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

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

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

 

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

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramsha Jahangir: “Media and Populism in Pakistan”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Please cite as:

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

 

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

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Abstract

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


By Jan-Werner Müller*

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Matej Kastelic.

ECPS Academy Summer School 2023 — Populism, war and crises: How populism interacts with crises during wartime?

ECPS organized its third virtual Summer School on July 3-7, 2023, focusing on the interaction between populism and crises which were categorized into five groups: political crisis, economic crisis, cultural crisis, environmental crisis, and health crisis. Keeping in mind that crises vary in nature, and each has different consequences depending on the conjuncture in which they emerge, Summer School examined these five groups by taking into account the repercussions of the current international political context, particularly the war in Ukraine.

ECPS organized its third virtual Summer School on July 3-7, 2023, focusing on the interaction between populism and crises. Our world is going through turbulent times on many fronts struggling with complex challenges emanating from various crises in different spheres of life, and these crises create convenient environments for populist politics. In line with this, in recent years, we have observed the emergence and success of populist parties in a number of countries, and this number is on the rise, including in Europe. These developments align with the conclusion that populism usually occurs within a crisis scenario (Laclau, 1977: 175). Thus, we decided to discuss the relationship between crises and populism at this year’s Summer School. To this end, for practicality, we categorized contemporary crises into five groups and analyzed them accordingly: political crisis and populism, economic crisis and populism, cultural crisis and populism, environmental crisis and populism, and health crisis and populism. Keeping in mind that crises vary in nature, and each has different consequences depending on the conjuncture in which they emerge, we examined these five groups by taking into account the repercussions of the current international political context, particularly the war in Ukraine.

The lecturers for this year’s Summer School were Professor Kai Arzheimer, Professor Jocelyne Cesari, Professor Sergei Guriev, Dr Heidi Hart, Dr Gideon Lasco, Professor Nonna Mayer, Professor John Meyer, Professor Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor Neil Robinson, and Professor Ewen Speed. The program took place on Zoom, consisting of two sessions each day. Over the course of five days, interactive lectures by these world-leading experts discussed from various angles the nexus between populism and the crises we face today.

The opening lecture of Prof Kai Arzheimer explained how populists often benefit from events that are not crises in a strict sense but are framed as such. In turn, populist policies may lead to genuine political crises. The following lecture, carried out by Prof Neil Robinson, addressed contemporary ‘official populism’ developed in Russia in the 2010s and how certain elements of this ‘official populism’ is being contested by new actors following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Political Crisis and Populism

By Dr Kai Arzheimer

 

The Russian-Ukrainian War and the Changing Forms of Russian Populism

By Dr Neil Robinson

 

The third and fourth lectures, presented by Prof Ewen Speed and Dr Gideon Lasco, focused on the complex and contradictory topic of medical populism. Drawing on the work of Laclau, Prof Speed’s session considered how medical populism (particularly from the right) has been developed and used in the context of broader political struggles (e.g., around vaccination or abortion); while Dr Lasco’s presentation reviewed and critically engaged with the concept of medical populism, its elements of spectacularization, simplification, and forging of divisions, as well as the literature on its figurations during the pandemic in different countries.

Health Crisis and Populism

By Dr Ewen Speed

 

COVID-19 and the Evolving Nature of Medical Populism

By Dr Gideon Lasco

 

Moving onto the issue of economic crisis and populism, on the third day, Prof Ibrahim Ozturk talked about the abuse of the negative repercussions of an unmanaged globalization in economics by the populists. His engaging lecture was followed by an 8-part presentation by Dr Sergei Guriev on populism, its evolution, the role of secular economic factors related to cross-border trade and automation, the 2008–09 global financial crisis and subsequent austerity, a discussion on studies on identity politics, trust, and cultural backlash, the gap between perceptions and reality regarding immigration, and the impact of the internet and social media. 

The Abuse of the Negative Repercussions of An Unmanaged Globalisation in Economics by the Populists

By Dr Ibrahim Ozturk

 

The Political Economy of Populism

By Dr Sergei Guriev

 

Tackling the relationship between environmental crisis and populism, Dr Heidi Hart’s speech noted pro-business climate denialism and the surprising overlap between left and far-right ecological activism in Europe and also traced the history of illiberal environmentalism through the Nazi period in Germany to contemporary appropriations of “deep ecology,” with several examples from popular culture that make this ideology more appealing than it might at first appear. Following, Prof Jocelyne Cesari addressed the difference between religious nationalism and populism, highlighted the importance of political history and secular cultures on the political role of religion in any given country, and talked about the international and transnational religious forms of populism.

Populism and Environmental Crisis – From Denial to the New Deep Ecology

By Dr Heidi Hart

 

Why Religious Nationalism Is Not Populism

By Dr Jocelyn Cesari

 

On the final day of the Summer School, Prof Nonna Mayer revisited and nuanced the explanations of right-wing populism in terms of cultural backlash and cultural insecurity, taking the French case as an example. The closing lecture of Prof John M. Meyer discussed the entanglements of climate change politics with populism and argued that opportunities for effective climate change action could be found in a more encompassing conception of populism, one rooted in an inclusive conception of “the people,” and an embrace of counter-expertise grounded in local knowledge of climate vulnerability and injustice.

Cultural Explanations of Right-wing Populism… and Beyond

By Dr Nonna Mayer

 

The Ambiguous Promise of Climate Populism

By Dr John M. Meyer

 

This year’s program was participated by around 50 attendees from all over the world with various backgrounds. They found the opportunity to engage in discussions with the lecturers on the topics mentioned, and they networked with each other in small groups and practiced peer-to-peer learning in a diverse international environment. At the end of the program, participants were offered the possibility of becoming part of a lasting academic and professional network through ECRN (Early Career Researchers’ Network) and the ECPS Youth. 

Case Competition on Populism and Cultural Crisis in Ukraine

The Summer School also included a case competition scheduled as a five-day program between 3-7 July. The aim was to provide a unique learning environment to the participants in which they would learn how to transform their academic knowledge into feasible policy suggestions. 

The Competition tackled a real-life problem within the broad topic of populism, crises, and war, more specifically on Populism and Cultural Crisis in Ukraine. One of the most burning contemporary issues of populism, crises and war is connected to war-torn Ukraine at the moment; therefore, the focus of the case was Ukraine. The groups were expected to draw a broad picture of the current cultural policy of Ukraine by considering the historical and political background and then to choose a specific issue such as the politics of identity, language, cultural symbols, locations where culture constitutes a delicate/problematic matter, Russia’s cultural influence, Ukraine’s pro-western politics and more. 

Participants were divided into teams to work together on solving the case and were expected to prepare policy suggestions. The proposals of the participants were then evaluated by an assessment committee composed of scholars and experts based on criteria such as creativity, feasibility, and presentation skills. On the first day of Summer School, ECPS provided the groups with an information pack that included documents and sources that outlined the case and its context. (Please consult this document for detailed information.) Moreover, each day, a one-hour-long consultation session was arranged for the competitors when the teams could discuss their progress and partake in the case-solving activity together. On the final day of the competition, short presentations were carried out and thoroughly evaluated by the assessing committee, which gave valuable feedback to the attendees.

The Scenario

Participants had to position themselves as a member of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy advisory board, responsible for advising on the country’s cultural policy. According to the scenario, the board comprised academics, experts, opinion leaders, journalists, writers, artists, civil society members, high-level bureaucrats, lobbyists, and policymakers, and each group should determine its role on the board, which in this situation, had its upcoming annual meeting. During this meeting, members evaluate and critique the previous years’ policies and suggest amendments or new policies. 

As a group, case competition teams chose a specific policy of the current government in a particular location; they tried to figure out how politics interacts with culture and how it influences Ukrainian relations with the EU and Russia, as well as discussed the shortcomings of Ukraine’s cultural policy and elaborated on what kind of policy would be in the country’s best interest. While crafting their suggestions, groups had to remember that the country is at war with Russia and enjoys Western support, particularly from the EU. Therefore, understanding the EU’s current approach to the cultural issues in Ukraine and if the approach needs to be revised were also among the main considerations of the participants.

The Groups and the Winning Project

The participants were divided into seven competing groups, each named after a symbolic Ukrainian city (Kherson, Lviv, Kharkiv, Poltava, Lugansk, Odesa, Mariupol). The teams tackled a wide range of cultural policy issues in Ukraine, such as the protection of minority rights, the conservation of collective memory of war through the creation of commemorative sites, the proposal of a cultural awareness campaign, the protection of Ukrainian cultural heritage through artistic freedom of expression against the war, the preservation of cultural sites of Odesa and active involvement of citizens in the conservation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine, and the introduction of a post-war Legislative Framework for Minority Language Protection. The winning Lviv team presented a case on Decommunization in Ukraine: Policy Recommendation for a Balanced Approach and was awarded a special recognition document for their outstanding performance. 

All in all, our five-day schedule provided young people with a dynamic, engaging, and interdisciplinary learning environment with an intellectually challenging program presented by world-class scholars of populism, allowing them to grow as future academics, intellectuals, activists and public leaders. Participants had the opportunity to develop invaluable cross-cultural perspectives and facilitate a knowledge exchange beyond European borders.

 

DOWNLOAD CASE COMPETITION INFORMATION PACK

 


 

Feedbacks From Participants

“The Summer School was a great opportunity to learn a lot. I became acquainted with so many scholars and researchers and make connections during Q&A sessions as well as during the case competition. It was an amazingly fruitful week in all senses.” 

Olena Siden, PhD Student in Philology, at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

 

“This program is greatly insightful, inspirational and challenging in terms of how to deal with the highly complex phenomena of populism. It helps a lot for me to make intellectual reflection and recalibrate the specification of my research on populism.”

Hasnan Bachtiar, LLB. PhD student at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia and Director of Research at Rumah Baca Cerdas (RBC) Institute Abdul Malik Fadjar, Indonesia.

 

“The summer school on populism studies was very comprehensive, and all the sessions were filled with fascinating insights and perspectives. It helped me to explore every aspect of populism studies in detail and foster a deeper understanding of its complexities and implications. The interactive nature of the summer school was particularly commendable. The group discussion and case competition session allowed for engaging and stimulating conversations among participants. It has truly been an inspiring and transformative journey, and I am confident that the knowledge and insight gained will have a great impact on my academic and professional life.” 

Shyam Kumar, Research Scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India 

 

“The lecturers who spoke on populism were remarkable, providing me with invaluable insights and perspectives. Additionally, the inclusion of a discussion room following the lectures was an excellent idea. It provided an opportunity for me to engage in fruitful discussions, seek clarification on any confusing aspects, and raise pertinent questions.”

Hilal Cibik, PhD Researcher in Legal Populism, Exeter University

 

“The sessions covered various aspects of populism, like, socio-political implications and its impact on contemporary democracies. The inclusion of multidisciplinary perspectives helped me gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. I particularly appreciated the quality of the instructors and their expertise in their respective fields. Their ability to present complex concepts in a clear and accessible manner greatly enhanced the learning experience. The interactive nature of the sessions, with opportunities for questions and discussions, fostered an engaging and collaborative environment that encouraged active participation. The selection of the case study provided us with valuable insight into the different manifestations of populism. One aspect that I found especially beneficial was the emphasis on critical thinking and analysis. The program challenged participants to examine populism from various angles, considering its advantages and drawbacks. This approach allowed for nuanced discussions and encouraged us to question our assumptions and biases.”

Junaid Amjad, PhD Scholar, Western Sydney University.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan

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Ahmed, Zahid Shahab; Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 20, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0042

 

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

 

By Zahid Shahab Ahmed*,  Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh** and Galib Bashirov***

Executive Summary

With the Pakistani government implementing rules and regulations to control the online sphere, particularly through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), digital authoritarianism has emerged as a significant governance tool in the country. Concerns have been raised regarding potential abuses stemming from the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the extensive monitoring authority granted to intelligence services. However, despite the rise of digital authoritarianism, a countervailing force exists. Pakistan’s judiciary has displayed resistance, and the nation boasts a robust civil society that includes human rights organizations focusing on digital rights. These groups express concerns regarding data security, privacy regulations, and the internet access of marginalized communities. This study aims to examine the dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and evaluate the role of civil society organizations in promoting and protecting digital rights.

Initially, communications in Pakistan were governed by colonial-era legislation, such as the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act of 1996 and the Telegraph Act of 1885. The Fair Trial Act of 2013 enabled the extensive collection of evidence through monitoring. These regulations, coupled with the absence of a comprehensive digital governance bill, have facilitated continuous online surveillance. Pakistan has witnessed remarkable growth in internet penetration, with approximately one-third of the population now having internet access.

In 2016, Pakistan introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to address internet governance. The act imposes severe penalties for various offences, including hacking, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. However, concerns have been raised regarding issues such as misuse, limitations on expressive rights, and privacy violations. PECA grants increased authority to institutions like the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance and prosecution. The PTA possesses extensive powers to block and remove content, often justifying these actions based on the grounds of promoting vulgarity or corrupting the youth. Social media companies are also required to comply with specific regulations.

Pakistan benefits from a strong network of civil society organizations that actively collaborate with international counterparts to raise awareness about digital rights. Within Pakistan, several prominent organizations are dedicated to advocating for digital rights, internet freedom, privacy, and digital literacy.

The Digital Rights Foundation is a notable non-profit organization that focuses on promoting digital rights and addressing issues such as online harassment, data security, freedom of speech, and women’s digital rights. They conduct research, provide legal support, and deliver training and awareness programs on digital security.

Bolo Bhi is another civil society organization committed to internet freedom, digital security, and open access to information. Alongside policy advocacy, research, and digital literacy initiatives, they raise public awareness about internet censorship, surveillance, and privacy concerns.

Media Matters for Democracy is a group that works on freedom of expression, digital rights, and media development in Pakistan. Through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building initiatives, they strive to enhance online civic spaces, promote digital literacy, and safeguard digital rights.

The Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan, a research project, offers policy recommendations on issues such as data privacy, monitoring, and censorship. They track and analyse internet governance challenges in Pakistan.

Privacy International, a global organization, advocates for privacy rights and opposes intrusive monitoring practices, including in Pakistan.

These civil society organizations play crucial roles in promoting and safeguarding digital rights in Pakistan, both through local advocacy efforts and international collaborations. These organizations actively engage in research, lobbying, and capacity-building initiatives to interact with politicians, raise public awareness, and protect digital rights in Pakistan. They also address the issue of inadequate internet access, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Their initiatives serve as a reminder of the significance of inclusive policies, digital literacy programs, bridging the digital divide, and ensuring that technological advancements are guided by human rights principles.

By conducting research, these organizations generate valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities related to digital rights in Pakistan. They utilize this research to advocate for policies that protect individuals’ online freedoms and privacy. Through lobbying efforts, they aim to influence policymakers and lawmakers, urging them to enact laws and regulations that promote digital rights and address concerns regarding internet access, privacy, and surveillance. Capacity-building initiatives undertaken by these organizations involve educating individuals and communities about digital rights, empowering them to understand their rights and navigate the online world safely. These efforts are particularly vital in rural and underserved areas, where access to information and digital literacy may be limited. The organizations’ commitment to addressing the digital divide highlights the importance of ensuring equal and affordable internet access for all citizens, regardless of their geographical location or socioeconomic status. Furthermore, these organizations emphasize the need for human rights principles to underpin technological advancements. They advocate for a responsible and ethical approach to digital development, wherein individual privacy, freedom of expression, and other fundamental rights are respected and protected.

Policy Implications

– The ambiguous definitions of cybercrime within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) give rise to concerns regarding potential abuses and violations of privacy. To address these issues and ensure the protection of individual rights, it is imperative for the government to undertake a thorough review and modification of the Act. This review should involve establishing precise definitions for cybercrimes and implementing stringent regulations governing the collection, storage, and utilization of personal data. Additionally, robust data protection laws need to be put in place to safeguard the privacy of individuals.

– Given the wide-ranging monitoring authority granted to intelligence services under PECA, there is a pressing need for stronger supervision and accountability mechanisms. To prevent the potential abuse of surveillance powers and protect individual rights, it is crucial to establish independent authorities tasked with overseeing and regulating the operations of intelligence services. Transparency and accountability should be prioritized through regular audits and reporting procedures, ensuring that the actions of these services align with legal and ethical standards. By implementing robust oversight measures, we can safeguard against potential abuses and maintain the balance between security concerns and individual privacy rights.

– The resilience displayed by the judiciary in Pakistan against digital authoritarianism is commendable. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of enhancing judicial independence and equipping courts with the necessary tools to effectively address matters related to digital rights. To enhance the judiciary’s understanding of the complexities involved, it is crucial to implement judicial training programs focused on technology and digital issues. These training initiatives can provide judges with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the intricacies of digital matters and make informed decisions. By bolstering judicial comprehension in this field, the judiciary’s ability to uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan can be strengthened.

– The government should prioritize initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide and improving internet access, especially in rural and underserved areas. This requires making substantial investments in infrastructure development, expanding broadband availability, and reducing internet service costs. Additionally, implementing digital literacy programs is crucial to equip individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital realm securely and effectively. By addressing these issues, the government can empower marginalized communities, bridge the digital gap, and create equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the digital age.

– Civil society groups in Pakistan are at the forefront of promoting digital rights. Recognizing their expertise and advocacy efforts, the government should actively engage with these organizations and seek their advice and insights in formulating rules and regulations. Collaborating with civil society groups allows for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing the diverse issues and viewpoints related to digital rights. By fostering meaningful dialogue and incorporating the perspectives of various stakeholders, the government can develop more effective policies that uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan.

– Extensive public awareness campaigns are essential to educate the public about their digital rights, emphasizing the importance of online privacy and security. These awareness efforts should be inclusive, targeting various social groups, with a particular focus on marginalized communities. The aim is to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to protect their personal information online, recognize potential risks, and take appropriate legal action if their rights are violated. By empowering people with this information, we can foster a safer and more informed digital environment, ensuring that individuals are aware of their rights and can actively safeguard their online privacy and security.

– Pakistan should actively engage in international forums and collaborate with other nations to establish best practices and standards in addressing digital rights issues, recognizing the global nature of these challenges. By participating in these forums, Pakistan can benefit from shared knowledge and experiences, leading to more effective approaches in protecting digital rights. Collaborating with organizations like Privacy International can be instrumental in leveraging their expertise and assistance to strengthen privacy rights and oppose intrusive surveillance practices. By working together on an international scale, Pakistan can contribute to the development of robust frameworks for digital rights protection and ensure that privacy and individual freedoms are upheld in the digital realm.


 

Introduction

Policemen stand guard to avoid any untoward incident at Kati Pahari road as security has been tightened in city due to violence on July 06, 2011 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political landscape has been profoundly shaped by its historical trajectory, which has been marred by violence, religious divisions, and an intricate struggle for identity. The country has faced challenges in establishing a stable democracy, with periods of military dictatorship undermining democratic processes. Governance issues, such as limited freedom of the press, restricted right to protest, and interference from the military establishment, have cast a shadow on Pakistan’s democratic credentials. Furthermore, the rise of digital authoritarianism has added a new dimension to the country’s political landscape.

To govern the digital sphere, the government has implemented laws and regulations, with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) serving as foundational legislation. However, concerns arise from the ambiguous definitions of cybercrime in PECA, and the extensive surveillance powers granted to civil and military intelligence agencies, raising the potential for abuse of power. The state has invested in technological capabilities for online monitoring, including web monitoring systems and social media monitoring cells. This digital surveillance infrastructure, combined with the expanded role of state institutions, reinforces the government’s control over cyberspace and its citizens’ privacy.

While digital authoritarianism is on the rise, characterized by increased surveillance, internet shutdowns, and restrictions on dissent, there exists a counterbalancing force. Pakistan’s judiciary has demonstrated resistance to encroachments on digital rights, and a robust civil society, including human rights organizations focusing on digital rights, actively advocates for the protection of digital rights in the country. These organizations voice concerns regarding data protection and privacy laws, as well as advocating for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized populations in regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

This report aims to delve into the various dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and examine the role of civil society organizations in promoting and safeguarding digital rights within the country.

Pakistan is a country that has seen violence and brutality since its formation in 1947. Following World War II, the British Raj withdrew from the Indian Subcontinent, creating independent states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, leading to millions of people migrating across the newly created borders between India and Pakistan. The Great Partition became the largest mass migration event of the twentieth century, but it was also marred by violent hate crimes based on faith, resulting in mass murder, mob lynching, looting, and rape of citizens on both sides of the borders (Talbot, 2009; Menon, 2012; Khan, 2017).

In addition to its traumatic inception, Pakistan has constantly struggled with its identity as a young nation-state. Despite being a ‘Muslim’ state, Pakistan at the time of its creation hosted a 23 percent population of non-Muslims, which has dwindled to 4 percent at present, and newly independent India did and still houses millions of Muslims (Mehfooz, 2021). Adding to this, the 1971 civil war led to the separation of East Pakistan from the union resulting in the creation of Bangladesh (Hossain, 2021, 2018). This breakdown of the idea of ‘a land for Muslims’ since its formation has been in jeopardy. Another interesting part is that while Pakistan was championed as a homeland for Muslims, legally it remains a highly colonial-inspired state in terms of its laws and constitution (Yilmaz, 2016). While it does use Sharia’s guiding principles to form laws, it remains democratic and not purely ‘Islamic’ in its legal and governance aspects (Yilmaz, 2016). This for many hard-line clerics and right-wing groups has added to the identity crises. The exclusive emphasis during its creation on the idea of a ‘land for Muslims’ and the later paradoxes has taken the shape of an ontological crisis for the country. Its foundation of a ‘Muslim land for Muslims’ over the year has been jolted. This existentialist crisis has led to various forms of political and social turmoil in the country for the last seven decades.  

While Pakistan remains a democracy, its track record is tarnished by several military authoritarian regimes. The country has spent decades under four different military dictatorships, one of which took place during 1969-1971, under General Yahya Khan, when Pakistan was facing a civil war in East Pakistan (Sheikh and Ahmed, 2020). The latest military rule was that of General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. While the 2008 general elections have paved the wave for a successive period of democracy the country’s ranking on democratic measures and indexes has remained murky (see Table 1). Various issues such as the lack of freedom of the press, barring the right to protest, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and gag order on media are a few of the issues apart from poor governance. The military referred to as “the establishment” regularly interferes with democratic processes in the country (Shafqat, 2019). Due to its closeness to the military establishment, Imran Khan’s government during 2018-2022 was called a hybrid regime and similar is the case now under the government-led Pakistan Democratic Movement.  

Table 1 Overview of Democracy in Pakistan
The Freedom House (2023)  Overall score 37/100 Political Rights 15/40
Civil Liberties 22/60
Democracy Index (2022) Overall score 4.13/10 Electoral process and pluralism 5.67/10
Functioning of government 5/10
Political participation 2.78/10
Political culture 2.5/10
Civil liberties 4.71/10
Human Freedom Index (2022) Overall rank 146 out of 165 countries  Personal freedom 5.2/10
Human freedom 5.44/10
Economic freedom 6.03/10
Reporters Without Borders
World Press Freedom Index (2023)
Rank 150 out of 180 countriesScore is 39.95 Political indicator rank 139/180
Economic indicator 136/180
Legislative indicator 130/180
Social indicator 140/180
Security indicator 176/180

Data sources: (FH 2023; RWB 2023; FI 2022; Economist 2022)

In addition to these troubles, the country has been facing waves of home-grown terrorism and mushroom growth in far-right vigilantism from right-wing Islamist groups since the early 2000s. Despite successive military operations and some ‘peace building’ efforts the year 2023 marks the return of radical Islamists (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other armed groups) in various areas of the country which results in numerous violent incidents such as conflicts with security forces or targeting civilians by suicide bombing (Jadoon, 2021). Similarly, radical Islamic groups, in both urban and rural areas have spread a culture of vigilantism or ‘mob justice’ where vandalism, physical attacks on people and at times mob lynching have become common practice to show discontent over blasphemous comments by international leaders, local politicians and many times average citizens accused of blasphemy (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022). In addition, targeting non-Muslims and sectarian minorities in the name of ‘protection of Islam’ these violent mobs has resulted in deaths, vandalism of worship places and loss of property of the victim’s (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022).     

The overview of the country’s current political situation is quite grim. During this chaos surrounding poor governance, a tradition of authoritarianism, military interference, radicalization and disregard of human rights, the country has become a fertile ground for digital authoritarianism as well. Since the late 2000s and through the 2010s the state has replicated its oppressive tactics on the online realm as well. The last section of this report presents the history and current situation of digital authoritarianism.  

Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Photo: Natanael Ginting.

The way modern humans interact with information has been fundamentally transformed by the Internet. Nowadays, anyone with a secure connection to the World Wide Web has access to a wealth of information that is freely and readily available. However, this easy access to information has led to an increasing demand for internet governance (Kurbalija, 2016), which refers to the creation and management of rules, policies, and practices in the digital realm. How internet governance is carried out varies from country to country. For example, in India, internet blackouts are commonly employed to suppress protests against the government, thereby violating citizens’ right to protest (Momen and Das, 2021). Yang and Muller’s research on China’s internet censorship demonstrates how authoritarian governments can shape public opinion and quell potential resistance through cyberspace governance. Even in Western democracies, internet governance has sparked significant debates, particularly concerning the state’s surveillance of citizens (Zajko, 2016). Despite concerns about overreaching internet governance, its implementation is justifiable as it helps combat hate speech online, restricts access to child pornography, and flags other potential criminal activities (Kurbalija, 2016). There are also various institutions involved in shaping the internet governance framework, including state institutions, telecommunication companies, international organizations, digital businesses such as social media giants, and civil society.

Pakistan is governed under the 1973 Constitution. Under this legal document, Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to privacy to its citizens (GOP, 2012).  The concept of “privacy of the home” in the article is extended and interpreted to digital communications. However, in the article, the freedom or right to privacy is subject to law under various circumstances, which means this freedom is not absolute. In addition, before the advent of the internet, the colonial law Telegraph Act from 1885 and the colonial-inspired Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, of 1996 governed the communication (PTA, 2023). Both Acts under clauses allowed for mass surveillance over the telephone and other forms of communication. Even before 2016, when the first law to govern digital space came into being, the Fair Trial Act, 2013 allows for the mass gathering of surveillance evidence of the accused which has enabled a culture of mass surveillance in the country. The country’s roots in colonial laws, which was itself authoritarian and its continued use of surveillance through successive laws ensured that even without a digital governance bill, their plenty of room for constantly monitoring online activities. 

It is also important to understand who uses the internet in Pakistan, so it is clear who are the ones most impacted by a host of new laws and programs designed for the internet governance in Pakistan. In 2005, the internet penetration rate was 6.3 percent but it almost tripled to 15.51 percent in 2017 and was  36.7 percent at the start of 2023 (Kemp, 2023). While this rate might be lower than the global South it is a significant number as over 87.35 million Pakistanis use the internet and, nearly 4.4 million people started using the internet just between 2022 and 2023 (Kemp, 2023). This exponential growth can be explained by not only the increase in the presence of the facility but also by the fact that during the last census, conducted in 2017, nearly 40 percent of Pakistani citizens are under the age of 14 years (UNDP, 2019). This census also indicates a youth dividend in the country saying that “64 percent of the nation is younger than 30 and 29 percent of Pakistanis are between 15 and 29” (UNDP, 2019). This youth bulge can be responsible for an increased appetite for intent consumption. Despite the rapid increase in internet unsafe, it is important to remember that two-thirds of the population does not have access to the internet (Kemp, 2023). Despite this gap, over the last decade, the government has focused its energy on extending its governance to the digital realm. 

It is also important to note that Islamist elements enshrined by political parties in power along with the “establishment” (military involved in the politics of the country) also reflect in digital governance. While it is common to use cyber tools to curb freedom of speech of civilian protests and political opposition, it has also become common practice to justify closing websites such as Wikipedia and platforms such as Facebook and YouTube out of respect for “Islamic values and sentiments” (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). For instance, former Prime Minster Imran Khan has openly advocated for banning content he deems “dangerous” for Muslim youth’s consumption. He said, “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online” (Jamal, 2021). Khan is not alone as various other political parties have a history of banning social media platforms because of accusation of publishing “blasphemous” content. This practice of banning websites or issuing them ultimatums to remove blasphemous content has been set in motion since the first ban of Wikipedia in 2010 (Zaccaro, 2023). At the same time, the establishment has been using its public relations agency, Inter-Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), to let citizens know of the bangers of “foreign” content in online space. They term this a “fifth generation warfare” which is propagated by the alleged “Jewish lobby,” “India” and other “foreign powers” to hurt and misguide Pakistani citizens (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). To curb this “fifth generation warfare” the ISPR has mixed jingoism with Islamist jihadist ideals to ensure that the public remains “safe” from these influences on online platforms. In such an eco-system, the state actively targets political opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, through its vast web of cyber governance which makes the state activities digital authoritarian. 

Digital Governance 

In 2014, the government of Pakistan addressed internet governance by developing a legal framework. This resulted in the creation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which aimed to combat the misuse of electronic media and technology. The Act was passed by the Pakistani parliament in August 2016 and became effective in November of the same year. Pakistan, like many other countries, experienced a significant increase in the use of electronic media and technology. While these developments brought numerous benefits, they also posed challenges such as cybercrime, extremist propaganda, and hate speech on the internet. The PECA was formulated to tackle these challenges and establish a legal structure for addressing cybercrime while safeguarding the rights of citizens in the digital realm.

The Act encompasses a wide range of offences, including hacking, identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. It imposes strict penalties for those found guilty of committing such crimes. It is important to note that at the time, Pakistan was dealing with severe terrorism issues, and the PECA was presented as a vital measure for counterterrorism efforts. This context played a significant role in its swift approval within approximately a year and a half of the draft bill being presented in the National Parliament. However, critics have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse, the impact on freedom of expression, and the privacy implications of the Act. Some argue that it could be used to suppress dissenting voices and restrict access to information (Aziz, 2022). Criticisms also focus on the Act’s vague definitions of offences, lack of oversight, and accountability in its implementation.

PECA includes several key components of internet governance. It grants increased authority to public institutions such as the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance, data collection, and prosecution. The PTA has broad powers under Section 37 of PECA to block and remove content based on ambiguous criteria, often justifying these actions by claiming certain platforms promote “vulgarity” or “corruption of youth.” Additionally, the Act requires social media companies operating in Pakistan to comply with the law and remove any unlawful content within 24 hours of being notified by authorities. Failure to do so can result in significant fines. The government has also mandated these companies to establish local offices in Pakistan and appoint designated representatives to collaborate with law enforcement agencies.

Pakistan has invested resources to strengthen its control over the use of digital technologies in the country. PECA established a comprehensive legal framework for identifying and addressing electronic crimes, including methods for investigation, prosecution, and adjudication. Some articles of the Act specifically focus on terrorism-related online material, including hate speech. While the implementation of PECA is viewed by the state as a crucial step in counterterrorism efforts, its controversial aspects and potential impact on freedom of expression have raised concerns. Nonetheless, the Act received unanimous approval in both the Senate and the National Assembly, as all political stakeholders recognized the significance of counterterrorism measures.

Since 2016, Pakistan has created a host of laws and amendments to existing laws to specifically govern cyberspace. The foundational law which governs cyberspace is called the Prevention Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). According to Section 21 (d) of this legislation, “Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or transmits any information which cultivates, entices or induces a natural person to engage in a sexually explicit act, through an information system to harm a natural person or his reputation, or to take revenge, or to create hatred or to blackmail, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both” (GOP, 2016, 11). While on the surface the law seems a needed measure to curb cybercrime has cyberbullying, hacking and a tool to curb child pornography rings as well as a means to combat terrorism, it is quite ambiguous in its definition of a “cybercrime” which makes it rampart available for abuse in the hands of the oppressive state apparatus (Shad, 2022). 

In addition to being vague, the laws grant the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) unrested powers when it comes to surveillance on social media as well as grant the permission to retain data and seize digital tools (GOP, 2016). This law has paved the way for the state to heavily invest in technology to govern cyberspace. For instance, in 2018 the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) purchase a “web monitoring system” from Sandvine which uses DPI technology (Ali & Jahangir, 2019). Again, the hands of FIA and the military-operated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been used to carry out mass surveillance of anyone deemed a threat via well-established social media monitoring cells as a means to counter “threats” and “terrorists” (Pasha, 2017). 

In addition to legal measures, the state has redefined the role of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The agency is a national database, but its role has been expanded. In a shocking revelation in a WikiLeaks document, biometric data of Pakistani citizens from NADRA was provided to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and National Security Agency (NSA) to investigate “terrorists” (Digital Rights Foundation, 2022). In 2016 and 2018, various ‘safe city projects’ were launched in Islamabad and Lahore, respectively. These projects were part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) which ushered in a new wave of collaboration between the two countries. The safe city projects were built on a loan from the Export–Import Bank of China and featured a collaboration between Huawei, National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and Arup which installed mass surveillance devices to track criminal activities but also record citizens’ movements via cameras, vehicle number plate tracking, tracing telecommunication communication, drone footage, facial recognition software, etc. (Ahmed, 2021). 

Again, while these efforts are showcased as means to curb crime, there has been little proof of this. For instance, in Islamabad, the crime rate rose by 33 percent in 2016, a year after the system was implemented and the country’s national crime rate rose by 11 percent by 2018 (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). The surveillance system aids the state in mass monitoring citizen activities which often targets political and social opposition from both political and non-political resistance groups.

In addition to laws and technologies to aid cyber governance, the state has showcased a history of blocking internet access to maintain “law and order” since the early 2010s. The PTA has been the manager of this domain where it often restricts internet access at certain times and in specific regions. One of the most frequent justifications for this action is curbing terrorism. For instance, during religious gatherings (e.g., Ashura for the Shi’as) and political demonstrations, internet shutdowns have become a norm in the main law and order  (Kamran, 2017). These shutdowns are quite often targeted to remove the spread of information regarding political opposition. While in power, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) used the same mechanism to curb online coverage rallies by its political opposition the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PLM-N), now out of power, PTI gatherings in Lahore are victim to internet blackouts in the same manner (Raza, 2023).

Examples of Digital Authoritarianism 

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

One of the most prominent examples of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan is showcased via its banning and blocking of content on the internet. As discussed, the most prominent reason for this gaging is the need to protect people from blasphemous or false information. YouTube was banned between 2012-2016 in the country when a video surfaced mocking Prophet Muhammad (Wilkers, 2016). Similarly, TikTok was also banned on two separate occasions, in 2020 and 2021, for “immorality and obscenity in the country” for a few days each time (Masood, 2020). PTA has also banned Twitter several times over the last ten years for various periods in years 2012 and 2021 and all times it was banned because of the spread of sacrilegious content (Verma, 2021; Reuters, 2012).  

In addition to gaging websites, internet blackouts are a routine procedure. Historically internet shutdowns were usually put in place to stop terrorist activities on days of religious significance when people gathered in mass such as the processions at Ashura, rallies of Eid Milad-un-Nabi, (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) or events where people gathered for mass payers such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha. However, these have now expanded to the government using these bans to target the opposition. For instance, in 2021 former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to give a talk at an event called Asma Jahangir Conference. Due to a self-imposed exile, Sharif took part in the event via an online address which was blacked out via a targeted internet shutdown since the politician voiced his discontent with the establishment and the then-ruling PTI-led government (The News, 2021a). Conversely, in 2023, with PTI out of power, the former opposition formed an alliance government and in May 2023 Imran Khan was arrested for not appearing in several court cases. After this arrest mass protests by PTI supporters sprang across major cities in the provinces of Punjab and KP (Mao, 2023). This led to a blanket internet shutdown to curb protests for over four days (Mao, 2023). In addition, internet blockage is quite a routine matter in Western Pakistan in regions of Swat, FATA, adjoining areas, and parts of Baluchistan where military security forces regularly clash with terrorist groups ranging from separatist groups to jihadist factions (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). 

Internet surveillance has also peaked in Pakistan and the Pakistan military has been the major stakeholder involved in this process. In 2021, a bill was passed ensuring anyone who abused the military could face jail time and hefty fines (Abbasi, 2021). This bill has been instrumental in expanding surveillance on “anti-state” activities and punishing the accused. In May 2023, PTI protesters led to the rioting of public property, which resulted in the Prime Minster promising that “all technology available” would be used to punish vandals or some Ministers have been calling them “terrorists” (Sharif, 2023). Similarly, after the unrest calmed down, various videos have surfaced showcasing security forces and agencies using surveillance data to target peaceful protestors as well (Haq, 2022). 

Furthermore, the use of technology for national security purposes has also been employed to suppress dissent, creating another dimension to the issue. The state’s overwhelming focus on national security, particularly in countering terrorism, has resulted in neglecting its responsibilities under domestic laws, as well as international agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Despite frequent incidents of data breaches and scandals involving the unauthorized release of audio and video recordings of influential political figures, judges, and journalists, there are no laws in place to safeguard against the collection of personal data and protect privacy. Civil society organizations in Pakistan have expressed concerns regarding the increasing surveillance of both the public and specific individuals such as journalists, politicians, and human rights activists (PI, 2015). They view these measures as infringements on the right to privacy. Intelligence agencies like the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with other authorities overseeing safe city projects, have enhanced their surveillance capabilities by establishing social media monitoring cells (Ahmed, 2021; Azeem, 2019; Yousafzai, 2023). While legal provisions permit digital surveillance for counterterrorism purposes such as blocking hate speech content, it appears that the state is utilizing its expanded surveillance capacity to suppress dissent (Aziz, 2022; Rehman, 2020).

Safe cities employ video cameras and other digital technologies to monitor and identify suspicious activities. Although safe cities encompass various ICT capabilities used in urban areas, the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ goes beyond that of ‘Safe Cities.’ The notion of Smart Cities involves providing internet connectivity and may progress to include electronic payment options for essential services and AI-controlled monitoring devices. Smart cities utilize technologies like high-speed communication networks, sensors, and mobile apps to enhance service delivery, improve mobility and connectivity, stimulate the digital economy, and overall enhance the well-being of citizens (Muggah, 2021; Goulding, 2019). To achieve this, vast amounts of data are leveraged to optimize various city functions, such as utilities, services, traffic management, and pollution control. The rapid expansion of smart city infrastructures globally has sparked controversy due to concerns over the widespread collection, retention, and manipulation of personal data by entities ranging from law enforcement agencies to private enterprises.

In Pakistan, successive administrations have collaborated closely with China to develop secure city infrastructure across urban areas. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), headquartered in Lahore, is a well-known initiative in this regard. With over 6,000 cameras and sensors installed at more than 1,500 locations in Lahore, the Punjab Police, with assistance from the PSCA, can manage traffic, combat crime, and respond to emergencies (Malik, 2022). Notably, Huawei from China has been responsible for constructing all secure city systems in Pakistan. The first safe city system in Islamabad was completed in 2016 through collaboration between the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan and Huawei, with funding from China’s EX-IM Bank (Hong, 2022). Another safe city system was established in Lahore in 2018, with Huawei leading the construction and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and UK-based multinational firm Arup providing consultancy and technical support (Ahmed, 2021).

The safe city infrastructure gathers information across several categories, including personal data, vehicle and traffic data, criminal profiles, crime statistics, and parking information. Given the past instances of data breaches within the NADRA database, experts have raised concerns about data security risks. In 2019, several CCTV camera images from Lahore were posted online, featuring inappropriate sexual content (Azeem, 2019). Pakistan’s safe city surveillance systems incorporate facial recognition, artificial intelligence, vehicle number plate tracking, dedicated telecommunication networks, data centers, drones, mobile applications, and intelligent transportation systems.

The effectiveness of Huawei’s safe city infrastructure in reducing urban crime has been subject to debate. Huawei has claimed in a questionable presentation that its safe city solutions significantly reduce crime, increase case clearance rates, shorten emergency response times, and enhance citizen satisfaction. However, investigations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have indicated that these claims have been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). In Islamabad, the crime rate continues to grow and there was an increase of 141.2 percent recorded from 2021 to 2022 (Azeem, 2022). Participants in research studies have expressed skepticism, stating that they have not witnessed any positive outcomes or reduction in crime rates because of the safe city projects. A local journalist shared the following views: “For example, in Islamabad, we see that more than 2,200 cameras are installed in only one city. But if we talk about Lahore city there are more than 6,000 cameras installed. They enable the government to monitor the movement of people. They claim that they have installed them to control the law and security situation in cities and to control the crime rate in Pakistan, but we have not seen any positive outcome in that regard through a reduction in the crime rate”  (Baloch, 2022).

Despite the state’s justification that safe city projects primarily serve counterterrorism efforts, it is evident that surveillance technology is being selectively employed. While it is used to counter terrorism and publicly release videos of terrorists involved in major attacks, such as the one in Peshawar in 2023, it is also increasingly utilized to target individuals critical of the government, its officials, and state institutions like the army (Gul, 2022). Examples have emerged of facial recognition technology being used to track down and apprehend individuals who verbally attacked government figures (Nadeem, 2022). Numerous cases have been documented where people have been detained by authorities for posting critical comments on social media. In these instances, individuals are subjected to torture and coerced into making public apologies, with videos of their apologies subsequently released on social media platforms (Dawn, 2022a).

The level of surveillance implemented in Pakistan is linked to an authoritarian approach. Surveillance capabilities are being employed for political purposes rather than solely for the defense of the country or public good. Recorded videos obtained through surveillance serve as leverage for those working behind the scenes, allowing them to exert control by capturing and disseminating compromising material (Khan, 2023; Dawn, 2022b). The timing of the video releases is crucial. Detailed records are maintained on important politicians, indicating a potentially illegal and unconstitutional practice that is incompatible with a democratic society. The impact of these authoritarian measures is evident, as journalists increasingly practice self-censorship and exercise caution in their smartphone usage. Awareness of traceability and concerns over the hacking of email and social media accounts have led to heightened vigilance among social media activists, journalists, and political leaders. However, despite the challenges, Pakistanis continue to find ways to express their opinions, often resorting to satire as a means of circumventing restrictions. Notable media personalities, such as Anwar Maqsood, have managed to avoid trouble by indirectly criticizing state institutions.

The judiciary in Pakistan has been a significant source of resistance against the growing digital authoritarianism and digital control measures implemented by the state. This ongoing process involves various legal cases under the PECA, the authority of institutions like the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and concerns related to data protection and privacy. The PECA Amendment of 2022, which primarily aims to criminalize defamation and make it a non-bailable offence, has faced critical scrutiny from local courts. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that expanding PECA’s already extensive provisions on criminal defamation to online statements about government institutions violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Media organizations in Pakistan challenged the PECA Amendment in the Islamabad High Court, where Justice Athar Minallah declared the new legal provisions a violation of freedom of speech as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (Naseer, 2022). The court also instructed the interior ministry to investigate the conduct of the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing due to concerns of power abuse and infringement of individuals’ fundamental rights. Justice Minallah emphasized that no one should fear criticism, particularly in relation to defamation and concerns raised by public officeholders regarding social media attacks. As a result, the FIA closed nearly 7,000 cases, primarily related to defamation.

Civil Society Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan 

In many ways, there are still not enough laws in Pakistan to deal with digital rights, but the pressure is growing on policymakers to pay attention to the issues of privacy and data protection. This is mainly because Pakistan is home to a strong network of civil society organizations that also work closely with relevant international organizations to raise awareness on issues relevant issues, i.e., digital rights. There are several organizations in Pakistan that work for digital rights and strive to protect internet freedom, and privacy, and promote digital literacy. Let us look at some of the prominent organizations in this space in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is a non-profit organization that focuses on the advocacy of digital rights in Pakistan. They work on various issues, including online harassment, data protection, freedom of expression, and women’s digital rights. DRF conducts research, provides legal assistance, and offers digital security training and awareness programs. 

Bolo Bhi is a civil society organization that advocates for open access to information, digital security, and internet freedom in Pakistan. They engage in policy advocacy, conduct research, and provide digital literacy training. Bolo Bhi also works to raise awareness about online censorship, surveillance, and privacy issues. 

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is a non-profit organization that focuses on media development, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. They work towards promoting online civic spaces, digital literacy, and defending digital rights through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building programs. 

Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) is a research-based initiative that aims to monitor and analyze internet governance issues in Pakistan. They conduct policy research, produce reports, and provide recommendations on topics such as data protection, surveillance, and censorship. iPOP also engages in advocacy efforts to promote a free and open internet. 

Although not based in Pakistan, Privacy International is a global organization that advocates for privacy rights and challenges surveillance practices worldwide. They work with local partners and provide support in the context of Pakistan to raise awareness, carry out research, and advocate for stronger privacy protections. These organizations actively engage with policymakers, raise public awareness, and work towards protecting digital rights in Pakistan through research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities.

Internet Access

Internet connection in Pakistan. llustration Contributor: AlexLMX

With the proliferation of the internet worldwide, several civil society organizations have dedicated their efforts to shed light on the significant issue of inadequate internet access within Pakistan. These organizations aim to amplify the voice of society, urging the government to invest in improving internet access. In this vein, Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A), is a well-known digital rights organization, that seeks to secure digital rights and freedom of expression for civil liberties. In the end, they organize seminars, workshop training and produce various publications. For example, B4A has published annual reports on internet access in Pakistan (Haque, 2023). The 2022 report shows that there has been some progress in terms of internet access in Pakistan, but the country is still behind many Asian countries. One key finding of the report reveals that despite increased internet penetration, around 15 percent of the population remains without any access, while others face challenges such as slow speeds and inconsistent service, hindering meaningful internet access (Haque, 2023: 5). Pakistan ranks 118th in mobile broadband and 150th in fixed broadband, as per the B4A report (Haque, 2023: 9). The organization also raises concerns about the government’s attempts to restrict the internet and control cyberspace, including filing cases against journalists, activists, and political opponents for expressing unfavorable views on social media and proposing stricter defamation laws to counter dissent. To enhance internet access in Pakistan, B4A provides several important recommendations. These include recognizing fixed broadband as critical infrastructure and developing a national broadband strategy with a fiber plan. Additionally, improving the investment climate and financing options within the digital ecosystem and streamlining government administration are identified as essential actions for expediting implementation.

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is another Pakistani organization focused on media literacy, digital democracy, progressive media, and internet regulation. They also work on integrating digital media and journalism technologies and creating sustainable initiatives in the media-tech sector. They provide several online free courses in different subjects. For example, their course “understanding citizen journalism” includes 54 lessons and “Digital Disinformation and Journalistic Responsibilities” encompasses 82 lessons (Arsalan, 2023; Khan, Mindeel and Shaukat, 2023). Also, this organization publish research investigations and policy papers. In one of their comprehensive reports, titled “Connecting the disconnected: mapping in digital access in Pakistan,” MMfD highlights that approximately 52.79 percent of Pakistan’s population, equivalent to 116 million people, has access to some form of internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 7). However, the report suggests that despite high tele density indicating cellular service connectivity for nearly 88 percent of the population, there remains a significant gap in internet access, particularly in mobile and broadband services across most parts of the country (Kamra et al., 2022: 16). Accordingly, the number of broadband subscribers stands at 116 million, 3G/4G mobile internet subscriptions at 113 million, and basic telephon subscribers at 2 million, representing only 1.14 percent of the total population (Kamra et al., 2022: 17). This reveals that over 47 percent of the population remains disconnected from the internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 25). 

The report stresses that various factors contribute to this gap, with disparities evident between urban and rural areas. The available data does not offer a breakdown based on rural/urban or gender demographics, which are significant barriers to internet connectivity. They also argue that the COVID-19 lockdown further exacerbated these disparities, with individuals in peripheral and rural areas facing challenges due to limited infrastructure, while low-income communities struggled to afford smartphones and internet connections. The organization advocates for ensuring that human and social justice values drive technical development and use in Pakistan by providing some key recommendations. They emphasize the need for policies and regulations related to internet access to follow a rights-respecting model. Also, it is underlined that a core focus should be bridging the digital divide across class, gender, age, and geography as well as increasing digital literacy. In addition, they urge the government to make the Internet economy inclusive, address the need for online social norms, and empower individuals to shape their futures. Finally, the report emphasizes that building robust, secure, and resilient networks is crucial (Kamra et al., 2022).

Moreover, the efforts of civil society organizations to advocate for internet access are evident in various initiatives. One significant area of concern raised by these organizations is the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, issued in 2020. In terms of the obstacles of this law to internet access, a report published by DRF argued that these rules violate fundamental and constitutional rights, particularly Articles 14 and 19. The analysis emphasizes that these regulations impede the free movement of data, creating artificial barriers to information sharing and hindering global communication. Additionally, they exacerbate the lack of accessibility and affordability of internet connectivity for individuals and businesses. This issue is particularly detrimental as reducing connectivity costs is vital for expanding economic opportunities, promoting the digital economy, and generating wealth in Pakistan (DRF, 2020b).

Bolo Bhi, another digital rights organization, has also expressed concerns about the Citizen Protection laws, highlighting their attempt to gain jurisdiction over social networking platforms and access data. Their objective extends beyond content restriction to encompass accessing communication content and filtering technology. Bolo Bhi points out aspirations to establish local offices and data servers for unrestricted data access, which has been a recurring theme in previous attempts (Bolo Bhi, 2020).

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s leading independent human rights body, advocates for internet access and freedom of expression as fundamental human rights in their reports. In a collaborative study titled ‘Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Pakistan: A Legislative Review,’ released in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in March 2022, the HRCP called for a reassessment of the existing legislative framework, which still reflects policing strategies from the colonial era. Regarding internet access, the report proposes granting unrestricted media and digital access during assemblies, promoting freedom of speech and movement, rather than imposing content-based restrictions or blocking routes (HRCP, 2020).

It should also be noted that addressing the significant digital divide in Pakistani society is one of the key challenges in internet access. While limited access to technology is commonly associated with the digital divide, factors such as poverty, illiteracy, lack of computer literacy, and language barriers contribute to this issue in Pakistan. In response, the Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) takes concrete actions beyond workshops and reports. According to their website, they provide computers, communication equipment, software, and training to tackle the digital divide. The organization reports that most low-income households in the country find themselves on the disadvantaged side of the digital and knowledge divide. Consequently, their ability to participate effectively in the knowledge society remains significantly underdeveloped and underutilized. This situation puts these households at risk of further marginalization in a knowledge-driven society, where access to and utilization of information technology are just a fraction of the broader challenges they face (IPOP, 2023).

By and large, civil society organizations play a crucial role in advocating for improved internet access and reducing the digital divide in Pakistan. These organizations act as catalysts for change by advocating for policies and initiatives that promote equitable access to technology and bridge the gap between different segments of society. As discussed above, civil society organizations raise awareness about the importance of internet access as a fundamental right and a driver of socio-economic development. They highlight the disparities in access and the barriers faced by marginalized communities, such as low-income households, women, and rural populations. By bringing these issues to the forefront, civil society organizations can create a sense of urgency among policymakers and stakeholders to address the digital divide and make internet access more inclusive. 

Moreover, civil society organizations actively engage in research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities to promote digital literacy and skills development. They organize workshops, training programs, and awareness campaigns to empower individuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape. By enhancing digital literacy, these organizations enable individuals to fully participate in the digital age, access online opportunities, and leverage technology for personal and professional growth. 

Eventually, civil society organizations play a critical role in monitoring and influencing policy development and implementation. They provide expert analysis, recommendations, and feedback on laws, regulations, and initiatives related to internet access and digital rights. Through their engagement with government agencies, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders, these organizations attempt to ensure that policies are inclusive, rights-based, and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

Privacy

Privacy is an essential aspect of individuals’ rights, encompassing their ability to maintain control over personal information, safeguard it from unauthorized access, and prevent unwanted intrusions. In Pakistan, the right to privacy is constitutionally protected under Article 14, which upholds individuals’ dignity and personal autonomy. However, despite this recognition, several challenges hinder people in Pakistan from effectively protecting their privacy, particularly in cyberspace.

One key challenge is the limited digital literacy among most of the population. In response, civil society organizations play a crucial role in educating the public through campaigns, seminars, research publications, policy reports, workshops, and awareness programs. For example, DRF has published a report, titled “Young People and Privacy in Online Space”, which aims to raise concern about the privacy of youth in cyberspace (DRF, 2021b). The report acknowledges that despite the ongoing increase in the number of young people users on the internet, and particularly social media, they face insufficient protection and have limited awareness of their privacy rights. The organization suggests that young generations recognize the gendered nature of online harm, particularly impacting women. Therefore, the report emphasizes that it is crucial to foster collaboration to enhance legal frameworks and establish effective mechanisms to safeguard young people’s rights. DRF has also published privacy-related reports that provide up-to-date information regarding digital privacy. They include ‘How to keep your social media secure and anonymous,’ ‘Understand cyber-harassment,’ ‘What to do when there is a privacy breach?’, ‘Protect against viruses and malware’ and ‘Two-factor authentication’ (DRF, 2020a). 

Another privacy concern in Pakistan stems from the government surveillance system, which has advanced in recent years. In this vein, civil society organizations and activists in Pakistan have been advocating for stronger digital privacy protections. They have called for greater transparency in government surveillance activities, improvements in data protection practices, and the need for comprehensive privacy legislation aligned with international standards. In 2019, Bolo Bhi raised concerns about the Web Monitoring System (WMS) deployed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The WMS aims to monitor and control internet traffic for commercial and security purposes. However, the organization underlined that the lack of safeguards and judicial oversight raises concerns about the potential misuse of surveillance capabilities (BoloBhi, 2019). Bolo Bhi urged the government to take concrete steps to demonstrate the veracity and reliability of its claims that the WMS will not restrict internet freedom. Moreover, the director of this civil society organization suggested that transparency regarding the technology provider, Sandvine Inc, and its security audit is crucial. Public accountability and corporate responsibility should be upheld to align with international principles of human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy (BoloBhi 2019). 

Digital Rights Monitor, a project under MMfD, has attempted to contribute to improving digital privacy in Pakistan. They have produced a series of videos, titled ‘Privacy-in-Law: Legal Framework of Digital Privacy Laws in Pakistan’ (Kamran, 2019). These videos provide information about the enacted laws that protect citizens’ privacy and assess their implementation in Pakistan. The videos cover important legislation such as the ‘NADRA Ordinance, 2000,’ ‘The Investigation for Fair Trial Act, 2013,’ ‘The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996,’ and the ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA).’ They seek to uncover the details of the laws that are aimed at framing data security regulations, regulating law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ power to investigate criminal cases, and countering increasing crime originating from cyberspace.

Bytes for All (B4A) has also been active in highlighting the importance of privacy in the virtual world. In 2020, the organization published a report titled, ‘The Scope of Privacy Commission in Pakistan,’ which strongly advocated for the establishment of an independent and autonomous Privacy Commission free from political or executive influence (Raza and Baloch, 2020). This commission is deemed essential for protecting citizens’ digital data and providing redressal for privacy-related violations. B4A has also conducted personal training sessions on digital privacy and raised public awareness by addressing topics such as the ‘Dangers of Digital Surveillance’ (Raza and Baloch, 2020). To enhance online privacy in Pakistan, digital rights advocates in this organization, have put forth several recommendations for the government to consider. These recommendations can be summarized as follows (Baloch and Qammar, 2020):

– Revise laws to limit intelligence agencies’ powers in intercepting digital communications and private data of journalists and human rights defenders.

– Define clear criteria for digital surveillance in the context of national security and counterterrorism.

– Cease mass digital surveillance on citizens.

– Promote encrypted communications for the safety of vulnerable groups.

– Include secure communications training in public sector education, especially in journalism and law.

– Respect citizens’ right to privacy, especially journalists and human rights defenders, to strengthen democracy, freedom of speech, and information access.

Civil society organizations actively participate in policy discussions and provide valuable input during the development of privacy-related laws and regulations. They bring the perspectives and concerns of the public to the attention of policymakers, advocating for privacy-focused policies that strike a balance between security and individual rights. Their involvement aims to assess to what extent the government measures align with the principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy. In Pakistan, with the new wave of internet penetration, particularly among young generations, the effort of civil society organizations is essential for fostering a privacy-conscious society and holding governments accountable for protecting individuals’ digital privacy rights. Through their persistent advocacy, these organizations can contribute to a more informed and balanced policy-making process. They provide expertise and recommendations based on research and analysis, offering practical solutions that protect privacy rights while addressing security challenges. Their efforts underscore the importance of privacy as a fundamental right, even in the face of increasing surveillance measures.

Data Protection

Illustration Contributor:
PX Media.

Data protection entails safeguarding personal information against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. It encompasses obtaining consent, employing data for specific purposes, minimizing data collection, ensuring accuracy, implementing security measures, respecting individual rights, and safeguarding data during transfers. Upholding privacy and cultivating trust with individuals is both a legal and ethical obligation. While data protection and privacy are closely related, they carry distinct meanings. Data protection focuses on safeguarding personal information, whereas privacy centers on maintaining control over one’s personal life and information. Data protection ensures the secure handling of data, while privacy encompasses broader aspects of personal autonomy and limiting unwarranted intrusion.

Currently, Pakistan lacks comprehensive legislation specifically governing the processing of personal data. However, like the privacy domain, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) serves as a legal framework to address electronic crimes and unauthorized access to personal data. Under PECA, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) has established the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021, granting the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the authority to remove or block access to information systems (Rehman, 2022). The Personal Data Protection Bill 2021, which is awaiting enactment, will become the primary legislation regulating the processing of personal data in Pakistan. It will apply to individuals and entities that control, process, or authorize the processing of personal data within the country.

Digital rights organizations have actively campaigned for data protection in Pakistan. The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), for instance, has been proactive in providing feedback on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB). They have submitted various reports to the government to enhance the bill to align with international standards. The organization, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), has identified several persistent issues in the bill since 2018 that must be addressed to align with global data protection standards and privacy rights. According to DRF, concerns have been raised regarding the broad powers granted to the Federal Government, which could lead to self-interested interpretation and evasion of regulation. They have also expressed concerns about the lack of independence of the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP), as it remains under the administrative control of the Federal Government, compromising its autonomy and failing to meet international standards (DRF, 2021a).

DRF has stressed that the requirement for ‘critical personal data’ to be processed within Pakistani servers is impractical and akin to data localization, which could hinder business operations and investment. Ambiguities exist in terms like ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’ without clear definitions, granting the government wide discretion in implementing the law. DRF highlights that the bill also lacks provisions addressing emerging technologies such as automated decision-making and artificial intelligence, necessitating further elaboration and the inclusion of non-discrimination safeguards. DRF emphasizes the need for specific language, defined terms, and adequate safeguards to ensure that the law aligns with legislative intent and effectively protects digital rights.

In addition, B4A Pakistan has published at least 13 comprehensive reports on data protection in Pakistan. These reports encompass various aspects, including submissions to the government for consultation and the creation of training materials. One of their reports, titled ‘Electronic Data Protection in Pakistan,’  provides a thorough analysis of the country’s data protection status and offers key recommendations (Gilani et al., 2017). B4A highlights the concerning absence of data protection legislation in Pakistan, particularly given the increasing volume of citizens’ data being processed daily. Urgent action is required to establish clear and effective data protection laws that meet the demands of the digital era. Failure to do so may lead foreign companies to perceive Pakistan as an unsafe business environment, deterring them from outsourcing their services to the country. B4A provides several recommendations to address these concerns, including (Gilani et al., 2017):

– Amendment to PTA is necessary. The Protection of Privacy Act (PTA) of Pakistan is incompatible with Article 17 of the ICCPR.

– There is an urgent need for an independent authority to oversee data protection compliance.

– A system of accountability for data breaches should be established.

– The Electronic Data Protection Bill of 2005 is not fit for purpose.

– Pakistan should investigate adopting data protection legislation similar to the GDPR.

– Education of citizens about personal data and its value is urgently needed.

– The principle of individual consent for processing data should be included in any new legislation.

– The use of data anonymization mechanisms should be strongly encouraged.

Furthermore, Bolo Bhi has allocated a dedicated section on its website to address issues concerning data protection. The organization actively publishes research-based reports to advocate for the implementation of enhanced legislation in the field of data protection. In one of their reports, they conducted a comparative analysis between the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 in Pakistan and similar laws such as the GDPR, the Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act 2010, the UK’s Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018, and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (Shahani, 2020). The comparison revealed several shortcomings in the draft Bill proposed in Pakistan, including:

– The Authority set up under the draft Bill lacks independence and autonomy.

– The exemptions to the prohibition of processing of ‘personal data’ including ‘sensitive personal data’ are too broad.

– The Bill does not cover intelligence agencies’ collection, storage, and use of data. 

Overall, despite Pakistan’s increasing participation in the digital sphere, the government must move quickly to prioritize data protection due to the country’s rapidly expanding online population. In fact, as Bolo Bhi urged, Pakistan should take note of what other developed nations have to say. The government can take the required actions to strengthen data protection safeguards and ensure the privacy and security of its citizens’ personal information by taking note of successful practices already in place abroad. By enacting effective policies and regulations that adhere to international standards, Pakistan must give priority to the rights and well-being of its citizens in the digital sphere.

As a final point regarding the role of civil society organizations in Pakistan in promoting digital rights, internet access, privacy, and data protection, it should be emphasized that they tirelessly raise awareness about these important issues, attempt to facilitate fruitful dialogue between citizens and policymakers, and actively work towards holding those responsible accountable. Through their diligent work, they hope to greatly contribute to the creation of efficient laws and procedures that uphold the rights of people and promote a safe and welcoming online environment for everyone. To influence decision-makers to meet the requirements of the populace, these organizations offer insightful research-based studies, policy suggestions, workshops, seminars, online and offline training sessions, and periodical audits of internet legislation and privacy rules. Or to put it another way, they try to help.

Conclusion

Pakistan’s historical trajectory has been marked by a series of challenges, including violence, religious divisions, and an ongoing struggle to define its national identity. These factors have significantly shaped the current political landscape of the country. Despite its aspirations to establish a stable democracy, Pakistan has faced recurring periods of military rule, which have undermined democratic processes and institutions.

The governance challenges in Pakistan include limitations on press freedom, restrictions on the right to protest, and interference from the military establishment. These issues have raised concerns about the strength and integrity of Pakistan’s democratic system. Furthermore, the military’s influence has often overshadowed civilian governance, leading to complex power dynamics within the country.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

To enforce digital authoritarianism, the state has invested in advanced technological capabilities for monitoring online communications. This includes the acquisition of web monitoring systems and the establishment of social media monitoring cells. These measures aim to consolidate the state’s control over cyberspace and curtail citizens’ digital privacy.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s democratic fabric is not entirely eroded. In addition to push back from the judiciary, Pakistan has a strong civil society and there are various human rights organizations, including the ones that exclusively focus on digital rights. Human rights organizations, including those specifically focused on digital rights, play a crucial role in advocating for the protection of digital freedoms in Pakistan. These organizations voice concerns about the need for stronger legislation on data protection and privacy and advocate for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized communities in remote regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

By highlighting these concerns and advocating for digital rights, civil society organizations and the judiciary serve as important checks and balances against the encroachment of digital authoritarianism. Their efforts contribute to promoting transparency, accountability, and respect for individual rights in the digital sphere, despite the challenges posed by the current political landscape in Pakistan.


 

Funding: This research was funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, AZ 01/TG/21, Emerging Digital Technologies and the Future of Democracy in the Muslim World.


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. During 2017-19, Dr Ahmed was a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. During 2013-16, he was an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Peace and Stability, National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan. His work focuses on political developments (e.g., democratization, authoritarianism and political Islam), foreign affairs, peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. He has published extensively in leading journals, such as Politics and Religion, Democratization, Asian Studies Review, and Territory, Politics, Governance. He is the author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Role of SAARC (Routledge, 2013). He is a co-author of Iran’s Soft Power in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). Email: zahid.ahmed@deakin.edu.au

(**) Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Prof Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(***) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


 

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People flooded the streets of Manila to demand justice for all the victims of extrajudicial killings that happened during the time of President Duterte on June 30, 2021. Photo: Santino Quintero.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines

Tusor, Anita. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 2: Populism, Macho-Fascism and Varieties of Illiberalism in The Philippines.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0041

 

This report is based on the second event of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online on April 27, 2023. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Anita Tusor*

This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping Global Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 27, 2023. After concluding our “Mapping European Populism” Panel Series, ECPS is moving beyond the borders of Europe and expanding its project to include cases of populism around the world by organizing a new panel series to map global populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of the world. The second panel hosted 4 prominent scholars from Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr Paul Kenny, Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University and included the following speakers: Dr Adele Webb, Research Fellow in Democracy and Citizen Engagement at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra; Dr Mark Richard Thompson, Professor of Politics at Department of Asian and International Studies and director of Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong; Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines at Diliman; and Dr. Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio, Assistant Professor at the Department of Science Communication at the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

 

“Populist Are Rather Want to Provide a Mirror to the People”

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populists are rather want to provide a mirror to the people and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views.

Dr Kenny started his introduction with a brief overview of the populist administration in the Philippines. Although Rodrigo Duterte left his office in 2022, he has left a unique legacy in the study of populism and democracy which forces us to question our preconceptions. By any measure and source, Duterte’s six years of presidency was extremely violent. Official figures put the death toll of extrajudicial killings somewhere around 6.000 (FDEA, 2022), while NGOs and human rights organizations, journalists and other civil society monitors put the figure over 20.000 or even closer to 30.000 (Roudabeh and Buenaventura, 2021, ICC, 2023, UN OHCHR, 2022). Among those deaths were a number of journalists whose death coincided with the general erosion of press freedom (Amnesty International, 2022). There was also repression of judicial autonomy with frequent interferences and intimidation of the judiciary, including the deaths of some judges and lawyers. 

Despite this, what you might call a certainly discomforting record, Duterte remained -throughout his term in office- extraordinarily popular. This phenomenon is similar to his predecessors whose popularity didn’t dip after an initial honeymoon period, whether that lasted a few months or a few years, they remained popular. As Dr Kenny pointed out, we could see the same with the chairperson of PDP-Laban: right through to the end of his administration, Duterte’s support remained widespread across different demographics. According to analysis of public opinion data, the former president’s support was generally higher among younger and better educated Filipinos (Kenny and Holmes, 2020). Dr Kenny also noted that, although Duterte was initially more popular among men, this gender gap actually disappeared after the first few months of his administration. 

The Philippine President, famous for his penal populism, was especially popular because of his signature war on drugs and illegal drugs campaigns. This campaign in particular of all the policies of the Duterte government met with extremely high approval; usually up around 90 percent (Ibid.). Nonetheless, his administration was not only popular because of the war on drugs. For instance, despite his public buffoonery on occasions, he attended very carefully to economic matters, especially inflation. Data shows very clearly that his popularity tracks inflation (Reuters, 2018). Whenever it went up, his popularity suffered modest declines and he was very careful to address inflation both on a national and subnational level. Economic issues in general were never far from the mind of Duterte, his pollsters and administrative (Capuno, 2020). 

Professor Kenny has briefly tackled the issue of succession as well, highlighting that Duterte has sought to influence the succession to his chief ally, Senator Bongo, with his daughter Sarah Duterte proposed as vice president. The internal machinations among the elite eventually scuppered these plans with Sarah essentially rejecting this idea. In the end, Duterte was unable to secure his preferred succession. This, in many ways, is the very definition of democracy: an election removed him from office and prevented him from determining who would follow him. So, we had this kind of paradoxical situation, explained Dr Kenny: Duterte was quite illiberal on many key issues, especially around (1) judicial checks on the executive, (2) legislative checks on the executive power, (3) on press freedom and (4) public checks on executive power. Nevertheless, he remained extraordinarily popular, and the regime remained essentially democratic (Kreuzer, 2019). This is a real puzzle. To solve it, Dr Kenny’s own intuition and publications point us towards populism which can perhaps help fill the gap and provide an explanation.

To flag some of the issues that our moderator thought the concept of populism and theories of populism can help us resolve, the first is the fact that Duterte was very much a charismatic leader and individual leader who portrayed his administration as an essentially personalist rule which was sanctified by democratic elections and by popularity. This meant that Duterte had a very limited political organization behind him since he relied extraordinarily on popular support, on direct relationships with the people. Ultimately, in contrast to regular political parties in the West, he couldn’t rely on any guarantees from parties. Consequently, he paid a great deal of attention to public opinion polls, and he was quite sensitive to them.

In addition to leading the public, Duterte has also very much followed the public. This tells us something about populism in general too where we are often conditioned to think about populist demagogues who lead the people and drag them along to their own sort of Machiavellian purposes. Very often what we see is that populist are rather want to provide a mirror to the people (Panizza, 2005) and actually reflect popular views. So, in the Philippines case, this obviously raises some disturbing implications, which is that we have essentially popular illiberal democracy or popularly illiberal views. Lastly, closing his provocative framing of our second panel on global populism, Dr Kenny has mentioned that although in their lectures, some of our panelists may mention a lot of the negative things that Duterte has done, nevertheless, we have to think about what this means in a democracy, if those negative things including something as disruptive as the war on drugs are actually popular. 

Dr Adele Webb: “Populism, Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the Philippines: From Past to Present”

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Adele Webb from Brisbane who noted that this is an important year for Australians as they vote for a referendum to alter the constitution in recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to represent Indigenous Australians to the parliament and federal government on matters of Indigenous affairs. Moving on to the subject of the panel, which is a different contested landscape, Dr Webb first presented the structure of her lecture on populism in the Philippines. Her speech was organized around three ideas or three findings that are pertinent to our deeper understanding of the populist phenomenon as it manifests in the Philippine context, but which also contributes some closing reflections on how the Philippine case and its dynamics might sharpen our use of the term populism more generally.

According to the first panelist, in thinking about the existence of populism in the Philippines, there are three broad themes that are significant to note. The first is the fact that like many other postcolonial democracies, there are permanent features of the political arena, both in terms of institutions and in terms of voter attitudes that match descriptive representations of populism and the characteristics of the political landscape that provide a favorable political opportunity structure for populist politics. The electoral arena is dominated by moralistic rather than programmatic appeals. In the context of weak parties and the almost total absence of ideologically and ethically driven parties and identities, democratic competitions founded on social cleavages or competing ideas are very rare. Instead, political actors vying for power, foster a sense of symbolic performative vertical accountability between the people and themselves by portraying themselves as the main custodian of public interests and citizen demands. Citizens, for their part, tend to be more tolerant with strong executive power, with limited legislative intervention, desiring quick fixes and decisive actions. And all of this, of course, relates to what scholars have pointed out already that the Philippines is a quintessential case of O’Donnell’s (1994) delegative democracy categorization. Pluralism is weak and the political actors not only use this but reinforce it by talking of a unified people, as if the country needs to have one heart, one soul, one mind and only then can overcome the challenges that it faces. Together these factors provide a fertile ground for populist appeals. 

Nonetheless, Dr Webb reminds us that -while actors that we might describe as populist-, come and go, the resonance and potency of popular sentiment remains. We have witnessed this in the striking consistency in political rhetoric of key presidential figures. The way Corazón Aquino talked about the path to transformation when she was elected following the spectacular deposing of the late Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was at times almost indistinguishable from the way Manuel L. Quezon talked about transformation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Moreover, even the way Marcos himself talked about it. She made herself custodian of the nation and its prosperity, perpetuating the motif of “people’s power” that she spoke not in conservative but in revolutionary terms. “Now the country is back in our hands. Another revolution is about to begin,” she told an audience of workers on Labor Day in 1986. If Marcos had become demonized as the epitome of Philippine moral corruption, Aquino was the opposite, symbolizing everything that was morally good. Despite this division between “good” and “bad,” she stated that “Only the power of a unified people could make it succeed.” 

The late Marcos and Duterte in their authoritarian populist style have also spoken of good model citizens who are deserving of rights versus those who weren’t. Yet arguably their populace is based more on the idea of unity than it did on division. And of course, the closing of democratic spaces by calling for unity should remind us of the most recent election. The platform that Bongbong Marcos and Sarah Duterte joined was unity. Unifying north and south, unifying two powerful political families, and unifying the country against ‘disruptive opposition voices’ who want to raise questions about the sins of both fathers.

Moving on to her second theme that is noteworthy when considering populism in the Philippine context, Dr Webb discussed the missing factors of populism in the Southeast Asian country, as despite the permanent presence of popular speeches on the political landscape, some things considered integral to the rise of populism elsewhere are largely missing in the Philippines. In European liberal democracies, the rise of populism has gone hand in hand with increasing political polarization. The radicalization of publics and discourse, hyper partisan media that fosters antagonism, together these two phenomena, populism and polarization, are deemed the great threat to the liberal democratic order. In contrast to this, the Philippines stands out as a country with low political polarization. 

Duterte’s popularity took on an almost unique polar nature. It’s not to say that there were no opponents inside and outside Congress, but instead of developing into a coherent anti-populist block, as has been observed elsewhere, Duterte enjoyed an unprecedented cross-class approval that endured his six-year term. There is an important exception to this according to Dr Webb. Before Duterte, whenever the Philippines was invoked in discussions of populism, it was Joseph Estrada who was named. Although he represented a different brand of populism, and he defied all the old, typical Presidents. “The us” and “them” of his highly persuasive, populist performance was based on material grievances, on the deep social inequalities that marks society. He had chains of vertical loyalty but not with the morally pure, unified people but predominantly with the poor. For the first time, populism produced polarization. Both the grand coalition of anti-populist, anti-Estrada movement and those who mobilized in Estrada’s defense, each saw the other as enemy of democracy and themselves as democracies’ true agents. Therefore, if in the long history of politics in the Philippines, this is the exception then how do we understand the grievances and anxieties that have driven populist politics, particularly the authoritarian or illiberal kind of Duterte and Marcos, which uses popular sentiment to legitimize state repression?

The third point made by Dr Adele Webb stated that to understand the resonance of populist appeals, and the logic of populist voters in accepting them, we need to consider their deep historical roots. So, there are novel features of Duterte’s regime that deserves attention, of course, not to mention the victims of his vile war on drugs. Yet, at the same time, if we’re using populism as an analytical concept, we should place his politics in a long view, and we should seek to understand the logics that drive his appeal in historical context. If we don’t historicize our analyses, at least two things are at stake according to the warning of the panelist. The first is if we continue to give too much power to populist actors as if they have made people do things that are simply cruel, that make no sense and have no relationship to the democratic desires. And second, if we don’t historicize, we fail to acknowledge that political attitudes and political institutions are produced by and producers of the conditions of possibility.

Considering Duterte’s platform, Dr Webb points out that it was based around igniting two sources of popular anxiety. The first was related to law and order. The Philippines had become a narco-state, and economic and political stability were impossible if this problem wasn’t eradicated. “It’s going to be a dictatorship,” he warned in a 2015 TV interview. The police and the military were the backbone and his electoral campaign translated into a state sanctioned killing spree. This wasn’t the only anxiety Duterte has inflamed. He was also a populist nationalist, who preyed upon the fragile sovereignty of the post-colonial Philippines. He claimed to embody the Philippines defiance of an unresolved history of colonial subjugation and indignity. The resonance of this was vividly captured when he infamously cursed US President Obama during the press conference in Davao: “I am the president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master, but the Filipino people.” The antagonism here was not between moral citizens versus criminal scum, but the unified and sovereign Filipino people against a malignant foreigner.

This later anxiety, Dr Webb argued, has been mostly ignored. Perhaps because it implicates non-Filipinos. The formal, law and order pitch has gained the most attention. The grotesqueness of the war on drug has proved both hard to watch and hard to look away from. “Many people at the moment are abusing that freedom and doing things which are not good. But we have this one politician, Duterte, whose type of leadership is like Marcos. And many people like that. And if you see Davao right now, it is one of the safest places in the Philippines. For me, if that type of leadership is implemented again, I think it’s much better,” said one of the interviewees of Dr Webb in 2015 showcasing the popularity of penal populism.

Dr Webb tried to make sense of such sentiments by explaining how some have explained it as evidence of lingering authoritarian nostalgia from the Marcos period, while others argued that it is a case of penal populism, in which modest economic growth empowers an expanding middle class, who express their anxiety about criminality and government corruption. While both these explanations bear some truth, both need to be further historicized. As this sentiment predates the post-1986 era. Dr Webb’s research demonstrates that as far as back as the 1940s, a perceived need for discipline was shaping middle class perceptions of what was a legitimate exercise of democratic power. In particular, the type of leadership that was deemed necessary. Moreover, in the late 1950s, Carl Landon noted that the general increase in crime and disorder since the end of the war had led people to say that there’s too much democracy, and that a little less democracy would be better for the country. By the early 1970s, when Marcos declared the resuscitation of Philippine democracy it was only made possible through his strong, autocratic leadership. Newspaper columnists at the time summed up the prevailing mood as the lack of discipline plunged the nation into the depths. It was exactly what the president did. He put a stop to a total lack of discipline. 

The argument that our lecturer has made in her book was that these sentiments reflect a sustained ambivalence towards democracy (Webb, 2022). And that ambivalence in turn has its roots in the paradox of democratic empire that was unleashed on the Philippines by the United States from the turn of the last century. If we want to talk about the electorate’s propensity for patronage politics, then we must talk about Philippine democracy’s founding patron. There is a striking resemblance between the logic of the electorate, the way they look at the way of democratic progress is imagined and the way the US colonial project of benign authoritarianism operated in the Philippines. It was a logic of pursuing national dignity and democratic ideals through the denial of liberty. Acceptance of their rights for the greater good was deemed to be appropriate behavior of the good student of American democratic tutelage. Unlike in other post-colonial contexts, these imperial logics of governance have penetrated the psyche and the imaginings of how democracy works, and they are very difficult to shake. 

Dr Webb has concluded her presentation by making some final remarks about what the complex case of the Philippines means for our understanding of populism more generally. If the logics that drive populism in the Philippines are deeply rooted in colonial history: What if anything, does it have to do with populism elsewhere? Can the term traverse such diverse contexts? It can, according to the research fellow of the University of Canberra, but only if we see populism not as the problem with our political systems, but as a manifestation of grievances with existing institutions of representative democracy. A signal of the failure of regimes to adequately express the political aspirations of people and to give a fact to notions that are supposedly central to our democratic normative ideal: popular sovereignty and constituent power. This is not to defend populism as a model of political change, but to say that if we blame the unsustainability of our democracies on populism, we sideline and ignore the causes of the feelings of alienation that propel it. 

In the Philippines, this is an old story, the institutions of representative democracy were compromised at their conception under a US colonial administration. At its core, the rise of populism is about the failure of institutions of democracy to ever accommodate the constituency, beyond the populist performative realm. In Europe, it’s a more recent phenomenon accelerated by cultural shifts brought about by neoliberalism and the digital transformation of our social lives. But in both places, populist voters conclude that the only way to make the principle of popular sovereignty effective is to delegate power to a strong, usually male and blustering figurehead, whose transgressions of liberal representative institutions, they mostly forgive, due to the lack of alternative means for addressing deep seated structural inequalities. 

Dr Mark Richard Thompson: “Duterte’s ‘Violent Populism’ in Comparative and Historical Perspective”

Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. Duterte’s strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Professor Mark Richard Thompson presented Duterte’s violent populism in a comparative and historical perspective. To begin, he noted that one problem with populism studies is that it is or has often been very Eurocentric. Although the US gets an honorable mention recently and Latin America sneaks in, we must highlight the fact that Latin American populism has been studied for quite a long time. This is an interesting aspect that in recent studies, particularly political science, a lot of the material is drawn from the European cases, therefore paying more attention to the Philippine case is a great initiative.

Dr Thompson started out his presentation by picking up on some of the comments made by Dr Kenny in his introduction, particularly his point about the paradox of democratic illiberalism, and some comments made by Dr Webb about democratic ambivalence and the nationalist component of Duterte’s appeal. The historical components weren’t really emphasized in the second presentation, but that is not to say it has no vital importance. The professor of the City University of Hong Kong first reflected on Dr Webb’s ideas about late colonialism in the Philippines, then gave a brief overview of his presentation, which touched on discussions of Duterte’s misogyny and also about the role of social media, how important it was for the rise of Duterte and his successor, Marcos Jr. 

Dr Thompson emphasized the comparative aspect of Duterte’s populism as it was mentioned in the lecture title. Duterte does seem to reflect the global trends during his presidency, yet the important distinction is that he was the only illiberal populist to instigate mass murder of tens of thousands. By taking a close look at the figures published not just by NGOs, but by the Commission on Human Rights as well. A government agency, which Duterte has tried to defund but his allies in Congress ultimately backed away from this. Furthermore, we can find numbers by an initiative at the University of Philippines and some international groups that have been coming up with databases as well. Ultimately, we can safely talk about up to tens of thousands of murders confirmed by the Philippine government under Duterte, when they went through their declamatory phase when they were proud of the killings, and they propagated it in the media about what they were doing to stop drug criminality – often incriminating debt pushers and small-time drug users. They have only changed this approach after incredible pushback internationally and domestically. Although that didn’t stop the drug war but did lead them to change the counting and obscure the numbers of victims. 

The lecture was continued by highlighting that Duterte is distinctive because he was engaging in mass murder against his own citizens. We can talk about other illiberal populists such as Putin invading Ukraine, but this is different, it was war on the Filipino people. It was a particularly virulent form of illiberalism as it took the aggressive intent of the idea of us versus them. The populist polarity of two deadly extremes. Furthermore, the ‘othering’ was not based on religion, ethnicity, or migration, but it was othering outsiders. It was against the poor because overwhelmingly – with the important exception of the journalists, judges, and the local mayors -, over half of those identified by Duterte’s drug war were actually murdered, most of them had a poor socio-economic background. There were a few high-profile cases of celebrities and even celebrities were killed, but it was overwhelmingly a war against the poor. 

It was urban, poor, young males, they were the main victims. Nonetheless, Duterte won popular support, including among the poor (Kusaka, 2017). Interesting ethnological studies on this phenomenon, as well as, of course, the opinion polls, show us why Duterte is distinctive from the so-called “base populists” like Bolsonaro and Trump. They had highly polarized societies with a very affectionate base that did not care what these characters were up to. Duterte had effectively a vast portion of the population supporting him. Although it is worth pointing out that there’s an increasing discussion about whether Duterte’s support was due to fear. Dr Thompson believes that overwhelmingly it was genuine support even though there was a bit of a fear factor. People, particularly poor people, for obvious reasons were concerned that the drug war might actually affect them.

One framework for understanding Duterte’s policies has been penal populism (Pratt, 2007, Curato, 2016, Kenny and Holmes, 2020). But Dr Thompson warns that crime concerns were limited until Duterte securitized drugs in his 2016 campaign (Quimpo, 2019). Crime, which was the lowest concern, jumps up briefly during Duterte’s campaign from December 2015 to his election, then it goes back down. Inflation, as it was mentioned by Dr Kenny, remains the most important consideration of Filipino people until today. Moreover, according to the lecturer, penal populism has generally been involved with people being arrested and put in jail for a long time and although that did happen in the Philippines, mass arrests, but there were also mass killings, extra judicial killings. These killings were going on and the drug war continued despite growing domestic and international criticism.

In terms of the origins and nature of Duterte’s violent populism, one has to understand how he nationalized it after having it first developed locally in Davao as mayor for a number of terms. Eventually, he became a popular mayor, dealing with the communist insurgency and dealing with high crime rates. Then he came up with a new idea of what can be called “neo-bossism” where instead of intimidating voters, he wooed them by promising to protect the ‘good people’ against ‘drug induced evil.’ So again, populist polarity worked in Duterte’s favor without upsetting voters and attracting them. His messages resonated well, particularly given the failures of what could be called the liberal reformist regime of Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, her successor. The Estrada administration was a bit of an exception, the liberal reformers didn’t like that, and they overthrew Estrada extra-constitutionally. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was Estrada’s successor. She was supposed to be a liberal but turned out to be a very problematic administration. Finally, the son of Benigno Aquino becomes president, and we seem to have this idea of a good reformist fighting against the problems of the corrupt Marcos dictatorship and continuing to undertake reforms for decades. 

This ultimately is seen as an institutional failure, because although the economy was restored after Marcos left behind an economic disaster despite the recent nostalgia for his presidency, growth was restored but it was not widely distributed, and poverty remains very high in the Philippines. Depending on different methods, more than half the Filipinos will tell pollsters that they are poor. Estrada’s populism, which could be called as proletarian populism, was undermined. There were a number of other political figures who ran against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and a movie star Fernando Poe Jr. was disqualified. Furthermore, another major candidate was undermined through what can be called a selective Senate investigation. So, according to Professor Thompson’s explanation, there was an alternative rhetoric, which was certainly less deadly than Duterte’s populism. Duterte has used a similarly repressive repertoire in his failed pandemic response, which can be called “brute force governance” shielding him from responsibility and accountability, as well as deflecting from his obvious governance failures and demonstrating how effective it is as a legitimation strategy. 

Another interesting point our second speaker has made is Duterte’s claim to be a socialist despite harming the poor through his war on drugs and not changing the Philippine economic model that did little good to the poor. He has stated that he would be the country’s first socialist president and started negotiations with the Communist Party when he took office. He also had friendly relations with communist politicians, yet later declared them terrorists and resumed extrajudicial killings against the left. Continuing with his remarks on Duterte’s socialism and economics, Thompson mentioned that Duterte did not undertake major socio-economic reforms and his anti-oligarch rhetoric only served and benefitted his cronies. What we can see is that Duterte was claiming drugs were the source of poverty and if they can just eradicate it, it will fix the economy. This obviously deflects attention from the “death of development” which entails high poverty rates despite decades of high growth. The strategy of securitization and “brute force government” has also been employed during the pandemic undermining accountability in a weak state with a poor record of human development.

Following this, Thompson provided a brief overview of Duterte’s macho populism. He was a misogynist with a hyper masculine display that was seen to demonstrate its authenticity, particularly against the hypocrisy of the old liberal reformers (Encinas-Franco, 2022; Parmanand, 2020; Curato and Ong, 2018). It is important to point out that four of the leading opposition figures Duterte has targeted were women and he went after them very harshly. For daring to challenge the drug war, Senator De Lima was shamed, accused of committing a ‘dual class and gender sin’ and she remains in jail until today on trumped up drug charges. Duterte has also fired his vice president Leni Robredo, who was separately elected in the Philippines, from the cabinet after she criticized the drug war. Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, still faces a number of legal issues and cyber libel cases that were clearly initiated by Duterte’s administration to intimidate the media. Finally Chief Justice Maria Serena was removed after defending judges tagged for drugs. 

In his last point, Professor Thompson focused on the issue of illiberalism. There has been a lot of discussion in the literature about how widespread anti-pluralist views are in the Philippines and support for a strong leader who gets things done unhindered by constraints (Pernia, 2021). Kenny and Holmes (2020) have pointed out that this shows support for illiberal policies not illiberalism generally or the popularity of the drug war. According to Thompson, these studies demonstrate how Duterte could enjoy high popularity and electoral legitimacy despite massive violation of human rights. It also seems to fit the theory of a famous Philippine political scientist Agpalo’s (pangulo theory, 1981) who talks about the preference of Filipinos for strong terms, and would also help explain this nostalgia for the Marcos dictatorship. The latter helped his son, Marcos Jr. to win the 2022 elections and explains why Cory Aquino is now seen as a weak president. Consequently, Dr Thompson states that there is a strong liberal tradition reminding us that Cory Aquino has once unseated Marcos suggesting that the current illiberalism is situational. We also do see that, even if it’s not a coherent opposition movement, there are strong anti-drug and then later anti-terrorism protests in the Philippines. 

To conclude, the lecturer highlighted that Duterte was ahead of the recent illiberal populist curve elected a few months before Trump and a year before Bolsonaro. Albeit there are similar social media ills to be looked at such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. A Facebook executive spoke about one reason why the Philippines has been identified as patient zero is Facebook disinformation. Illiberalism seems to be persisting under Duterte’s successor, Marcos Jr. Although Duterte’s illiberal realignment toward China is now being re-evaluated by the new president under pressure from the US, also by the military and public opinion as well. This marks an interesting shift, yet the main takeaway here is that the Philippines is being an extreme example of the populist dichotomy of ‘the good people’ and ‘criminal others’ used to legitimate mass killings. It was a highly militarized brute force governance by Duterte’s – a democratically legitimated but highly illiberal leader-, who blames ne’er-do-wells for complex social problems facing the country. This strategy has also deflected attention from mass poverty by what Bello (2019) has called “a fascist original.” Finally, the current dominance of illiberalism in Philippine politics has been met by considerable, if not entirely, coherent, liberal pushback, which goes back to a century-old tradition of resolve and the independence movement more generally.

Dr Jean S. Encinas-Franco: “Gendered Populism of Dutertismo and Hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics”

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte.

Dr Jean Encinas-Franco talked about gendered populism and hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics. In the lecture’s outline, Dr Encinas-Franco broke down her presentation into four main points: (1) populism, gender and international migration; (2) Duterte as a populist and a brief historical background of Philippine out migration; (3) Duterte’s gendered rhetoric towards migrants; and (4) some concluding remarks. To start with the first point, the third speaker reviewed the literature on gender and populism: There has been a lot of studies linking the two together and, in fact, it has been expanding. Drawing from Saresma (2018: 177), who coined the term ‘gendered populism,’ she refers to the concept, “a simplifying understanding of gender as a ‘natural,’ essentially dichotomous order based on positioning both women and men in hierarchical locations in terms of power.” 

Moving on to introduce international migration to the equation as well, the Professor points out that the literature on gendered populism and migration has a Eurocentric bias, which Dr Thompson referred to a while ago about populist studies in general. If these studies talk about international migration, they usually refer to host states and the usual strategy would be for populists to engage in racism and ‘othering’ of immigrants, coupled with criticism of feminism and privileging the traditional family to protect them from the ‘othered immigrants.’ Some argue in defense of why gender and migration has become very prominent in Europe is that immigration has been a crisis in most countries in Europe. Yet in the Global South, particularly in the Philippines, Philippine labor out migration actually also has a lot of history of crisis situations in which the government had to break its relations with the Coalition of the Willing. 

Looking at migration and Duterte’s gendered rhetoric Dr Encinas-Franco uses Moffitt’s (2016) definition of populism as a political style and asks the question: Why is Duterte very popular with Filipinos overseas? Duterte garnered 70 percent of the votes in 2016 among Filipinos overseas. Since 2004, the government has allowed overseas migrants to vote if they are still Filipino citizens. The former president’s candidacy has increased overseas votes by more than 30 percent. These votes generally have not been a significant contribution to the overall voter turnout until 2016. Moreover, a lot of overseas Filipinos campaigned for Duterte. In her study, Professor Encinas-Franco traces their support and their fanaticism to Duterte in 2015. 

The context of Philippine labor out migration is such that since 1974, the government has been involved in labor export through the labor code, which institutionalized overseas employment. Today, there are more than 12 million Filipinos abroad in more than 200 countries and territories. Although this data, warns Dr Encinas-Franco, is severely underreported. It has also consistently been the fourth largest remittance recipient country in the world. In 2020 alone, the Filipinos abroad remitted $35 billion dollars to their country of origin. A key characteristic of overseas migration is the feminization of migration in which not only 60 percent of Filipino migrants are women, but a lot of Filipino migrants are also working as so-called feminized domestic workers and caregivers. Moreover, migration scholars also refer to the government as paternalistic. In terms of how they view Filipino migrant women, there are stricter regulations for women migrants’ mobility compared to men, and deployment bans on domestic workers. Nine out of 10 migrant domestic workers are women. On the other hand, there is also a huge bureaucracy to cater to Filipino migrants’ needs. 

Looking at a case study of Duterte’s presidential visit to South Korea in 2018, where he had delivered a three-hour speech. Duterte’s speech has received particularly strong attention from migrant Filipinos in Seoul. Furthermore, this speech has made international headlines because he gave a migrant Filipino woman a kiss. Professor Encinas-Franco has analyzed the speech and its transcript to identify what are the themes that comprise this speech. One central trope was “the protective and angry father.” In his speech, he said that he will protect anyone from destroying his country (referring to drug addicts). Duterte framed his message in a way that makes sense to Filipinos abroad by emphasizing that their children’s welfare is his priority. This resonated very well to migrant Filipinos abroad and, in a sense, it justified violence against fellow Filipinos as extremely necessary. This is just one sample of his rhetoric as a migrant, as a protective and angry father. 

The second trope mentioned by our third speaker was “the Filipino every man.” Duterte has usually dressed in ordinary clothes, not in formal attire. The populist ex-president would also use humor and curses. Remaining relatable but projecting the image of a very powerful man. Dr Encinas-Franco has also noted that in the speech in South Korea, Duterte admitted to having two wives. Although he has to make this moral transgression excusable by saying that there is no such thing as a first family. “We are all first family, we are all workers of the government, working for the Filipino people.” A very symbolic message which certainly resonated very well with Filipino migrants because in this rhetoric, they would feel that they are really part of the nation, that their president really cares for them, and that they don’t mind whether he has two wives. They also don’t mind whether this is some form of a double standard given that he has accused late legislators Senator Lila De Lima of committing adultery.

The third trope explored by our lecturer is that Duterte was a “Ladies’ Man.” Of course, to justify his actions, he has asked for permission to kiss the migrant woman, in fact, he also asked whether the migrant woman had a husband, explained Professor Encinas-Franco. Nevertheless, he presented it as something that’s ordinary and that these people also said that it was just for enjoyment and a part of Filipino culture. Drawing from Mendonca and Caetano (2021: 227) who studied Bolsonaro and said that this is common, Dr Encinas-Franco made parallels between the two populist leaders. The ladies’ man approach is a formula that the voting base of populists do not mind mainly because “it gives new meaning to the authority of the office and the denial of its standard forms.” It means that Duterte is really one with the people. 

The reaction from the Duterte-camp further amplifies and forgives Duterte’s messages. The reason behind this is that they see it as a joke or part of Filipino culture which does not need to be excused or apologized for. This erases and closes any form of resistance because it’s merely a joke. The fact that women were also laughing as seen on the video of the South Korean speech meant compliance to the patriarchy (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005: 848). There were also women, Cabinet Secretaries and Undersecretary from the camp of Duterte who didn’t mind what the party leader did. But what does this make of Duterte’s behavior? It forgives the perpetrator. Moreover, even legislators noted that the president’s behavior was an assault and abuse of power. Notwithstanding, when they look at the Philippines’ good record in terms of gender equality laws, they actually individualize Duterte’s actions and rhetoric. They tend to frame Duterte’s misogynistic actions, rhetoric, and practice as an individual issue, rather than a societal and systemic issue. So, in effect that tells us that it closes resistance.  

In her concluding remarks, Professor Encinas-Franco emphasized that the reason why Duterte’s speech and his rhetoric is so powerful among migrants is that it’s quite different from the usual bureaucratic language that the state employs. The state is very much involved in catering to every migrant’s needs from pre-employment to repatriation, but when in doing so, the state uses bureaucratic or legalized rhetoric, while Duterte’s case is very much personalized. His behavior has also embodied masculine entitlement that is not inherently different from the entitlement inherent in deployment bans and stricter regulations for migrant Filipino women. Finally, Duterte’s populist style was very popular, resonated very well with people from all walks of life and ultimately stifled resistance.

Dr Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio: “Media Populism and Anti-Free Speech in Duterte’s Philippines”

While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights.

In the last contribution, Dr Jefferson Lyndon Ragragio spoke about media populism and anti-free speech on Facebook in the Philippines between 2016 and 2022. Using a more modest approach to his presentation, Dr Ragragio focused on the so-called anti free speech. He argued that part of the political legacy of Duterte’s administration is anti-free speech that characterizes a complicated hybrid of hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that bridges the putative relational ties of the leader and his idealized public. Dr Ragragio has aimed to show how Duterte’s anti free speech thrived within the climate of a network of disinformation, and to some extent affective and emotional politics that collectively spoil the civil consensus on political participation.

Dr Ragragio used the case of the Philippines, a Southeast Asian nation of over 75 million Facebook users regarded as the social media capital of the world to demonstrate his arguments. While the country prides itself as once a bastion of free speech and democratic movement in the region, the Philippines under the Duterte administration reported major push backs against such areas as rule of law, civil liberties, free expression, and press freedom. Since 2018, the Philippines has been classified as an electoral autocracy, meaning that while the country observes multiparty elections, there are insufficient levels of rights in areas like right to suffrage and free expression according to the 2023 report of the V-Dem Institute. The classification of electoral autocracy is a downgrade from what the country used to be prior to the Duterte era, which is electoral democracy where there are relatively free and fair multi-party elections and satisfactory degrees of rights. The country’s state of press freedom, once regarded as the freest in Southeast Asia, recorded yearly decline from 2017 to 2022, placing the country from 127 to 147 spots (Reporters Without Borders, 2023). So, there are certainly manufacturers or systemic – emerging and even hybridized – factors that contributed to this democratic backsliding. This type of crisis is transnational and global in character, which forces us to reevaluate some of the ways we approach the features of contemporary and digital politics. 

The concept of populism is elusive and understood in many ways, yet the key characteristics of populism, especially the notion of the people are evident in many societies across geographical lines. Some scholars of populism explain that the core element of the term is to speak and act in the name of the people broadly defined, and that this act of representing the people by the leader can be manipulated to construct political identities and political conflicts. Although sharing this observation, Dr Ragragio limited his work in his presentation to using an understanding of populism as a political communication style that uses certain rhetoric, identity, and media to connect with the people: for instance, the disenchanted or the agreed groups, while it also aggravates ‘the other’ centered around elite or the establishment.

This understanding has allowed our speaker to highlight the centrality of rhetoric and style in the communicative expression of mediated populism. In terms of its relationship with disinformation, populism is central if not intrinsic to the evolving practices of networked disinformation or what some call digital propaganda. The multifaceted practices associated with disinformation come in different forms like political trolling and digital black box in the Philippines. 

A cursory look at recent studies on free speech under contemporary populism would show a variety of speeches or brands of speeches used by populist actors. In Duterte’s Philippines, the prominent kind is that of hate speech, which aptly describes the leader’s hostility against the political opposition, including human rights activists, church leaders, and politicians opposing the brutal war on drugs. Duterte’s open hostility against the dominant centuries old Catholic Church and its teachings, something past Philippine presidents didn’t bother to do, is a clear expression of hate speech that dehumanizes and incites discrimination against the perceived ‘other.’ So, some scholars call it extreme speech that broadens the hostile character of hate speech to include culture specific practices and sentiments that resonate with expressions of the digital public. This includes such expressions as remorse and rumors that connect with the imaginations of some segments of the politics. Anti-free speech in Duterte’s Philippines is represented by hateful, banal, and light rhetoric that targets and appeals to different segments of the politics. 

In his presentation, associate professor Ragragio focused on three ways, or three narratives employed under the Duterte administration. (1) The first is the marginalization of the political opposition. (2) Second is the appeal to the notion of family. (3) Third is the appeal to the notion of religion. So, amplifying the label of terrorism in the first narrative, the diehard supporters of Duterte, popularly known as the DDS, orchestrated the supposed anti-elite and nationalist rhetoric of Duterte. DDS is a mobilized yet highly unstructured coalition of individuals and networks that maintain an active presence online, especially on Facebook and YouTube. On YouTube, for instance, it’s no less than the national government’s channel, people’s television network that reports on how DDS members worldwide are gathering to express their continued support for Duterte whose life according to his supporters is endangered by the elite. DDS uses the referee of below one or the color yellow. So, the yellow is a political color associated with another political family, another political clan to target the perceived other. Duterte and his incendiary social media armies were able to signify yellow with political opposition marked with elitism, incompetence and a bogus sense of nationalism.

The second narrative is about the populist notion of family which shows how the strongman yet compassionate brand of the leadership of Duterte is capable of securing the welfare of families, children and future generations. On Facebook, the leader was dramatically referred to as “Father of the Nation,” showing how he managed to spend quality time with family and children, despite his political career. For his online supporters, Duterte epitomizes a strong brand of leadership that can bring back the long-gone discipline expected of every Filipino. A leadership brand that is humane enough to protect the law-abiding populace. In one Facebook photo on Duterte’s page, he is promoting the caring image of the leader, notwithstanding the leaders’ press remarks against women, the clergy, local politicians, and journalists.

The third notion is about the populist notion of religion, which highlights the devout identity of the leader through practices and identification with recognized symbols of fate such as kneeling and praying, showing images of processions, being prayed over by leaders of different churches, -although these leaders come predominantly from the prominent Catholic faith-, and expressions of prayers and aspirations. The religion related posts, conflate facts and fictitious accounts to magnify the pious image of Duterte. Dr Ragragio showcased an edited photo of Duterte kneeling and praying with a comment asking for God’s protection of Duterte to provide an example of his case. Further, posts by other pro-Duterte Facebook pages would also claim that the leader was indeed a gift from God to the Philippines. 

In his speech, the fourth panelist has demonstrated the complicated mix of hateful, banal and light sentiments that target the aspirations of the digital public. The Philippine case showed how we can expand the belligerence and strict binarism typical of political populism. Features that while central to contemporary populism may not fully account for the sophisticated terms of populism and contemporary digital politics at large. Under the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr and Sara Duterte, the anti-free speech honed by the previous administration, presents real world dangers to this day. 

Duterte continues to exhibit closer ties with the church leader, Apollo Quiboloy who is in the wanted list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for crimes including sex trafficking of children, and fraud and coercion. The church leaders’ media, called Sunshine Media Network International, serves as one of the primary media platforms of Duterte and his supporters to attack the ‘others’ including independent media outlets and legitimate foreign bodies like the International Criminal Court. 

In the area of legislation, some of Duterte’s close allies in both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, relentlessly advocate pro-Duterte policies like shielding the leader from investigations into his bloody drug war. Just recently, some lawmakers proposed to upgrade the financial benefits of former presidents, citing solely the case of Duterte. In sum, what we are seeing then is the changing terms of mediated populism that can reform or disable consensus on free speech, one that can disrupt and even redefine our sense of political participation in the digital sphere. Finally, Dr Radragio reminded us to be more attentive to the innovative terms of mediated populism so we can better address the rhetorical, digital and real-world challenges of anti-free speech.


(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.


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Activists protest against the rise of fascism in Portugal in Coimbra in September 2020. Photo: Joao Ferreira Simoes.

CHEGA! A sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese parties’ disaggregation or a spectre of fascism?

Abstract

Over the past four decades, Portuguese voters have imprinted a solid resistance to the emergence of far-right parties in the political setting. However, this time ended in the 2019 legislative elections when the CHEGA, a self-located party on the far-right spectrum, with a posture assumed as anti-system and unconcerned with the accusations of racism and hate exhilaration, elected André Ventura to the national parliament. Moreover, in the 2021 presidential elections, he got 497,746 votes, a scant point to be the second most-voted candidate. The 2022 legislative elections placed CHEGA as the third most-voted party, and the number of members in parliament has climbed to twelve. This article critically examines the political constraints and opportunities for the rise of the CHEGA party in the Portuguese political setting. It argues that CHEGA emerges from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties coupled with a ubiquitous traditional media landscape, which has proved favourable to the CHEGA propensity towards the Portuguese electorate and without scrutinise its narratives opposing the dominant ruling system. Beyond news media and cumulatively, social networks have also increased party exposure by recruiting affiliates and strengthening support bases.

By Carlos Morgado Braz

Throughout history, economic and social distress have stimulated antagonisms and political discontent with ordinary party politics. This thick reading explains why numerous radical far-right (RFR)[1] parties became well-established following the Cold War period. For Wodak and Krzyżanowski (2017), the return of these parties is one of the main threats to democracy. On the other hand, few others suggested it might positively affect contemporary democracy (Fraser, 2017). Nevertheless, whatever different argument these scholars use, they all agree that the RFR party’s success has been appropriating “claims” about the negative impact of social-cultural globalisation (e.g. ethnicity, religion) or the migration influx (e.g. class) involving a Manichean worldview, which divides social space into two opposing camps: the “true people” and the “corrupt establishment” (Urbinati, 2019).

To a great extent, as Goldberg (2020) found, this blurry puzzle has affected electoral behaviour, increasing the number of de-aligned and disillusioned voters who either do not participate or become open to new and more radical alternatives. However, in the existing literature, little attention has been paid to opportunities left open in the political setting by the dislocation of mainstream parties when they smooth over their foundational ideological matrixes to increase their chances of securing a winning majority. Instead, mainstream literature has mainly focused on voter turnout based on socio-economic variables or the dynamics behind RFR parties’ attitudes towards electoral campaigns. This article addresses this gap using the Portuguese CHEGA party’s emergence as a case selection.

One attempt to explain the RFR party’s electoral success could be Rydgren’s demand-side and supply-side conceptual approach[2]. According to Rydgren (2007), the demand-side approach reflects changes affecting citizens’ economic status and social-cultural identity – the base for RFR parties to go with criticism against those in power. In addition, the supply-side approach is twofold: the first focuses on the constraints and opportunities given by the political-institutional context that extend the prospect for their emergence; the second concentrates on parties themselves, e.g. the role of ideology and their organisational structures, including leadership. This article rests on the supply-side Rydgren’s approach. So, naturally, I question: Is Portugal dangerously returning to the fascist path, or is CHEGA a sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese political parties’ disaggregation?

To begin with is essential to remember that whatever ideological positioning a particular party uses, its manifestations will be contextual and dependent, among other things, on the country’s political, social and religious culture. The CHEGA is not an extremist party and is not, using a Wittgensteinian metaphor, an incarnation of our recent past. Instead, I argue it is a populist radical far-right party that emerged from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties. Regarding its rise, the Portuguese traditional and social media platforms have facilitated André Ventura wide-reaching communication and intensified levels of connection with “the people” daily. However, given the spatial constraints of this article, this line of research is an obvious challenge that I will not address.

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Group of demonstrators on road, young people from different culture and race fight for climate change. Photo: Disobey Art.

What’s under green? Eco-populism and eco-fascism in the climate crisis

Abstract

The ongoing environmental crisis has prompted various groups, organizations, and political parties to develop new strategies for addressing this global challenge. In this context, eco-populist actors, organizations, and parties are playing a key role in challenging the current exploitative capitalist system. However, it is important to note that eco-populist movements can differ significantly from one another. This article aims to distinguish between two contemporary but distinct movements: eco-populism and eco-fascism. To accomplish this, the terms “populism” and “eco-populism” will be conceptualized and analyzed, and the ideological deviations that eco-populism has undergone will be explained. The article will then provide brief case studies that showcase both eco-populist and eco-fascist events. By examining these examples, we will strive to identify the main similarities and differences between these two movements. Our conclusion will be that, despite sharing some features, eco-fascist movements tend to be more violent and nativist than eco-populist movements.

By Iván Escobar Fernández & Heidi Hart

Although some extremist Populist Radical Right Parties are still reluctant to acknowledge the evident effects of climate change and the urgent need to take necessary actions (see Spanish Populist Radical Right Party VOX), there is quite a consensus among climate researchers, environmental scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists on the causes that have driven us to this climate crisis. Among the main reasons that can explain climate change, there is no doubt that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and massive extraction and exploitation of natural resources have contributed the most to the ongoing crisis (see IPCC, 2022). However, the impacts of climate change differ from region to region, thus making individuals more vulnerable according to their nationality, social class, proximity and dependency on natural areas (see Thornton et al., 2014). Considering these factors, it can be concluded that Indigenous communities are among the most endangered groups due to climate change. This vulnerability has led to the emergence of popular movements that oppose extractive industries and their consequent exploitation of the resources found in natural areas, thus fueling violence and concern all over the globe (see Torres-Wong, 2019).

In the beginning, these movements were somehow marginal and unknown by the rest of the world and their demands were far from being considered by policymakers; however, as climate change impacts have become more tangible, these groups and movements have enjoyed more recognition, and their demands are currently being heard and considered, for example during the Alternative COP 26 in Glasgow and COP 27 in Egypt. Today, though the approaches and strategies may differ, it is difficult to find a political party that has not included climate change mitigation and adaptation in its agenda. However, although “green policies” have become an integral area of most political parties and social movements, different approaches and schools of eco-political thought have emerged in response to the current situation. These include Eco-Rousseauians, who believe that GHGs emissions must be curbed by the purchase of carbon credits from the underdeveloped world and call for the immediate and voluntary halt to the exploitation of natural resources and the protection of ecosystems of the world; Eco-Hobbesians, who defend that climate change can only be overcome by the imposition of global sanctions and mutual coercion mechanisms; Eco-Smithians, think that climate change will be solved by human inventiveness and see it as an opportunity for designing, producing, and selling new products that will boost private gain Eco-Calvinists, who opt for using resource-efficiency techniques to solve the climate crisis; Eco-Christians, who firmly believe that only a coalition with evangelicals would ensure God’s creation; and Eco-Populism, which is worth a more thorough explanation due to its complexity (Yanarella, 2015).

This article aims to analyze the rise of eco-populism across the world and to identify its main features, motivations and goals. Furthermore, this article will also aim to make a distinction between eco-populism and an appearance similar movement that has been coined under the name of eco-fascism. To do so, we will first conceptualize what we understand as populism and eco-populism and will point out some deviations the latter has undergone in recent years. The following section will showcase four different case studies that will aim at helping us identify some common and distinctive features between eco-populists and eco-fascists. Lastly, our findings will be discussed and contrasted with the existing literature.

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Photo: Blue Planet Studio.

The economics of pandemics and the future course of populism

Abstract

The relevant literature shows that populists come to power through various rhetorics by exploiting the incumbent orders and the problems they have caused. However, failures and disappointments in fulfilling their promises push them to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions. By emphasizing the overall performance of populist governments during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, this article explores the future course of populist politics and governments after the pandemic. The paper concludes that although the pandemic has clearly shown the limits and capacity of many populist governments, the political and economic conjuncture in the post-pandemic era, coupled with the high tension of power transition, might bring new “opportunities” for the use of populists. With several defects and structural weaknesses of the existing liberal multilateral order, populism is here to stay with different implications for the multilateral liberal order and globalization.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

Introduction

As a dangerous external shock to the global economic and political system, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a stage when the negative repercussions of the Global Recession (GR) had not fully subsided, exacerbating existing problems, such as unemployment, loss of income, and inequality, with further political and social repercussions. With the advent of other “horses of the apocalypse” – such as climate change, famine, migration, terrorism, and state failure – the current pandemic could emerge as an endemic part of life worldwide through new mutations.

This article strives to explore the effect of the pandemic on the performance of populists either in government or opposition in the post-pandemic era. Taken together, widespread uncertainties, confusions, fears, and stresses are the main push factors behind populism. Nevertheless, populist rhetoric offers untested (and sometimes) romantic promises to counter the actual social, political, and economic traumas and shocks, referring to an unknown, not yet born “alternative” system. Therefore, even if it is rather more straightforward for populists to come to power with the help of such political-economic conjunctures, they are more likely to experience difficulty fulfilling the expectations their populist rhetoric has caused. The real danger is that, despite failing to fulfil their promises, they tend to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society so as to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions.

This article strives to predict whether the global populist environment created by the GR will turn against populist governments during and after the Global Lockdown (GL) of the pandemic. However, the analysis of the performance of mainstream and populist parties during the COVID-19 pandemic is quite a challenging task as it is complicated by several other factors such as the ongoing global power shift and the accompanying national, regional and global geopolitical conflicts. In addition, countries’ overall political and economic situations just before the pandemic crisis have also been immensely influential on their performance. All these parameters have brought additional evaluation criteria other than their actual economic performance during the pandemic and ended up prolonging their lifespan.

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People are attending a political rally and marching through the city streets of Melbourne with a police escort in Victoria, Australia on March 16, 2019. Photo: Adam Calaitzis.

Mapping Global Populism – Panel 1: Populism and Far-Right in Australia 

van Os, Kim & Smith, Chloe. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism – Panel 1: Populism and Far-Right in Australia.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 5, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0040

 

This report is derived from the inaugural panel of ECPS’s monthly series, titled “Mapping Global Populism,” which took place online on March 23, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism from Australia and New Zealand. As a result of this insightful panel, the report provides brief summaries of the speeches presented by the speakers.

By Kim van Os* & Chloe Smith

This report is based on the inaugural panel of the ECPS’s monthly panel series titled “Mapping Global Populism,” held on March 23, 2023. The panel featured esteemed scholars in the field, including Dr. Imogen Richards, from Deakin University Australia, Dr. Rachel Sharples from Western Sydney University Australia, and Dr. Josh Roose from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization. Dr. John Pratt, from Victoria University of Wellington, served as the moderator for this panel.

Dr. Pratt initiated the panel by emphasizing the importance of studying populism in this region. He highlighted that Australia, along with New Zealand, exhibited early indications of far-right tendencies even before the emergence of Donald Trump in the United States.

In the 1990s, Australia witnessed the rise of a distinctive populist party named One Nation. This party espoused anti-immigration, anti-science, and anti-expert stances, garnering considerable support from tabloid media. While One Nation experienced electoral successes primarily in Queensland during the subsequent decade, its influence has since diminished significantly. In the recent federal election in Australia, One Nation failed to secure any seats. Nonetheless, as Dr. Pratt maintains, this does not imply the disappearance of far-right populism in Australia. One Nation has left its mark on mainstream parties, particularly evident in the national party’s climate change denial stance.

 

Dr. Imogen Richards: “From Past to Present: The Question of Populism, Extremism and the Far-Right in Australia”

Dr. Richards revealed a complex interplay and representation of connections between white identity, environment, culture, race, and territory. Concepts such as blood and soil, race, and place, emerged and strongly influenced the ideological foundations of the far-right in Australia.

Dr. Imogen Richards presented a compelling analysis of the utilization of environmental politics by far-right actors in Australia, employing key theories of populism to shed light on the subject. Without delving into the contested realm of populism definitions, Dr. Richards acknowledged the potential value of both the ideological and performative approaches in examining the discussion that follows. She offered brief summaries of the perspectives on populism put forth by Mudde, Mondon & Winter, and Moffitt.

Dr. Richards emphasized the significance of Australia’s colonial history in comprehending the contemporary expressions of environmentalism by white supremacist groups. This history is characterized by the British genocide of indigenous peoples, who inhabited the mainland for over 65,000 years, and extends to their ongoing marginalization, dispossession, and displacement. Furthermore, Dr. Richards stressed the importance of recognizing the lack of honest appraisal of Australian colonization, which has led to a disregard for the spiritual and cultural practices of indigenous peoples relating to land and country.

Appreciating the context and impact of Australia’s white colonial history is pivotal to understanding how the far-right in Australia relies on specific environmentalist expressions to forge a distinct white Australian identity. This discussion revealed a fusion of mythologized and aesthetic depictions of a white, male Australian with a highly selective historical account of their interactions with Australian land.

Dr. Richards delved into the origins of this identity, rooted in the British genocide of indigenous people and the ongoing displacement, dispossession, and exploitation of the land of Indigenous Australians. The “birthing story” of these far-right groups revolves around the “taming” of Australia’s harsh natural environment. They construct narratives that revolve around the historical and contemporary use and exploitation of Australian land for economic purposes, disregarding the traditional custodianship of the land. This narrative positions them at the center of environmental politics and practices, claiming ownership, a deep connection to, and profitable usage of Australian land.

The discussion then explored key events in Australia’s early post-colonial history that have solidified the white Australian identity and the extremists associated with its cultivation. These events include the racist riots against Chinese gold field miners in the 1850s, the implementation of the White Australia policy in 1901, and the importation and support of fascism and Nazism. Dr. Richards revealed a complex interplay and representation of connections between white identity, environment, culture, race, and territory. Concepts such as blood and soil, race, and place, emerged and strongly influenced the ideological foundations of the far-right. The Australian First Movement (AFM) and its leader ‘Inky’ Stephenson appropriated and incorporated indigenous heritage and symbols. Additionally, two archetypes—the ‘larrikin’ and the ‘bushman’—formed during this period, still evident in Australian culture today. These archetypes portray a deep connection to the land, physical strength, and a degree of anti-intellectualism.

The discussion then examined the different trends that emerged after World War II, resulting in diverse expressions of the far-right and their connection to the environment. Industrialization and increasing diversity fostered anti-urban sentiments, which aligned with the far-right’s attempts to align themselves with the early organic farming movement. Dr. Richards also identified a transformation in far-right discourse in the post-1960s era, wherein extremist groups, while still emphasizing race and place, also focused on population reduction, quasi-bioregionalist ideas, and the valorization of the military as a key recruitment source.

In order to comprehensively address and challenge far-right narratives, it is essential to gain insight into how their proponents construct and perpetuate the identities they espouse. This discussion critically examines the role of Australia’s colonial history in relation to environmental politics, shedding light on the white identity that continues to serve as a driving force for far-right groups in the country. Moreover, it underscores the influence of international and global ideologies on far-right movements, which intertwine with their national myths, legends, and symbolism.

Dr. Richard’s research drawed extensively from the forthcoming co-authored monograph titled “Global Heating and the Australian Far-Right,” scheduled for publication with Routledge in 2023. While this presentation was truncated due to time constraints, the forthcoming book promises to provide further captivating insights for those seeking a comprehensive understanding not only of the development of the Australian far-right but also of the profound impacts of colonialism. It underscores the significant role of environmental politics as a catalyst for the formation of exclusionary ideologies and the construction of identity.

Dr. Rachel Sharples: “Racism, White Privilege and White Supremacy in Australia”

Dr. Sharples argued that the denial of racism and white privilege represents a direct consequence of the failure to address indigenous sovereignty and dispossession in Australia, as well as the realities of Australia as a nation of migrants. Notably, her research focuses on the mainstream population rather than extremists, as claims of anti-white racism and white privilege are deeply entrenched in the attitudes and behaviors of broader society.

During her presentation, Dr. Rachel Sharples delved into the emergence of far-right ideologies within the broader Australian population, focusing on themes such as racism, white privilege, white supremacy, and anti-white racism. Dr. Sharples emphasized that white privilege continues to hinder efforts to combat racism in Australia. She asserted that anti-white racism and white privilege have been fostered by the infiltration of right-wing nationalism into mainstream discourses, perpetuated not only by politicians and the media but also deeply ingrained in the attitudes of a segment of the Australian population. While these sentiments have long existed in the Australian collective consciousness, contemporary times have witnessed a heightened tolerance and legitimacy given to white supremacy and national populist views, which Dr. Sharples argues warrants a unique and under-examined perspective on white privilege discourses in Australia.

According to Dr. Sharples, white privilege stems from individuals subscribing to notions of lost privileged status associated with Anglo-Celtic heritage, as well as perceived government ambivalence toward acknowledging and addressing these changes. Building on the prior panel discussion by Dr. Richards, these ideas and narratives must be contextualized within Australia’s history as a white settler and multicultural nation that has failed to adequately address indigenous sovereignty and dispossession.

Drawing on years of research and data collected through a large-scale attitudinal survey of Australians, Dr. Sharples highlighted the responses of thirty-eight individuals who explicitly made claims of anti-white racism and white privilege. Findings revealed that claims of anti-white racism were linked to perceptions of favoritism toward migrants, a sense of “white paranoia” stemming from perceived threats by ethnic minorities, and a perceived loss of control over national space and identity.

Furthermore, Dr. Sharples argued that the denial of racism and white privilege represents a direct consequence of the failure to address indigenous sovereignty and dispossession in Australia, as well as the realities of Australia as a nation of migrants. Notably, her research focuses on the mainstream population rather than extremists, as claims of anti-white racism and white privilege are deeply entrenched in the attitudes and behaviors of broader society. Dr. Sharples posits that addressing these issues at a societal level can help curb the misuse and harms associated with the adoption of more extremist positions.

Dr. Sharples contended that a growing number of white Australians perceive themselves as victims of anti-white racism, becoming increasingly vocal about their perceived prejudices and concerns about the erosion of a white national identity. These claims have found expression in the political sphere as well.

Additionally, Dr. Sharples highlighted an unexamined sense of ownership over the national space, evident in commentaries that whitewash Australian history, disregarding both the indigenous history of the land and the contributions of immigration and multiculturalism.

The remainder of Dr. Sharples’ discussion underscored how these claims have permeated not only mainstream media and political discourse but also the fabric of Australian society. She provided numerous examples that solidify the argument that these ideological claims have firmly taken root in mainstream Australian discourse, with prominent political figures and a divisive media and entertainment environment being key contributors.

The discussion drew attention to divisive political figures who have fueled and endorsed anti-white racist claims, welcoming and celebrating far-right proponents of hate and racism on platforms such as ‘hate tours.’ Even the Parliament House has faced criticism for hosting problematic speakers and promoting a range of intolerant, hateful, and racist views.

Australia’s media landscape, long accused of permitting racist and intolerant views, aligns with the findings presented by Dr. Sharples. She described several high-profile sports and media personalities who have used their national platform to propagate racist views against Indigenous Australians and Muslims. Troublingly, despite facing backlash, these individuals have retained their high-profile positions and remain influential figures today.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Sharples emphasized the rightward shift in the Australian political landscape and highlighted a significant dichotomy present in policy debates and the corresponding populist media coverage. This divide centers around the tension between aspiring to be a nation that embraces cultural diversity and a perceived necessity to safeguard the white colonial heritage or white national identity. The firm establishment of this dichotomy within mainstream Australian society, coupled with a growing number of claims of white vulnerability and victimization, underscores the dangers associated with the normalization of intolerant, racist, and anti-white sentiments by influential figures who shape public discourse and debate.

Dr. Josh Roose: “Masculinity, Populism and Religion in Australia”

According to Dr. Roose, a thorough understanding of the far-right and populist right necessitates a careful examination of masculinity, which encompasses the societal construction of male identity. Masculinity entails the establishment of social expectations regarding manhood and the hierarchical structuring of society, privileging masculine traits while devaluing those associated with femininity. While participants in far-right groups are predominantly men, the influence of masculinity extends beyond these subgroups.

In his presentation, Dr. Josh Roose employed a lens of masculinity and religion to examine the far-right phenomenon in Australia. He posited that both masculinity and religion are perceived by far-right populists and extremists as being under existential threat, which significantly influences their political agenda. Dr. Roose commenced his talk by providing contextual information on the current state of Australia and the underlying factors that have contributed to the emergence of far-right populism. Subsequently, he delved into an analysis of recent developments within the country.

According to Dr. Roose, a thorough understanding of the far-right and populist right necessitates a careful examination of masculinity, which encompasses the societal construction of male identity. Masculinity entails the establishment of social expectations regarding manhood and the hierarchical structuring of society, privileging masculine traits while devaluing those associated with femininity. While participants in far-right groups are predominantly men, the influence of masculinity extends beyond these subgroups. Origins, ideologies, internal dynamics, and recruitment methods within these groups are intricately intertwined with notions of masculinity. Notably, among white-collar workers, there exists a perception of engraved entitlement and a perceived erosion of the respect, recognition, and social status to which they believe they are entitled as men.

To comprehend this phenomenon, Dr. Roose suggested examining the changing status of men and work over the past five decades, particularly in light of the introduction of free market economics and its displacement of Keynesian economics. Participation in far-right groups may be driven by resentment and blame directed towards women and minority groups, who are perceived as having benefited from male economic, legal, and political subordination. Additionally, such sentiments may be directed towards governments perceived to have facilitated these developments and could be rooted in feelings of shame.

Dr. Roose also explored the role of religion within this framework and the way it is framed in relation to populism. He argued that significant intersections exist in terms of intellectual, ideological, and affinitive aspects between hard-right populists, far-right extremists, and religious actors emphasizing textualist interpretations. These groups all lay claim to possessing universal truth, harbor a sense of marginalization, and cultivate a powerful perception of persecution and victimhood, among other shared characteristics. Dr. Roose further posited that misogyny serves as a gateway to contemporary manifestations of the far-right. Furthermore, these groups often espouse anti-LGBTQ+, antisemitic, and anti-science views.

Dr. Roose also highlighted the notable trend wherein an increasing number of young individuals, particularly angry young men, are actively engaging in these spaces, contrary to the prevailing notion of youth disengagement.

Concluding his presentation, Dr. Roose contended that a crucial aspect requiring further investigation is the extent to which these attitudes intersect with mainstream values, politicians, and community members. It is imperative to understand the potential for these relatively small groups to build a broader movement and gain prominence within the wider population, as this is where the true consequences may arise and the real damage can be done.


(*) Kim van Os is an intern at European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) with a master’s degree in International Relations. Her main research interests are the relation between populism and far-right radicalization, gender, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia.