coupled with the breaking up of traditional society to the advantage of a modernization policy pursued by the Chinese government. Scapegoats, both internal and external, are a major part of populism, and in China modern scapegoats take on a different context than they did during the “Cultural Revolution,” especially as China becomes a major global power both economically and militarily. 

Although noting that the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

Dr. Kun He: “Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China”

According to Dr. Kun He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest against the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

To start his presentation, Dr. Kun He gave examples of successful populist campaigns across the world, stating that ‘populism’ itself is, however, a contested concept. He goes on to give examples used to define populism, including: the ‘pure people’ vs. the ‘elites,’ criticism of established power structures, and its rhetoric and left- and right-wing orientations. Because of the diverse understanding of what populism is, multiple approaches to its study can be found, including populism as an ideology, strategy, discourse, and social movement. Populism’s ability to adapt to changing political and socio-economic circumstances further makes it difficult to pin down an all-encompassing definition. 

Continuing, Dr. He demonstrates that in democratic countries populism often takes a top-down approach, with populist leaders acting as mediators in the name of the people against the elite. However, in China populism takes a more bottom-up approach, with grassroot movements often using collectivist languages – such as ‘we are the 99%.’ According to Dr. He, this difference of perspective is what was needed to pin down a more precise definition of populism, which, according to him, can indeed be understood as ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite.’ Within China, populism has adapted to fit a Chinese context. By using the anonymity of the internet, Chinese netizens can collectively express their grievances towards the government, which they perceive as corrupt elite with established power. A key characteristic of this approach to populism is that it is decentralized, unlike what is found in democracies. Populism therefore relies on spontaneous and collaborative efforts for collective actions such as disseminating contested information.

By using a video example of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, which itself is steeped in populist rhetoric, Dr. He demonstrated how Trump managed to tap into a general feeling of discontent that many voters felt – the political system was broken, and the government was not serving the people. He goes on to discuss generalities in western populism: a vertical axis of power, and a horizontal axis of boundaries. Modern democratic theory proposes that legitimacy of political power rests on the ‘sovereign people,’ which is why populist leaders can argue that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. The populist leader therefore represents this will against the corrupt elite who have leading positions in every aspect of society. The ‘people’ is also, therefore, an inclusive and exclusive concept, and contributes to the ambiguity of where the line can be drawn between elites and the people. Dr. He highlights that on larger scales of investigation ‘the people’ should therefore be seen as a united abstract construct. 

According to Dr. He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

Dr. Martin Lavička: “Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping’’

Dr. Martin Lavička emphasized that the Chinese government regards religion with suspicion, fearing its potential exploitation by foreign entities to undermine central authority. Consequently, China pursues a strategy of “dereligionizing” religious practices and restructuring religious institutions to conform to the CCP’s centralized control. These regulatory efforts are geared toward preserving the dominance of communist ideology and preempting both internal and external challenges to the party’s power. Moreover, China not only seeks to exert control over religion but also aims to leverage it for its own strategic advantage.

Dr. Martin Lavička began his presentation by arguing that the steady rise of religious believers in China not only poses a significant challenge but also an opportunity for the central government’s leadership. Therefore, the purpose of the presentation was to uncover the Chinese regulatory policies aimed at religious practitioners in China.

Dr. Lavička stated that the Constitution of the Chinese People’s Republic (CPR) prohibits any discrimination based on nationality or religious affiliation. Furthermore, as part of the UN Security Council, China should have a leading role in promoting the UN Bill of Rights. Despite these legal obligations, independent observers such as UN bodies or NGOs have consistently found a more troubling reality regarding religious freedom in China. What is reported specifically is the mistreatment of Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjian Autonomous region). In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office concluded that China might be responsible for committing crimes against humanity. However, it seems that the strategy of blaming and shaming someone to make them comply with international obligations does not work, especially when it comes to global powers such as China. 

According to Dr. Lavička, even though the majority of the media attention goes to the Muslim Uyghurs, that does not mean that the other religious groups in China are free from oppression and control. The religious restrictions from the Chinese government have intensified since Xi Jinping took office. However, Chinese leaders have not really changed their attitude since the 1980s. Document 19 which was published in 1982 from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stated that religion is a tool for oppression by feudalists and capitalists and the eradication of religion in China would be a lengthy process. However, it appears that the Xi Jinping administration would like to accelerate that process of eradication. In 2016, in a conference relating to religious affairs, Xi Jinping stated that CCP members must consolidate their believes and remain unyielding Marxists and atheists which stands in contrast to the Chinese Constitution and religious freedom. 

Dr. Lavička further argued that the Chinese government views religion with suspicion and believes that foreign forces could use it to undermine the power of the central government. Therefore, the government believes that religion should obey and respect the CCP and adapt to the path of the so-called Socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also signified by the decision to incorporate the State Administration of Religious Affairs to the United Front Work Department which shows that the CCP wants greater control over religious affairs. However, China not only wants to control religion but also use it for its own benefit. 

According to Dr. Lavička, China has been increasingly attempting to regulate the religious institutions. One of the most important objectives is to ensure that the religious teachings do not undermine the party’s ideology. This means that the religious personnel are carefully selected to convey the right ideas to the religious followers. However, the central government is not only concerned with the religious content and the religious personnel’s loyalty but also with the materialization of the foreign influence. For example, the ban of religious attire such as the head coverings of Muslim women or the removal of architectural features of religious venues such as the domes and minarets of mosques. The central government views those features as bearing foreign influence and undermining the Chinese characteristics. 

Dr. Lavička concluded his presentation by examining the future trajectory of religion in China. He underscored China’s ongoing efforts to “dereligionize” religious practices and reshape religious structures to align with the CCP’s centralized administration. The regulatory measures implemented aim to safeguard the primacy of communist ideology and preempt internal and external challenges to the party’s authority. Ultimately, these initiatives seek to ensure that China’s purported 200 million religious adherents do not place any authority above that of the CCP.

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk: “Unveiling China’s Global Populism – Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative”

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

At the outset of his presentation, Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk began by arguing that populism is defined by the enhancement of people’s representation in politics. Therefore, when discussing populism, there is an electoral and competitive aspect wherein the balance of power can shift due to both fair and unfair elections. However, this paradigm does not apply in China, given its one-party system, ensuring the perpetual dominance of the CCP. Consequently, discussing populism in China poses challenges. To effectively analyze the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a shift in perspective is required, moving from national populism to transnational populism.

In the transnational populist approach, the national citizens are replaced with transnational citizens and the national elite with transnational elite. Furthermore, the unit of analysis is on a global scale rather than the national level. There has been one such political effort in Europe, namely the political movement of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He wanted to construct a transnational left-wing project with the objective to democratize Europe which would decouple Europeans from their national identities and towards a European one. This European society would vote in European elections and would have a European constitution that would represent them. 

However, Dr. Ozturk aimed to adopt the approach of transnational populism and apply it to China, particularly within the context of the BRI. In this scenario, the ‘elite’ would encompass the capitalist West, namely the US and Europe. China employs critical rhetoric against global corporations and designates them as scapegoats. Additionally, China selectively critiques Western multilateral organizations, highlighting the absence of Chinese representation within them rather than acknowledging their status as global institutions.

Dr. Ozturk argued that there was a principal-agent problem, claiming that China criticizes the global economy and its principal institutions, however China was benefitting from those to a large extent and saw great success because of them. Therefore, it is not clear who China is blaming in terms of global elites. In terms of defining the transnational people, the Chinese approach also fails to conceptualize this idea. China does not advocate globally for the interest of the masses and its diplomacy is based on a state-to-state approach. 

In general, said Dr. Ozturk, China advocates for sovereignty and independence in the international affairs of each state while also promoting collaborative globalization through the BRI. China endeavors to shape discourse around a “global community with a shared destiny and harmonious society,” advancing a win-win nation-state approach encapsulated by “One Belt, Many Recipes.” The BRI stands out for its cooperation model, lacking clear-cut rules and established institutions like Western multilateral organizations. Instead, it operates through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), offering a flexible framework subject to continuous negotiations and adjustments.

The BRI primarily focuses on projects in extraction, construction, and transportation. However, the complexity and scale of these endeavors, coupled with government involvement and opacity, create opportunities for skimming, corruption, and money laundering. As authoritarian governments seek to benefit from the BRI, they often compromise their sovereignty, undermining their administration and ultimately harming global citizens.

In conclusion, Dr. Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang: “The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order”

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang highlights China’s ambition to become a cyber superpower, noting its persistent efforts to regulate the digital space. China has promoted the “Digital Silk Road,” aimed at establishing digital infrastructure along the BRI participants and promoting Chinese tech giants. This initiative underscores China’s leadership in a novel form of digital governance, where digital technologies serve both economic advancement and the extension of political power. Consequently, the distinction between Chinese companies’ pursuit of commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of strategic objectives has become increasingly blurred. Some Chinese firms have received subsidies from the central government and collaborated on projects related to military and security.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang’s presentation centered on delineating the intersection of technology and populism. Dr. Chang initiated by categorizing scholars’ perspectives on the crisis of the liberal world order into two camps. The first group perceives the crisis as temporary, advocating for the continued importance of US rule and influence to uphold the liberal order. Conversely, the second group contends that the crisis has persisted for an extended period and has undergone substantial transformation. According to this perspective, the liberal world order is irreversibly altered and unlikely to revert to its previous state. In this context, China’s influence emerges as pivotal, as a major power dissatisfied with the current global order and actively seeking to reshape it.

Dr. Chang specifically aimed to examine China’s impact on the digital order within the broader context of its emerging influence. The primary concern surrounding the new digital order revolves around whether it will bolster people’s freedom or amplify autocratic influence. Consequently, two main discourses emerge. On one hand, the liberal digital order posits that digital technologies can promote democratic values, freedom of expression, and individual autonomy. On the other hand, digital authoritarianism contends that digital technologies enable governments to exert control over their populace, manipulating and disseminating disinformation. In this narrative, state security and stability take precedence over internet freedom.

In China, according to Dr. Chang, we can already see upcoming ambitions that the country wants to become a cyber superpower. China has been attempting to continuously regulate the digital space. Furthermore, there has been the promotion of the so-called Digital Silk Road which establishes digital infrastructure along the participants of the BRI and promotes Chinese big digital companies. China has been the leader of a new form of digital governance where digital technologies not only advance the economy but also serve as a tool to extend political power. Therefore, the line between the pursuit of Chinese companies towards commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of achieving strategic objectives has been blurred. Some Chinese companies have been subsidized by the central government and have worked together on projects relating to military and security. Therefore, digital technologies can also be used for the advancement of military hardware and not only for economic advancement. 

Dr. Chang’s research delved into the case of Huawei’s “safe city” project, designed to enhance urban safety and reduce crime rates. Participating cities typically share similar characteristics: they are located in Asia or Africa, exhibit limited political liberalism, and fall within the lower-middle income bracket. This underscores China’s influence in establishing a digital authoritarian paradigm. The rationale behind Huawei’s safe city initiative is straightforward. Cities facing public order challenges and high crime rates demand solutions, prompting Chinese companies to offer digital technologies as a remedy. These companies are particularly attractive to states due to their ability to provide enhanced capacity and legibility.

A notable case study is Huawei’s sponsored safe city project in Nairobi, Kenya. In response to the city’s high crime rate, thousands of cameras were installed throughout the urban area to collect and transmit information to local law enforcement agencies. However, despite these efforts, there has been no significant reduction in the crime rate. Additionally, the absence of data protection laws in Kenya raises concerns about the relationship between the government and its citizens, potentially exacerbating tensions.

In conclusion, Dr. Chang asserted that the safe city project should be examined from both demand and supply perspectives, as China did not impose these technological assets on participating countries. Moreover, Dr. Chang contended that deploying surveillance technologies does not necessarily lead to the advancement of authoritarian leadership. Looking ahead, this digital order has the potential to facilitate not only authoritarianism but also democracy. However, it’s crucial to recognize that liberal and authoritarian digital ecosystems cannot coexist indefinitely within the same environment. Political leaders must make a decisive choice between the two paradigms. 

Symposium

The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power 

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo; Pretorius, Christo; Valev, Radoslav; Guidotti, Andrea & Duman, Hilal. (2024). The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 28, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0055     

 

ECPS’ Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power, conducted online from March 19-20, 2024, raised the question of whether populist policies are contributing to a new wave of illiberal world order, marked by economic protectionism and political isolation. The symposium also aimed to explore the mechanisms that bolster the resilience of populist movements and the implications of their actions for the advancement of a necessary new-generation globalization.

BNeo SitholeChristo Pretorius, Radoslav ValevAndrea Guidotti Hilal Duman

Introduction 

The evolving dynamics of multipolarity and the shifts in global power dynamics have cast shadows on the relevance, legitimacy, and effectiveness of established international cooperation platforms, such as the UN, G-20, World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO, and WHO. Concurrently, the rise of initiatives such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by authoritarian and populist leaders, raises questions about their role in shaping the future of global governance. Thus, calls for reform of the post-war global governance architecture, often perceived as “weak” and “disingenuous,” have largely remained unanswered. These developments have far-reaching implications, impacting the ability to address global challenges such as climate change, food security, conflict resolution, and humanitarian crises. As a result, proxy conflicts, political oppression, terrorism, and displacement have triggered irregular and uncontrolled migration, contributing to the rise of far-right parties in developed nations. 

Meanwhile, populist leaders, often prioritizing arbitrariness and contingency over rule-based “multilateral” governance, have operated under the assumption that their actions bear no consequences. What’s concerning is that despite facing numerous economic challenges compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, several populist governments have managed to maintain their grip on power. In our increasingly fragmented world, characterized by diverse actors and factors, these leaders have devised alternative strategies to prolong their tenures, sometimes exacerbating systemic challenges. They have resonated with their constituents by attributing their failures to non-economic factors such as independence and sovereignty.

Hence, the objective of ECPS’ “Third Annual International Symposium on the Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power,” held online between March 19-20, 2024, was to question whether a new wave of illiberal world order, characterized by economic protectionism and political isolation, is perpetuated by populist policies. The symposium aimed to address the mechanisms reinforcing their resilience and the implications of their actions on the necessary new-generation globalization.

You can peruse the report, which comprises summaries of the presentations and speeches delivered throughout the ECPS’ two-day symposium.

Opening Session 

Irina VON WIESE, the Honorary President of the ECPS, delivered the opening speech, setting the stage for deliberations.  Dr. Barrie AXFORD (Professor Emeritus of Politics at Oxford Brookes University), delivered the first keynote speech of the symposium, exploring “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization.”

Opening Speech by Irina von WIESE 

The honorary president of the ECPS, Irina von Weise, opened the symposium by drawing the audience’s attention first to the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, both of which were successful full-scale populist campaigns. Von Weise added that as a result of these successes, we can not only expect a potential second term for Trump but also a record number of attacks on people’s freedom coinciding with a record number of elections across the world in 2024. According to her, human rights, including the right of freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and the freedom of the press, are the foundations of democracy but have come increasingly under attack across the world. Quoting a German saying, von Weise issued a stark warning: ‘Beware of the beginnings,’ for while countries like the UK and Germany have not reached the point where they have become totalitarian dictatorships like Russia, there has been an erosion of people’s rights. 

Using the UK as a case study, von Wiese highlighted that, in her view, the populist agenda amounts to an attack on democracy and the rule of law in Britain. She notes that Boris Johnson’s attempt in 2019 to see if a hold could be put hold Brexit was a crude assault on the democratic process but ultimately prevented by the UK Supreme Court. In response, the populist media and rhetoric vilified the Supreme Court as members of the ‘ruling elite’ whilst championing Johnson as defending the people since he only wanted to ‘get Brexit done.’ The second attack on the rule of law also came from Johnson’s government when they ignored the treaty, they had just signed with the European Union regarding the post-Brexit trade terms in Northern Ireland, damaging the UK’s international credibility. As a final example, von Wiese indicated that the threat of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights by Prime Minister Sunak, made in an attempt to appease the far-right wing, would also help enable a nationalist populist immigration policy. Underpinning all these attacks were populist tactics aimed at spreading disinformation, anti-elitist rhetoric, and fostering international polarization among the British people, pitting ethnicities, and religious communities against each other. However, von Wiese ended her speech on a hopeful note, expressing her belief that liberal democracy in the UK is resilient to such attacks. She emphasized that civic education would continue to immunize people against populist manipulation, and we should remain mindful of these beginnings, which often lead down a slippery slope.

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 1

Dr. Barrie AXFORD: “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization”

Dr. Barrie Axford’s keynote speech elaborated on the complex interplay between rising multipolarity, authoritarian populist governance, multilateralism, and globalization’s evolving nature. His paper has since been published in ECPS’ digital journal Politics & Populismhttps://doi.org/10.55271/pp0031.

Acknowledging the vastness of the topic and its diverse perspectives, Dr. Axford highlighted the current challenges facing the liberal international order, such as the rise of multipolarity, the retreat of multilateralism, and the resurgence of populism. After giving an overarching panorama of the scholarship, and his take on the policy world, he set the stage for a deeper exploration of these themes.

Dr. Axford’s comprehensive speech delivered a critical analysis of multilateralism within the framework of the liberal international order, exploring the ambiguity surrounding the concept of the liberal international order and multipolarity. The emergence of multipolarity and its implications for the existing world order was critical to understanding the use and abuse of the liberal order. Besides relatively more obvious challenges to liberal order from authoritarian powers like China and Russia, “the Western world” poses a threat to liberal values, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet, the growing calls for a more multipolar world order challenge the dominance of Western values and institutions as the existing liberal order relies on Western powers and institutions. 

According to Dr. Axford, tensions within the liberal international order include the coexistence of state sovereignty and liberal principles and the challenges of defining and implementing multilateral cooperation. Yet, the abuse of liberalism is complex. At this juncture, the rise of populism can be seen as a response to the globalized world’s interconnectivity and rejecting its borderless narrative. Populism represents a broader struggle between national and global imaginaries, signaling a shift away from neoliberal globalization narratives. 

Dr. Axford deepened his analysis of globalization and populism by discussing the evolving nature of security in the context of globalization. He referenced previous research on existential security and compared it with the current sense of volatility and insecurity, especially in wealthy countries. This shift in security perceptions contributes to the broader backlash against globalization. The digital world and technologies have contributed to globalizing crises and polarization. 

Observing a shift in individuals’ perceptions of security and existential certainty, Dr. Axford, classified this as part of the crisis of second modernity, which is characterized by increased awareness of risks and uncertainties in the contemporary world. Despite advancements in technology and knowledge, modern societies grapple with profound existential insecurities driven by factors such as declining real incomes, job insecurity, income inequality, environmental degradation, health crises, and perceived threats from immigration. These challenges fuel fears about survival and rights, leading to a resurgence of xenophobic, populist, and authoritarian movements.

This crisis of second modernity has led to a rejection of Western modernity and its associated neoliberal globalization narrative, manifesting in various forms such as anti-globalization, neo-statist rhetoric, and populist movements that seek to reclaim national identities and sovereignty. In this sense, populism is reactive to the perceived failure of reflexive modernization and the inability of institutions to address everyday challenges effectively.

Moving forward, Dr. Axford discussed the implications of globalization and digitalization for contemporary politics and society, commenting that the emergence of diverse forms of globalization challenges the hegemony of the West. Additionally, he emphasized the role of digitalization in reshaping global interactions, economies, and cultures, as it facilitates connectivity, and generates new social dynamics, power structures, and modes of governance. However, this coincides with concerns about surveillance, homogenization, and the erosion of human connections.

The concept of “multipolar globalization” was also discussed by Dr. Axford. This idea paves the way for alternative development and governance models globally, to him, especially as economic power shifts from the West to the East. Delving deeper into the interplay between populism, globalization, and the shifting dynamics of contemporary politics, Dr. Axford focused on the resurgence of “sovereignty” in contemporary politics, highlighting the idea of “sovereigntism,” which represents a longing for a more internalized version of sovereign power that emphasizes mutually exclusive territories and a retrenchment of the national dimension. However, Dr. Axford noted that sovereignty does not necessarily entail a complete withdrawal from globalization but rather seeks to fortify national identity and autonomy within the international system.

Dr. Axford next evaluated the effectiveness of the nation-state in addressing the challenges posed by globalization and populism. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a test of state capacity and resilience, challenging the perception of the state as a guarantor of security and well-being. Despite the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, Dr. Axford suggested that the nation-state remains a significant actor in global affairs, particularly in terms of resource management and governance.

Emphasizing the diversity and complexity of contemporary global politics, Dr. Axford argues against labels such as “global capitalism” or “neoliberal order” and emphasizes the need for critical descriptions that account for globalization’s diverse origins and temperaments.

Concluding, Dr. Axford stated that he views populism as a response to economic and cultural insecurities exacerbated by globalization and modernity and reflected on the implications of populism and insecurity for global politics. He acknowledged the deep-seated anger and polarization fueling populist movements but questioned the sustainability of radical solutions in the long term, suggesting that populism may be symptomatic of broader ontological, political shifts, reflecting a reconfiguration of identity and collective consciousness in response to global uncertainties.

Report by Hilal Duman

Panel 1: Interactions Between Multilateralism, Multi-Order World, and Populism

Moderated by Dr. Albena AZMANOVA (Professor, Chair in Political and Social Science, Department of Politics and International Relations and Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent), the first panel focused on: “The Interactions Between Multilateralism, The Multi-Order World, and Populism.” Dr. Stewart PATRICK (Senior Fellow and Director, Global Order and Institutions Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) opened the panel with a discussion titled “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of Global Governance.” Following him, Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC (Honorary Professor of International Development, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia; Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, Potsdam University, Germany) presented on “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism.”

Dr. Stewart PATRICK: “Reimagining Global Economic Governance and the State of the Global Governance” 

Dr. Stewart Patrick gave a speech on the crisis of neoliberalism and on whether it is possible to imagine a new model of global economic governance that is resilient, sustainable, and able to deliver essential global public goods. The starting point was the assumption that the neoliberal ideology has often failed to provide economic prosperity and political stability because of the financialization of the world economy. Additionally, shocks such as the financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resurgence of geopolitical conflicts, opened new avenues for major institutional change. In this sense, some governments started to renegotiate the terms of their integration within the global economy, particularly as they try to reassert their sovereignty. 

According to Dr. Patrick, different from the past, prominent critics are coming from former supporters of globalization, such as the United States, and the increasing conviction that the major institutions for global economic governance are not fit any more for their purposes, as they are unable to represent shifts in power relations around the world. While certifying these developments, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the Managing Director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, referred to the need for a new ‘Bretton Woods moment’ to restore the social bargain among international actors. 

To fulfil the outlined purposes, the Dr. Patrick remarked that we need new rules and institutions, and a narrative that sustains and legitimizes them appropriately. Moreover, we must remember that we are also facing a crisis of multilateralism alongside neoliberalism, as multiple governments have lost faith in the ability of current international cooperation frameworks from a security, and accountability driven point of view. Within this context, Dr. Patrick posed the following question: Is it realistic to envision a more equitable and responsive globalization that can balance the realities of global pluralism and diverse preferences, given these dynamics? This would entail giving more voice and weight to the worldwide majority under the guidance of standard rules of international cooperation. The critical challenge lies in reconciling the domestic and international aspects of this balance while updating multilateral institutions to help mitigate the negative spillovers of national policy choices. 

Before answering this question, Dr. Patrick explained more specifically what the Global World Order currently stands for. At a minimum, it implies a degree of predictability or pattern regularity in interstate relations. In other words, it has to rely on a stable power distribution and, hence, the accompanying normative principles of conduct that help to drain the spontaneous anarchy of the system. The distinctiveness of the post-war global order is the proliferation of international organizations’ frameworks, regimes, and treaties across every global domain. This process accelerated after the end of the Cold War and has been complemented by transnational networks of non-governmental actors. The US and its allies have been the main drivers of integration within the order, following the goal of fostering capitalism, democracy and collective defense. 

One point Dr. Patrick stressed is that the crisis of the multilateral world order does not only concern competing and conflicting material interests of its members, but it increasingly involves fundamental divergences of different world order visions over the purposes that global governance should advance, and, therefore, the rules and principles to be followed to grant these interests. Some of the diverging ideas pertain to governing financial development and investments, managing the global commons, and addressing the Earth system concerning climate change and biodiversity, global health, as well as upholding democracy and human rights as essential values. We are witnessing both a resurgence of the East-West divide, particularly in relation to Russia and China, and a deterioration in North-South relations between wealthy and developing countries. Emerging powers like India and Brazil are increasingly assertive, seeking to transition from being mere rule-takers to becoming rule-makers themselves. To conclude, all of these new trends are suggesting the development of a new world order that is normatively thinner. Put another way, global governance will need to aspire less in the domain of global governance. 

Exploring some of the other major issues the global world order is currently facing, Dr. Patrick highlighted a second factor complicating the international world order. Backlash to globalization comes in the argument that it ultimately did not bind nations closer together due to increasing inequalities among and within them. The main losers in this trend have been the lower and middle classes in rich countries, while the big winners are the already wealthy. The third major shock, as a by-product of reducing people living in extreme poverty and increasing their living standards, has been climate change, which is shaping the Earth system. In the face of it, there is an increasing understanding that the cause is at least partially coming from the acquired benefits caused by increased living conditions. 

A fourth challenge is the demographic mismatch between young and old people: while some countries are well below replacement levels, others are booming in practically uncontrolled fertility rates. New risks posed by innovation and technological improvements are related to massive dislocation in knowledge-based sectors, and monopolistic developments. The sixth trend, and the most related to our symposium, is democratic backlash around the global and the parallel rising of populism. This has reinforced the retreat from a common civil and political culture and provided authoritarian governments with an unprecedented surveillance capability. Moreover, a vacuum of leadership, mainly coming from the US, favored skepticism and fueled uncertainty in the multilateral system, marking a qualitative departure from decades of internationalism. 

To conclude his speech, Dr. Patrick tried to offer five solutions to these problems: First, we should learn from history on how relevant policy-oriented ideas, including the empowerment of social movements and the mobilization of broad coalitions, gain political prominence. Dramatic institutional change often occurred during policy failure moments and where crises discredited established orthodoxies, opening a window of opportunity for new models and frameworks of thinking. 

Second, any reimagining and reforming of the system of global economic governance would require building a world economy that rewards labor as much as capital to ensure that the gains from globalization are fairly and equitably shared. Put differently, it is a kind of embedded liberalism along the lines of the post-war period. 

Third, we must invest equally in natural capital as human, physical, and financial capital. That is to say, we need to manage the collision between the Earth and the international systems, remembering that nature is a precondition for human well-being and rethinking environmental damage differently from an unavoidable externality of market activities. The battle against climate change has not to be seen as a costly distraction from the imperative of development but as one of its crucial components. 

Fourth, it’s crucial to expand the benefits of the digital revolution beyond its current winner-take-all dynamics. AI holds the potential to become as widespread and transformative as electricity, but we must ensure its development and accessibility are inclusive for all. This requires the establishment of secure, interoperable digital public infrastructures governed by trusted systems that citizens can access for public services.

Finally, we need to free up space at the top of the global governing system for rising powers within multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and UN Security Council. They will gain legitimacy if relevant adjustments, and not necessarily drastic changes, are implemented. 

Dr. Viktor JAKUPEC: “Multipolarity and a Post-Ukraine War New World Order: The Rise of Populism” 

Dr. Viktor Jakupec, who explored the shifts in power relations and ideological preferences, examined multipolarity in the aftermath of the post-Ukraine war and the new world order, with a specific focus on populism. His main thesis is that after the Russian-Ukrainian war, we will end up in a post-war setting composed of two different orders: a liberal rule-based order and a multipolar populist world order. The war between Russia and Ukraine has catalyzed significant political paradigm shifts, particularly regarding the shifts from liberalism to populism across various global contexts. The primary reason is that a growing portion of the population in the EU is experiencing economic hardship and growing disillusionment with the sanctions imposed on Russia and their consequences. From the point of view of the wider population, the liberal political leadership is focusing on Western liberal values and ideologies at the expense of national interests, while the populist political leadership is directing its attention towards national economic issues and alleviating the negative impacts of the sanctions. 

This divide in priorities sets the stage for significant political shifts, which become evident in the discourse surrounding the 2024 elections in both Europe and the US. The cumulative paradigm shift that is carried by EU elections consists of the weakening of the liberal rules-based world order and the strengthening of the rise of a multipolar populist world order. In this respect, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is causing multiple effects: it is catalyzing a further rise of populism, eroding neoliberalism globally, highlights weaknesses in liberal institutions, and shows the inability of liberal institutions to address complex international relations. Ultimately this causes widespread and general disillusion in liberal ideologies, increasing the appeal of populist movements, and a parallel turn to national interests and sovereignty. 

From the geopolitical point of view, the conflict has had a significant impact on liberal entities such as NATO, the EU, and the UN, especially as it forces nations to align themselves, exacerbating tensions, and prompting diplomatic recalibration. In addition, the Global South criticized the EU and the US’ involvement as a case of neo-colonialism, being in parallel, for many countries, non-compliant with Western sanctions. Taken more broadly, the Global South is moving away from the Washington consensus and is becoming closer to the Beijing one, thus creating new alliances in the global arena and reshaping the multipolar world order. The alliance that currently stands as prominent in criticizing the liberal world order is represented by the BRICS, that, with the addition of countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, is now almost counting for half the size of the global population. 

In conclusion, Dr. Jakupec first discussed the tendency for the populist multipolar order to counterbalance the liberal rules-based world order, highlighting that there is a coexistence between these two orders. He further stated that there is a possibility for the resurgence of an in-out bloc division along the lines of the Cold War divide. Dr. Jakupec also theorized that the complex interplay of geopolitical dynamics and domestic political forces will result in political and military power distribution among multiple actors, enhancing the sovereign capabilities of nation-states from a realist perspective, while also providing a greater diversity of geopolitical and geoeconomic perspectives. This will provide more resilience against the hegemony of a specific country, while also empowering grassroots movements and the protection of socio-cultural identities. 

Report by Andrea Guidotti  

Panel 2: The Future of Democracy Between Resilience & Decline

The second panel, moderated by Dr. Nora FISHER-ONAR (Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco), delved into “The Future of Democracy Between Resilience and Decline.” She emphasized that this panel aimed to gather insights from experts across various global regions, focusing on the intersection of material concerns in International Political Economy and normative issues such as democratic resilience and human rights.

Dr. James BACCHUS (Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs; Director of the Center for Global Economic and Environmental Opportunity, School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida, Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) was the panel’s first speaker, delivering a speech on “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights.” Following him, Dr. Kurt WEYLAND (Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin) presented on “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism.” Concluding the panel, Dr. Marina NORD (Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg) delivered a speech entitled “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and Cases of Democratic Reversals.”

Dr. James BACCHUS: “The Impact of Populist Authoritarian Politics on the Future Course of Globalization, Economics, the Rule of Law and Human Rights”

Dr. Bacchus began by stating that he is an optimist influenced by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who believes humans are inherently good. However, continuing, he said it’s hard to remain an optimist in the face of the current collective global issues, such as climate change and the need for sustainable development. According to him, the danger of being pessimistic about populism is that we might start to accept the premise that widespread involvement in politics is harmful and would legitimize the concerns of populists that people who hold those views are “elitists.” 

According to Dr. Bacchus, public participation can be positive as well as negative globally, and the need to look at political and geopolitical events in context is what’s needed. He found that in the United States, the consensus amongst historians, including himself, is that the populist movement in the 19th century had a positive influence on broadening and deepening American democracy and justice. Although the populists never won the presidency, their ideas were adopted by both the Democratic and, to a lesser extent, the Republican parties at the time – ideas such as the direct election of senators and personal income tax, which were all part of the Ocala Demands which originated from a convention of the Populist Party in Ocala, Florida, in 1890. This example highlights Dr. Bacchus’ previous statement that one of our challenges is galvanizing popular participation in a way that produces positive results, not negative ones.

Over the last decade, since the global recession, dangerous forms of populism have grown, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Bacchus focuses on Donald Trump as one of these individuals, remarking that his comments during a rally for Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Ohio on March 16, 2024, where he predicted a bloodbath if he does not win the presidential election, are not traditionally found in American politics but have become increasingly common. This highlights the highly divisive nature of recent populist rhetoric that aim to polarize public opinion. Trump wants to showcase that with multilateralism America will lose its national industry which will negatively impact the American economy. By creating a climate of fear and attributing economic challenges to multilateralism, a potential victory for Trump in the upcoming elections could result significant shifts in open trade and economic cooperation between nations. 

With the high popularity of Trump in America, right-wing populism is undoubtedly the prevailing populist movement. However, Dr. Bacchus highlighted that there is also a potential for left-wing populism in the United States. So far, no political party has tried to engage with the legitimate concerns of the people – such as the proposed higher taxes on upper-income individuals to provide greater services to those in need. In Dr. Bacchus’ opinion, the US has not seen a president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he believes is currently the type of leadership the country needs. There is a positive outcome to this, however, as Dr. Bacchus believes that current events will strengthen democracy in the long term.

Dr. Bacchus looked to the global stage and highlights emerging democracies worldwide in Indonesia and Brazil. The need for a “strong democracy” is a proposed democracy by the philosopher Benjamin Barber, who called for a much more participatory system. These democracies are much more suitable for facing the current global crises. The need to promote affirmative kinds of citizenship and participation is needed. The form of this, which Dr Bacchus suggested, is that trust needs to either be restored or created towards the system, and the right kind of leadership is needed, as opposed to a ‘finger in the wind.’

Dr. Kurt WEYLAND: “Resilience of Democracies Against Authoritarian Populism” 

To start his talk, Dr. Kurt Weyland highlighted that the concern of populism arose around Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The fear is that if movements like this can occur in the United States, which is often seen as the paragon of liberal democracy, then it can certainly happen in other countries. The crux of his argument is that the focus on cases where populist leaders have strangled democracy can be misleading because the majority of populists do not actually end up destroying democracy.

His research started by defining populism – a movement that revolves around a personalistic plebiscitary leadership, a domineering figure that claims to fight for the people. Two key factors are present in this definition: First, these figures are a threat because they not only run up against the checks and balances that liberal democracy has in place to try and constrain people like them, and second, they base their power on mass support from the people, and thus try to establish a direct personal emotional connection to them. This kind of pandering means that a populist “supercharges” their appeals, rallying them around the flag that they are fighting against the elite. Supporting these populist leaders undermines civil electoral democratic competition, as it alienates democratic competitors not as legitimate alternatives but as enemies to be fought.

Because Dr. Weyland argued that populism’s threat to democracy is real and serious but not as severe as it is depicted. He believes that populism is an inherently dangerous movement, he investigated forty cases of populist leaders that won power in Latin America and Europe over the last four decades and found that only seven had destroyed their respective country’s democracies. This number is so low because when populist leaders come to power, they face a high risk of being overturned. Investigating the cases where populists managed to destroy democracies would, therefore, shed light on the conditions they needed to do so. Dr. Weyland found that when a country has weak institutions, populist leaders have more opportunities to concentrate power, which means that in countries with a tradition of strong institutions, such as Western Europe or the US, there is less chance for a populist to damage the democratic system. However, this doesn’t paint the full picture because there are cases where populists did not destroy a country’s democracy despite weak institutions – such as Pedro Castillo’s election in Peru. 

The second factor Weyland focuses on is popular support, which has proven difficult for many populists to gain. For example, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador reportedly had 80-90% support. This support can come in two types, according to Dr. Weyland. The first is a massive resource windfall, such as in the cases of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, where the government has an enormous revenue source from which they can roll out generous social programs, buy off businesspeople and politicians through juicy contracts and corruption respectively. Economic windfalls are significant for left-wing populists who want to lift people out of poverty, but the conditions also allow them to destroy and strangle democracy. 

On the other hand, there are severe economic crises, such as hyperinflation. Populist leaders can use this as the catalyst to launch their campaign as the people’s savior by controlling the situation. Alberto Fujimori is one such populist who solved hyperinflation and gained major support. According to Dr. Weyland these economic crises are essential for the rise of right-wing populists, as their appeal is typically order and stability, with numerous examples of right-wing populist leaders being elected in the wake of the 2008 financial crash – such as in Hungry – and Erdogan in Turkey following a crisis in 2001. 

Dr. Weyland argued that his findings hold validity, especially when using South America as a case example, because right-wing populism is less likely on the continent, except in the cases of Alberto Fujimori and Nayib Bukele, who both utilized economic crises to come to power. Both also solved a serious public security threat by decapitating the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency and fighting serious gang crime, respectively. This focus on public security is another critical factor for right-wing populists and adds another crisis for the populist to solve, thus increasing his popularity. Dr. Weyland added that sometimes solving one crisis isn’t enough, as in the case of Álvaro Uribe Vélez in Columbia who tackled a public security challenge but was ultimately voted out after his second term, and Carlos Menem of Argentina who was voted out even though he had gained popularity by fighting hyperinflation. 

Dr. Weyland ended his presentation by recapping his talk – highlighting that institutional weakness and a unique conjunctive opportunity are the key ingredients needed for a populist to destroy a democracy, and thus in his opinion, Western European populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, and US populist Donald Trump cannot be considered a serious threat to American democracy. Paradoxically, Weyland found that a report from Freedom House found that former Italian populist leader Silvio Berlusconi improved Italian democracy because his opposition mobilized more participation. In conclusion while populist leaders do present a threat, Dr. Weyland warns we should be too alarmed by them because democratic resilience is stronger than one thinks. 

Dr. Marina NORD: “Global Trends for Democracy and Autocracy: On the Third Wave of Autocratization and the Cases of Democratic Reversals”

Based on the latest report from the V-Dem Institute, Dr. Marina Nord’s presentation focused on the global changes in democracies and autocracies. According to the report, there are the same number of democracies worldwide as in 1985, with an overall trend of democracy regressing. Since 2009, for fifteen years in a row, the number of people living in autocracies has overshadowed those living in democracies. Political systems, as interpreted by V-Dem, are categorized in different ways – Closed Autocracy, Electoral Autocracy, Electoral Democracy, and Liberal Democracy – with a grey zone between the broadly defined autocratic systems and democratic systems, which encompass countries that are harder to classify due to confidence intervals overlapping. From these definitions, V-Dem has found that Closed Autocracies have increased since 2013, while the number of liberal democracies has decreased. Conversely, there are more electoral democracies currently than electoral autocracies. 

Based on population levels, more people, about 71%, live under autocratic regimes than democratic regimes, extensive in part due to India’s changing political situation. This statistic highlights the growth of authoritarianism globally, as in 2003, only 50% of the world’s population lived under an autocratic regime. V-Dem focuses on specific ‘democracy indices’ when compiling their reports, such as voting, regional elections, freedom of association, clean elections and freedom of expression, with a net positive increase in 2013 for all these indices globally. However, in 2023, nearly all these indices saw a net negative decrease, with clean elections and freedom of expression most affected by global political changes.

When looking at the top-20 declining indicators: government censorship, freedom of expression, harassment of journalists, and free and fair elections- they are all in decline this year. Dr Nord highlights that this is probably because they are the first aspects governments target as they were autocratic. 

Regarding regional changes, Dr. Nord showed that autocratizing countries are mainly in Eastern Europe, North Africa, India, and Central Asia, especially with larger populations. The trends in regime change highlight that in 1992, the number of democratizing countries reached its apex, which coincides with Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘The End of History,’ but since then, the trend has reversed with more countries autocratizing increasing during what has been called ‘the third wave of autocratization.’ Today, according to V-Dem, there are 42 autocratic countries, of which 28 were once democracies, and only 15 have chosen to remain democracies in 2023. 

A distinction is made between ‘stand-alone’ autocracies, in which countries continuously slide into autocratization, of which 8 out of 10 investigated countries, such as Greece and Poland, started as democracies and slowly autocratized. On the other hand, ‘Bell-turn’ autocratization represents failed democracies, where an attempt was made to democratize, but ultimately the country returned to being an autocracy. Examples of these include South Korea, Indonesia and Mali. Dr. Nord indicated that one of the reasons behind this is the decline of freedom of expression, which generally only survives in a later stage of democratization. 

Today, only 18 countries are democratizing, with Brazil being the country with the largest population represented. Once again, V-Dem differentiates between ‘stand-alone’ democratizers and ‘U-turn’ democratizers, with the latter being more important to study as autocratic policies and institutes were reversed. On average, 70% of autocratic countries have been found to have democratized once again in the last 30 years. Because the ‘U-turn’ examples were essential to investigate, Dr. Nord found that large-scale popular mobilization, judicial independence and action, a unified opposition, critical elections and events, and support and protection for democratic ideas were some of the main reasons for countries to democratize again. 

To conclude, Dr. Nord talked about this year’s election, showing that most countries have autocratized during elections. 

Report by Christo Pretorius

Keynote Speech 2

Dr. Robert KUTTNER: “How Globalization, under Neoliberal Auspices, Has Stimulated Right-wing Populism and What Might Be Done to Arrest That Tendency?”   

The second keynote speech of the symposium featured Dr. Robert KUTTNER, Meyer and Ida Kirstein Professor in Social Planning and Administration at Brandeis University’s Heller School, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The American Prospect. It revolved around populism and its connection to globalization, with a focus on understanding its origins, manifestations, and implications for democracy. Dr. Kuttner, offered a comprehensive analysis of the subject matter, critiquing neoliberal policies and their role in stimulating right-wing populism while advocating for alternative approaches to economic governance.

Dr. Kuttner discussed the nexus between globalization, neoliberalism, and the rise of right-wing populism, drawing from historical contexts and contemporary political landscapes. The discussion aimed to unravel the intricate relationship between these phenomena and their implications for democratic governance in the 21st century. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies.

Dr. Kuttner traced populism’s roots to the late 19th century, emphasizing its dual nature encompassing both progressive and right-wing elements. He distinguished between left-wing and right-wing populism, highlighting their respective ideological underpinnings and socio-political dynamics. 

Analyzing historical precedents, Dr. Kuttner underscored the impact of economic crises, austerity measures, and nationalist sentiments in fostering right-wing movements, citing examples from Europe and the United States. He emphasized the significance of post-World War II recovery programs in curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles. By contextualizing contemporary developments within a historical framework, Dr. Kuttner illuminated the cyclical nature of populist mobilization and its resonance with periods of socio-economic upheaval.

Dr. Kuttner critiqued the neoliberal paradigm, citing its role in exacerbating economic inequality, weakening labor movements, and privileging corporate interests. He highlighted the adverse effects of globalization, particularly the erosion of national sovereignty and the exacerbation of socio-economic disparities. By interrogating the underlying assumptions of neoliberal economics, Dr. Kuttner challenged the prevailing orthodoxy and called for a reevaluation of economic priorities. In contrast, he praises post-World War II recovery programs for curbing far-right extremism and promoting social democratic principles.

Linking neoliberal policies to the rise of right-wing populism, Dr. Kuttner discussed how economic insecurity, coupled with cultural anxieties and immigration, fueled populist movements. He analyzed the electoral successes of far-right parties and leaders across Europe and the United States, attributing their appeal to disillusionment with mainstream politics and neoliberalism. 

Proposing alternatives to neoliberalism, Dr. Kuttner advocated for a return to managed capitalism, tighter regulations, and inclusive economic policies. He cited examples of progressive measures undertaken by the Biden administration, including industrial policies and support for trade unions, as potential remedies to address socio-economic grievances. By offering concrete policy recommendations, Dr. Kuttner sought to bridge the gap between theoretical analysis and practical policymaking, emphasizing the importance of political will and collective action in effecting meaningful change.

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Kuttner engaged with the ideas of various scholars to support his arguments. He references John Maynard Keynes’ warnings about the consequences of austerity economics and Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the pitfalls of unregulated capitalism. Additionally, Dr. Kuttner drew on the works of contemporary scholars such as Danny Rodrik to propose alternative frameworks for economic governance.

The seminar conducted by Dr. Robert Kutner provides a deep dive into the multifaceted relationship between populism and globalization, shedding light on its historical underpinnings, contemporary manifestations, and socio-political implications. Through a meticulous examination of past movements, economic theories, and policy frameworks, Dr. Kuttner offers a nuanced perspective on the complex dynamics shaping modern democracies. His critique of neoliberalism and advocacy for alternative policy approaches contribute to a richer understanding of the challenges posed by right-wing populism in an era of globalization. By engaging with scholarly literature and advancing novel perspectives, Dr. Kuttner enriches the discourse surrounding populism and globalization, laying the groundwork for informed policymaking and democratic renewal.

Report by Radoslav Valev

Panel 3: Globalization in Transition

Moderated by  Dr. Anna SHPAKOVSKAYA (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, China Research Analyst at Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), the third panel of the symposium explored “Globalization in Transition.”  Dr. Steven R. DAVID (Professor of Political Science at The Johns Hopkins University) presented the first speech titled “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed.” Dr. Jinghan ZENG (Professor of China and International Studies at Lancaster University) followed with a presentation titled “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization.” The third speech of this panel was presented by Humphrey HAWKSLEY (Author, Commentator and Broadcaster) on “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism.” A special commentator alongside the speakers was Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN (Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Coordinator at the China Program, and International Relations Program).

In her brief introduction to the panel, Dr. Shpakovskaya highlighted that despite the topic of globalization’s age, its relevance should not be underemphasized, particularly given the volatility of the international arena in light of geopolitical events. This underscores the importance of conversations around globalization, which have become increasingly critical. Few actors in these conversations have become as vital and pivotal to the changing international dynamic as China.

Dr. Steven R. DAVID: “China’s Appeal to Populist Leaders: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed” 

Dr. Steven R. David’s speech dealt with China’s appeal to populist leaders and why it matters in terms of the competition for influence between China and the United States, a competition that is estimated to involve close to 40% of the world’s leaders. Prefacing his talk, Dr. David stated that in this competition, China holds several key advantages and looks not only at what these advantages are but also at what can be done to respond to them. 

To understand why populist leaders may turn to China, it’s first necessary to understand what the interests of these leaders are- to do this utilize the theory of omni-balancing. Omni-balancing was developed as a correction to the traditional balance of power theory. In the traditional balance of power theory, states’ heads pursue the national interest, often protecting their countries from external threats like invasions, war, or conquest. Dr. David offers some of the ways omni-balancing differs from traditional balance of power approaches. These include the argument that it’s not so much the national interest that drives the way leaders behave but rather their interest. Here, what is central to the leaders, is maintaining power, and in trying to achieve this end, leaders are hyper-focused on finding countries that are best suited in terms of a willingness and the capacity to assist in helping the leader remain at the helm. Chief among these is the recognition that the most serious threats are not those posed to the state’s security, but rather those directed towards the leaders’ grip on power. While the traditional balance of power theory primarily concerns itself with external threats, omni-balancing theory shifts the focus to domestic challenges. This shift occurs because what concerns populist leaders most urgently are domestic issues such as mass protests, coups, insurgencies, and assassination attempts. According to the omni-balancing theory, populist leaders are inclined to seek assistance in deterring internal threats, much like China would be poised to do.

Having explored China’s appeal as an international partner for populist regimes seeking to maintain power, Dr. David posed a rhetorical question: “How does China achieve this?” The primary reason cited is the extensive export of digital technology, which Dr. David contended has been honed domestically, affording the Chinese government nearly complete surveillance capabilities over its citizens in various forms.

It is suggested that China has globally provided populist regimes with the necessary technology to replicate this surveillance infrastructure, including facial recognition, social media monitoring, data collection, and censorship. Dr. David argued that these tools empower populist regimes to monitor their citizens, suppress dissent, and control access to information. Statistical research indicates that leaders utilizing such digital technologies encounter fewer protests and challenges to their authority than those who do not.

Furthermore, these technologies enable leaders to monitor potential challenges from elites that could incite a coup, a fear shared by many of these leaders. This surveillance capacity is augmented by artificial intelligence, allowing a relatively small number of individuals within a country to monitor the entire population. This capability is particularly crucial during mass protests, which have emerged as the primary catalyst for forcible regime changes in the past decade. 

In this line of thought, Dr. David provided a brief overview of the issue of controlling political preferences and the role of digital technologies in shaping them. China emerged as the favored candidate for international partnership among populist leaders in this context. However, it’s worth noting that Dr. David appeared to show less enthusiasm for the United States, despite its own history of utilizing the internet to influence the political preferences, particularly among its right-wing population.

It is crucial to discuss China’s behavior on the international stage. Often, discussions surrounding China’s international actions assume it operates as a unilateral actor, particularly in the context of initiatives like the Chinese Belt and Road project. However, as Dr. David astutely points out, this is not the case. Like other global powers, China is influenced by various political forces within the country, each with its own interests, agendas, and interpretations of globalization and how to pursue it. Therefore, when analyzing China’s behavior on the global stage, it’s essential to recognize that it is not always driven by a clear, coherent strategy from the central government.

Dr. Jinghan ZENG: “Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Vision for Globalization?” 

Dr. Jinghan Zeng opened his speech by introducing a sentiment that, while not explicitly stated, underlies the discussion: In the collective perception of the West, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese foreign policy are often seen through the lens of geopolitical competition among states. While this perspective holds some validity, Dr. Zeng suggests that the similarities between the Chinese authoritarian state and the US democratic system outweigh the differences.

The Belt and Road Initiative, since its inception and more since its launch, has been widely spoken of as China’s version of globalization, with historical roots in the ancient Silk Road trade routes. Dr. Zeng displayed, however, the existence of two contrasting BRI interpretations. The first sees the initiative as a top-down geopolitical strategy to reshape global order, and the second, which is the focus of Dr. Zeng’s presentation, views the BRI as a political slogan open to interpretation and subject to change. 

The first perspective on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly adopted by the US and numerous other international observers. They perceive the BRI as a meticulously crafted grand strategy intended to bolster Chinese geopolitical dominance and challenge American power in the process. However, Dr. Zeng contends that this viewpoint requires a more balanced assessment of the initiative. There is a need to recognize the evolving nature of the BRI, marked by shifts in focus and alterations in its narrative. These changes have led to a lack of coherence and objective consensus regarding what the BRI truly entails.

This leads us to the second viewpoint. Dr. Zeng posits that the BRI is rooted in decentralization and competitiveness, emerging as a result of competition among various domestic actors, including state enterprises, provincial governments, and the private sector. Contrary to being a unified national endeavor, the BRI is shaped by diverse interests and is not a singular, centrally coordinated effort. For instance, different Chinese provinces vie to position themselves as the starting points or hubs of BRI projects, leading to internal competition and fragmented initiatives. This structural competition reflects China’s distinctive form of federalism and underscores the intricacies within Chinese domestic politics.

Furthermore, the trajectory of the BRI evolves over time as shifting contexts influence its geopolitical and domestic priorities. This notion aligns with Dr. David’s argument that Chinese engagement in the international arena is not solely dictated by central government planning. Instead, the BRI exemplifies a multifaceted initiative driven by various actors with differing interests and objectives. Thus, China’s participation in multilateral cooperation cannot always be attributed solely to its state-centric interests but also reflects the interests of other stakeholders within China.

The presentation culminates with a final point concerning the future trajectory of the BRI. As previously noted, the BRI has undergone evolution, and this evolution is expected to persist in the future. Chinese President Xi Jinping has explicitly expressed his vision for the BRI to become more focused, targeted, and sustainable moving forward.

Dr. Zeng concluded by emphasizing that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a monolithic, top-down strategy but rather a nuanced and dynamic phenomenon influenced by a multitude of domestic and international factors. Recognizing this complexity is essential for comprehending China’s global role and devising effective policies to engage with China on trade, investment, and infrastructure development. This understanding is pivotal for shaping the trajectory of multilateralism and fostering mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other global stakeholders.

Humphrey Hawksley: “Predicting the Nature of the Next Generation Globalization under China, Multipolarity, and Authoritarian Populism” 

Mr. Humphrey Hawksley gave us a refreshing approach not only by granting into the viewpoint of journalism but also because he stated towards the end of his talk that he does not believe China is an existential threat, a change in narrative from the previous two speakers. Mr. Hawksley explains that, unlike the political sciences, journalism encourages ‘getting the message out to the widest possible audience and in doing so requires a dumbing down and speeding up.’ It reminded us that regardless of what is central to the discussion is the ‘phraseology of the elite’ and when speaking of multi-syllable words like globalization, multipolarity, authoritarianism and populism that originate in academia and think tanks of Western democracies, the values and the glue of Europe and North America, we are forced to confront the difference in perception of them between these two regions, and the Global South. 

Hawksley provided a grounding to better grasp the message conveyed in his presentation. He illustrated the Indo-Pacific region, consisting of approximately 50 nations, where five developed democracies exist, depending on how one measures democracy. Among these, Australia and New Zealand are essentially viewed as European satellites, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are generally considered American proteges with East Asian work ethics, having emerged from or currently facing war-related circumstances.

The majority of states in the Indo-Pacific, however, represent a diverse tapestry of values and systems, ranging from military oligarchs to various forms of communism, sultanates, and authoritarian regimes. These entities coexist, sometimes uncomfortably, hoping to maintain stability without resorting to violent conflict. Given this intricate landscape, it was argued that many nations in the region cannot readily adopt lofty ideological phrases like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights” to address their realities and meet their day-to-day needs.

To underscore this point, Hawksley recounted an experience from 2019 while in Indonesia during the peak of the Hong Kong protests. He queried a colleague about the lack of support for the Hong Kong Democracy protests in Southeast Asia, to which he was informed that it stemmed from contrasting living conditions between Hong Kong residents and those in the rest of Southeast Asia.

During his presentation, Mr. Hawksley introduced the concept of ‘Asian pragmatism,’ which appears to be a significant factor differentiating electoral and populist support in the Indo-Pacific from that in the West. According to Hawksley, ‘Asian pragmatists’ tend to gravitate towards solutions that offer the most benefit while minimizing risks. For instance, in Taiwan’s recent presidential election, voters supported the governing party’s policy stance against China’s interference and intimidation. However, they also opted for a compromise that signaled their reluctance to provoke Beijing into escalating hostility or inciting war. In essence, Asian voters exhibit what could be termed as electoral ‘common sense’—they eschew idealistic pursuits often associated with liberal ideals and instead seek pragmatic approaches that work within existing systems. They prioritize leaders with a proven track record of achieving tangible results.

As Hawksley highlights, this pragmatic approach starkly contrasts with the more rigid and uncompromising efforts backed by the West, such as the attempts made a decade ago to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa without adequate preparation.

When considering the future trajectory of China’s role, Mr. Hawksley suggests that by embracing Indo-Pacific pragmatism, China can reclaim the middle ground. This entails China entering into agreements that foster greater accountability to other Indo-Pacific nations.

Special Comments by Dr. Ho Tze Ern BENJAMIN

In delivering what could be considered the closing statements for this panel, Dr. Ho Tze Ern Benjamin offered a concise, yet comprehensive summary of the key points discussed by the speakers. He also shed light on the underlying threat revealed in the presentations regarding global perceptions of Chinese relations. Dr. Ern particularly emphasized how much of the discourse surrounding populism and its impact on global multipolarity is influenced by US attitudes towards China’s presence in the international arena.

In echoing the sentiments expressed in Dr. David’s presentation, Dr. Ern reflected on how American attitudes towards China are largely shaped by American self-perception. He emphasized that these relations are rooted in US values and how they appear in contrast to Chinese values. However, the fundamental disparity in the international perception of these values lies in how they are implemented at the level of domestic governance, as previously highlighted by Mr. Hawksley.

This becomes increasingly apparent as more players in the international arena scrutinize developments in American domestic politics, observing a perceived decline in local conditions. Global reporting highlights spikes in poverty, crime, homelessness, drug use, and a growing lack of gun regulation, particularly evident in the prevalence of public shootings. These factors have reshaped perceptions of the USA, both domestically and internationally, from its previous image as the “golden land of opportunity,” a transformation especially pronounced among Asian populations, as noted by Dr. Ern. For many Asian states, global prestige is no longer solely about perceived dominance and influence in the international order. Instead, it hinges on which country’s government reliably provides essential services and security at home, encompassing metrics such as safety, economic stability, social services, and housing.

Dr. Ern noted that while populism presents certain challenges, the broader issue concerning multipolarity revolves around how domestic values are upheld, as this determines their potential for emulation. Indeed, in the international arena, the primary means of expansion has been through the exportation and replication of values. Dr. Ern poses the question: “If America’s political values are so highly esteemed and worthy of emulation, why is this not reflected in domestic American governance?” Continuing, Dr. Ern stressed that the disconnect between international and domestic governments should not be overlooked. This discrepancy was the initial reason for Asian compliance with US international leadership, as they witnessed positive outcomes in US domestic political life.

Dr. Ern also weighed in on Dr. Zeng’s accurate description of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a collection of diverse plans and projects by various competing actors, rather than a monolithic program solely executed by the Chinese government, as it is often portrayed.

Reported by Neo Sithole

Closing Session: Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity

The closing session of the symposium was moderated by Dr. Patrick HOLDEN (Associate Professor in International Relations at School of Society and Culture, University of Plymouth), and explored the “Economic Implications of Rising Populism and Multipolarity.” Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI (Professor of Law, Bocconi University; Former Chairman of the WTO Appellate Body) presented his speech titled: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System.” For the symposium’s closing remarks, Dr. Cengiz AKTAR (Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens and ECPS Advisory Board Member) reflected on the key insights and discussions from the previous two days, highlighting the challenges facing multilateralism, including external constraints and domestic populist movements. He emphasized the global trend of growing populism leading to a shift towards independence among mid-sized powers, amidst diminishing faith in neoliberal governance and the rise of authoritarian tendencies.

Dr. Giorgio SACERDOTI: “Demise of Multilateralism and Politicization of International Trade Relations and the Multilateral Trading System”

Professor Giorgio Sacerdotti began his presentation by providing background on the optimism towards increasing globalization and international cooperation in economic matters. He also discussed the shift towards protectionism, starting with the financial crisis and the Trump administration’s stance against multinationalism on economic issues, prioritizing ‘America First’ and bringing jobs back to the US. He highlights the perception of foreign economies, particularly China, as unfair competitors harming the American economy and workers despite the benefits of international trade and foreign investment for established and developing countries.

Professor Sacerdotti outlined the challenges faced by the WTO, the pillar of multilateralism, in governing international trade. These include the failure of the Doha Round, addressing non-trade issues like labour, environment, and human rights, and the difficulty of combining free trade with protecting non-trade values. He also mentioned the need for WTO instruments for new aspects of international trade, such as the digital economy.

Professor Sacerdotti emphasized the politicization of international trade relations as a significant issue, contrasting with the post-World War II philosophy of managing trade relations based on equal legal rules independent of political clashes. He discussed the principles of removing border barriers, reducing barriers through mutual exchange, equal treatment (with exceptions for developing countries), and the dispute settlement system. However, these principles were challenged by the Trump administration’s protectionist measures, such as the trade war with China and increased duties on steel and aluminium imports, disregarding WTO rules.

Economic security was also discussed as a measure that the WTO only allows in cases where countries face great financial crises. However, the definition of economic security has been extended, especially by the US. This has happened through subsidies to industries and quotas for exports. However, the EU has also had to justify specific measures such as CBAM or the deforestation regulation, saying that they are non-protectionists but rather protect the environment or human rights. This results in the increased politicization of trade. Even though the WTO has the instruments available to enforce specific rules, these have not been used effectively, and often, certain restrictions are wholly disregarded by more prominent countries like the US.

Concluding Remarks By Dr. Cengiz AKTAR

Dr. Cengiz Aktar made the conclusory remarks for the panel. He argued that multilateralism is externally trapped and is domestically challenged by populists. He also claimed that present-day multilateralism seems to polarise rather than synergise. Furthermore, he quoted other scholars saying that the Global North is losing faith in neoliberal governance and ideology, and Global North voters are turning to the national populist movements in the Global South. Meanwhile, the Global South perceives the global geopolitical and economic problems caused by the West. 

Only less than 30% of the global population is governed by democratic governments, and autocracy often continues after democratic breakdowns, taking countries further into more harsh dictatorships. Finally, Professor Aktar remarked that it seems that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers to become more independent instead of relying on the hegemons. 

Reported by Radoslav Valev

Conclusion

The conclusion shed light on external and domestic challenges to multilateralism. Externally, multilateralism is constrained by the Orwellian concept of multipolarity, while domestically, populist movements are gaining power. Present-day multilateralism seems to polarize rather than synergize, feeding into populist dynamics at home. We cannot ignore the alarming rise of populist, illiberal tendencies in Europe and beyond, as highlighted by ECPS’ Honorary President Irina von Wiese.

Dr. Axford observed that the current surge in populism is intertwined with the emergence of a new globalization paradigm, indicating its significance as a global political force. Dr. Patrick emphasized how the crisis of the rules-based order complicates international cooperation, particularly in global economic governance. Dr. Sacerdoti highlighted the trend towards “deglobalization” driven by the need for economic security and national control. At the same time, Dr. Kuttner provided a political reading of this trend, linking it to the erosion of prosperity and the rise of neo-fascist tendencies.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jakupec pointed out the dilemma of a world where populism reshapes domestic politics and multipolarity, potentially leading towards a shift away from liberal democratic governance. The research presented by Dr. Nord underscored the global trend of autocratization, highlighting the decline in democracy and the rise of harsh dictatorships in many countries.

On a more optimistic note, Dr. Weyland suggested that advanced industrialized countries may withstand the threat of populism due to their institutional strength. However, Dr. Azmanova cautioned against complacency, particularly in ailing democracies. Finally, Dr. Kuttner reminded us of the importance of distinguishing between neo-fascism and populism conceptually and semantically while also noting that growing populism is pushing leaders of mid-size powers towards greater independence in global governance.

In conclusion, the rise of populism presents significant challenges to multilateralism and global governance, requiring careful consideration and concerted efforts to address the underlying issues and promote inclusive and democratic solutions.

By Hilal Duman

Locals walking in front of a big statue in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 15, 2016. Photo: L.M. Spencer.

Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 5, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0054                               

This report offers a summary of the 11th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” held online on March 30, 2024. Dr. John Nilsson-Wright moderated the panel, featuring insights from five distinguished scholars: Dr. Joseph Yi, Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, Dr. Sang-Jin Han, Dr. Junhyoung Lee, and Dr. Mina Sumaadii.

By Philip Christo Pretorius and Radoslav Valev*

This report encapsulates the highlights of the eleventh event hosted by the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) as part of its monthly Mapping European Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” this event unfolded online on March 30, 2024. The esteemed Dr. John Nilsson-Wright expertly moderated the panel, which boasted insights from five distinguished scholars in the field of populism.

The panelists featured in the event included experts such as Dr. Joseph Yi, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hanyang University, Seoul, renowned for his work on “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence.” Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo, provided valuable insights into the regional context through her research on “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea, and China.” Dr. Sang-Jin Han, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, shared his expertise on sociopolitical trends in South Korea, focusing on the “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024.” Dr. Junhyoung Lee, a Research Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Ulsan, South Korea, contributed with his research on “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea.” Lastly, Dr. Mina Sumaadii, a Senior Researcher at the Sant Maral Foundation, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, offered a unique perspective on “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia.”

The panel served as a platform for a rich exchange of ideas and analysis, shedding light on the complex interplay between populism, authoritarianism, and democracy within these East Asian nations.

Professor John Nilsson-Wright opened the panel by giving a few introductory remarks about North Korea and South Korea. Starting with the latter, he posed the question on whether or not thinking about populism in South Korea is relevant since it seems to be a successful and vibrant state with a healthy and vigorous political process that participates with the international community. 

Using the Candlelight Demonstrations as an example of the strength of the political culture in South Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright further states that the country’s institutional frameworks are an example of successful democratic governance. However, critics of the system argue that South Korea has not yet become an ‘advanced democracy,’ and that is in danger of democratic backsliding. Further to this, the country has a polarized society with a strong sense of anti-elitism, and have a poor record of press freedom. According to Dr. Nilsson-Wright, one of the features of populist politics in the country is the debate over who constitutes as ‘the people,’ and it is underscored by the debate between the narrative of economic exceptionalism, and those who celebrate the achievements of democratic transition. In contrast to the above-mentioned critics, Dr. Nilsson-Wright turns to scholars who praise South Korea’s democratic emergence, using examples of the 2004 impeachment attempt against President Roh Moo-hyun, and the historical evolution of South Korea’s democracy from its illiberal and authoritarian past, as evidence of the country’s democracy in action.

Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlighted some of the problems that currently undercut and threaten the integrity of South Korea’s Democratic institutions, indicating that there are legitimate questions about the maturity of South Korea’s political system. On a positive note, the last presidential election was strikingly close, with discourse grounded in economic efficiency rather than emotive political issues. The open question remains on whether or not South Korea’s institutions will continue to contain polarizing tendencies from both internal tensions and external threats. Expanding on the latter threat, Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlights that, because of the concerns commentators have over China, a new type of populism has emerged – nuclear populism – which a sign of how fear and distrust can fuel a political climate. 

Turning to North Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright presents scholarly work that’s been conducted on totalitarian control, and in particular focuses on the works that focus on social, rather than political, change. For him, this has opened new avenues of thinking about the links between populism in South Korea and the style of politics in North Korea. In explaining the persistence of North Korea’s system, Dr. Nilsson-Wright argues that the emotional dimension of politics has been important in the analysis of the two Koreas closer together. These emotions are mostly fear and resentment of opponents, weaponizing the past, and political nostalgia. 

Enquiring on whether or not the authority in North Korea will last, Dr. Nilsson-Wright concludes by giving examples of Kim Jong-Un has both continued on with traditional forms of totalitarian control, yet in some respects have broken others, and all that remains now is to watch closely the way the leadership of North Korea formulates national policy objectives.

Dr. Joseph Yi: “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence”

Dr. Joseph Yi posed two questions. Firstly, he questioned whether individuals with access to identical information and facts would exhibit a greater propensity to compromise and cooperate. Secondly, he explored the notion of diverging strains within liberal democracy. Dr. Yi expressed his belief that populist tendencies exist in South Korea across the political spectrum, with both the left and the right accusing each other of being illiberal and questioning the legitimacy of each other’s procedural rights.

Dr. Joseph Yi commenced his presentation by emphasizing that Populism frequently portrays its adversaries as enemies of both the people and authentic democracy. Additionally, Dr. Yi referenced International Relations literature, asserting that democracies tend to collaborate with one another, contrasting with the animosity often observed between democracies and illiberal regimes. However, there has been a noticeable rise in animosity among OECD democratic polities, evident at both the national and subnational levels. Dr. Yi illustrated this with concrete examples, including California’s state-funded travel ban against Florida and the European Union’s decision to suspend financial funds to Hungary.

Dr. Yi advanced a theoretical argument suggesting that the divergence among democratic polities fosters animosity, with each democratic entity perceiving others as either illiberal or false democracies. He then outlined two approaches: the positive sum approach, where procedural rights support substantive rights, and an emerging approach that sees procedural rights as incompatible with substantive rights. Both the Left and the Right contend that certain groups’ rights have been marginalized, leading to distinctions between “right-wing victim’s rights (RVR)” and “left-wing victim’s rights (LVR).” Dr. Yi introduced his second variable, the information markets, noting that even in “mature” democracies, discourse on victims’ rights limits the information market by restricting “harmful” speech.

Dr. Yi proceeded to make a number of propositions. First, he claimed that there is greater animosity between democracies with different discourse regimes. Proponents of the RVR and LVR views claim that the other regime tolerates hate-speech and censors the voices of victims. 

Dr. Yi’s second proposition was that there is especially high animosity when one democracy follows a “victim’s rights” model that restricts information nationwide and the other does not. For example, in South Korea between 1948-1980, the RVR regime repressed communist speech. Similarly, since the 2010s, LVR regimes have prioritized victims of colonialism over academic freedom of dissenting scholars. Dr. Yi provided a personal example where some student activists from his university in Seoul violated his procedural rights by distributing fliers with a quote which was taken out of context i.e. not providing the full set of facts which is an example of limiting the rights of dissenting scholars. 

However, in Japan there is more thorough discourse where the government does not criminalize either left-wing or right–wing scholarly perspectives. In South-Korea, the narrative that the Japanese Imperial Army abducted over 200,000 women is very prevalent, while in Japan, the media claims that there is no evidence that this happened. In this context, both Japan and South Korea frame each other of being illiberal. Countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan do not limit the information market and have FTAs with Japan, whereas South Korea cooperates more with countries that restrict the free flow of information. 

Dr. Yi concluded by stating two questions. The first one being whether people who have access to the same information and same facts would be more likely to compromise and cooperate with each other. The second question he posed is whether there are diverging strains of liberal democracy. Dr Yi finally stated that he believes that there are populist tendencies in South Korea of both the left and the right to accuse each other of being illiberal and that the other group does not deserve its procedural rights to be respected. 

Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw: “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea and China”

Dr. Meredith Shaw discusses some key elements she is monitoring for the “second image reversed problem,” particularly regarding the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), both of which entail acting subservient or subordinate to a larger nation. While historically referring to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and collaboration with Imperial Japan, these terms have recently resurfaced in relation to China. Dr. Shaw notes that both the Left and the Right employ this rhetoric, accusing each other of flunkeyism, thus balancing each other out in terms of populist rhetoric and preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to gain favor with the populace.

Starting her presentation, Dr. Meredith Shaw starts with a powerful statement that she believes South Korea should have already been taken over by right-wing populism as they face two communist threats in both China and North Korea, both of whom they fought a war against. Whenever North Korea launches a missile, support for progressive-left parties tends to diminish, as their opponents find it convenient to associate them with guilt by association. Using the ‘Second Image Reversed’ problem as her foundation, Dr. Shaw highlights that events in the international arena can have effects on domestic politics, of which she believes South Korea is particularly vulnerable to. She posits that the reason that South Korea has escaped this drift is a result of the recent memory of its right-wing dictatorship and the emotional counterweight of the anti-Japan sentiment. Right-wing politics in South Korea is usually more pro-Japan (Chinilpa), giving the left a counterweight to hit back with in reaction to allegations that the left has pro-North Korean (Chongbuk) policies. 

In Dr. Shaw’s own research, she found that both Chinipla and Chongbuk resemble populist narratives as both sides portray the opposition as ‘elitist,’ particularly in memes and political imagery. When the right feels attacked on pro-Japanese policies, they hit back with claims that the left is pro-North Korea and -China with similar imagery and memes used by the left, known as retaliatory mimicry. As a result of the rising anti-China sentiment, Dr. Shaw investigated the impact it would have on the Japan/North Korea dueling antagonisms. Politicians on both sides seem uncertain on how to respond to this new public sentiment, particularly because of the close trade ties between South Korea and China. Right-wing candidates are more willing, yet still apprehensive, to partake in anti-Chinese rhetoric, using the same language that the left uses towards Japan – a big power neighbor that steals Korean culture, encroaches on territory, and bullies neighbors with its economic power. This sets up China to overtake Japan as the ‘pushy neighbor.’

To conclude Dr. Shaw shares some of the elements that she’s tracking for the second image reversed problem, particularly in relation to the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), which are both often translated as someone who acts subservient or subordinate to a bigger nation. In the past it referred to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and those who collaborated with Imperial Japan, but recently has been used in relation to China once again. Dr. Shaw provides examples of how both the Left and Right employ this rhetoric, accusing the opposing side of flunkeyism. This dynamic serves to balance each other out in terms of populist rhetoric, preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to curry favor with the populace.

Dr. Sang-Jin Han: “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024”

Professor Sang-Jin Han explains that in anticipation of the upcoming April 2024 election, both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party engage in demonization, utilizing emotions of hatred and resentment. The ruling party accuses the opposition of aligning with North Korea, thereby endangering liberal democracy in South Korea. Conversely, the opposition party accuses the ruling party of being subservient to Japan and thereby undermining the sovereignty of Korea. Dr. Han concludes that Korean parties have excessively politicized issues and rely on animosity towards their opponents rather than fostering constructive dialogue.

Professor Sang-Jin Han initiated his presentation by emphasizing that the ramifications of populism are intertwined with the definition of its criteria. He outlined two primary elements of populism: distrust towards the ruling class and the prioritization of the people in guiding politics. Subsequently, Dr. Han provided a historical overview of populist emotion in South Korea.

The first stage was the last quarter of the 19th century, when Korea faced a series of crisis. The second stage concerned the Imperial Japanese rule over Korea, which was marked by great hatred and animosity towards the Japanese elite as a catalyst for populism. The third stage is related to the Korean War and again this stage is defined by high levels of hatred and distrust but this time towards North Korea. The fourth stage is concerned with the democratization in the 1980s and in that time the movement mainly led by college students attempted to bring back the original cornerstone of populism, namely the primacy of the people in politics. The final fifth stage is related to digital populism. Because South Korea enjoyed a high-level of digitalization, the populist movement also began to utilize technologies to further their cause. 

Dr. Han introduced the two populist movements in South Korea, the so-called Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Both are characterized as highly distrustful towards politicians and want to bring power back to the people. Dr. Han in his research found out that whether populism is considered as a promoter of democracy or as a barrier to democracy really depends on the definition of the criteria of populism. Dr. Han found out through his empirical research that the Candlelight movement was very much constructive towards strengthening democracy. Meanwhile, the National Flag movement which was led by older and more conservative people appears to obstruct the security of democracy. 

The empirical research that Dr. Han conducted through a survey in 2018 found out that the Candlelight movement was more associated with the primacy of the people in politics, while the National Flag movement was associated with the distrust towards the elites. Furthermore, the Candlelight movement was not associated with support towards a strong authoritarian leader, whereas the National Flag movement was deeply associated with that idea. These findings ultimately mean that the question whether populism could strengthen democracy is not determined by populism itself. Rather, this depends on whether the populist movement focuses more on anger and antagonism than promoting the idea that the people should be the primary sovereign in politics. 

Therefore, the threat to democracy is South Korea actually comes from the National Flag movement and not from the Candlelight movement. Ultimately, the idea of distrust as the main definitional criteria for populism could endanger democracy, whereas the criteria of promoting the primacy of the people seems to promote democracy. 

Dr. Han concluded by having a look at the current situation in 2024. Ahead of the coming election in April 2024 both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party demonize each other by using hatred and resentment emotions. The ruling party accuses the opposition of being an ally of North Korea and therefore jeopardizing liberal democracy in South Korea. The opposition party accuses the ruling party of being a comprador of the Japanese and therefore destroying the pride of the sovereign Korean nation. Dr. Han concluded that Korean parties have politicized issues too much and are relying on the hatred and animosity towards their opponents rather than being constructive. 

Dr. Junhyoung Lee: “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea”

Referring to the main implications of his research, Dr. Junhyoung Lee highlights the use of nationalism as a primary means to bolster the regime’s resilience and cultivate loyalty among the population in North Korea. Additionally, he emphasizes the significance of performance legitimation as another essential tool for fortifying the regime’s resilience, showcasing the state’s responsiveness to critical issues. Lastly, Dr. Lee underscores the importance of implementing effective co-optation strategies for the regime to address generational shifts within North Korean society and ensure ongoing stability.

Dr. Junhyoung Lee structured his presentation as a historical overview of how the North Korean regime utilized nationalism, intertwining family lineage with the national narrative. The use of nationalist rhetoric has intensified since Kim Jong-un assumed power, primarily aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of his rule. While North Korea initially displayed similarities to the de-Stalinization period in the USSR, Kim Il-sung later embraced a distinct style of socialism and totalitarian ideology following the Sino-Soviet disputes. The subsequent North Korean rulers have relied on utilizing personalism and the socialist ideology to mobilize the collective memory. This underscores the significance of North Korean nationalism in shaping the regime’s resilience. Dr. Lee also researched the legitimation claims in the new year statements of the Kim family. He found that Kim Il-sung made frequent references to the revolutionary legacy of North Korea. In the Kim Jong-il era, there was a particular focus on the cult of personality and loyalty to the ruler. With the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, there is much less reference to the cult of personality than his predecessors. 

The Ch’ŏllima (“Flying Horse”) in North Korea could be used as an example of how nationalism could be used for bolstering the regime’s resilience, particularly during periods of crisis. The idea was the mass mobilization of the people, similarly to the Stakhanovite movement in the USSR. It later became the cornerstone of legitimation of the successive North Korean rulers. Rulers such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un invoked the Ch’ŏllima movement during times of crisis by utilizing the collective memory to bolster nationalism and loyalty to the regimes. 

Dr. Lee also analyzed articles from the Korean Central News Agency from 2005-2018 and found out that between 2005 and 2010 the references to the concept of the nation decreased significantly. However, there was a peak in the reference of the nation in 2011, namely when Kim Jong-un came into power. This suggests that he used the concept of the nation more to solidify his regime. 

Dr. Lee further analyzed the frequency of the visiting of high-ranking members of the North-Korean Politburo in the areas of economy, politics and military from 1994 until 2015. Following Kim Jong-il succession in 1994 there was increased engagement in the political and military spheres which suggests a move towards power consolidation. Economic engagement remained low during that time, which suggests it was a secondary priority for the regime. Following Kim Jong-un succession in 2011, there was a dramatic spike in the engagement in all areas but particularly in the economic area. This suggests an attempt to link the economic development to the legitimacy of the regime. 

There is seemingly a strategic shift in the North Korean state propaganda. This suggests a growing confidence of the stability of the regime to focus on other themes such as economic development and diplomacy. Furthermore, less amount of referencing to the nationalist concept could signal a response to the internal challenges, such as economic hardship. 

Dr. Lee concluded by presenting the main implications of his research. First, the employment of nationalism as a tool to bolster the regime’s resilience and the population’s loyalty. Second, performance legitimation also serves as an important tool to enhance the regime’s resilience, as it shows the concern of the state towards other key issues. Lastly, in order for the regime to cope with the generational shifts on the North Korean society, they must implement effective co-optation strategies in order to ensure the stability of the regime. 

Dr. Mina Sumaadii: “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia”

Dr. Mina Sumaadii elaborated on how the economic and legal landscape in Mongolia has led to adverse outcomes, with politicians resorting to populist nationalism to conceal inequality. During elections, there is a deliberate attempt to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, often accusing them of having connections to China, whether familial or business-related. Additionally, paternal populism plays a role, with politicians advocating for ‘strong’ leadership, and anti-democratic reforms being rationalized under the guise of ensuring stability.

In contextualizing the rise of populism in Mongolia, Dr. Mina Sumaadii traced back to the 1985 post-communist revolution, marking the inception of Mongolia’s democratic system. Unlike other post-communist nations, Mongolia stands out due to the former Communist Party’s transformation into the main ruling party during the democratic era. However, with the decline of its primary opposition, the Democratic Party, Mongolia has experienced an extended period of one-party dominance since 2016. Consequently, V-Dem has downgraded Mongolia’s status from an electoral democracy to a ‘grey area’ hovering between electoral democracy and electoral autocracy.

Expanding on her contextualization, Dr. Sumaadii emphasized the impact of the 1990s recession and the shift towards an East-Asian orientation, both of which were bolstered by a mining boom in the 2000s. This boom played a significant role in Mongolia’s successful democratization, as the mining industry was not sufficiently developed during the initial democratization period in the 1990s, resulting in a delayed ‘resource curse’ effect. However, subsequent to this, the mining boom led to increasing inequality, with profits from the industry unevenly distributed, contributing to extreme poverty persisting until the 2010s, as wealth became concentrated among select individuals.

Poverty still remains a key economic and political issue, especially as it has not been reduced significantly in recent years, with corruption becoming a major problem as a result. Dr. Sumaadii reported that Mongolia has now, unfortunately, fallen into the same resource curse pattern as other developing nations. An increase in public protests has been the response to the rising inequality, with public confidence in political institutions at an all-time low, resulting in a loss of legitimacy since the populace believes that they cannot solve the problems in the country. 

Although Mongolia is a multiparty system, two major parties have historically dominated politics, but both were/are weakly institutionalized, with poor communication and record keeping of candidate’s policies. Dr. Sumaadii presented that whilst presidential elections receive better coverage, parliamentary elections have little to no record keeping, and no modern study exists investigating if elected candidates fulfilled any of their campaign promises. Political parties themselves do not have a consistent political platform, with individuals promising different contradicting policies under the banner of their political party. As a result, analysis in the traditional terms of ‘left and ‘right’ becomes nearly impossible in this context.

According to Dr. Sumaadii, restrictions on media freedom aid problems, as the country consists mostly of private media broadcasters that are often linked to certain political candidates. Censorship laws fine both local and international reporters for liable defamation, resulting in journalistic self-censorship. Dr. Sumaadii indicates that she still found a means to conduct an analysis of populism by focusing on the strategies employed by politicians, especially in regard to economic populism since most candidates do not campaign on ideology. The center point of this economic populism is alienating rivals with corruption allegations and a narrative of Mongolian ownership of resources as opposed to foreign ownership. In the past, anti-establishment campaigning formed another facet of this economic populism. However, its prominence has waned due to the shift towards a one-party state and the imperative to project party unity to the population. Dr. Sumaadii underscores that the weak rule of law and economic pledges made without due consideration for the national budget have resulted in the failure of many proposed policies, particularly those aimed at combating corruption.

To conclude, Dr. Sumaadii discussed that the economic and legal situation has had a negative effect as politicians try to mask inequality with populist nationalism – where in elections there is an effort to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, and in particular accusing them of having a Chinese connection, whether familial or business related. Paternal populism is also a factor, as politicians discuss the need for ‘strong’ leaders, and anti-democratic reforms are justified by the need for stability. 

(*) Radoslav Valev is an ECPS intern.

ECPS-RP1-LatinAmerica

Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America

Please cite as:

Venga, Luca & Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 20, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0052             

 

This brief report offers a summary of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled “Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America” which took place online on March 7, 2024. Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera moderated the panel, featuring insights from six distinguished populism scholars.

Report by Luca Venga* Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled “Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America” and held online on March 7, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Maria Puerta Riera, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Valencia College, the panel featured speakers Dr. Ronaldo Munck , Professor of Sociology, Dublin City University, Dr. Julio F. Carrión, Professor of Comparative Politics, Delaware University, Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Citadel, The Military College of Charleston, Dr. Reinhard Heinisch and Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia, respectively Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and director of the Center for Research in Communication and Humanities and head of Communication Studies at UPB in Cochabamba, and Dr. Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, Professor of History at Universidade Federal do Maranhão.

Introduction

Moderator Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera opened the panel by offering an overview of the state of the research on populism, commenting on its existing varieties and on its adaptability to different contexts. She identified an ideological view of populism – one that sees the setting up of a confrontation between two antagonistic, homogenous groups (the “pure people” and the “corrupted elites”) as the crucial element of this phenomenon – and a more pragmatic view, one that sees populism as a strategy for charismatic personalities to dominate national life and break their political exclusion. 

Dr. Puerta Riera thus highlighted the flexible nature of the concept, but also pointed at some common, shared trends – chief among them the idea of a radical democracy which dispenses with the formalities of liberal democracy in favour of a direct connection between the people and their leader. She then surveyed the existing varieties of populism in Latin America, distinguishing between populists who rely on ethno-nationalism, anti-imperialism, and on socio economic grievances as the foundations of their discourse. 

Dr. Puerta Riera sketched a temporal division of populism in Latin America: After a “first stage” characterized by populist support for a shift away from agriculture and towards industry (at the expense of the landowning elite) came a “second stage” with the advent of neoliberal economics and popular support of shock therapy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Lastly, she pointed at a “third stage” characterized by the return of socialist populism, which first came to power through democratic elections before turning towards authoritarianism. 

In the authoritarian tendencies of many populist leaders, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, Dr. Puerta Riera found further evidence of the adaptability of this political phenomenon, paving the way for a discussion of its facets by the various panelists. 

Dr. Ronaldo Munck: “Populism and Socio-Political Transformation in Latin America”

Professor Ronaldo Munck underscores that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection.

The first panelist, Professor Ronaldo Munck, opened the discussion by highlighting the negative normative connotations associated with populism in the “western” world, while acknowledging that Latin America is likely to see this phenomenon under a different light, given its peculiar history in this regard. Dr. Munck also distinguished between a kind of socio-economic dimension of populism, centered around the fight against the landed elites of colonial times, a pragmatic view that portrays populism as an opportunistic strategy, and a third perspective, of post-structuralist nature, which focuses on populist discourse and its narratives. He further described populism as an empty signifier, one that is filled with meaning depending on its context and circumstances, adapting to the cleavages that divide society and that depends on the conscious construction of two groups as antagonists. 

Dr. Munck added that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection: Firstly, he pondered over a “re-Gramscification” of populism, with an increased emphasis on hegemony and the role it plays in populist politics, and secondly he called for an increased focus on the role of emotions and desires in filling the “empty signifier” with powerful images, myths and ideas that capture popular imagination. 

Dr. Julio F. Carriòn: “Varieties of Populism and Democratic Erosion: The Case of Latin America”

Professor Julio F. Carriòn’s general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change.

Professor Julio F. Carriòn offered a speech based on his book ‘A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power. The Andes in Comparative Perspective.’ The key question of the book is the relationship between populism and the likelihood of regime change, following the comparative strain in the political sciences literature. Populism is then mainly viewed as a strategy to seek and exercise power, with the exhibition of a personalistic style of leadership, an anti-pluralistic and confrontational mentality, and a general distrust of checks and balances. 

His general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change. The process can be generally divided in three key moments: A tsunami phase where populism take off, a Hobbesian moment where populists are confronting other forces that can lead either to a re-equilibrations phase or to the desired populist in power moment. The development of power asymmetries during the confrontation phase will also consequently determine whether populist forces will be of a constrained or of an unconstrained type: If asymmetries arise, the political system will favor constrained populism.

To conclude, the second panelist discussed the ways to potentially apply this framework beyond the Andes. There are a few cases of constrained populism accompanied by democratic erosion in the American continent taken more broadly: Alan Garcia in Perù, Collor de Mello in Brazil, Menem and the Kirchners in Argentina, Trump in the US. But we can also argue for cases of unconstrained populism in Latin America and beyond where we can observe major processes of democratic erosion: Ortega in Nicaragua, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Bukele in El Salvador.

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera: “Global Power Dynamics and Authoritarian Populism in Venezuela”

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera explained how Hugo Chavez used populism in Venezuela as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. Chavez portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. 

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera provided a tightly focused presentation on Venezuela, comprehensively surveying the case of this country. She begun by distinguishing between populism and authoritarian populism, as the second is systematic in its rejection of pluralism and its concentration of power in the hands of a leader. The authoritarian populism is the more dangerous form, as it undermines democratic checks and balances and often includes extremist ideological elements – both from the left and the right. She then flagged how populism cannot be studies as a phenomenon bounded by national borders, since global events such as the rise of China or the retrenchment of the United States have important impacts on the trajectories of populist leaders and their ideas. 

This allowed her to introduce the case of Venezuela, as Dr. Boersner-Herrera underlined the transnational element of Hugo Chavez’s populist project, constructed in explicit opposition to the United States and in solidarity and cooperation with other allied regimes. A populist approach and discourse were used to capitalize on the divisions between the Global South and the Global North, and eventually to undermine democratic governance in Venezuela. 

She offered an overview of the main stages of “Chavismo,” beginning with the drafting of a new Constitution in 1999, moving to the creation of Bolivarian Circles in 2001 and the 2006 address to the United Nations. Dr. Boersner Herrera explained how Chavez used populism as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. He portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. 

Dr. Boersner-Herrera concluded by remarking on the regime’s economic foundations, and on the transition that led to the inauguration of the new President, Nicholas Maduro. She gave evidence supporting the theory that Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. Attention was also paid to Venezuela’s global networks, developed by Maduro to shore up his position and reap the benefits of anti-western discourse. Thus, Dr. Boersner-Herrera linked this specific case back to her broader suggestion that populism’s international dimension needs to be better understood and studied. 

Dr. Reinhard Heinisch & Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia: “Libertarian Populism? Making Sense of Javier Milei’s Discourse”

According to Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Javier Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign. Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia gave a speech about Javier Milei’s political discourse. The aim of their presentation was to analyze Milei’s character under the lens of theories of populism in order to better position his figure in the political (populist) spectrum. To them, this is important because the literature describes Milei as a ‘half populist’ leader, in addition to the fact that he considers himself as a liberal libertarian vis-à-vis other populists in Argentina. To do that, Dr. Heinisch and Dr. Laguna Tapia looked at his discourse from three different approaches: Ideational populism, populism as a discursive frame, populism as a strategy, populism as performing crisis. The strategy employed to analyze Milei’s discourse has been to track his position in speeches and postings on the medias collected from the beginning of his campaign to the elections, under a holistic deductive coding methodology.

Dr. Laguna Tapia gave an historical summary of the unique perspective of Argentine populism, recalling the three-phases division of a ‘classical’ phase in the 1940s and 1950s, the ‘neo-populist’ era in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the resurgence phase in the early 21st century. Particularly, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign.

Dr. Heinisch then presented the findings of the research from every angle outlined above. From the ideational approach, Milei doesn’t refer much to the concept of ‘the people’ as opposed to ‘corrupt elites,’ that he spends a lot of time in identifying as enemies. There is also not much Manichean opposition between these two forces, and his host ideology is clearly a libertarian one, with a quasi-religious nature. Therefore, Milei does not fit the ideational pattern. 

Moving to the discursive framing approach, ‘the people’ is again not fully defined as a concept, while he focuses a lot on the diagnosis of the problems, without leaning a lot on the prognosis and about what he wants specifically to change. As well as before, he is clearer mostly on the economic agenda. Also here, he thus fails to satisfy this theoretical approach. 

Considering the third theoretical pattern, populism as a strategy, Dr. Heinisch argued that is difficult to tell whether populism is in itself a strategy or not, given that every politician has a strategy by definition. Milei is strategic here in the sense that he distances himself mainly from fellow conservatives and the representatives of the government. Hence, this approach is just half satisfactory to tackle Milei’s populism. 

Following the last line of investigation based on the performance of crisis, there is more evidence pointing to Milei as a populist. He talks extensively, strongly, and morally about the crisis Argentina is facing, describing enemies and detractors in extremely negative terms, while positioning ‘the people’ as opposed to them. To conclude, Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho: “The Phenomenon of ‘Bolsonarism’ in Brazil: Specificities and Global Connections”

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism. He drew comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model. 

The last panelist, Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism. 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho begun with a general definition of populism, highlighting which elements are necessary for a movement to be labelled as populist. He identified the presence of a strong, charismatic leader, a discursive emphasis on the “us versus them” mentality, and a tension between liberal democracy and the movement’s impulses as the crucial facets of populism, before delving into the intricacies of the ‘people versus elites’ discourse. He underlined how these narratives are not necessarily based on pre-existing societal divisions but are built around ‘empty signifiers’ which act as catalysts to unite the people and construct an enemy to target. 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho then discussed the ways in which the highly publicized Lava Jato scandal was instrumentalized by the far-right to craft an anti-corruption narrative centered around the ideas of a clean, minimal state; a beacon of entrepreneurial freedom juxtaposed with the wasteful, inefficient ‘big state’ promoted by the left. This vision was presented as an apolitical quest in the nation’s interest, but Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho pointed at its inherently political agenda and at its ideological undertones. 

He then proceeded to explain how former President Jair Bolsonaro took ownership of this anti-corruption discourse, mixing it with a strong anti-communist rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War and of the years of the military dictatorship. Further, he pointed out how a new moral dimension was added by Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal supporters of the former president, as corruption became an all-encompassing target in the ‘culture wars.’ 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho thus dissected the supposedly apolitical nature of these campaigns, exposing their roots in far-right thinking and in the frustrated aspirations of millions of Brazilians. He explained how the absence of a true national project, the state’s reliance on agribusiness, and the model of ‘consumer citizenship’ all led to a crisis of expectations, as economic conditions worsened, and many Brazilians felt robbed of their future. He placed these trends in the larger, global milieu, linking them with the 2008 financial crisis and with the worldwide neoliberal project, which creates new forms of subjectivation and promotes the rollback of an already absent state. 

Finally, Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho drew more comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some concluding remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model.

The KMT’s presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, held a momentum party about 350,000 people in the Triple Happiness Water Park in New Taipei City, Taiwan on September 8, 2019. Photo: Ricky Kuo.

Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 5, 2024.   https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0053                

 

This report offers a summary of the tenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan,” which took place online on February 29, 2024. Dr. Dachi Liao moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished panelists.

Report by Philip Christo Pretorius & Neo Sithole

This report provides a brief overview of the tenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan” held online on February 29, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Dachi Liao, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, the panel featured speakers Dr. Toru Yoshida, Full Professor of Comparative Politics at Doshisha University in Japan, Dr. Airo Hino, Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu, Assistant Professor, Political Science, McMaster University, Dr. Jiun-Chi Lin, Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Marketing Communication, National Sun Yat-sen University.

Panel moderator Dr. Dachi Liao began the panel with an overall assessment on the various facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan. In this assessment, she identified four populist figures, two from each country, before going on to define “populism” to allow for a mutually clear and understood definition to be used throughout the panel session. 

According to Dr. Liao, the underlying assumption/common understanding of populism and populist studies globally is based on the permanent division between the ‘elite’ and the common people. She highlighted three important facets for her conceptualization of the populist phenomenon: the provocation of a “social cleavage,” charismatic leaders that can stir anxious moods towards the social cleavage, and the use of an emotional and colloquial communication style. 

Next, Dr. Liao provided various factors that he believes to be causing the populist trend, including economic, political, cultural, institutional and technological, while from the drawing scholarly works of Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit, and Ernesto Laclau’s Populism: What’s in a Name?

Ending this opening presentation, she highlighted that although the populist trend has a positive effect on policy change and power restructuring, it has also caused a political breakdown and polarization within society. With the definition of populism established, Dr. Liao made a preliminary comparison between Japanese and Taiwanese populist trends indicating that in her research she found that economic factors were a stronger driving factor for Japanese populism, compared to the political nationalism found in Taiwan, and that she found Japanese institutions were more authoritarian in design compared to Taiwan’s Liberal Democratic institutions.

Dr. Toru Yoshida: “The State of Populism in Japan: A Comparative Perspective”

Dr. Yoshida highlights the distinction between Japanese populism and its Western counterpart, emphasizing that the Japanese national government already leans towards social conservatism and economic protectionism, unlike many Western governments. However, Dr. Toru’s research reveals that ‘populists’ in Japan tend to adopt a more politically moderate stance compared to Western standards. Rather than embracing authoritarian or hardline views typical of Western populism, they often take a centrist approach to political issues.

Dr. Toru Yoshida’s presentation focused on a comparative perspective between the state of populism in Japan and other countries, especially those of the West. He highlighted that in Western politics the key difference between right-wing and left-wing populism, these being that right-wing populism presents itself as politically nationalistic/nativist, socially conservative and authoritarian while left-wing populism is more politically cosmopolitan/progressive and socially inclusive. However, Dr. Yoshida commented on how both share the common trait of being economically protectionist. 

In his analysis of populism in Japan Dr. Yoshida highlighted that although populists in Japan practice the ‘good people’ versus the ‘evil elite’ discourse used in Western settings, they are usually elected through local-level politically reformist campaigns that have a pro-market stance. As these findings contrast what is found in the West, Dr. Yoshida investigated this further through two research questions: Why are Japanese populists mainly regional politicians; and why are they politically reformist and economically liberal? 

As an answer to both questions, Dr. Yoshida hypothesizes that populist politicians are elected on a local level due to the proportional representative electoral system and that local governments are seen as “protectors of the people” against the “corrupt elite” of the national government. This is the result of local politicians seeking institutional reform as a strategically rational way of trying to win the vote of independent voters who often support neo-liberal reform policies and have low confidence in politicians and national institutions. 

Dr. Yoshida highlights the distinction between Japanese populism and its Western counterpart, emphasizing that the Japanese national government already leans towards social conservatism and economic protectionism, unlike many Western governments. However, Dr. Yoshida’s research reveals that ‘populists’ in Japan tend to adopt a more politically moderate stance compared to Western standards. Rather than embracing authoritarian or hard-line views typical of Western populism, they often take a centrist approach to political issues.

Dr. Airo Hino: “The Nature of Populism in Japan – Japan as an Uncharted Territory of Global Populism?”

‘Populism’ in Japan has often been connected to ideas and policies which are seen as pandering to the electorate with short-term benefits, and is reflected in the language where ‘populism’ appears together with ‘taishū-geigō’ (literally meaning ‘pandering to the masses’) in more than half the articles published since the 1990’s. As a result, ordinary people have become accustomed to seeing the two ideas used together, thus resulting in an overall negative connotation of ‘populism’ today.

In his presentation Dr. Airo Hino looked to disprove the underlying assumption that Japan is free from populism and immune to the spread of it. By using historical examples, Dr. Hino highlighted that Japan has not only experienced populism before but suggests that these experiences have prevented the surge of fully-fledged populism. 

Following defining how populism is analytically perceived within the country, Dr. Hino unpacked how populists in Japan reduce politics to common populist tropes of the ‘ordinary people’ versus the ‘elite,’ the morally good versus evil, and friends versus enemies, and in the process exploiting the mass media using this dramatic ‘theatrical style’ of rhetoric. Using this analytical framework as a basis, Dr. Hino displayed how certain populist politicians have used this theatrical rhetoric in campaigns both in the past and continue to do so now.

Continuing his presentation, he argued that populism is not only an analytical concept, but a frame which has shaped Japanese politics since the 1990’s. To do so, Dr. Hino graphed references to “populism” and “populists” in Japanese newspapers and academic journals that indicated four waves of populism first emerging during the 1990’s in the era of “reform politics.” 

‘Populism’ in Japan has often been connected to ideas and policies which are seen as pandering to the electorate with short-term benefits, and is reflected in the language where ‘populism’ appears together with ‘taishū-geigō’ (literally meaning ‘pandering to the masses’) in more than half the articles published since the 1990’s. As a result, ordinary people have become accustomed to seeing the two ideas used together, thus resulting in an overall negative connotation of ‘populism’ today. 

Continuing this line of argument, Dr. Hino brough up that due to a series of scandals in the 1990s, criticism and attacks of the central government increased in parallel with anti-elite sentiments, all resulted in the positive perception of populism, leading into the Koizumi era of neo-liberal reforms where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi presented himself theatrically as a hero batting entrenched interests. 

Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu: “Populism in Taiwan, Rethinking the Neoliberalism-Populism Nexus”

Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu contends that Taiwan provides a notable example of the integral state, established by the KMT regime following World War II. Initially, Taiwan operated under a developmental model that significantly boosted its economic growth. However, come the 1980s, the state faced dual crises: economic stagnation and challenges to political legitimacy, prompting the need for extensive restructuring. This effort entailed the adoption of neoliberal reforms aimed at rejuvenating the economy while concurrently aiming to uphold political control and social stability.

Based off her most recent article on the neoliberalism-populism nexus, Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu’s presentation looked at finding the correlation between economic liberal globalization and rise of populism, especially amongst the working class who are more inclined to elect populist leaders. Here Dr. Hsu begun by explaining what she conceptualizes as the ‘neoliberalism-populism nexus’ which is explained to be the popular view that contemporary populist is an outcome of neoliberal globalization and the economic grievances attached to it (which then creates the inclination towards populist leaders for the working-class). 

However, Taiwan’s experience complicates this narrative, something that prompted Dr. Hsu to reevaluate the relationship between neoliberalism and populism by asking “can neo-liberalism rise from populism?” and is populism a consequence, counterforce, or constitutive component of neo-liberalism? 

Turning to East Asian cases of populism, Dr. Hsu highlights that experiences are diverse in East Asia because there are indeed elected neo-liberal populist leaders, but also anti-neoliberal popular movements such as the Candlelight Movement in South Korea and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which highlights that the connection between neo-liberalism and populism isn’t as clear cut as one would believe.  

In analyzing these dynamics, Dr. Hsu utilizes the integral state concept and non-reductionist class analysis derived from Gramscian and Marxist theories. The Gramscian integral state emphasizes the dual objectives of facilitating capitalist economic accumulation and securing political legitimacy for the governing authority. It contends that capitalist accumulation and political hegemony are interlinked, and crises in one domain often trigger disruptions in the other, leading to volatile socio-political relations.

According to Dr. Hsu, the manifestation of the integral state is most evident in Taiwan, where it was established by the KMT regime in the aftermath of World War II. Initially, Taiwan operated under a developmental model that effectively propelled its economic growth. However, by the 1980s, the state encountered dual crises – economic stagnation and political legitimacy challenges – necessitating a comprehensive restructuring effort.

This restructuring endeavor involved the implementation of neoliberal reforms aimed at revitalizing the economy while simultaneously seeking to maintain political control and social stability.

Dr. Hsu also delved into the post-restructuring period that witnessed the emergence of two forms of populism in Taiwan: liberal populism and neoliberal populism. Liberal populism, exemplified by movements such as the 2006 “Red Shirt” movement and the 2013 “White Shirt” movement, focused on moral outrage and demands for political reform. However, it failed to address structural causes and ultimately reinforced the existing power structures.

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin – “How Professionalized Are Parties’ Populist Communication Strategies on Facebook? An Observation the 2024 Taiwan National Election”

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin and his colleagues have delineated populism within a communication framework, emphasizing core tenets such as people-centralism, anti-elitism, and the restoration of popular sovereignty. They assert that this ‘campaign professionalization’ is frequently associated with the involvement of experts during election cycles. However, Dr. Lin contends that such professionalization is more intricately tied to technological innovations. To effectively engage with voters on social media platforms, political parties must prioritize professionalizing their communication strategies.

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin’s talk focused on a practical approach of investigating populism, specifically the use of populist rhetoric in elections on social media, centrally in the increased interest overall in how parties communicate to their voters, and thus investigating the language used by mainstream parties in building a relationship with its voters on online platforms is an important starting point in investigating the professionalization of populist communication.

To do this Dr. Lin and his colleagues established populism through a communication framework with key ideas such as people-centralism, anti-elitism, and restoring popular sovereignty. This ‘campaign professionalization’ was explained to often be linked to the role of experts during the election cycle, but Dr. Lin argued that campaign professionalization is instead linked to the technological innovations, and to establish a good relationship with voters on social media, parties need to learn how to professionalize communication. 

Therefore, through the integration of different communication styles, negative and emotional communication have been found to best reinforce populist messages. Using this framework, Dr. Lin’s team investigated if they could find certain trends in the communication styles used by parties during the 2024 Taiwan election. To do so, Facebook posts from December 2023 to Mid-January 2024 acted as the preliminary starting point for their investigation. Dr. Lin used key examples from his finding in the presentation to highlight his argument, starting with the DPP who’s first post featured gratitude for the people, and emphasizes personal characteristics of leaders. In the second example, the party used the negative style of communication, focusing on national sovereignty, and criticizing the KMT. The DPP particularly emphasized their opponents as the “elite” and as the enemy, using the corruption crisis to polarize the people against them. In a final example given during the presentation the DPP focus on one of their candidate’s charisma – emphasizing her positive features as ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, when investigating the KMT political party, Dr. Lin’s team also focused on people centrism, restoring popular sovereignty, and have a sociable style of communication. In a first example, Dr. Lin presents an advertisement where KMT emphasizes that they care about the people, specifically focusing on the anecdote that one of their leaders went to shake hands with everyone he met, looking after the people, and that KMT’s candidates are professional and seeks to improve people’s lives. 

They also made anti-elite posts, strongly criticizing the DPP, asking voters to elect the KMT for the chance to change politics in the next four years. Dr. Lin concludes by giving attention the major communicative characteristics of mainstream parties including people-centrism, restoring popular sovereignty and anti-elitism.

ECPS-MGP9

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

Please cite as:

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

 

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

Report by Dr. Gabriel Cyrille Nguijoi & Neo Sithole 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECPS-MEP-Video-Panel8

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

Please cite as:

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

 

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

Report by Andrea Guidotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

By Zhanyl Ashirbekova & Neo Sithole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ECPS-MGP-Panel6-Video

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

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



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

Report by Andrea Guidotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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