Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the opening of the Natural Gas Pipeline (Turkstream) in Istanbul, Turkey on November 19, 2018.

A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Erdoğan, Emre. (2023). “A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0033

 

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Abstract

The war in Ukraine is a defining historical moment that demonstrates the limitations of contemporary politics. Even the most pessimistic scholars did not conceive of a direct military conflict in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, this conflict has exposed the limitations of populism in foreign policy. Despite rare instances of rhetorical cooperation with Russia, the populist politicians of Europe remained committed to Atlanticist foreign policies. Turkey, a textbook example of populist governance, offers a superb illustration of how the international zeitgeist constrains populist politicians’ goals. The “balanced” approach of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is dictated by its asymmetrical interdependence with Russia, aims to strengthen Turkey’s role as a regional force through mediation. In the meantime, the pressure of upcoming presidential elections and the country’s economic position are additional obstacles. An examination of Erdoğan’s speeches over the past year reveals that he has replicated this balanced approach in his discourse as the leader of Turkey.

Keywords: Turkey; Ukraine–Russia war; foreign policy; populism.

 

 

By Emre Erdoğan* (Istanbul Bilgi University)

Introduction

The war in Ukraine has become a litmus test for European politicians. The unexpected conflict in Europe has prompted a revaluation of the capabilities of nation-states and international organizations. The same war has also served as a stage on which political leaders from several nations can perform for various audiences, domestic and international. Contrary to expectations, the Russians did not conquer Kyiv in a few days, and Ukraine’s resistance to unprovoked aggression has become a model for the world. The swift and decisive response of NATO and the European Union (EU) was equally unexpected, transforming the situation into a battle of attrition.

Among the numerous unanswered questions the war has brought to the fore, the responses of populist leaders’ have received significant attention. First, the working assumption has been that all populist leaders at least sympathized with Putin’s regime, if not directly under Russian influence. Second, the war has been framed and presented as a conflict between autocracy and democracy and between East and West, forcing us to consider which camp populists would favour. Third, the war generated an influx of refugees into parts of Europe that have exhibited fiercely anti-immigrant sentiments for some time. The question has thus been whether populist leaders would take advantage of this opportunity to garner support. Lastly, it is unknown whether the economic challenges caused by rising energy costs and the disruption to global trade will favour populist parties at the polls. A series of crucial elections in 2023 will shed light on these unanswered questions and the effects of the Ukraine conflict as it enters its second year.

Turkey, like Ukraine, a Black Sea country, now enters its second decade with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm. Erdoğan—a textbook example of a twenty-first-century populist politician—has been characterized as Russia’s “Trojan Horse” in NATO. Turkey’s leadership has strong authoritarian tendencies, and the country hosts more than 4 million refugees, contributing to social tension. In addition, the Ukraine conflict erupted as Turkey confronts two roiling crises — a war against militants along its long border with Syria and an ongoing economic crisis. As a NATO member, Turkey is central to the Western response to the war.

In this report, I will detail the reaction of Turkey’s populist leadership to the crisis, beginning with a brief review of populist foreign policy and concluding with a summary of Turkish foreign policy throughout the war. I will conclude by discussing Erdoğan’s speeches about the war and demonstrating how he has leveraged the conflict to reinforce his position as a strong leader.

Populist foreign policy

The global rise of populist leaders attracted the attention of experts to policy differences. Although there is no consensus on the definition of populism, Mudde’s minimalist definition is the most widely accepted. According to Mudde (2004), populism is

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the “volonté Générale” (general will) of the people. (p. 543)

 Another group of scholars define populism as a style that includes “an appeal to ‘the people’ as both the audience and the subject embodied; a resort to ‘bad manners’ and coarsened political rhetoric; and a representation and performance of crisis, breakdown, and threat” (Moffitt, 2016, p. 46). Populism has also been perceived as a strategy, a set of methods or instruments mobilized by politicians in political competition. Weyland defines this strategy as “direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganised followers” (Weyland, 2001, p. 14). A newly developed synthesis presents populism in an ideational form integrating ideological and discursive approaches and excluding strategy or tactics. This approach’s essential set of ideas or beliefs is defined as the belief in the sovereignty and the moral superiority of people, presented as a homogenous unit.

All of these definitions share similarities that provide hints about the foreign policy populists pursue when they attain power. Nonetheless, I must emphasize that the influence of populists on foreign policy may be limited. If a nation’s foreign policy is institutionalized and based on the consensus of several societal actors, the influence of politicians may be somewhat constrained. Foreign policy provides politicians with less space for flexibility than other policy sectors. Ideology is another aspect that influences the foreign policy practices of populist parties in government. Several studies demonstrated that the standing of populist political parties is determined by whether they are right- or left-wing (Verbeek & Zaslove, 2017). Finally, we must consider the structural aspects of a country that influence the foreign policy practices of populists, such as geography, economic development, and established commitments or alliances (Destradi et al., 2021).

Due to populists’ Manichean worldview, which sets the people and elite at opposite ends of the spectrum, their foreign policy preferences are expected, in the first instance, to reflect their anti-elite orientation. This elite may be identified at the national level as capitalists, bankers, and bureaucrats, while foreign elites, such as international organizations and bureaucrats, may serve as useful scapegoats. Consequently, we expect populist leaders to be opposed to international institutions and counter-majoritarian entities (such as courts) at home or abroad.

Second, the notion of the “pure people” may influence populist international policies. A homogenous “us” is always positioned against “them” in populist discourse. Consistent with the nationalist perspective, the nation is the primary component of “us”. In the context of foreign policy, however, “the people” may encompass or draw on transnational elements such as religion, race, ethnicity, and social class. Populists thus define “the Other” automatically in contradistinction to the “pure people”.

As populist leaders position themselves as the authentic representation of the will of the people, this strategy will contribute to the concentration of governance in the hands of the populist leader. In conjunction with an antipathy to national elites, populist politicians favour de-institutionalizing and politicizing foreign policy. The ontological grounds of populist policies are incompatible with the notion that foreign policy is a technocratic arena ideally administered by a rational bureaucracy. Thus, a desire to displace foreign policy bureaucracies and personalize foreign policy decisions under populist governance is foreseeable (Destradi et al., 2021).

Scholars have posited that the individual characteristics of populist leaders may influence their foreign policy orientations in office. For example, it is often pointed out that populist leaders exhibit a very direct style of communication, eagerly assuming the role of “drunken dinner guest” in global forums and “agent provocateur” when confronting the distant policy prescriptions of international bureaucrats. Certainly, quantitative and qualitative studies have demonstrated that populists have distinct personality traits. However, it remains difficult to connect these traits directly to the foreign policies of countries led by populists (Nai & Martnez i Coma, 2019; Özdamar & Ceydilek, 2020).

In sum, researchers have concluded that the foreign policies of populist leaders are characterized by anti-elitism, the supremacy of the “pure people”, and the de-institutionalization and personalization of foreign policy-making. In addition, the discourse of populist politicians tends to emphasize victimization and nostalgia for an imagined glorious national past (Elçi, 2022).

Turkish foreign policy during the Ukraine war

During the Ukraine–Russia war, Turkey has adopted a “balanced” foreign policy approach to the conflict. In a broader context, this can be interpreted as a turning point in Turkey’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed office in 2002, Turkey has favoured a “transactional”, “active”, and “assertive” foreign policy, eschewing the more cautious approach of earlier eras (Mankoff, 2022). The country’s urgent need for export markets and energy dependence pushed the government to establish close ties with the Arab and Turkic worlds. Meanwhile, the ruling elite’s ideological orientation fostered a desire to take a leading role in the Muslim world and serve as a bridge between East and West. This “assertive” policy’s short-term success ended with the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

According to observers, 2016 marks a turning point in the Turkish government’s foreign policy. After the departure of Ahmet Davudoğlu, the architect of the new foreign policy, and the government’s growing security worries, the ruling class embraced more realistic foreign policy objectives. The soft power strategy that aimed to engage Arab societies in the region has been cancelled. Instead, the government envisioned an autonomous foreign policy based on the country’s military capabilities. Prior to the epidemic, Turkey supported the rebels in Syria’s civil war, while relations with Egypt and Israel were nearly frozen due to support for Hamas and the Muslim Brothers. Tensions remained with Greece over disputes in the Aegean Sea.

These shifts split the Arab world nearly in two. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unequivocally opposed to Turkey’s aggressive participation in the domestic affairs of Arab countries and its aspirations for leadership. Turkey’s close relations with Qatar were insufficient to compensate for sour relations with the other Arab powers. In the meantime, Turkey and the United States were at odds due to Ankara’s conflict with the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), the United States’ closest partner in the region (Keating, 2022; Pierini, 2022; Tapia, 2022).

However, after the epidemic, Turkey followed a more “realistic” approach due to the changing international situation. First, the Biden administration was less tolerant of Ankara’s foreign policy adventurism in the Middle East. Second, the economic and political challenges in Turkey compelled the government to seek international backing and increase financial inflows. Turkey reached out to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, initiated discussions with Armenia and restored diplomatic relations with Israel. Third, Ankara’s preoccupation was keeping the Kurdish insurgent PKK and ISIS at bay and constructing a secure oil pipeline to offset rising energy expenses. Fourth, the approaching presidential elections have heightened economic and trade policy, not least the significance of Europe as Turkey’s principal export market (Tapia, 2022; Pierini, 2022).

The Ukraine–Russia war coincided with this “U-turn” in Turkey’s foreign policy, and Turkey sought to execute a “hedging” strategy navigating between Russia and the United States. Throughout history, Turkey’s ties with Russia have fluctuated between frigid antagonism (as in the Cold War), rivalry (mostly in Central Asia and the Caucasus), as well as indirect confrontation and forced cooperation (as in Syria since 2013). After 2016, Turkey was compelled to keep Moscow on side, as Ankara’s role in the conflict in Syria deepened and reliance on Russian energy (and tourism) grew. Despite being on the opposite side to Russia in crises in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (not to mention being a NATO member for seven decades), the Turkish government has not hesitated in playing the role of back channel to Moscow (Lesage et al., 2022).

On the other hand, relations between Turkey and Ukraine have traditionally been very close. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Turkey supported Kyiv and called on Moscow to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Turkey and Ukraine inked a strategic partnership agreement in 2020 and established free trade arrangements in 2021. Turkey has also provided Bayraktar TB2 drones (used by Ukraine’s armed forces against several high-profile targets since the invasion) and established solid military ties with Ukraine while signalling its support for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership. At the same time, Erdoğan has slow-walked approving the Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance in order to extract political concessions in the lead-up to elections in May. Despite Russia’s reservations, Turkey continues to send Ukraine military assistance, including the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have become an emblem of resistance. As these drones are manufactured by the company owned by President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, this circumstance has caught the attention of experts and become a highly contentious subject in Turkey.

Ankara’s unique positioning “between” NATO and Russia and its middle power foreign policy aspirations have driven the Turkish government’s desire to act as a mediator (Üstün, 2022). At the beginning of the war, Turkey urged both sides to find a peaceful resolution and attempted to act as a regional peace broker by utilizing its links to both sides. Ankara initiated indirect communication between Ukraine and Russia and planned formal talks with relevant parties in Antalya and Istanbul in March 2022. President Erdoğan has also dispatched special envoys to facilitate a peaceful resolution. Notably, Turkey voted in favour of the UN Security Council condemning the invasion while choosing not to join sanctions against Russia, which caused some trepidation among Western allies.

Turkey has also provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine and accepted refugees while accepting thousands of Russian nationals fleeing to Turkey after the Kremlin cracked down on media and dissent after February 2022 and sought to call up reserves to fight in Ukraine. Erdoğan also brokered the deal permitting Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea under the supervision of the United Nations in July 2020. Ankara pushed several times to prevent Russia from reneging on the agreement. Turkey is one of the arrangement’s most significant beneficiaries of the deal. The Montreux Convention of 1936 handed Turkey control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, which connect the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This allows Turkey to limit the passage of naval warships and seal the straits to foreign warships during warfare or when threatened. Except for a few instances, Turkey has restricted the passage of all foreign warships since the war broke out.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric about the war

The aforementioned survey of Turkey’s recent foreign policy should not be read as a rationally planned sequence of actions aimed at leveraging the war’s gains and utilizing foreign policy to strengthen Erdoğan’s political fortunes. The most pressing challenge for Erdoğan is to win the upcoming elections, and his foreign policy of late reflects this imperative. He is an expert in winning tight elections against significant opposition, but his electoral “Midas touch” may no longer suffice against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy. The government has increasingly turned to populist boondoggles and “cash splashes” to stimulate economic growth, but it is unclear how these programmes will be supported. According to official estimates, inflation is running at 83% annually, and rising prices threaten Erdoğan’s chances of being elected because of the government’s unwillingness to hike interest rates. This is only exacerbated by rising energy costs during the war (Erlanger, 2022).

These concerns have a substantial international component, and it is impossible to distinguish clearly between domestic and international drivers when it comes to policy responses. Still, it is possible to analyse Erdoğan’s views regarding the war in Ukraine through the lens of his public pronouncements and discursive strategies. In order to do so, I have examined his speeches from January to December 2022, published on the Turkish presidency’s website and in various media reports across this period. I have calculated that in 123 of 224 public speeches during this period, Erdoğan discussed the war in Ukraine, although some references were brief and did not elaborate on the conflict in any great detail.

It is crucial to note that Erdoğan has a distinctive outlook on global politics and Turkey’s place in the world, which he sees as full of danger and knotty challenges. He has, paradoxically, long subscribed to the Turkish sense of “encirclement”, which sees Turkey as surrounded by hostile forces, whether it is Greece, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), the United States, Kurdish separatists, or neighbouring states in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Erdoğan places stock in ensuring the Turkish government is sufficiently strong in military and economic terms to meet these threats (Euronews, 2022).

In Erdoğan’s discourse, clear divisions between “us” and “them” are manifest. This can be the “us” of Turkey set against corrupt “global elites” (he often criticizes the “Big Five” countries that control the United Nations and render it ineffectual; “the globe is more than five” is a frequent refrain). At other times, his discourse employs an “us versus them” dichotomy regarding the Muslim ummah versus the Islamophobic rest. And on occasion, Erdoğan foregrounds Turkey as a champion of the world’s “forgotten” peoples and the need for solidarity among the “silent majority” of poor and downtrodden nations (Batrawy, 2022).

President Erdoğan’s discourse vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine has typically reflected his general outlook. First, in the early days of the war, Erdoğan emphasized the legitimacy of Ukraine and reiterated Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He framed the Ukrainian struggle as an issue of honour and independence. Over time, Erdoğan stopped repeating the same point in his presentations and adopted a more balanced stance.

Erdoğan has stated numerous times that peace is the final solution. However, the fighting parties were not to blame for the failure. The United Nations and the West hypocritically prevented the reestablishment of peace between the two countries, first due to their inability and secondly because there were actors who did not desire peace between them. In this speech, Erdoğan criticized the UN Security Council and repeated his slogan. Using this paradigm, Erdoğan pitted the West, the United Nations, and the permanent United Nations Security Council members against the world’s populace and legitimized his anti-establishment rhetoric (Batrawy, 2022).

As the West and big countries were hypocritical, Erdoğan argued that Turkey might be a facilitator (he emphasized that he did not prefer the term “mediator” for Turkey’s role). According to him, Turkey had deep historical ties with both nations, and his close relationships with their respective governments might help foster peace. He reiterated multiple times that he had direct conversations with President Zelenskyy or Vladimir Putin, as well as personal contacts. Using this story, Erdoğan portrayed himself as a world leader capable of resolving a significant catastrophe. In addition, he believed that the world’s leaders admired his efforts. Following the historical ties and his personal connections, Erdoğan emphasized Turkey’s diplomatic capacity and projected it as a regional force and the only nation capable of adopting a balanced approach (A-News, 2022).

Erdoğan emphasized his accomplishment in negotiating the grain deal. He argued that the balanced approach and friendly relations with Turkey made this agreement feasible, while Turkey’s presence fostered a climate of trust between the two parties. He represented the underprivileged by stating they had an immediate need for the food produced in Ukraine and Russia. He positioned himself as the ally of the impoverished Africans. Moreover, he emphasized that the General Secretary of the United Nations has praised this action (Batrawy, 2022).

Public opinion polls reflected Erdoğan’s balanced stance. In the early days of the conflict, surveys indicated that the Turkish public strongly supported Ukraine, with two-thirds of respondents deeming Russia’s action unjust and 78% favouring a neutral stance during the conflict. The majority of participants were concerned about the harmful effects of the war (Tahiroğlu, 2022). Some 44% of respondents supported Turkey’s role as a mediator in the war, while only 13% favoured an active engagement in the conflict. The remaining 40% of respondents favoured keeping neutral (Ünlühisarcıklı et al., 2022). Furthermore, 61% of Turkish residents were satisfied with the government’s response to the war in Ukraine, according to a study done in the summer of 2022; however, just 40% of respondents were satisfied with Brussels’ response, compared to the EU average of 57%. (European Commission, 2022). Transatlantic Trends of the German Marshall Fund revealed that just 43% of respondents supported sanctioning Russia, 30% advocated prohibiting gas and oil imports from Russia, and only 33% supported Ukraine’s NATO membership (Weber et al., 2022). In a study performed in the autumn of 2022, respondents expressed opposition to the sanctions against Russia (Henley, 2022).

Given the government’s low popularity, these numbers indicate that the Turkish public supported Erdoğan’s “balanced approach” to the Ukraine conflict. Of course, there may be cultural reasons for this favourable view of Russia, such as its historical legacy. Nonetheless, it appears that Turkish citizens are more pragmatic and that asymmetrical reliance benefits Russia. However, whether Erdoğan can convert this acceptance into electoral support is questionable, as economic hardships weigh more than foreign policy opinions.

Conclusion

The experience of Turkey during the war in Ukraine provides insight into populist politicians’ freedom for manoeuvre. The conflict has coincided with a U-turn after a period of “aggressive” foreign policy positioning and has given Erdoğan a chance to play the role of “bridge” and “mediator” once again. As a country with strong economic, political, and historical ties to both the West and Russia, Turkey nominated itself as a mediator in the conflict, aiming for a speedy restoration of peace in the region. To establish a back channel of communication between the warring parties and NATO, balanced activism of the Turkish government was needed. These efforts have been rewarded by praise from Western friends who have been increasingly dissatisfied with its democratic track record. Thus, Turkey strengthened its status as a bridge between East and West.

In the meantime, as presidential elections draw near, Erdoğan has not hesitated to utilize this changing role in the region. A seasoned politician, he has characterized the war as a result of the current global order. He has also preferred to place himself and Turkey in opposition to the West as the advocate and champion of impoverished non-Western countries. He has also used the opportunity to emphasize Turkey’s military, diplomatic, economic, and political strengths. For Erdoğan, Turkey’s success in maintaining a balance between the conflicting sides has been a distinguishing trait closely tied to his vision of the country’s role in the world.

Turkey’s experience demonstrated that populists in power have some leeway for flexibility in foreign policy but not enough to act as they like. However, these limits do not inhibit their determination to maximize the war’s opportunities.

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(*) Emre Erdoğan is a member of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. With a doctoral degree in Political Science from Boğaziçi University, he has served as a researcher and senior consultant in various projects in academia and civil society. His research focuses on political participation, foreign policy and public opinion, child and youth well-being, methodology and statistics. He extensively studies and publishes about youth in Turkey, integration of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey, othering, polarisation and populism.


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Erlanger, S. (2022, October 16). Elections approaching, Erdogan raises the heat again with Greece. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/16/world/europe/turkey-elections-erdogan-greece.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

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Thousands of people attended a peaceful protest march at Independence Square for constitutional change of power in Minsk, Belarus on August 23, 2020. Photo: Dmitry Kalinovsky.

Mapping European Populism – Panel 7: Populist parties/actors and far-right movements in the Baltic countries and Belarus 

Tusor, Anita & Escobar Fernández, Iván. (2023). “Mapping European Populism – Panel 7: Populist parties/actors and far-right movements in the Baltic countries and Belarus.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 19, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0009

 

This report is based on the seventh panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on December 15, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three Baltic countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Belarus. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández

This report is based on the seventh panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on December 15, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three Baltic countries, namely Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Belarus. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, the report consists of summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Professor Andres Kasekamp, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and included the following speakers: Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė, Researcher at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science; Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University; Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik, Head of the Baltic Department at the Institute of Central Europe/the Catholic University of Lublin; Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich, Assistant Professor at the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, University of South Florida.

Prof Kasekamp started his introduction with a brief overview of the four countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. He pointed out the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as crucial for the four countries: While Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania already existed independently during the inter-war period (1918-1939) and gained their independence back when the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarus, on the other hand, emerged as a new-born state from the USSR. In addition, whilst the three Baltic states moved decisively to an alignment with the Western world, Belarus, ruled by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, became a dictatorship associated with Moscow. The strategic alliance between Moscow and Minsk has lasted for decades; however, we have witnessed an intensification during the War in Ukraine. 

However, the Baltic countries have followed a different path. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO, and a few years later, they also joined the Eurozone, adopting the common currency. Nonetheless, their domestic politics have been conditioned by the fact that these states host ethnic Russian minorities, resulting in an ethnic cleavage for their home affairs. Prof Kasekamp highlighted that such ethnic composition is crucial in the current geopolitical situation since it reflects the popular opinion regarding the war in Ukraine. In other words, the Baltic states have regarded themselves as frontline states and have become the biggest supporters of Ukraine, measured according to the percentage of GDP per capita that they are currently spending on military and humanitarian assistance.

Prof Kasekamp followed his introduction by providing a brief overview of the current situation of populism in the aforementioned countries. He first stressed the importance of the well-known Cas Mudde’s (2007) framework, which identifies three main features of the populist radical right: nativism, populism, and authoritarianism. 

The moderator then provided the audience with a brief overview of each state. First, he addressed Latvia, a state characterized by new political parties doing well in elections. In fact, according to Kasekamp, in 2006, a political party that had not existed until that year won the elections, and ever since then, it has won each of the successive elections in Latvia. In this same line, the scholar also pointed out that new parties have performed well in recent elections. Thus, besides its volatility, the Latvian system has been opened for new populist challengers, namely the populist radical right. For instance, the National Alliance, the equivalent of the Latvian populist radical right party, has been in government for a long time as a junior member of the coalition that has been running the country since 2011. 

The case of Estonia is quite particular since there had not been any significant far-right or populist radical right party until 2015. In that year, a political party founded in 2012, known as EKRE, managed to cross the 5 percent threshold, thus entering the Parliament, and has grown since then. Nowadays, EKRE is the third most popular political party in Estonia. 

Prof Kasekamp also briefly tackled the case of Lithuania among the Baltic states highlighting that Lithuania has several populist parties from both the right and the left in the political spectrum. Moreover, he also quickly remembered that Lithuania already had a populist president that was impeached and removed from office in 2004. 

Lastly, Prof Kasekamp addressed the contemporary situation of populism in Belarus. He first indicated that, due to the authoritarian administration that is currently reigning in Belarus, there is not much political space that allows organized political activities and parties to emerge and thrive without being repressed. 

Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė: “The Legacy of the post-communist transformation in the agenda of Lithuanian populist parties”

Lithuania lacks the so-called cordon sanitaire against populist political parties and most populist political parties, when elected, have frequently joined the government in a coalition. Bearing this in mind, Dr Ulinskaitė identified two interesting elements: she claimed that such populist parties, after having been in the governing coalition, tend to lose their outsiders’ appeal; as a second point, she argued that a distinctive feature of Lithuanian politics that differentiates Lithuanian populism from other Central and Eastern European countries is that the impact on democracies usually stems from populist parties taking over mainstream political parties.

Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė started her presentation by highlighting that the findings and conclusions extracted from classic model countries where populism has succeeded, such as Hungary and Poland, should not be extrapolated entirely to other states simply because they share a post-communist background. By showing a time series obtained from the Liberal Democracy Index, she demonstrated that the effect of populism on Poland and Hungary has differed from the effects of populism undergone in both Estonia and Lithuania, for instance. 

Nonetheless, although the impact of populism has varied across different countries, the researcher argued that Lithuania started experiencing populism quite soon. More specifically, she referred to the case concerning Rolandas Paksas, former Lithuanian President, who was impeached in 2004. Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė then showed the evolution of populist parties’ success since the early 2000s, pointing out that, in 2004 and 2016, they won more seats in the Parliament than the other principal competing political parties. 

Having said this, the researcher then wondered why, despite their success, populist parties have not been able to control state institutions in Lithuania. She identified two main reasons: the ongoing domination of the two main political blocks -the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania and the Homeland Union- due to the historical cleavage set during the post-communist transformation. And second, the inability of populist parties to maintain their voters’ support resulting in an impressive initial success that progressively ends up fading away. Regarding the latter, Dr Ulinskaitė highlighted two possible explanations for the fact that populist parties cannot maintain voters’ support: this could be because such populist parties usually build their electoral campaigns upon a particular project or community, thus failing to develop a comprehensive political program. Another explanation could be the complexity of the Lithuanian parliamentary electoral system, which consists of two rounds; to win in both rounds of the election, a political party has to have a strong political organization and a high number of members. However, populist parties do not meet these requirements and face several challenges when trying to attract new members. Further in this line, the regulations passed and implemented on extensive private funding in electoral campaigns have also limited their campaigns’ potential since political parties now receive public funding for their electoral campaigns according to their share of the vote in previous elections, thus reducing the funds at their disposal.

Nevertheless, Dr Ulinskaitė reminded the audience that Lithuania lacks the so-called cordon sanitaire against populist political parties. The researcher pointed out that most populist political parties, when elected, have frequently joined the government in a coalition. Bearing this in mind, Dr Ulinskaitė identified two interesting elements: she claimed that such populist parties, after having been in the governing coalition, tend to lose their outsiders’ appeal; as a second point, she argued that a distinctive feature of Lithuanian politics that differentiates Lithuanian populism from other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries is that the impact on democracies usually stems from populist parties taking over mainstream political parties. 

The researcher then focused her presentation on the recent victory of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union in 2016, which, through the combination of credibility and the reinvention of their project, became more similar to a social movement than to a traditional political party. The party’s campaign aimed to attract those who did not identify with either the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania or the Homeland Union. Furthermore, in terms of their ideology, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union combined both right-wing and left-wing values, emphasizing, for instance, the role of traditional family and Christian values as the base of the society, the importance of public health, as well as the ongoing moral decay of contemporary societies. Dr Ulinskaitė then explained that although the party’s voters do not differ significantly in their ideological preferences from voters of other traditional parties, they can be described as citizens who are dissatisfied with the economic situation.

The researcher concluded her presentation by arguing that despite the decline in 2020 of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, their legacy is still noticeable in Lithuanian society, as can be observed in their attempts to create a strong leadership, as well as represent the losers of contemporary times.  

Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson: “A Blossoming tree: The origins and present-day of the Estonian populist radical right”

Due to the economic and social progress experienced in Estonia, it was believed that there was no room for radical right parties and the far-right upon the electoral margin; however, this belief changed about a decade ago with the foundation of EKRE. Furthermore, it is also worth noting the existence of Blue Awakening, EKRE’s youth branch, which has a more radical and far-right ideology than EKRE itself.

The second presentation was carried out by Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson, Associate Professor at Tallinn University. She tackled the Estonian populist radical right, namely the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), founded in March 2012. After obtaining 19 seats in the Estonian Parliament in the 2019 national elections, EKRE became the third most important political party in Estonian politics, though as of early 2021, it has clearly become the second most popular party in Estonia. 

Due to the recent economic and social progress experienced in Estonia, it was believed that there was no room for radical parties and the far-right upon the electoral margin. However, this belief changed about a decade ago with the foundation of EKRE. Furthermore, it is also worth noting the existence of Blue Awakening, EKRE’s youth branch, which has a more radical and far-right ideology than EKRE itself. Moreover, the Associate Professor also pointed out as part of the contextualization of the Estonian case the discontinuation of the Estonian Independence Party, the creation of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition, and the transnational “import” of the Nordic right-wing extremist group “Soldiers of Odin”, which can be considered as an informal movement of people whose aim is to “protect” the streets from immigrants. This extremist group surfaced in 2016, during the peak of the migration crisis. 

Nonetheless, Dr Jakobson stressed the long ethno-nationalist and anti-establishment tradition in Estonian politics, which can be traced back to 1988. This ethno-nationalist and anti-establishment tradition could be observed in the Estonian National Independence Party, founded in 1988, which aimed at the so-called liberation of Estonia and the re-establishment of the Estonian situation in the 1940s. Moreover, she also underlined other political parties, such as the Pro Patria Union and all its successors, which were part of mainstream Estonian politics. The countermovement to the aforementioned parties was the Popular Front of Estonia, which proposed a non-nationalist non-ethnocentric alternative. More recently, the Associate Professor also mentioned the Estonian Centre Party, which was founded in 1991 and with clear populist sentiments as well. Finally, to conclude the background of Estonian politics, Dr Jakobson explained the overall dissatisfaction in Estonia in 2011, resulting in several protests and demonstrations against the political elites for a variety of reasons of different nature; something that was quite rare in Estonia. 

Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson resumed her lecture on the populist radical right. She emphasised that -in addition to all the key features of populist radical parties -namely opposition to multiculturalism, defence of cultural nationalism, anti-establishment rhetoric, defence of traditional family values, anti-immigration stances, Euroscepticism, opposition to the US Green Deal, among others-, what made EKRE succeed in Estonian politics was its ability to manage to be on the opposing side alone, which means that no more political parties were embracing the above-mentioned stances as they were. 

Furthermore, the Associate Professor also pointed out the bad manners of the Estonian Populist Radical Right, which, for instance, during their participation in the government, they underwent 33 different political crises that were somehow created by themselves. Half of the aforementioned crises were scandals, which were outrageous expressions quite contested that ended up occupying the public discussion. More specifically, they managed to verbally attack the president, the leaders of other countries, the intellectuals, the minorities, as well as domestic policies from third countries, such as the US. 

Following her lecture, Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson also highlighted the organisation of EKRE. She said that, although being inherited in parts from the People’s Union, EKRE built up a well-functioning mass organisation that is based on ideology and conviction. Further in this line, the Associate Professor also mentioned that EKRE has notably democratic internal procedures, in which, for instance, candidates are elected according to popular vote on the district and local level and even their slogans are created by the people. This is why EKRE resembles a social movement as well. 

Dr Jakobson concluded her presentation by showing some of the outcomes of the participation of EKRE in politics, such as the platform they created against the Gender-Neutral Civil Partnership Act, their meetings and events during the migration crisis, as well as their institutionalisation in the government. The Associate Professor remarked on the imminent elections Estonia is about to undergo, which will indeed pave the way for the future of EKRE. 

Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik: “What attracts people to populism in Latvia?”

“Although populism is a very attractive ideology in Latvia as for a European Union member state, it is less effective than in other parts of Europe. The reason for this is partly the fragmented and unstable nature of the Latvian political system, as well as the fact that these parties have gained huge support relatively fast, but they have lost this support even faster.

The third presentation was carried out by Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik, who showed Latvia as a more extraordinary case among the three Baltic states despite the many similarities between the mentioned countries. Her lecture asked the question, “What attracts people to populism in Latvia?” and outlined the statement that populism is indeed an ideology which attracts Latvians due to several features of the society which make this phenomenon work.

First of all, there have been high and quite unrealistic expectations about the new democratic regime following 1991. However, after a couple of years, economic problems, and issues with the implementation of democracy pushed society towards an apolitical state, where people were less and less involved in democracy itself. Economic development and gains were expected to be achieved quickly after the democratic transformation, but it proved to be inapproachable during such a short time span. This realization came at a time when social and economic inequalities became more visible. We can interpret this situation in alignment with the disenchantment theory, according to which relatively high social enthusiasm at the beginning of the 1990s became lower and lower because of the poor economic and political performance of state institutions. This “discrepancy between the expected advantages of the new system and the experience with real democracy” (Reykowski, 2020: 155) led to frustration and disillusion among people who experienced worsening economic difficulties, unemployment, political scandals, and corruption. People withdrew from political participation, became apathetic and had little confidence in democratic institutions. We can find several such elements in the political environment of Latvia throughout the 1990s. 

Furthermore, Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik highlighted that the country’s demographic situation is another notable feature of Latvian society, making it receptive to populism. The Baltic state is divided into two main ethnic groups: Latvians and Russians. The latter constitute more than 30 percent of the Latvian population, creating another major cleavage, division and form of inequality in the country. Due to this political environment and social inequality, a basis for the attractiveness of populist ideology was created. 

Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik then moved on to describe the current populist landscape in Latvia: One of the parties in the current government, National Alliance, established in 2010, is a party which can also be described as a right-wing populist party. It holds a far-right ideology, and it is a conservative, anti-immigrant, and Eurosceptic party. In 2018, the party won 13 seats, which it could also maintain during the 2022 Latvian parliamentary elections. The researcher mentioned two other populist parties, one of which, ‘Who owns the State?’, ran in the 2018 elections and quickly gained 7 percent of support, which was relatively promptly lost. This phenomenon, according to Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik, is significant and typical for Latvia: in a political environment described by an unstable government, a new party appears, which then disappears in a short time.

The other young populist party is Latvia First, which appeared on the scene only in August 2021 and shows similarities with another conservative newcomer party, For Stability! The latter was founded in February 2021 and gained support through its Eurosceptic and anti-vaccination rhetoric. The quick establishment of these parties happened just one year before the parliamentary elections, which is a requirement for running parties according to Latvian law to have the ability to participate in the elections. Both populist parties promote Christian and traditional values and include social integration into their programs. Together, the two smaller parties gained around 13 percent of the votes exemplifying the relatively big support for populist ideology in Latvian society. As a result, it is no surprise that populism is viewed as the biggest threat to democracy, according to the newly elected Latvian President, Egils Levits. Since 1993, 10 to 20 percent of voters have voted for populist parties in the parliamentary elections.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has made populists more and more vocal and visual as populist leaders have decided to organize and/or participate in mass demonstrations and rallies against the government, mandatory vaccination and restrictions. In fact, their activity has succeeded since society got frustrated with the pandemic situation in the country. Although Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik reminds us that among the Baltic states, Latvia had the highest rate of covid cases, and the vaccination rate was less effective than in Lithuania or Estonia. In this sense, Latvian populist anti-vaccination and anti-governmental narratives have worked.

Finally, Dr Kuczyńska-Zonik emphasized that although populism is a very attractive ideology in Latvia, as for a European Union member state, – in the long term -; it is less effective than in other parts of the continent. The reason for this is partly the fragmented and unstable nature of the Latvian political system, as well as the fact that these parties have gained huge support relatively fast, but they have lost this support even faster. In her lecture, the researcher mentioned several factors which are boosting the populist rhetoric in the country. For example, crisis situations like the pandemic have made people more and more vulnerable to such narratives, especially the elderly, the Russian-speaking minority, and people with low social status. Generally speaking, those dissatisfied with their economic situation, social status and politics in the country will present unfavorable attitudes towards the government. If we look at the social trust and support in the government in Latvia, we can realize that it is among the lowest in the EU – scoring around 20 percent (Kuczyńska-Zonik, 2021). This number steadily declines over time, coinciding with the growing support for populist parties. 

Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich: “Is populism in decline in Belarus?”

The first pillar of Lukashenko’s populism has been crumbling since 2020: the proximity to the people did not stand anymore as people could see the brutal repression and violence against the protesters. People started to question Lukashenko’s image. Moving on to the second pillar, the guarantor of peace, this image was shattered when the war in Ukraine began. Belarus appeared in the news as the other aggressor in Putin’s war. Finally, as a guarantor of stability, stability of the economy, Lukashenko’s image is also crumbling.

Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich presented the Belarusian case and started by emphasizing that, in the case of Belarusian populism, we do not talk about the far right or the left; we focus on Lukashenko himself. Secondly, to clarify the term, populism is not an ideology but a very ambiguous term, and it can be adopted by the left or the right. In Belarus, there are 15 officially registered political parties, and there are also officially not registered political parties in opposition. The key point here is that because the election process in Belarus is merely an administrative formality, political parties are largely irrelevant. 

Dr Kulakevich discussed populism as a strategy and a type of politics that claims to represent the opinions and wishes of ordinary people. This was Lukashenko’s strategy and worked for him for over two decades. He came to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994 and has been in power ever since. His populism has three components: The first is creating a feeling of proximity between the people and the leader. This is exemplified by videos and images of Lukashenko doing agricultural work, meeting people in factories, speaking the informal language of the working people, and all the other actions to show he is a regular man like everybody else. Therefore, it is not surprising that he became known as ‘Batka’, the ‘father of the nation,’ which has only changed after 2020.

The second one was that he is a guarantor of peace. Plenty of books have been written about the strategy and the importance of the Great Patriotic War as a narrative in Belarusian politics which accentuates how much the people have suffered during the Second World War and why this should not be repeated because the Belarusian nation is a peaceful one. Even the national anthem starts with a phrase which asserts this peace-loving image of the nation. This line, “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people,” was adopted and accepted by Lukashenko himself in 2002. 

Finally, the third ingredient was stability, that Lukashenko is the guarantor of economic stability. Nonetheless, the Belarusian economy has never been transformed into a market economy, and it is surviving based on Russian subsidies and Lukashenko’s ability to balance the East and the West. So, as Dr Kulakevich stressed, when he did not like what Putin was saying, he released political prisoners in exchange for financial support from the European Union. This balancing policy saw a big challenge in 2019 when the Russian government decided to introduce a tax maneuver and gave an ultimatum during the price negotiations on the upcoming years’ natural gas and oil imports to the Belarusian leader, which resulted in Belarusians saying “that’s enough.” This dispute over oil and gas prices affected the Belarusian economy and pushed Lukashenko to diversify away from the reliance on Russian energy supplies (Kubiak, 2020). 

Expanding on her analysis of Belarusian populism, Dr Kulakevich pointed out that populism in Belarus worked because Lukashenko made people believe that the political elite was doing its best for them. However, his image of “not being a good guy” was exposed in 2020. This has not been sudden but gradual and is an ongoing process. What triggered this process? When Covid-19 struck, Lukashenko and his government had already been experiencing economic difficulties due to the Russian introduction of a tax maneuver. Ultimately, the Belarusian government could not handle the pandemic and left people alone. They had to find a way to take care of themselves since the government had abandoned them and did not deliver its promises.

People’s disappointment in their leadership has been reflected in the results of the 2020 presidential elections. Even after Lukashenko tried to suppress these figures, it became clear to everyone that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the new leader partly because no one else was able to run. She could gather large support despite, for instance, the surprising choice of not embracing the historic white-red-white symbols. In her lecture, Dr Kulakevich explained that the Belarusian flag is red and green, but historical symbols are white-red-white. Tsikhanouskaya only embraced these historic colors later on. 

Demand for change has become visible; nonetheless, Lukashenko claimed to have won the elections with 80.1 percent of the votes (Belarusian Central Election Commission, 2020). He claimed a landslide victory for the 6th time in a row, and although there have been protests before, this time, it was different. People started to question the three pillars of his populism: guarantor of stability, the man of the people and guarantor of peace. The months-long protest broke out, but protesters met with brutality, suppression, physical violence, and torture, which were internationally documented. The researcher highlighted that Belarus currently has more than 1000 political prisoners (EEAS, 2022), which is unprecedentedly high.

The second half of Dr Kulakevich’s lecture described how the above-mentioned components of Lukashenko’s populism started to crack. The first pillar of Lukashenko’s populism has been crumbling since 2020: the proximity to the people did not stand anymore as people could see the brutal repression and violence against the protesters. People started to question Lukashenko’s image. Moving on to the second pillar, the guarantor of peace, this image was shattered when the war in Ukraine began. Belarus appeared in the news as the other aggressor in Putin’s war. So, Lukashenko lost the delicate balance between the East and the West.

Finally, as a guarantor of stability, stability of the economy, Lukashenko’s image is also crumbling. He has lost his ability to negotiate with the West, completely relies on Russia, the economy is still not transformed into a market-based economy, and he does not receive any external loans. In addition, along with Russia, Belarus is under a number of sanctions. Consequently, IT companies left the country, and no new businesses are coming to Belarus, leaving the economy in a troubled state.

Conclusively, Belarusian people are signaling a need for change. People were protesting the Belarusian regime before but not in this number. They embraced white-red-white symbols, different from the official red and green symbols observed as the ones covered in blood. Dr Kulakevich observed slow changes inside Lukashenko’s regime, which gave hope for change. These changes are also visible to the government, which is maintaining its repressive policies. Nonetheless, the three pillars of Lukashenko’s previously successful populism are crumbling. 


References

— (2020). “Lukashenko sworn in as Belarus president.” Belarusian Central Election Commission. September 23, 2020. https://www.belarus.by/en/press-center/news/lukashenko-sworn-in-as-belarus-president_i_119131.html (accessed on December 28, 2022).

— (2022). “Belarus: Statement by the Spokesperson on the political prisoners.”  EEAS. January 27, 2022. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/belarus-statement-spokesperson-political-prisoners_en (accessed on December 28, 2022).

Kubiak, Mateusz. (2020). “Belarus and Russian Oil: All Is Not as It Seems.” RUSI. July 7, 2020. https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/belarus-and-russian-oil-all-not-it-seems (accessed on December 27, 2022).

Kuczyńska-Zonik, Aleksandra. (2021). “Latvia: Social Discontent and a Decline in Trust in the Government.” Instytut Europy Środkowej. Oktober 2, 2021. https://ies.lublin.pl/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ies-commentaries-330-27-2021-1.pdf  (accessed on December 20, 2022).

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Reykowski, Janusz. (2020). ‘The Sources of Disenchantment with Democracy.’ In: Disenchantment with Democracy: A Psychological Perspective, Series in Political Psychology. New York; online edn, Oxford Academic, April 23, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190078584.003.0006

Far-right supporters clash with riot police during a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium on December 16, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland

Devreese, Margaux & Galland, Martin. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 -Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 23, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0008

 

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from three Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Margaux Devreese & Martin Galland

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On November 24, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Professor Hans-Georg Betz, Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich and included the following speakers: Dr Paul Carls, Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research; Dr Benjamin Biard, Researcher at the Center for Socio-Political Research & Information (CRISP) and guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain; Dr Carola Schoor, Programme Leader for Public Affairs at the Centre for Professional Learning (CPL), Leiden University; Dr Alina Dolea, Associate Professor in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Bournemouth University.

 

Dr Paul Carls: “Right-wing populism in Luxembourg: An exception to the rule?”

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Paul Carls, who sought to elaborate on the particularities of right-wing populism in Luxembourg and its curious context-dependent characteristics. Recognizing that Luxembourg is a comparatively small country, there has been relatively little scholarly attention regarding its right-wing populism. Dr Carls cites some of the more notable existing literature, including Lucien Blau’s Histoire de l’extrême droite au Grand-Duché du Luxembourg au XXe siècle (2005), Philippe Poirier’s L’ADR: de la recherche de l’équité à la construction inachevée d’un mouvement conservateur et souverainiste (2012), and more recently Leonie de Jonge’s The success and failure of right-wing populist parties in the Benelux countries (2021), as well as Dr Carls’ own work in an article titled Approaching right-wing populism in the context of transnational economic integration: lessons from Luxembourg,published in 2021.

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance. The ADR, Dr Carls explains, was founded in 1987 as a single-issue pension-reform party. It gained traction in the 1990s, helping in getting its proposed reforms passed, and transitioned into a fully-fledged party by 2006 by incorporating other talking points and core issues. Electorally, the ADR has always been present, though never in great numbers. In 2018, they acquired 8.3 percent of the vote, translating into four seats out of 60 in the Luxembourgish parliament.

Following this brief history of the ADR, Dr Carls addresses the perspective he adopts when looking at this party within the scope of the existing definitions of right-wing populism. In his view, there are two meanings of right-wing populism: right-wing populism as ‘proto-fascistic,’ which is the definition which applies to parties and phenomena in most countries, as well as the way that the secondary literature and the mainstream media perceive right-wing populism to be. Right-wing populism, in its ‘literal’ definition, is a political group and/or party that distinguishes between the people and the elite, adopting a discourse that unequivocally separates these two groups. 

Dr Carls places the ADR firmly in the second camp, stating that the party has undeniably conservative positions but without the extremisms and xenophobic tendencies of traditional right-wing populist parties. While it maintains a certain distance from far-right parties in neighboring countries, like the Rassemblement National (RN) in France and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the ADR still has the basic features of a right-wing populist party; namely, that, at its core, has both horizontal (Luxembourg as a nation against outgroups like Muslims, feminists, and multiculturalists) and vertical societal exclusions (people versus the elite). As such, in terms of its discourse, the ADR presents itself as a right-wing populist party in a literal sense and not in a proto-fascistic way and does not actively seek to undermine Luxembourgish democracy.

Exploring the specificities of the ADR’s discourse, Dr Carls takes up two cases as examples. The first was the constitutional reform debate in 2015, which included three amendment measures to the Luxembourgish constitution. One of these measures included incorporating the right for foreigners to vote in Luxembourgish elections if they followed a number of conditions. In a speech at the parliament, Gaston Giberyen of the ADR accused the present government of going against the wishes of the Luxembourgish people and no longer having their trust, using the term ‘Vollek’ (similar to the German ‘Volk’) to reinforce his argument further. In the ensuing referendum, over 78 percent of voters voted against the measure to grant foreigners the right to vote. For Dr Carls, this is a fairly clear example of the vertical exclusion espoused by the ADR, of a power-hungry elite which makes decisions against the will of the people.

The second example used was the burqa debate which occurred in Luxembourg over the course of four years (2014-2018), and the comments made by Fernand Kartheiser, member of parliament for the ADR, in response to a proposed burqa law which would outlaw the wearing of the burqa in the public sphere, which ended up passing. In the right-wing populist’s speech, there is a clear appeal to certain Judeo-Christian values of a humanistic heritage held by the Luxembourgish and other civilizational elements held by most right-wing parties around Europe. Nevertheless, in the same speech, Fernand Kartheiser mentions the need for immigrants to integrate “into a society that is multicultural, in the sense that many different cultures are found here.” Here, for Dr Carls, we see the unique aspect of the ADR’s discourse which sets it apart from other right-wing populist parties. The ADR appears to embrace immigration and multiculturalism, or at least a certain version of multiculturalism which corresponds to their conservative values. As a party, while the ADR does not exhibit strong xenophobic tendencies, it still contains the horizontal exclusions typical with right-wing populist parties around Europe.

For Dr Carls, this can be potentially explained through Luxembourg’s socio-economic structures. Luxembourgers have a privileged position in government, with many being able to work in government and the civil service, where the wages are very high. These jobs are generally reserved for people that are able to speak Luxembourgish, with much of the foreign and commuter labor doing most of the manual work (in construction, the service industry, etc.). With half of the country’s workforce being from commuters and recognizing that Luxembourg as a country profits a lot from immigration, it is difficult for a party to be strongly positioned against immigration. 

Additionally, it is generally accepted that the Luxembourgish language holds a preeminent role at a national level. In this instance, Dr Carls remarks, it is interesting that the ADR mobilizes itself quite strongly to defend the status of Luxembourgish, with the people that speak it (including regular people) as an elite, against a non-elite of foreigners and commuters. In sum, this multifaceted view of Luxembourg highlights why the ADR appears the way it does.

Dr Benjamin Biard: “The state of the far right in Belgium: A contrasted situation”

Despite its electoral success, Vlaams Belang, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions.

Our second speaker, Dr Benjamin Biard, presented his insights on the manifestation of the far-right parties in Belgium, institutional mechanisms like the cordon sanitaire, and why far-right party support appears to be limited to the confines of Belgium’s federal divisions. Far-right parties have not had universal success across the country; in Flanders, we find that far-right parties, such as Vlaams Belang, have captured electoral support, while in Wallonia, Brussels, or the German-speaking region, similar parties fail to gain mainstream appeal. Dr Biard points out, however, that despite the varied success of the far-right in Belgium, none of these parties has been successful in joining the government, presenting us with a paradoxical situation. 

Before he continued, Dr Biard clarified his use of the term ‘far-right’ throughout the presentation. He utilizes a definition stating that the far-right is an umbrella concept that captures both the populist radical right and extremist variants of right-wing politics. The main difference between these two variants is their stance toward democracy; while the populist radical right parties challenge the foundations of liberal democracy, the extreme right rejects the constitutional order outright and aims at subverting the existing democratic norms. In using the term ‘far-right’, Dr Biard aimed at encompassing both of these political phenomena. 

The far-right movement in Flanders has been championed by mainly one party, a separatist right-wing party founded in 1979 under the name of Vlaams Blok. The party first experienced electoral success in the 1991 election when the party passed the symbolic threshold of 10 percent. Dr Biard noted that up until today, this day of Vlaams Blok’s electoral success is known as Black Sunday. Yet, the party’s success only grew in the following years in federal, provincial, and regional elections. The party reached its electoral peak in 2004 when it received 24 percent of the vote but was convicted of racial hate speech in a court of law soon after and forced to change its name. The party was renamed Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) but maintained many of the same positions as its predecessors. 

Under the leadership of Filip de Winter, the far-right party expanded its political profile beyond Flemish separatism and started promoting anti-immigration and Islamophobic positions. Their slogan, “Eigen Volk Eerst” (our own people first), incorporates this policy evolution and mirrors the positions of the French far-right party Front National. This anti-immigration position remained a central theme in the party even after it was rebranded as Vlaams Belang. The party’s position on Flemish identity, neoliberalism, and immigration has secured support in current Flemish society. This became evident in the 2019 election when the party received an 18.7 percent vote, second only to the right-wing party NVA. Since that election, polls have posited Vlaams Belang as the leading party in Flemish politics. 

Despite this electoral success, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet according to Dr Biard’s research, the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions. 

In Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, far-right parties do not enjoy the same success. While in Flanders, Vlaams Belang is expected to accumulate over 20 percent of the vote in the following election, Wallonian far-right parties have historically not even reached 10 percent, and this is not due to a lack of trying. The Belgian Front National had achieved some success in Wallonia, consequently gaining a number of seats at the local, regional, and even European levels. However, the party later disappeared after losing a court case against the French Front National over the use of their shared name and imagery. Today, Wallonia is still home to far-right parties such as Nation and Chez Nous, but these parties remain marginal. The former conducts militant far-right, and Islamophobic activism that does not attract widespread electoral support, while the latter is a new party that is politically and socially isolated from the Wallonian citizens. 

The Belgian case holds a paradox where on one side of the country, far-right parties are finding widespread popular support, whereas on the other side, far-right parties are struggling to maintain their relevance and popularity. How can we explain this?

Dr Biard answered this question by arguing that it is not a difference in demands amongst Flemish and Wallonian citizens but a difference in supply. He presents that Belgian citizens hold similar demands for anti-immigration politics; According to surveys, a similar number of Flemish and Wallonian citizens believe that increased immigration leads to more criminality and employment issues. Dr Biard suggests we turn to look at the supply-side factors instead. 

Far-right parties face certain obstacles in Wallonia that limit their ability to cater to citizens’ far-right sentiments. First, extreme right parties in Wallonia compete with one another for electoral support, thus impairing their ability to grow relevant. Second, these parties have lacked strong charismatic leaders that pull voters towards them and mobilize crowds. While this is not a requirement for successful far-right parties, it is a noticeable difference to Vlaams Belang, which features Filip de Winter and Tom van Grieken as well-known party figureheads. Next, the civil society organization in the two regions operate in different capacities. According to Dr Biard, there are more civil society organizations in Wallonia focused on unmasking and physically protesting these far-right activities. Fourth, Wallonia maintains a formalized media cordon sanitaire, effectively barring far-right speakers and politicians’ access to media outlets like TV and radio. Finally, Dr Biard posits that Wallonian politicians lack the ideology and regional lore to stir up the Wallonian nationalism necessary for their parties. 

Dr Carola Schoor: “The mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands”

“The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.”

The following topic was presented by Dr Carola Schoor, who spoke on the ‘Mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands.’ Dr Schoor first addressed her presentation’s definition of populism, pointing out that there exists considerable discussion on what populism is and the confusion about the relationship between populism and the far-right. Dr Schoor takes populism as a discourse style, as per the definition by Ernesto Laclau (2005), and she expands on it by following the notion of Teun van Dijk, whose theory on discourse and ideology identifies three discourse dimensions: discourse structures (ideas); discourse use (presentation); and the social dimension of discourse (social relations). Populism, as such, is in close connection to elitism and pluralism and is, therefore, a relative definition, meaning that it is context-dependent. For Dr Schoor, nothing is populist in itself, though one could assert that a given statement or politician is “more populist than elitist or pluralist.”

Before exploring the state of populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor first explains her method of analysis in her study. To fully explore the relationship between populism, elitism, and pluralism, Dr Schoor analysed the language structure beneath political language, in brief, all the way the word populism is used in political discourse. In her research, principally examining politicians from the United States and the United Kingdom as well as others, Dr Schoor highlights the existence of six political styles and how politicians relate to these styles. These styles include elitism, pluralism, and populism, as well as anti-elitism, anti-pluralism, and anti-populism, with the relationship between the styles bound together by the discourse structures of ideas, presentation, and social relations. The ideational dimension is whether politicians see the people as diverse or as one; the presentational dimension is whether they present themselves as ordinary voters or politicians; and finally, the social dimension highlights whether the politicians are part of the elite or the people. Through these connections, one can assess the performance of global leaders and their relationship to populism, and Dr Schoor’s research generally found that right-wing populists mostly combine populism with elitism, whereas left-wing populists combine populism with pluralism. Finally, centrist politics exists as a combination of elitism and pluralism.

Before addressing populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor stressed that radical left/right politics does not immediately equate to populism and that every political style has democratic and undemocratic expressions. Populism appears as a reaction to undemocratic expressions of pluralism and elitism, and as such, it is important to study variants of populism, elitism, and pluralism to see where democratic boundaries are crossed.

The state of populism in Dutch politics is addressed in a ten-year frame between 2012 and 2022. The Netherlands exists as a multi-party system, almost always with coalition governments as a ‘polderen’ tradition which enshrines the notion of (political) cooperation. However, today’s politics appears increasingly fragmented and polarized. Historically speaking, populism, as it is understood, was never truly in the tradition of Dutch politics. In the 1970s, there was a small populist and pluralist wave, which was followed by the appearance of two small populist parties, on the left (the Socialist Party) and on the right (Centrum Party) in the 1980s and 1990s, though these two were not very influential and kept marginal on the political landscape. 

The second and far more substantial populist wave came in the 2000s, with figures like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders of the PVV on the right, as well as Thierry Baudet, more recently for the FvD. The latest parliamentary elections also saw the rise of smaller-scale populist figures, most notably Caroline van der Plas (BoerBurgerBeweging) standing as a form of farmers populism, and Sylvana Simons (Bij1), an example of left-wing populism in the tradition of Black Lives Matter. The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.   

Expanding on her analysis of the politics of style of these leaders, Dr Schoor points out five populist leaders in the current political landscape of the Netherlands. Geerts Wilders of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) is the mainstay figure of Dutch radical politics, whom Dr Schoor qualifies Wilders as a true populist in terms of discourse, taking on characteristics from the left and right in terms of policy, but being thoroughly anti-elitist and anti-pluralist. A figure of the radical right in the Netherlands was Thierry Baudet of the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), who rose to prominence during the referendum in the Netherlands over Ukraine in 2015 as being ardently anti-EU. The more recent addition to right-wing populism in the Netherlands is Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement), who now stands as the voice of the people in the regions against those in the cities and appears to be dominating the political debate as things stand. To the left, a strong and emerging populist voice is Sylvana Simons of Bij1, taking an important pluralist and anti-elitist stand. Dr Schoor also points out the politician Pieter Omtzigt, formerly of the Christian Democratic Party, who has now become an independent following a fracture in his former party and is interesting for appearing to be driven into a populist discourse to demarcate himself in the fractured political landscape. 

Dr Schoor concludes her presentation by going over the reaction of ‘mainstream’ politics towards populism, stating that centrist politics appears to be reacting in two ways. The first is the anti-populism stance taken by politicians like Sigrid Kaag of D66, and the second is the discourse that there is ‘good’ populism as opposed to ‘bad’ populism, taken by the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD. Generally speaking, mainstream politics appears to be taking in the criticisms of the populism opposition, with the general climate being one of uncertainty and confusion.

Dr Alina Dolea: “Populist discourses in Switzerland”

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration.

Our fourth and final panel speaker was Dr Alina Dolea, who presented her findings on ‘Populist discourses in Switzerland’ from a media and communication perspective. In her presentation, she presented the increased instrumentalization of country images and identities in debates beyond strategic promotional practices, such as debates on elections, referenda, or migration. More specifically, she analyzed how Swiss media constructed Switzerland’s image and identity in the debate following a 2014 referendum on migration quotas. 

Dr Dolea contextualized the Swiss case by briefly presenting the background and beliefs of the Swiss People’s Party. While the Swiss People’s Party (SPP) is not the only populist party in Switzerland, it is the most significant. The SPP originated through a merger of small farmer parties in 1971 that has grown into the largest party in Switzerland since the 1990s. Dr Dolea even says that the SPP can be considered one of the strongest right-wing populist parties in Europe. They have gained electoral success running on an anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-political elites’ platform, even maintaining these positions when in government. 

Scholars have noted that the Swiss People’s Party pulls from a specific type of Alpine populism. The ideology centers around the idealization of small-scale agriculture and the pure nature of the countryside, which contrasts with the impure urban and industrial environments. This idealization is also reflected in the people; the party promotes the idea that these communities champion values like being hardworking, honest, civic-minded, clean, and orderly, which allows them to successfully run a voluntary system of unpaid self-administration that does not require interference from Bern. This Alpine populism promotes a narrative of Swiss independence, neutrality, and exceptionalism which ought to be protected from cultural and identity shifts within the country.

Dr Dolea highlights that this branch of populism leverages the real fear of Swiss citizens of ‘losing their homes’ to incoming migrants. Migration to Switzerland can be traced to the time of industrialization in the 19th century when German and Italian migrants travelled searching for work. As Switzerland was in the process of conducting large railway projects that required a high level of workforce, many of these migrants ended up staying for a period. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, the number of Italian and German migrants nearly doubled, causing alarm for Swiss nationals who dubbed this the ‘over-foreignization’ of Switzerland. Dr Dolea aimed to show that this distaste for immigration has a long history within Switzerland, which can explain the country’s heated debates and referenda around the topic today. 

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration. Dr Dolea provided an overview of these referenda that ranged from 1970 to 2020, their background, and whether they were adopted. While policies like the deportation of migrant criminals, the banning of minarets, and migration quotas were adopted, a number were still rejected. For each of these referenda, SPP played a role in promoting anti-immigration policies through inflammatory poster designs.

To illustrate the role Swiss media played in constructing a country identity through facilitating these referenda debates, Dr Dolea mentioned the 2014 initiative ‘against mass immigration.’ The initiative was launched by the SPP and received support from just over half of the Swiss referendum voters. Dr Dolea found that media actors were able to leverage their powerful and visible position to (re)produce populist discourse around immigration as well as the Swiss national image and identity. 

Over the course of the month following the referendum’s passing, Dr Dolea studied the output of two journals, NZZ and Le Temps. The researchers studied the content from two angles. First, they analyzed the explicit content of the media discourse, namely the topics being mentioned, and how this operationalized the country’s image. They noted the frequency of references made to different dimensions of the country’s image and how it contributed to dominant descriptors attributed to Switzerland. Second, the researchers studied the implicit content of media discourse. More specifically, they looked at strategies and topoi the media outlets applied to construct, re-construct, and mobilize these representations of Switzerland. This angle aims to uncover the dynamics, interactions, and interplay between the different facets of Switzerland’s country image. 

The results discovered that media coverage focused extensively on the consequences of the vote and how it held normative implications for the country’s image and identity. In limiting migration to Switzerland through quotas, the referendum helped define who the Swiss people are, what defines them, and what Swiss values, principles, and norms are. Furthermore, the researchers identified three different types of discourses: (1) an institutional type of discourse, (2) an expert type of discourse, and (3) a political populist type of discourse. The researchers also discovered the strategic use of storytelling by the media to give voice to ordinary citizens who represent and symbolize a multicultural and diverse Switzerland. However, as a whole, the debate around the referendum perpetuated the idea of a threatened national Swiss image and identity using terms like the end of Switzerland and migrant malaise. 

Populist discourse through the Swiss media following the 2014 migrant referendum exhibited itself on two levels. On the international level, it reflected how others see Switzerland in an advantageous or inferior position, while on the national level, it reflected internal divides within the country. While before these internal divides were understood as “Us versus Them,” the media has shifted to discuss the difference between Us versus Us. The media discourse further delineates divisions in Swiss society, for example, the economic, cultural, and linguistic divide between the German, Italian, and French parts, the division between French Swiss and the rest of the Swiss, the class divide in Switzerland, and the factions of Swiss who seek unity while others seek independence.

Members and supporters of nationalist organizations participate in Lukovmarch procession - a march in commemoration of general Hristo Lukov in Sofia, Bulgaria on February 16, 2019.

Mapping European Populism: Panel 5 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries

Tusor, Anita & Fernández, Iván Escobar. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 5 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 28, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0007

 

This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Balkan countries, namely Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández

This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. ECPS organises a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On October 27, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Dr Emilia Zankina, Dean of Temple University, Rome, and included the following speakers; Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, Associate Professor of political science at the New Bulgarian University; Dr Sorina Soare, Researcher at the University of Florence; Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Professor and Researcher at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Science; Dr Avdi Smajljaj, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations at Epoka University in Tirana.

Moderator Dr Emilia Zankina introduced the panel discussion by providing an overall framework in which she stressed the global nature of the populist phenomenon. Dr Zankina went on to highlight the current lack of conceptual clarity in delineating the exact boundaries of whether a political movement meets the criteria to be considered populist or not, which can be observed in the different approaches used in populism studies. In this overall framework, Dr Zankina laid out the three main ways of addressing populism.

The first and most utilized approach she referred to was Cas Mudde’s ideational approach (2004), where he coined the “thin ideology” concept. According to Mudde, populism is not necessarily a dominant ideology in itself but rather an ideology that encompasses different features from the left to the right in the political spectrum. According to Dr Zankina, the second major approach is to tackle populism as a discourse. This involves the analysis of the populist narrative and discourse employed by such parties in order to receive votes, as well as their relation with voters (see Poblete, 2015; Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). The third way is the strategic approach, which considers populism a political strategy adopted to gain power and votes, thus building parties’ political behaviour upon an electoral return that can be achieved through different ways, such as implementing policies or exerting influence on other parties’ policies (see Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). 

Although they have some differences, these three approaches share notions of the populist parties’ alleged proximity to the people and the common discourse of “us versus them.” In other words, according to Dr Zankina, these three approaches claim that populist parties share the ideas of the unnecessary role of political parties as intermediaries between the ruling power and the people, as well as a Manichean and anti-establishment narrative.

Moreover, several studies have also focused on the relationship between populism and democracy, leading to the conclusion that despite being authoritarian – following Mudde’s (2007: 15-23) framework – populist parties are not necessarily anti-democratic per se, since they actually benefit from democratic structures and institutions when pursuing and promoting anti-pluralist policies, which ultimately aim at denying rights to minorities and engaging in some sort of welfare chauvinism.

Her introduction concluded with reference to the case of the Balkan countries, where, in addition to the fact that Balkan populist parties somehow resemble Danish or Swedish populist parties, they have also integrated an ethnic component due to the multiethnic nature of most of the Balkan states. This has resulted in a type of ethnic nationalism more directed towards domestic minorities rather than external migrants. 

 

Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva: “Normalization and radicalisation: the paradoxes of populism in Bulgaria”

“It can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria.”

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, who aimed to conceptualise the dynamics among the different populist actors in Bulgaria. She began her presentation by distinguishing between Laclau’s (2005) definition of populism and Cas Mudde’s (2007) populist radical right framework. Dr Staikova-Mileva has chosen to use the term populism due to its broader scope, understanding it not as a political object per se but as a supporter of political practices. 

In the particular case of Bulgaria, populism emerged at a later stage when the Bulgarian democratic system could already be considered consolidated. According to Dr Staikova-Mileva, the Bulgarian democratic system currently hosts different types of populism. As such, her presentation strove to provide a nuanced categorisation of the different types of populism present in Bulgaria. She points to two main forms of populism in Bulgaria: first, those populist parties that, despite showing anti-elitist stances, support European political projects, and second, the minor national populist political parties, which are an important factor to consider regarding the 2005 emergence of the nationalist political party ‘Attack or Ataka.’ 

Nonetheless, in addition to the above-mentioned types of populism in Bulgaria, Dr Staikova-Mileva also distinguished between two other forms of populism, bearing in mind what is currently being researched by her academic colleagues. These two other forms of populism are soft populism and hard populismSoft populism, on the one hand, would involve those actors that generate general appeals to the people through demagogic discourses. On the other hand, hard populism refers to those nationalist and xenophobic parties that have put an emphasis on narratives that boost “othering” in society. 

Having categorised the different types of populism, Dr Staikova-Mileva continued her presentation with a brief explanation on the normalisation of populism in Bulgaria. According to her, populist and radical actors have, over the past decades, mobilised through electoral and protest channels, succeeding in the radicalisation of the population. This happens to be an international phenomenon, as we have already witnessed it around Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world; thus, it is not surprising that Bulgaria has undergone the same political phenomenon. 

Nonetheless, by looking closely at the Bulgarian case, it can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria. Besides boosting populism from the margins of society to the core of the Bulgarian political arena, this practice, according to Dr Staikova-Mileva, has also served to legitimise and propel smaller and more extreme populist parties, making them into an essential component in Bulgarian politics. This has been observed through their role as kingmakers in order to ensure the stability of different governments. This has forced mainstream parties to adopt some of their extreme nationalist narratives in order to stay in power. 

However, cooperation between populist parties alone does not fully explain this normalisation of populism in Bulgarian politics. This is why Dr Staikova-Mileva also stressed the role of the media in this normalisation process. It is known that the media has played a key role in spreading populist ideas to the population, serving as a platform for populist parties to gain greater visibility and popularity. 

The media, and television in particular, is responsible for producing a lot of populist leaders across European countries. As stated above, Bulgaria is not an exception in this case. As a matter of fact, Bulgarian media and journalism, instead of fighting populism, have served as a platform to spread their ideas, misinformation and fake claims across Bulgaria. 

Dr Staikova-Mileva concluded her presentation by overviewing the contemporary situation in Bulgaria. The ongoing Bulgarian political crisis has been exacerbated by the economic and health crisis that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine. Populism can no longer be considered marginal in Bulgaria since it is represented not only by political figures but also by policies and practices that have already entered into force, thus shaping and exerting influence on Bulgarian politics, as well as affecting the lives of millions of Bulgarians (see Pirro, 2015: 197-200). 

To sum up, Dr Staikova-Mileva stressed that populism has already become both an adopted norm in Bulgarian politics and a suitable ground for the rise of even more radical movements, jeopardising the whole Bulgarian democratic system.

 

Dr Sorina Soare: “Speaking for the transnational people: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians” 

Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. The third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.

The second presentation was carried out by Dr Sorina Soare, who tackled a new populist party that emerged in Romania after the 2020 election: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), founded in Romania in 2019. The researcher highlighted the fact that, although Romania seemed exempt from populism in their parliament in comparison to other European countries, populist sentiments had already infiltrated the mainstream discourse.

Carrying on with her presentation, Dr Soare pointed out that the turning point in Romanian politics occurred in 2020, when the AUR obtained 9.1 percent of the vote share, becoming the fourth-largest parliamentary party in Romania. It is worth noting that, before 2020, the AUR was a marginal and unknown political party, so their 2020 electoral success was somehow unexpected by both population and experts. According to Dr Soare, the AUR perfectly meets Cas Muddes’ (2004: 543) definition of populism, for whom populism is nothing but a thin-centred ideology that understands society as divided into two antagonistic and homogenous groups and that argues that politics should ultimately be an expression of the general will of the people. In Soare’s words, the AUR can be considered populist due to all the challenges the AUR constantly poses to liberal-constitutional democracy as well as due to its strong emphasis on nativism. 

Regarding the party’s name, it should be noted that AUR highlights the union of all Romanians, which is a direct reference to the unification project with the Republic of Moldova. Consequently, their nativist discourse refers to a multi-layered definition of their Romanian people, both within and outside Romania. AUR’s transnational definition of “demos” is one of their most innovative features as it contrasts with the traditional national view of this element. 

Looking closely at this multi-layered definition of the Romanian people, Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania and that are, in their view, at risk of not being properly represented by the cosmopolitan elites that have already lost the capacity to address the particular Romanian needs. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. In particular, these communities refer to co-ethnic communities in neighbouring countries, such as Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the specific case of Moldova, where the Romanian communities constitute an ethnic majority within the Republic. Lastly, the third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora: those Romanians who have been somehow forced to leave the country due to economic reasons and that are perceived to be discriminated against in Western countries. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.

Nonetheless, instead of focusing on the reasons behind the AUR’s success, Dr Soare chose to tackle how the party’s redefinition of people impacted the electoral mobilisation of Romanians abroad. Consequently, she suggested that networks of Romanian migrants in Spain and Italy might have amplified the potential of the AUR at the national level. Moreover, the AUR had such an impact due to its institutional origins and its well-established and well-represented image abroad through the presence of around 22 branches of the party across different countries. This was considered to be one of the key factors that explained the electoral mobilization and support the political party achieved in the 2020 elections. 

Another key aspect of the AUR is its dual leadership. Thus, far from being a personal party like other populist parties across European countries, the AUR valorised, diversified, and routed a network of associations later brought into the party and diversified its leadership into different branches. 

Dr Sorina Soare concluded her presentation by pointing out that there is still some space in the literature to address populism from a transnational perspective, where differences are conceived between the ethnic people, the majority of Romanians within the state, and the co-ethnic Romanian communities in neighbouring countries. 

Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija: “The trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina”

Dr Džananović Miraščija warns that the major danger of far-right parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric.

The third presentation was carried out by Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, who presented the trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her lecture sought to provide an analytical framework to review radical right populism not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also to compare similar trends in the region and across Europe by addressing some of the repetitive and authentic narratives present among radical groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Populism did not skip Bosnia and Herzegovina, in fact, it is omnipresent and has been one of the major features of local political life in the last three decades. Yet, for decades, it was dealt with as nationalism or ethnic nationalism and was not necessarily labelled as populism or ethnic populism. Analyses of populist rhetorics show that it is a kind of populism which heavily leans on nationalistic ideology, yet, in the particular case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it best fits the model of ethnic populism as defined by Laclau (1977). 

The populist phenomenon in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also somewhat specific compared to more general regional trends, considering the recent turbulent history and the political, economic, and social context of its democratic tradition. Its populism strongly corresponds with the theoretical framework and contemporary interpretations of populism not only as ideology, but also as a discourse and strategy. As such, it is present in all these three shapes. The key definition of this specific ethnonationalist form of populism is given by Mujkič (2007: 22): 

“some kind of a melting pot for various bits and pieces of political doctrines and principles; socialism, liberal democracy, fascism, romantic nationalism, religious nationalism, but also a melting pot of various cultural pieces; historical narratives, mythologies, literature, religion, tradition, or other events that are considered of vital importance to the identity of one particular ethnic group […] Unlike most other political practices, ethnopolitics is a non-doctrine; it has no goal, vision, or hope other than remaining in power. Neither the well-being of any particular ethnic group nor ‘vital national-ethnic interests’ is the final goal of ethnopolitics. Its raison d’être is crisis, a constant appeal to the existential danger faced by the group. A permanent condition of threat is the only effective way for politicians to remain in power.”

Dr Džananović Miraščija added that fear-mongering is the backbone of political life and the main platform of the three ruling ethno-nationalist blocs. Thus, in a post-conflict country, this is beyond what can be described either as toxic or somehow attached to democratic development. In addition, policymaking exclusively depends on the agreement between the ethnonational political elites and representatives of the three constituent people. This is why it is crucial to understand the ethnic-nationalist nature of populism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dr Džananović Miraščija continued with the explanation of the vertical division of populism between the ‘us,’ people, common men, and ‘them,’ the elite. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the political elites have skillfully transformed populism and placed it primarily into horizontal antagonism between the ‘us.’ In other words, they have united the people and their ethnic political elite against the ‘other people,’ referring to ethnically different people. Consequently, the populism of these right-wing parties in the opposition is very often propagandistic and nationalistic, with a strong claim for justice, a change of the regime, a fight against corruption, moral purity, and so on. Moreover, depending on the level of government in which a certain party holds power, it is not unusual to witness a fight between two different populist parties. If this division appears vertical, then it takes place within one ethnic political group.

Moving on to the trend of the radical right, Dr Džananović Miraščija pointed out that the distinction between the white nationalist mainstream and far-right is very thin and blurred among some of their actors. Far-right actors still mainly operate under the authority of the leading ethno-nationalist party with close coordination with the mainstream political right parties since they can provide financial support or even public funds. Those who are not related to the mainstream parties and seek to be authentic are the ones who often do not take part in the elections because they do not have enough funds to run campaigns or even register for campaigning in the first place. 

Another point where the far-right and the mainstream meet is the fact that for the last three decades, politicians and policymakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have rather transparently manifested their nationalism in hate speech and bigotry, targeting the outgroups and reinforcing the victimization narrative of the ingroups. Some of what political and military actors have said in this vein has proven to be a later inspiration for international far-right terrorism.

The far-right extremism we see today in the region extends not just from the 90s and the war and atrocities that took place in that period. It also stems from the late 80s when the former Yugoslavia began a process of democratisation and liberalisation. The wars that followed in the 90s were, in actuality, the catalyst for these far-right ideologies. 

Further, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces another paradoxical situation where the official radical right-wing organisations are very small, marginal, and almost invisible. Yet, their radical right ideas feature prominently and have a strong presence in the discourse of the mainstream political parties. In other words, there are no right-wing or far-right parties in the Bosnian Parliament or the regional assemblies. However, the propaganda of the ruling political parties – its rhetoric, hate speech and their entire political agenda – are rooted in the far-right discourse. The ideology is also not only related to the Yugoslavian war but also the Second World War from a revisionist perspective. 

Dr Džananović Miraščija concluded her presentation by warning that the major danger of far-right parties is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric. The conservative, patriarchal discourse prevailing in Bosnian society and politics underpins their ideologies and narratives, making the far-right agenda again part of the media and political discourse.

Dr Avdi Smajljaj: “Populists in government in young democracies, normalising the defects of the young establishment: the case of Kosovo” 

The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo.

Dr Avdi Smajljaj detailed the case of populism in Kosovo. By way of introduction, he reflected on the day of the 2021 Kosovan presidential election when the Kosovan diaspora flew home to ‘save Kosovo,’ which was part of a dominant discourse at the time. 

The elections were won by Vetëvendosje, led by Albin Kurti, whose party presents a clear case of hard populism. Nonetheless, soft populism is also found in many other Kosovan political parties, as many leaders of political parties do not follow democratic traditions. This trend may be explained by Kosovo, as a whole, having limited experience with democratic processes. In all political parties, we can find traces of populist narratives, but none of them can be easily considered an anti-establishment party. 

To showcase the rise of populism in Kosovo, Dr Smajljaj chronologically presented how Vetëvendosje came to power. It started as a civic activism movement in 2005, and to this day, the organisation refrains from labelling itself as a political party; rather, it considers itself a popular movement. The substance of their ideology is ethno-nationalism which becomes discernible when one reads the party’s manifesto, a clear reflection of the party’s Albanian nationalism. Among the party’s main objectives is the unification of Kosovo with Albania, which is passively promoted by the party’s leadership. This positions the party against the establishment of Kosovo, as they are against the symbols of Kosovan independence and its statehood aiming to create a Greater Albania.

Continuing with the history of the ruling party and how its populism has changed over time, Dr Smajljaj pointed out that initially, the party of Vetëvendosje did not participate in the elections as they considered them to be fraudulent. This changed, however, in 2010, when they started to participate in political competition with minimal success (12.66 percent). By expanding their cause and program, they eventually gained 13.59 percent of the votes in 2014, 27.49 percent in 2017, and finally 49.95 percent in 2021. 

Constructing Vetëvendosje’s anti-establishment narrative was a turning point for their success in the 2021 elections. The party had divided Kosovan society into two sections (1) the old regime, which consists of all previous parties that ruled until 2021; and (2) the new regime, Vetëvendosje. In the face of their rhetoric, an increasing segment of society regarded established political actors as corrupt and engaged in nepotism. As Vetëvendosje expanded its platform to include both ethnonationalism and anti-corruption rhetoric, they saw their support rise. 

The party depicted itself as a fighter against state capture by other parties, yet today they are capturing the state themselves. This kind of one-party rule in Kosovo was unexpected as voters and other political parties counted on a multi-party system backed by the proportional electoral system of the country. The defeat of traditional political parties came as a surprise. According to Dr Smajljaj, this shows how populism is a self-destroying machinery: populism rises within a democracy and then destroys it. “Genuine grievances and demands of the disillusioned people end up being represented by populist and anti-democratic forces, eventually becoming hostages of authoritarian institutional dynamics” (Stavrakakis, 2018). 

Dr Smajljaj attributed the party’s latest electoral victory to the successful mobilisation of two groups: (1) The mobilisation of the diaspora proved to be impactful, as the diaspora communities significantly contribute to the local economy. Since families still continue to be very strong institutions in Kosovo, family ties mobilized the migrated Kosovans to come home and ‘save the nation.’ (2) Another important group was the youth, who felt themselves more represented by the 47-year-old Kurti than by previous Prime Ministers, which demonstrates how the ruling party has managed to gather more than 50 percent of the votes.

According to Dr Smajljaj, Vetëvendosje presents what Müller’s (2016) book on populism describes; namely, how populism in power reproduces patterns of state capture, clientelism and attacks on civil society. The Kosovan government is replicating all three of these patterns. 

The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo. Weak governing performance is justified through comparison to the old regime, emphasizing that the former government’s failures are blocking the new regime from moving forward. This populist message has proved to be efficient in Kosovo. 

In his concluding notes, Dr Smajljaj stated that when looking at populism in power in Kosovo, we have to understand that “The leader means the party and the party means the leader”, and he attributes this to the electoral behaviour and Kosovo’s lack of experience with pluralism, a multi-party system and democracy. In a grim conclusion, it can be said that populist promises of good governance and democracy have failed in Kosovo. Although general dissatisfaction with Vetëvendosje is growing, its emphasis on the deficiencies of previous governments proves to substitute the weariness of its voting base.


References

Laclau, Ernest. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso. 

Laclau, Ernest. (1977). Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: Verso.

Moffitt, Benjamin & Tormey, Simon. (2014). “Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style.” Political Studies. 62 (2): 381–397

Mudde, Cas. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39 (4): 541-563.

Mujkic, Asim. (2007). “We, the Citizens of Ethnopolis.” Constellations 14 (1):112-128.

Müller, Jan-Werner. (2016). What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812293784

Pirro, Andrea L.P. (2015). The populist radical right in Central and Eastern Europe: ideology, impact, and electoral performance. London & New York: Routledge. 

Poblete, Mario E. (2015). “How to assess populist discourse through three current approaches.” Journal of Political Ideologies 20 (2): 201-218

Stavrakakis, Yannis. (2018). “Three challenges in contemporary populism research.” Europp, May 14, 2018. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/05/14/three-challenges-in-contemporary-populism-research/ “accessed on November 1, 2022).

Taguieff, Pierre-André. (1995). “Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem.” Telos 103: 9–43.

MEP-Panel3

Mapping European Populism: Panel 3 — Scandinavia Under Magnifier: Populist Radical Right Parties and the End of Nordic Exceptionalism?

Grueso, Gadea Mendez & Sezer, Julide (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 3 – Scandinavia Under Magnifier: Populist Radical Right Parties and the End of Nordic Exceptionalism?” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).June 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0006

 

This report is based on the third panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 28, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Scandinavian countries, namely Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the third panel of the series focusing on Scandinavian countries on the theme of “Scandinavia under magnifier: Populist radical right parties and the end of Nordic exceptionalism” which was held online on April 28, 2022.

The panel is moderated by Dr Liv Sunnercrantz, Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway, and included the following speakers; Dr Anders Hellström, Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden; Marie Cazes, Doctoral Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Dr Lise Lund Bjånesøy, Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway; Dr Susi Meret, Department of Politics and Society, University of Aalborg, Denmark.

Dr Anders Hellström: “The Sweden Democrats in Swedish politics – The Mainstreaming of Extremism”

“In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ (in Sweden) as theorised by Ruth Wodak: What was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.”

Dr Anders Hellström introduced how extremism has been mainstreamed in Swedish politics with the case of Sweden Democrats (SD). The main themes he addressed are: the nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats (SD) within Swedish politics, the ‘mainstreaming of extremism,’ the discussion about going ‘beyond’ Swedish exceptionalism, and what ‘the new normal’ may come to mean in Swedish politics.

According to Dr Hellström, there have been nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats. Before 2006 (1), the SD received very little media exposure, and when they were mentioned in the press, they were, at best, referred to as ‘devils in disguise’ or as ‘fascists in uniforms.’ Between 2006 and 2010 (2), the media interest in the SD escalated, and the other parties gradually abandoned their ‘cordon sanitaire’ approach to the party; but, even if these other parties wanted to attract SD voters, SD politicians were still referred to, in the political debate and the media, as either racists or ‘political clowns,’ sometimes both. In the third stage, between 2010 and 2014 (3), the SD got into the national parliament, and the national debate on Swedish identity issues, as a result, became highly polarised; the party gained a lot of media attention, and the public debate was rife with discussions around this ‘new’ political party. Between 2014 and 2018 (4), the party space in Sweden became significantly more multi-dimensional: instead of just a left-right socio-economic-political divide, there was now also a socio-cultural divide. Before this period, it was ‘the SD against the rest,’ in terms of political parties, but afterwards, the SD’s positions on certain topics like immigration became more eligible. In 2019 (5), the SD was getting increasingly tamed, and their policy positions thus came to be seen as normal by other political actors, and it became less shameful among the electorate to vote for the SD. Before the pandemic, the SD had, in fact, become the largest party in the Swedish national parliament.

However, the 2020 pandemic marked a sixth stage (6) in the SD’s development, and the SD lost voting support (the SD is now approximately 10% behind the Social Democrats). The theme of how Sweden handled (or mishandled) the pandemic was seen as something exceptional, not only by the SD but by many others in the public debate. For instance, Ebba Busch Thor, the leader of the Christian Democrats (KD), declared that the government had “with relieved courage” allowed a high spread of infection, which had severely negatively affected the old people in Sweden; at the same time, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the SD, had said that the government had conducted a “massacre” on the elders. Many other political actors besides the SD thus verbalised a similar criticism against the government.

In 2021-2022 (7), the SD became part of a bloc, together with the Christian Democrats, the Moderate Party (M) (which are mainstream right parties), and the Liberal Party (L), to pursue an anti-liberal agenda (the presence of the Liberal Party, in that sense, may seem ironic). The idea was to form a new conservative government to replace the Social Democratic government. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (8), far-right parties in Sweden (and elsewhere) suffered from their previous admiration of Putin. The Social Democrats benefitted from this and are now getting very high poll figures. Whereas before, immigration was their only relevant political issue, their rhetoric has shifted significantly when compared to their view of the topic of Syria in 2015, and the SD now speaks of the need to protect and allow Ukrainian refugees into Sweden (which was not the case for Syrian refugees). The national elections that will take place in September 2022 (9) will tell whether the political debate will foremost be on defense (and the issue of NATO membership), the climate or gang violence.

Dr Hellström interpreted the rise of the SD as an end to ‘Swedish exceptionalism.’ Indeed, he referred to the work by Jens Rydgren[1], who said that his explanations as to why Sweden did not have a leading anti-immigration party (like Denmark and Norway had) no longer apply. Working-class voters (and voters in the southern parts of Sweden and middle-aged men) have turned to the SD; and the salience of the socio-economic policy dimension in political competition is no longer hegemonic, as the political is now also about culture and identity. Moreover, there is today a growing consensus between the Left and the Right, as there has been a ‘moralisation of politics.’

In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ as theorised by Ruth Wodak[2]: what was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.

According to Dr Hellström, there was, a decade ago, a meta-debate in Swedish politics, in which all the mainstream parties agreed that they should debate with the SD (even if they were deplorable). The consequence was that the average voter, who probably had not heard of the party, suddenly became aware of its existence thanks to the exposure awarded by that debate. Thus, Hellström remarked, such parties benefit from the truth contained in Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But all is not lost yet, Dr Hellström reminds us: to understand what is happening around us, we need to understand both regressive and progressive sentiments. When we build toward a new normality, we should remember that “the future points in both progressive and regressive directions simultaneously”—and it is up to us to decide which comes to fruition.

Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso

 

Marie Cazes: “From Rural to Radical Right: A Brief Perspective on Finnish Populism”

Despite populism has always been present in the Finnish Parliament ever since the 1960s the support for the Finns Party seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion.

Marie Cazes presented a historical approach to populism in Finland, a country with a long relationship to the topic. She presented the main Finnish populist parties: the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP), which was created by Veikko Vennamo in 1959 under the name of Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue (Finnish Party of Small Peasants), came into the government in the 1980s and became bankrupt in the 1990s; and the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which was created in 1995 after the bankruptcy of the Finnish Rural Party and became very successful, winning its first major electoral victory in 2011 (from 4,1 percent to 19,1 percent of the vote), and taking part in the Sipilä government (Centre, National coalition) in 2015. In June 2017, the Finns Party split after the election of Jussi Halla-aho, who was considered too radical and even condemned for hate speech, as chairperson; thus, ‘Blue Reform’ was created.

As Cazes explained, the origins of Finnish populism were very rural, and it was a form of agrarian populism. The Finnish Rural Party was itself created in 1959 by Veikko Vennamo as a split from the Agrarian Union, due to divergences of opinion with then-president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen regarding the countryside: Kekkonen had a more conservative idea in favour of preserving traditional social rurality ‘as it was before,’ even though Finland was facing a deep rural/agricultural crisis in the 1950s-60s.

Thus, Finnish populism, linked to ancient agrarianism ideology, rose by presenting itself as the ‘defender of the forgotten people’ from the countryside, who had supposedly been neglected by the ‘elites’ in Helsinki. As such, it was constructed in opposition to other parties (and to Kekkonen, who had been president for 24 years), with a very strong anti-communist rhetoric. Some researchers have talked about these parties as “hegemony challengers” (see Palonen & Sunnercrantz[3]).

Cazes then described the rise and fall of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP): after having some electoral success in the 1970s, it collapsed, and rose again in the 1980s, when, in 1983, it got a second breakthrough in the parliamentary elections. That time, its narrative had changed, and the party presented itself as a critic of corruption, as its main concern became less focused on rurality, and its electorate changed too, becoming a bit more urban (as there were cases of corruption in several big cities, for instance concerning the construction of the subway in Helsinki). Because Kekkonen was no longer president, and because the image of the party changed, so that Finnish politicians no longer considered the SMP as an extreme-right party, it ended up being part of two governments, from 1983 to 1987, and from 1987 to 1991, which fomented tensions within the party. In the end, the Finnish Rural Party only had 1 MP in the 1995 election, and finally went bankrupt.

Four members of the SMP decided to create a new party, and thus, the Perussuomalaiset, or Finns Party, was born. Until the 2000s, the party was following the heritage of the Finnish Rural Party, and its agenda of the critique of elites. In 2003, the party had 3 MPs, including Tony Halme (a former famous wrestler and actor), a charismatic character with ‘colourful’ rhetoric who opened the door to critiquing immigration, making homophobic statements, etc. This ‘turning point’ led to the incorporation of new members affiliated with nationalist associations, and to the prominent critique of immigration.

But the real breakthrough of the Finns Party was in the parliamentary elections of 2011 when they gained 15 percent of the vote (from 4 percent previously). One of the main reasons for this success was not only the criticism of immigration but also a deep Euroscepticism (with a strong reticence to helping countries like Greece through the EU). They accessed the government in 2015, which resulted in a dramatic loss of voter support, as they could no longer credibly criticise the policy of the government regarding the migration crisis. The split of 2017 and the election of Halla-aho as the leader showed the radicality of the party, which had undergone a steady radicalisation process through the 2010s decade: after this turning point, the party could no longer be characterised as a moderate populist party, and it truly became the anti-immigration, nationalist, nativist, welfare chauvinist party that we know today.

Currently, the support for the Finns Party in view of next year’s parliamentary elections seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion (of which they had been very critical in the past). Finally, Marie Cazes reviewed the main features of Finnish populism: its strong rural roots (which is still prevalent in Finnish nationalism), and the fact that populism (Finns Party and Finnish Rural Party) has always been present in the national parliament, ever since the 1960s.                                                                                               

Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso

 

Dr Lise Bjånesøy: “Public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway”

The Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration.

Dr Lise Bjånesøy presented public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway with a case study of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FRP). Bjånesøy started with a brief history of FRP stating that the party was established in 1973 by Anders Lange and in the late 1980s, it made strong anti-immigration policies part of its program and then started gaining more support. The party entered government for the first time in the fall of 2013 as the junior partner of the Conservative Party, stayed in the government coalition until 2020 and chose to leave the coalition just before the pandemic.

Dr Bjånesøy noted that the Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration. They have political candidates who are primarily concerned with other issues than immigration and minorities although policies for immigration and minorities remain very important for the party. What is interesting about the Progress Party, according to Dr Bjånesøy, is that there are two different wings in the party; one is a more libertarian wing, and the other is a clear populist radical right-wing, a situation which makes it difficult to label the party as populist radical right.

In the second part of her speech, Bjånesøy presented some results from two different studies in which Progress Party is included. Both studies using different concepts focus on different aspects of public perceptions of the populist radical right. One is political tolerance and the other one is negative partisanship. Political tolerance implies the willingness to put up with things that one rejects or opposes, and in this study, whether or not people allow the expression of opinions that they dislike is taken as the test for tolerance. The second study is related to negative partisanship, and this is concerned with negative effects or repulsion towards a political party. Negative partisanship reflects voting behaviour that one would never consider voting for that party.

As Dr Bjånesøy explained, the first study is designed to put political tolerance to the test in five different countries, inspired by a real-life scenario from 2010 related to the populist radical right party in Sweden; Sweden Democrats faced difficulty to find a venue for their election night gathering and they had to lie about the purpose of the event to secure the venue. In the experimental setting, they asked people about four different groups (mainstream right party, populist radical right party, one anti-Islamic group, and one neo-Nazi group) from five countries (Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden). They told people to imagine that one of these four groups has asked to rent a community centre to host a meeting for its members and asked how much they agree or disagree to rent it to these groups. The results show that everyone wills to rent the centre to centre-right parties, for the two extra-parliamentary groups; 80 percent of people disagree renting the centre to neo-Nazi groups and 50 percent disagree to rent it to an anti-Islamic group. The study included Progress Party in Norway, PPV in the Netherlands, FN in France, AfD in Germany and SD in Sweden to the list as populist radical right parties. The results show that there are large variations in public political tolerance of the populist radical right in European democracies and that tolerance does not only depend on the far-right in terms of ideology but also the party institutionalization matters; for example, the inclusion of populist radical right in the government brings in higher tolerance as is the case in Norway. 

In the second study, Dr Bjånesøy investigates why many people would not consider voting for the populist radical right. The studies have found that populist radical right parties have a particularly high negative share of partisanship, and it seems that negative partisanship is an interesting tool to look at concerning populist radical right. Bjånesøy says, in her study, she takes Norwegian Progress Party as the case study and reminds us of the results of the first study she explained before (political tolerance) that Progress Party is the populist radical right party with the highest political tolerance. Using the data from Norwegian Citizen Panel, Dr Bjånesøy asked people if they would vote for Progress Party, and more than 50 percent said they would never consider voting for this party. While voters are asked to explain their reasons in their own words, four different categories have emerged: blank rejection; they strongly disagree with the party without stating a particular reason for it, immigration policy issues; they describe the party as prejudiced to migrants and racist, other policy issues; the voters pointed at the party’s stance on environmental issue and economic issues, political style; they expressed their dislike of the behaviour of the candidates and the tone used in the political debates.

Bjånesøy concludes her presentation by pinpointing that the Progress Party can be considered a borderline case in terms of being a member of the populist radical right party family. The voters strongly and consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies towards immigration and immigrants, but the policy issues it highlights are beyond the area of immigration. The party is fully tolerated by the public and, at the same time, it is the most disliked party with a high share of negative partisanship.

                                                                                                 Reported by Julide Sezer

 

Dr Susi Meret: “From success to failure? The recent developments of the radical and populist right in Denmark” 

“Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for the Danish People’s Party (DF) and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.”

Dr Susi Meret started her presentation by highlighting four points to explain why the Danish case is particularly important in terms of the populist radical right. In this line, Dr Meret mentioned: 1) Denmark is an established liberal post-war democracy with a developed welfare state system and with higher levels of wealth and wellbeing in comparison to the rest of Europe and is also known for high levels of trust and happiness. 2) Populist radical right parties fared well since 2000 and until recently, with the Danish People’s Party (DF), the main radical right-wing populist (RRWP) party in Denmark, consolidating its position within the parliament. 3) Electoral support for DF is rising in the years 2001-2015, reaching average levels between 15-20 percent. 3) DF has considerable political influence; it acted as a support for the minority cabinet (DK) between 2001-2011 and between 2015-2019, and now they are in opposition. 4) The issues on the agenda of DF are similar to the ones on the agenda of other RRWP parties in other Scandinavian countries; welfare-nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam politics, Euroscepticism and pro-NATO. 

Dr Meret continued by pinpointing sentences from DF’s principal program which reflect the party’s populist radical right views; “The party’s overall goal is to re-establish Denmark’s sovereignty and freedom and to secure the Danish nation and the monarchy’s existence.” The program also has a strong anti-immigration stance; “Denmark is not and has never been an immigration country and DF is against the development of Denmark into a multicultural society. (…) to the extent immigrants can maintain themselves and their families, they can get a temporary permit to stay and to work (…) Refugees must not be turned into immigrants.” As seen from the party program, Dr Meret explains, DF is against immigration and holds an anti-Islam position for which the party’s strong opposition to the Syrian refugees’ permanent stay in Denmark is an example. DF was pushing hard for sending them back to Syria but met with resistance from civil society organisations. Per economic policy, it maintains a welfare-nationalist chauvinist approach and holds a critical position towards European politics, in particular against Schengen, free movement and the monetary union.

Then, Dr Meret focused on the question of what explains the rise and the consolidation of DF. In this regard, she pointed to the growing salience of value politics in the form of the old and new left and right, and particularly national identity, migration and recently climate change. Since the 1980s, electoral volatility/fluctuation has increased, and loyalty to political parties has diminished, which increased support for DF. Also, socio-economic and other divides are exacerbated and attention towards social cohesion and welfare nationalism has risen vis-à-vis increasing migration flows. From the 1990s onwards, as a consequence of bloc politics, the proportional electoral system has donated small parties with relatively strong power in the political structure, which also prepared a convenient context for the rise of DF. Dr Meret highlighted that the legitimization of populist radical right by Liberals in 2001 and by Social Democrats from 2015 onwards also helped in the increase of support for DF.

Dr Meret also discussed voting trends for populist radical right examining voters in terms of gender, education, class and income. While populist radical right gains more votes from white male voters and women are still left-wing leaning; the gap is closing between the two as RRWP has become more mainstreamed and normalized. Meret added that Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for DF and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.

Dr Meret indicated that radical right-wing populists in Denmark perform exclusionary populism; they stand against the elite, against the establishment and for “the people,” which are considered common denominators of populism, and the anti-immigration approach is coming as an additional denominator from the polls in the country. The definition of “the people” comes from an ethno-nationalist understanding of community and the people with a narrative of common roots encompassing belonging, shared history, and the same values with an emphasis on Christian values lately. The idea of “our Denmark,” in their understanding, refers to whites, which gets criticism from the civil society organizations. RRWP describes Denmark as a homogenous community whose grounds are challenged by globalization, Europeanization and migration flows and refugees. The anti-gender aspect of RRWP, Dr Meret argues, is an interesting and concerning development in Denmark and it has an emphasis on the Muslim veil. Concerning the LGBTQ issues, DF does not hold a contrasting position, but it expresses that the issue should have a limit and must not dictate the agenda.

Dr Meret says that DF’s new leader Morten Messerschmidt who held the office in January 2022 is internally challenged by the party members on the ground that he is not a good fit for the party, particularly in these times when the party is in crisis. The other right-wing populist party, New Right has also a female leader and follows a very conservative approach such that they present a hard-line anti-immigration agenda wanting to stop asylum altogether, on the other hand, they pursue an ultra-liberal economic agenda which is different from DF. Dr Meret also mentions the extra-parliamentary radical right-wing party “Hard Line” led by Rasmus Paludan, which run for the 2019 elections but could not get enough votes to enter the parliament. The party’s worldview is ethno-nationalist, racist and strongly Islamophobic defending the prohibition of Islam in Denmark. The party often uses social media and has a social media channel named “the Voice of Freedom” to mobilize the youth, they live-stream their demonstrations on online channels to get more attention, for example, they encouraged people to burn Quran in public spaces, which happened in Denmark before Sweden.

As another form of the populist radical right, Dr Meret talked about a transnational movement “Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordfront)” which derives from Sweden in 1997 and is represented in most of the Nordic countries. Their worldview encompasses racism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, and rallying for a ‘racially pure’ Nordic region against the extinction of the white autochthonous population. The movement, as it is written on their website, organizes “revolutionary national socialist combat organization.” They use vandalism and violent attacks as forms of their action repertoire for which bomb attacks on refugee housing and vandalism against Jewish graveyards are examples.

Dr Meret concluded her presentation by underlining the main takeaways from the case of RRWP in Denmark. The rise and electoral consolidation of RRWP (especially DF) should be considered in the long durée and in the light of the mainstream reactions. The current wave of RRWP emphasizes ethnic homogeneity and assimilationist models, and ethnic and religious groups are increasingly racialized, also by government policies. Extra parliamentary far-right milieus have proliferated in recent years but seem still weaker than in other countries. Far-right repertoires of action and organization are different, inspired by groups and organizations outside Denmark but also exporting their own products.

                                                                                                   Reported by Julide Sezer

 

[1] Jens Rydgren, and Sara van der Meiden,“The Radical Right and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism,” European Political Science 18, no. 3 (2019): 439–455

[2] Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.

[3] Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.

Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a national-conservative political party in France in meeting for the presidential election of 2017 at the Zenith of Paris on April 17, 2017. Photo: Frederic Legrand.

Report on Panel #4 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Radical Right in Europe’s Heartland and the UK

Blink, Melissa & Robinson, Tom. (2022). “Report on Panel #4 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Radical Right in Europe’s Heartland and the UK.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0005

 

This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on May 26, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three countries in Europe’s heartland, namely Germany, Austria, France, and the UK. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

By Melissa Blink & Tom Robinson

ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the fourth panel of the series focusing on heartland Europe and the UK, on the theme of “Populist radical right in Europe’s heartland (Germany, Austria, France) and the UK,” which was held online on May 26, 2022.

The panel is moderated by Dr Luke Cooper, Member of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at LSE, and included the following speakers; Dr Ralf Havertz, Associate Professor of International Relations at Keimyung University in South Korea; Dr Karin Liebhart, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, the University of Vienna; Dr Gilles Ivaldi, CNRS Researcher in Political Science at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po, Paris; Dr William Allchorn, Postdoctoral Researcher and Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, University of Leeds.

Dr Cooper, in his introductory remarks, noted that the case studies of the panel demonstrate the unevenness of the rise of the radical right in this century, which Cas Mudde has referred to as the fourth, and arguably most successful wave of the post-WW2 radical right. What distinguishes this wave, he says, is the degree of convergence between the mainstream centre-right and the new radical right. Also notable is the radical right’s success in taking over governments around the world and emerging as a formidable political force. Dr Cooper explained that he would be employing Cas Mudde’s distinction between the radical right and the extreme right. The former accepts the basic principles of democracy but launches a slow, steady incursion on its basic foundations, like the rule of law and constitutionalism. The extreme right rejects democratic principles altogether.

According to Dr. Cooper, one of the countries under discussion in this panel plays a special role in Mudde’s account of the fourth wave: Austria. After all, it was the rise of the Austrian Freedom Party (the FPÖ) and its entry into Austrian government that was met by diplomatic sanctions in the EU at the time. The attempted but failed cordon sanitaire was accompanied by sustained protests and demonstrations within Austria itself. It was, in other words, the moment the dam burst. Over the next two decades, we witnessed a gradual but uneven centre-right and radical right convergence. Mudde’s characterization is also valuable, according to Dr Cooper, because it avoids excessive focus on the 2008 financial crisis, reminding us that the origins of the rise of the radical right in this century extend further back than just 2008.

Germany’s radical right populism, in contrast, may look like a rapid response to the financial crisis. The AfD burst onto the scene, initially, as a Eurosceptic party, becoming increasingly extremist and white nationalist through gradual purges of its more moderate members. In many current discussions, Dr Cooper notes, the fall of the AfD is emphasized. After all, the story goes, Germany has demonstrated the strength and reserves of its democratic character, as well as the societal depth underlying its democratic institutions. He wonders how this prospect is seen by the panellists, especially in the context of the global shocks we might soon expect to see; inflation, for example, is a phenomenon often identified with the previous collapse of German democracy. That historic episode naturally haunts discussions of the far-right in Germany today, he notes.

The other two cases, Britain and France, also reflect the unevenness and complexity of the rise of the European radical right. Dr Cooper in his account of Britain’s current government, highlighted that the government is increasingly authoritarian but also appears to be in a state of genuine subjective confusion, he says. It sees itself as continuous with Thatcherism, although its main pitch to the electorate underlined the damage her government did to Britain and the damage that regional deindustrialization left behind. It has also committed to sharing Britain’s wealth across towns and regions more evenly. Dr Cooper points out another contradiction: the government sees itself as part of a great British tradition of liberty but has launched an attack on the human rights agenda, including, most prominently, the Human Rights Act, which brings the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. Furthermore, he notes, the British government seems to reject the foundational elements of international refugee law. Its most recent piece of legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the high-profile proposal to summarily deport refugees who arrive in the UK by irregular or informal means to Rwanda are both examples of this attitude. The current British government has, in sum, a “viciously authoritarian, very ethno-nationalist agenda”, although its political elites are nevertheless confused.

In his remarks on France, Dr Cooper pointed at Marine Le Pen and the Front National National Rally as the central focus of those studying French populism. However, he thinks the Macron project is also a curious case for students of populism and authoritarianism. After all, he says, Macron’s initial pitch to the French electorate had many elements, in terms of style, language, and appeal, of a ‘populist insurgency’ in the first round of 2017’s French presidential elections. Macron adjusted his language quite significantly in the second round, making a more unifying pitch to the electorate instead. Another interesting subject is the way that the radical right’s key priority, namely the alleged ‘Islamization’ of Western societies by non-white Muslim immigrants, is taken in France’s national political debate. French centrists, as well as France’s left and centre-left, seem to pitch themselves in very uncertain times when confronted with the topic. The French state has also recently been accused of repressing human rights organizations advocating for the rights of the French Muslim community, by levying defamation laws against them in an attempt to close them down.

Dr Cooper concludes the opening remarks by highlighting that in each of the cases, a series of ‘meanings and un-meanings’ seem to complicate the already complex and uneven picture of the radical right’s rise in Europe. 

Reported by Melissa Blink

 

Dr Ralf Havertz: “The Rise of Radical Right Populism in Germany”

Dr Havertz describes Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government or been tolerated or supported by minority governments. It is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism, and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.

Dr Ralf Havertz detailed the rise of radical right populism in Germany in his lecture at the panel. He starts by describing Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government (as in Austria) or been tolerated or supported by minority governments (as was the case with the Danish People’s Party in Denmark). This has not, to date, happened in Germany: no party on this side of the political spectrum has participated in government, nor has it supported governments so far. The cordon sanitaire had held up so far, although, Dr Havertz notes, talks take place behind the scenes between the CDU (Christian Democrats), the Free Democrats, and the AfD – especially in the east of Germany.

Currently, the AfD is a strong opposition party in Germany’s Bundestag, and movements such as Pegida and the Identitarian Movement have attracted many participants with their various organized activities. Dr Havertz notes one might almost speak of a division of labour between these groups: Pegida and the Identitarians are the organized movement side, whereas the AfD supports the radical-right populist agenda in the parliament. The current state of affairs shows that something in Germany has changed – for a long time voting and expressing support for the populist radical right (PRR) was stigmatized due to Germany’s experiences with the Nazi regime and its atrocities. It has, however, become much more common to voice radical right opinions in public, and people are less inhibited in voicing their rage against governments, policies, and ‘othered’ groups. So, it is more common to vote for radical right parties, and the AfD especially.

What has driven this change? Dr Havertz points to three broad changes that occurred in Germany, which were related to economics, culture, and media. The first was the economic transformation; a shift from Fordism to neoliberalism brought about higher competitive pressures, which created insecurities and uncertainties for workers, as well as changes to Germany’s social welfare system. The PRR instrumentalized the rage and resentment borne of these changes and channelled it against “the elite” or “the establishment” as it is sometimes called.

The second change Dr Havertz described occurred in the aftermath of the Student Movement of 1968, which triggered a phase of modernization and liberalization in German society, bringing about improvements for minority groups and those who were subject to discrimination, including refugees, and immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. The PRR again instrumentalized dissatisfaction with these changes and organized a cultural backlash, again directed at “the elite”, whose cosmopolitan character was the focus of populist ire. It was also directed at the minorities who were the beneficiaries of the changes described.

The third change occurred in the media environment with the emergence of the internet and social media, which have changed the way citizens communicate. Radical and extreme messages are much easier to express and disseminate broadly while simultaneously targeting specific recipients. The AfD and Pegida, especially, make use of this, whereby they have certainly contributed to the polarization of German society. All these developments converged roughly at the same time.

On this note, Dr Havertz mentions the AfD’s precursors. There were other radical right populist parties in Germany before the AfD; when they dissolved, they recommended their members to join the AfD instead, which is true for Pro Deutschland, for example. Some of these parties still exist on the regional level, though no longer on a national level. The same is true for Die Freiheit, Die Republikaner, the Bund Freier Bürger, and the Schill-Party. The AfD, on the other hand, can be considered the most successful radical right party in German post-war history, having reached the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in every election since 2014, on regional, national, and the European level. This means, also, that they earn money and can provide employment opportunities, not just for party members, but also for members of Pegida and the Identitarian Movement.

Then there were the crises: the global financial crisis, and the Euro crisis. The latter was particularly salient for the AfD, as it was initially primarily a Eurosceptic party. Its founders were dissatisfied with the German centre-right approach to European integration, and strongly opposed the ‘rescue package’ with which the EU responded to the Euro crisis and Greece’s fiscal problems. Angela Merkel’s support for this policy made her a central hate figure in the radical right’s protest marches. The AfD could, to some extent, even be considered an anti-Merkel party. Having now lost this hate figure, the AfD and German radical right more generally will need to find a replacement.

In its first two years, Dr Havertz says, the AfD’s orientation was primarily driven by the party’s ordoliberal leadership. Though there were other wings, including a national-conservatism group, it was initially described as a “party of professors.” It was considered a party with considerable competence in the area of economics, which is also how they portrayed themselves. In the party’s first years, its face was Bernd Lucke, one of its first three speakers (chairpersons) – an economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He was often on TV, discussing economic issues based on his credentials. But right from the start, there were also some conservative members and others from the new-right and radical right. Some right-wing extremists also joined the party, and 2015 marked a strong turn to the right when Lucke and several other economic-liberal members left the party. Frauke Petry challenged Lucke’s position as speaker and prevailed. This meant a strengthening of the party’s national-conservative wing and also brought about a power shift within the party, from West to East German members. Soon, the Eastern states’ party associations gained a dominant position in the AfD.

Relatedly, the AfD has performed much better in the East Germany than in the West Germany, on both federal and sub-national levels. Also notable is that the party has attracted significantly more male than female voters. The party’s gender gap is very wide and has increased in national elections over time.

Another important development in the party was the development of “Der Flügel (the Wing)” – a right-wing extremist party faction under Björn Höcke’s leadership – which resulted in deeper internal division into a mostly Western economic-liberal faction and a mostly Eastern national-conservative/right-wing extremist wing. After its classification as a certain case of right-wing extremism by the Federal Agency of the Protection of the Constitution (the domestic intelligence service), Der Flügel was forced to dissolve.

Dr Havertz then provided an overview of the AfD’s programmatic orientation and ideological features, namely populism, nationalism/nativism/anti-immigrant positions, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, antisemitism/historical revisionism, Euroscepticism, anti-feminism/anti-genderism, ordoliberalism/social populism as well as welfare chauvinism (which Dr Havertz notes as a contradiction), and Covid-scepticism.

He concludes that the AfD is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism (meaning that its populism has anti-democratic implications) and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.

Reported by Melissa Blink

 

Dr Karin Liebhart: “Right-wing Populism and the New Right in Austria –– Recent Trends and Manifestations”

The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. However, radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.

Dr Karin Liebhart, in her lecture, outlined the history and current circumstances of Austria’s populist radical right. To begin with, she discussed the labels she finds appropriate for each of the players in Austria’s radical or extreme right parties. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. Radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.

The new extremist right is a label Dr Liebhart recommends for the Identitarian Movement, which is extreme right, racist, nationalist, anti-pluralist, and sees itself as a part of the global alt-right. It declared war on 1968’s cultural liberalization, which took place in Austria as well as in Germany. Its prime political aim is to fight the so-called “great exchange” and Islamization of Europe. The Austrian branch, founded in 2012, is a stronghold of the Generation Identity group, which seeks not electoral results, but rather seeks to influence wider public debate. They closely cooperate and collaborate with parties in parliament, like the FPÖ, and with student fraternities.

Dr Liebhart continued by discussing the more moderate side of Austria’s right-wing populist spectrum. In October 2017 the ÖVP, led by Sebastian Kurz, won the general elections. Journalists at the time noted that Austria was quite a curious case of populism; just months earlier Kurz had taken leadership of the centre-right ÖVP and rebranded the party as a political movement, “the Movement for Austria.” The movement focused entirely on Kurz’s personality, and he simultaneously directed the People’s Party sharply to the right. Votes saw a dramatic increase, from approximately 20 percent to approx. 30 percent. The elections ended in a right-wing populist coalition government; upon coming first place in the national elections, Kurz invited the radical right FPÖ to join as the junior partner in a coalition. Unlike in the years 1999 and 2000, when the FPÖ’s ascent to parliament was met with protests and diplomatic sanctions, 2017’s election outcomes were not met by significant protests from abroad.

Both parties, Dr Liebhart says, focused their election campaigns on anti-immigration policies and rhetoric. This strategy had been pursued by the FPÖ since the late 1980s but was fairly new for the ÖVP. Kurz essentially managed to occupy a political space until then monopolized by the FPÖ and soon made immigration his signature. The 2017 general election was incredibly significant, Dr Liebhart noted because it showed that right-wing populist attitudes were no longer limited to the fringes of the political landscape, becoming instead a mainstay of Austrian political culture. She says, in 2019 Cas Mudde said that the ÖVP has become “one of the most right-wing of Europe’s conservative parties,” while the FPÖ successfully shifted Austria’s political discourse firmly to the right.

Dr Liebhart then provided a brief history of the FPÖ. After Jörg Haider was elected chairman in 1986, the party became an explicitly radical right populist and Austrian nationalist party. Since it has direct roots in nationalist socialist ideology, Dr Liebhart feels that it does not belong to the ‘new’ type of radical right parties. Until Haider’s takeover, the FPÖ only played a very minor role in Austrian politics. Once in power, Haider focused on criticizing the political establishment, foregrounded immigration and integration issues, and rejected the idea of Austria as a subordinate subject of a larger German nation, promoting, instead, an ethnically defined Austrian national identity. Haider’s demagogic politics and focus on ethnonationalism did very well at the polls. He also ensured that the ‘Islamic threat’ became a particularly salient topic in Austria, which he combined with Eurocepticism and hostility towards the EU.

In 1999, the FPÖ joined the ÖVP as a junior partner in a coalition government for the first time. This was short-lived due to internal conflict, leading Haider and the FPÖ’s ministers to leave the party and found the “Alliance for the Future of Austria.” After Haider’s unexpected death in 2008, the Alliance lost significant electorate support and failed to reach the 4 percent threshold in the 2013 general elections. Haider was succeeded by Heinz Christian Strache, who further radicalized the party’s ideology, communication, and campaign strategies. This led to some renewed electoral success; the Alliance made it a junior partner to regional governments in upper Austria, for example. In 2006, 2008, and 2013, the party’s campaign posters were very racist, xenophobic, and focused on the construction of ethnic Austrian identity.

Returning to the 2017 coalition government between the FPÖ and ÖVP, Dr Liebhart noted that it operated harmoniously for more than a year, which was facilitated by the ÖVP’s shift to the right under Kurz’s leadership. Their policies were virtually identical regarding such as family politics or the restriction of asylum policies. Another example that demonstrates the parties’ convergence is the fact that both used the same slogan in the 2019 elections: “Someone who speaks our language.”

In any event, the coalition turned Austria into a Eurosceptic and outspokenly anti-immigration country, aligning it more closely with Poland and Hungary than with other Western European countries. The “Ibiza affair” of May 2019 – during which a secretly recorded video showing Strache and Gudenus of the FPÖ discussing illegal practices was made public – blew up the coalition. Interestingly, Dr Liebhart notes, the FPÖ lost significant votes but the ÖVP did not. The ÖVP’s slogan, “our way has just begun,” was widely successful. In the subsequent snap elections, the ÖVP gained 37.5 percent of the other share and joined a coalition with the Green Party. However, Kurz, Austria’s “most charismatic and successful politician” in decades, eventually had to resign in 2021 following bribery investigations.

Under Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ’s chairman since 2021, the party has managed to regain support amongst potential voters. This is partially because Kickl presents himself as the only representative of the opposition to the government’s COVID-19 measures, and the main politician trying to defend the people’s democratic rights against supposed incursions by the government. The FPÖ is very active in organizing anti-Corona-measure rallies. In this vein, it closely collaborates with right-wing extremist groups like Generation Identity, and even Neo-Nazis. Importantly, Dr Liebhart says, the Coronavirus and related rallies have offered the radical right a new stage. Speaking specifically on the Identitarian Movement, Dr Liebhart says that it has, especially in Vienna, taken over and appropriated the anti-Corona-measure demonstrations. One slogan often touted at the rallies reads “the government should control the borders, not the people.”

Dr Liebhart concludes her lecture by saying that “the lasting impact of the transformation of the ÖVP into a right-wing political force on Austria’s political landscape and culture should not be underestimated.”

Reported by Melissa Blink

 

Dr Gilles Ivaldi: “The Populist Radical Right in the 2022 French Presidential Election: Party Fragmentation and Electoral Outcome”

Marine Le Pen presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Eric Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.

Dr Gilles Ivaldi, in his presentation, provided an overview of the performances of the two populist politicians in the French Presidential election, Marine Le Pen (National Rally) and Eric Zemmour (Reconquête!) and the factors that contributed to their success and failures.

Dr Ivaldi began his speech by highlighting that Le Pen and Zemmour appeared in election champaigns in very different, divergent stances and platforms. On the one hand, Zemmour mixed populism, nativism, and authoritarianism and could comprise a very classical populist platform and manifesto. On the other hand, Le Pen, as Dr Ivaldi argues, presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.

The two candidates also diverged in the issues they attempted to tackle during the election. Le Pen focused, as stated previously, on the cost-of-living crisis currently impacting Europe and the rest of the world. Zemmour, instead, focused his attention on immigration, and law and order. This benefitted Le Pen because she was seen to take the reins on cultural and socioeconomic issues that voters prioritised.

When the results were declared, Le Pen came second to Emmanuel Macron, collecting 23 percent, with Zemmour falling short at the end of his campaign due to his close alliance with Putin on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “Altogether, Marine Le Pen checked many important boxes in this election – she responded to the traditional issues of the populist radical right agenda, she established a more respectable image for her party, and she checked the boxes of the cost-of-living issues for voters.” She also, importantly, narrowed the gender gap for populist parties historically in France – mostly men favoured Zemmour, whereas, both women and men voted for Le Pen through the election rounds. Similarly, where the young and old favoured Zemmour, Le Pen appealed to every age demographic.

When the election reached the second round of voting, this is where Macron prevailed. However, Le Pen did manage to earn the votes of around 13 million French citizens, most surprisingly, with many of those coming from traditionally left-wing voters. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “In this election, there were two fronts working against each other – the traditional Republican front and the anti-Macron front.” Although the former ended up winning, the latter provided a substantial threat to this ‘tradition.’

At the end of his speech, Dr Ivaldi provided very valuable insights into the future of French politics in the years to come. Firstly, he predicts that Le Pen will still be the dominant radical right party leader in France. Zemmour, however, will likely fade with political marginalisation. Lastly, French politics will continue to be polarised on three main fronts – the radical right and left and with Macron holding the centre-ground.

Reported by Tom Robinsons

 

Dr William Allchorn “From the Margins to the Mainstream: The UK Populist Radical Right at a Time of Transition”

Dr Allchorn offers three key takeaways from the journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century. Secondly, since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent. And finally, the contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.

Dr William Allchorn began his presentation by introducing a conception of UK radical right politics by Roger Griffin – the idea that the UK is still the “ugly duckling” of the European radical right (Griffin, 1996). By interrogating this claim with specific examples of electoral performance, Dr Allchorn provided a clear picture of radical right politics in the UK previously and in contemporary politics today.

Beginning with the British National Party (BNP) in the 1990s, the party rose to prominence due to its stances toward immigration and Muslim communities (demand-side) and its organisational moderation and ideological moderation (supply-side). The party peaked at the 2009 general election with 52 counsellors across the UK being elected but still without parliamentary representation. With the reduced salience of immigration as a political topic coupled with a neo-fascist legacy commanded by the divisive leadership of Nick Griffith, party popularity subsequently fell.

Following on from the BNP were the extremist radical right parties that were significantly fragmented. Parties included the English Defence League (EDL), National Action (NA) and National Front (NF). This extremist anti-establishment collective represented, what Dr. Allchorn labels, “a move towards a post-organisational space of anti-Islamic protest” in UK politics without much electoral representation or recognition.

With the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the UK saw a move towards classical populism and the prevalence of the ‘corrupt elite’ versus ‘the real people.’ On the demand-side, anti-immigration and anti-establishment viewpoints went arm in arm with a charismatic leader in Nigel Farage, on the supply side, a neo-fascist past and a strong rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal-conservative coalition government. Its popularity initially spiked in the 2009 European Elections and with notable successes in subsequent European Elections and various local and by-elections. At its height, they fielded 22 MEPs, 2 MPs and notable Conservative Party defectors such as Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell. In the 2014 European Parliament Elections, UKIP won with its populist stance and platform which contributed to the Brexit referendum.

The 2015 general election saw the fall of the UKIP party domestically without them winning a seat leading to Farage’s resignation and subsequent party infighting. Although they claimed victory following the outcome of the Brexit vote, the 2017 general election compounded their demise and UKIP was labelled radical with Theresa May’s Conservative Party consolidating right-wing, especially working-class voters. The 2019 general election further oversaw the radicalisation and mainstreaming of the extreme right in its support of the conservatives.

Dr Allchorn concluded his presentation with three key takeaways from this journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, referring back to Griffin in the introduction, he stated, “We can suggest that the British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true, but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century.” Secondly, “Since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent.” And finally, “The contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.”

Reported by Tom Robinson

Participants of nationalist and anti-Islamic demonstration organized by far-right organisations use smoke races, hold banners in Warsaw, Poland on April 10, 2016. Photo: Wiola Wiaderek.

Report on Panel #1 / Mapping European Populism: Populist  Authoritarian  Tendencies in  Central  and  Eastern  Europe, and  Challenges to the EU 

Lordkipanidze, Mariam & Albrecht, Héloïse (2022). “Report on Panel #1 / Mapping European Populism: Populist  Authoritarian  Tendencies in  Central  and  Eastern  Europe, and  Challenges to the EU.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0004

 

This report is based on the first panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on February 24, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars who are experts on populist politics in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) countries, namely Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

ECPS organizes a panel series to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the first panel of the series focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, on the theme of “Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU,” which was held online on February 24, 2022.  

The panel is moderated by Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, and included the following speakers: Dominika Kasprowicz, Professor of Political Science, the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Poland; Zoltan Adam, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Economic Policy and Labour Economics, Institute of Economic and Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest; Dr Vassilis Petsinis, University of Tartu, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies); and Miroslav Mareš, Professor,  Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University. 

Prof Dobek-Ostrowska opened the panel by defining ‘authoritarian populism’ as a political ideology whose beliefs include cynicism about human rights and hostility to the state, opposition to immigration, and an enthusiasm for a strong defense and foreign policy. Prof Dobek-Ostrowska continued her introduction by reminding attendees of the geographical scope of the ‘Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)’ which comprises 11 EU members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia), 6 Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania), and 4 post-Soviet Union states (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova). The moderator pointed out two overarching issues addressed by the speakers of the panel in the context of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Serbia; 1) the analysis of authoritarian populism in connection with the question of the quality of democracy in CEE, 2) mass media freedom in the region which sheds light on the questions whether populist authoritarian tendencies exist in CEE and If so, how strong they are.

 

Prof Dominika Kasprowicz: “Populism in Poland 2015-2021: A short journey from theory to praxis”

According to Professor Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included.  

Professor Dominika Kasprowicz presented the case of Poland, seeking to understand the populism phenomenon through the framework of Communication and Media studies. In this regard, she particularly highlighted the impact of populist communication on social media and concluded that the tendencies of mass communication go in favour of the populists in the office. 

Since 2015, Poland, among other countries in the region, is experiencing a progressing and very radical political and social change that has been dictated and designed by a mindset that we can easily define as ‘populist,’ as all the characteristics that normally distinguish the populist phenomenon are present: the appeal to ‘the people,’ the anti-elitist rhetoric, and the radical tactics in terms of pursuing political change. Prof Kasprowicz suggested that the process of radical political change started by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the country is now almost concluded, containing all three features of populist ideology. Contrary to what scholars might have expected, the Law and Justice Party is now still in power, and its popularity is not decreasing. Prof Kasprowicz cited two main reasons for this; first, the Law and Justice Party’s populist ‘appeal to ‘the people’ has proven to be extremely efficient, as their rhetoric was filling the void left by neoliberal centrist parties and they capitalised on the so-called ‘losers of transformation.’ Second, their political praxis of ‘welfare chauvinism,’ a very selective and ‘picky’ understanding of who is considered ‘good enough’ to be subsidised by public money, was proven to be very efficient in the Polish scenario and happens in all aspects of the important spheres of domestic life. Thus, the ruling party is biased and selective in funding the media, NGOs, and different social groups (e.g., cutting off subsidies to NGOs that are not close enough to the populist power and its goals, only subsidising citizens that belong to the target groups and social stronghold of the party in power). The reforms made by the party are designed and oriented to benefit particular groups considered to be allies of the ruling party. 

According to Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party, as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included. Therefore, anti-migrant rhetoric is also a typical feature of the ruling party, and in the past 5 years, the artificial fears that were fuelled by the messages of the ruling party regarding, for instance, the Polish-Byelorussian border, have motivated pro-governmental sentiments. 

The authoritarian tendencies in the country cannot be overlooked either, as the so-called ‘charismatic leadership and the ‘non-democratic praxis’ that is happening in the country, for Kasprowicz, have already “caused a radical and irreversible social change.” The lecturer concluded her presentation by expressing concern over this change, the state of democracy and civil liberties in Poland, as well as the diminishing balance of powers in the country. Finally, Prof Kasprowicz, expressed the challenge that scholars, practitioners, and citizens faces: How to handle the mainstream politics in para-democratic systems that have been invaded by the populist radical right? 

Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze 

 

 

Prof Zoltán Ádám: “The Orbán regime after 12 years, before the April 2022 general elections”  

“Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government, but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development.” 

Professor Zoltán Ádám presented the case of Hungary as a prominent example of populism. He emphasised the importance of the Hungarian case and its populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a world-stage political actor who often meets with other autocratic leaders and likes to associate with leaders of the European far-right, as having an impact on surrounding Central European fellow populists and the wider context. 

As Prof Ádám reminded us, there are many definitions of populism, but he opted to focus on historian Federico Finchelstein’s definition, which describes populism as a “form of authoritarian democracy for the post-War world,” finding a link between fascism and populism, in the sense that populism, Finchelstein argues, can be seen as a “democratic reincarnation of fascism,” as it exhibits the same majoritarian or totalitarian approach to power. One of the key characteristics of populism is the diminishment of liberal democratic institutions that could defend social and political minorities; therefore, in this definition, populism is a political system in which the liberties provided for minorities in a democratic society are increasingly endangered or eliminated. For Prof Ádám, this elimination of liberties, sometimes to an extreme extent, is what we are now witnessing in the world: an originally popularly and democratically elected political figure thus becomes an autocratic dictator, e.g., through the incarceration of their political opponents. Populism, then, is characterised, according to Finchelstein, by the cultivation of highly personalised political leadership, with charismatic leaders who dominate the political system, and tend to extend social rights, while eliminating political rights and freedoms. 

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary since 2010 is a prime example of that what Finchelstein describes. Orbán (from the Fidesz party) had been in power before between 1998 and 2002, but he did not have then what he has had since 2010:  a two-term majority in the parliament. Indeed, when a coalition of parties control two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament, that coalition has very little to no constitutional constraints on its power. Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government—as a consequence, the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the EU Commission and other bodies of the EU have been a recurring phenomenon in the past decade—but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development (see Freedom House and V-Dem indexes).

Prof Ádám suggested that one of the potential explanatory factors behind this democratic underperformance is the ‘exclusive’ nature of the Hungarian political system: without strong opponents, Fidesz received 53 percent of the overall vote in 2010, 46 percent in 2014, and a little under 50 percent in 2018, which all three times translated into a two-thirds majority of the seats in the parliament. The Gallagher Index, which measures the discrepancy between votes received and parliamentary seats controlled by political parties, shows that Hungary exhibits a very high degree of discrepancy between the two, having a more distortionary electoral system than any other country.  

The lecturer concluded his presentation with the perspectives of future Hungarian elections and the increased chances of the opposition. Indeed, an interesting political situation is now unfolding among Fidesz’s political opposition: the six major opposition parties, realising the distortionary nature of the country’s political system, started to coordinate. They fielded joint candidates at the 2019 local elections, winning a number of major cities, including Budapest, and held primaries for the 2022 parliamentary elections, even picking a joint prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. The polls showed that this time, the race between Fidesz and the united opposition was much tighter than in the past. (However, Orbán and his nationalist-populist Fidesz party won a landslide victory for the fourth time on April 3, 2022.)

Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze 

Dr Vassilis Petsinis: “Scanning the far right in Croatia and Serbia” 

Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender” with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.” 

 

Turning to the post-Yugoslavian region, Dr Vassilis Petsinis talked about far-right politics in Croatia and Serbia, focusing on the following questions: Why are the radical and extremist right-wing parties in Serbia and Croatia weak? How has the engagement of the governing parties (the SNS in Serbia and the HDZ in Croatia) impacted the weak performance of the radical and extremist right?  

Dr Petsinis started by making a tentative distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ right-wing parties on the basis of their political origins and active political engagement. He sketched out two categories: radical right-wing parties andextremist right-wing parties. According to him, radical right-wing parties were, in a lot of cases, the result of mergers between existing established parties, and so, are by-products of top-level formation processes and strive to promote their political causes through parliamentary and democratic institutions and procedures, having sometimes participated in coalition governments in their respective countries (e.g., Estonia’s EKRE, Latvia’s National Alliance, Sweden’s SD). In comparison, extremist right-wing parties often represent the culmination of bottom-up formation processes led by a political (occasionally semi-paramilitary) core, and so, they are more prone to a militant engagement in politics through systematic mass-mobilisation and patterns of policy-making that often harbour anti-democratic implications (e.g., early Jobbik in Hungary, ‘Our Slovakia,’ Bulgaria’s Ataka and Greece’s Golden Dawn).

Most importantly, the parties of the radical right ‘scrutinise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, but formally respect democratic institutions and procedures. In contrast, the parties of the extremist right ‘antagonise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, and often multiply attempts to subvert—or substitute—democratic institutions and procedures. However, this distinction became very ‘idiosyncratic’ within the party politics of Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely due to the protracted warfare and the wars of secession of the 1990s. 

On the one hand, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), one of the oldest political parties in Serbia, oscillated, in the 1990s and 2000s, between the categories of radical and extremist right-wing party. It endorsed ‘Greater Serbia’ and even sent a paramilitary unit to the Croatian and Bosnian fronts, with recurring phases of partnership and tension with Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party (SPS). Between 2000 and 2007, the SRS bound together anti-Western nationalists, former SPSvoters, and various ‘losers’ of the transition, and so it became Serbia’s strongest opposition party. The turning point came in February 2003, when the leader Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić became the leading figures within the party. However, Nikolić and Vučić soon departed from the SRS and set up the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which putlower stress on nationalism, formally endorsed the EU accession process, and took advantage of the fragmentation of the centre and centre-right political parties in the country (DS, DSS, SPO, etc.).

The SNS overwhelmingly won the parliamentary (2016) and presidential (2017) elections, whereas the SRS started to become marginalised (with a mere 8.8 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections). The SNS consolidated its grip onpower in the 2020 parliamentary elections (61.60 percent of the vote), dominating a continuum that stretches from the liberal centre to the conservative right, relying on the pattern of political clientelism to secure support and on the opposition’s persistent fragmentation. The ‘deradicalisation’ of this segment that originated in the SRS and then evolved into the SNS led to the marginalisation of the SRS, which is not even currently represented in the Serbian parliament. There are, however, some extra-parliamentary parties and groupings of the more radical and extremist right in Serbia: the ‘traditional’ Serbian nationalism of Dveri, the National-Socialist fascist platform of Srbska Akcija, and peculiar cases like Levijatan, which combines elements of National-Socialism with animal rights and ‘anti-vax’ conspiracies. 

On the other hand, in Croatia, a party comparable to Serbia’s Radical Party is the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), a party accused of historical revisionism, which in the 1990s endorsed ‘Greater Croatia’ and dispatched a paramilitary unit (HOS) to the Yugoslavian wars of secession. In contrast to the SRS, this party gradually lost popularity and became fragmented during the 2000s, and, despite its efforts to come back into political relevancy, it has not been represented in the Croatian parliament for years. As happened in Serbia, there was a process of reformation, as the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) consolidated its public appeal between 2012 and 2016, and a right-wing faction emerged within it. This factionslowly capitalised on the ‘socio-cultural Euroscepticism’ among certain segments of the electorate, focusing on the opposition to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, abortion, and EU refugee quotas. Thus, it has decisively marginalised the forces of the Croatian radical and extremist right.

Like the SNS in Serbia, HDZ consolidated its grip on power following the Croatian parliamentary elections of July 2020, relying on political clientelism. But there has also been a new party that emerged to the right of the HDZ: the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), currently the third-largest party in the Croatian parliament, led by Miroslav Škoro, a former singer and TV host. It presents a national-conservative program similar to the one supported by the right-wing faction of the HDZ: seeking to safeguard ‘Catholic values,’ wants to strengthen ‘law and order,’ and seeks to revise national legislation on minority rights. The gradual emergence of this party poses a challenge to the endeavours of PM (and leader of HDZ) Andrej Plenković to shift the party narrative of HDZ more firmly towards the centre, and it further marginalises the older and more traditional parties of the Croatian radical and extremist right. 

To conclude, Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender”with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.” 

Reported by Héloïse Albrecht 

  

Prof Miroslav Mareš: “Comparison of authoritarian and populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”  

Prof Miroslav Mareš argues that there has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.

Prof Miroslav Mareš, in his speech, compared the authoritarian and populist trends in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.Even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s democracies may fare relatively well compared to other Eastern European countries, both countries face the challenge of the populist wave. Professor Mareš highlighted, moreover, that the right-wing populist parties in both countries have deep connections with the larger European populist right. 

Prof. Mareš explained that he used a relatively broad concept of populism for his analysis because, while the impact of the populist far-right is strongly felt in both countries, other forms of populism (centrist and leftist populism) also play a role that needs to be considered to truly understand the populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He highlighted the fact that in both countries, the various currents of populism have developed with significant overlaps. Populism, identifiable as the “struggle for the unity of people against an alleged ‘establishment’,” has been dynamicallydeveloping in these countries in the post-1989 era. The partisan strain of populism has been the most dominant, but individual actors (e.g., Czech President Miloš Zeman, other non-partisan actors in the public space like the ‘anti-vax’ movement), as well as some media (the so-called ‘disinformation scene’), have also played a role in the spread of populism. Both countries present the basic division into right-wing extremism, right-wing populism, centrist populism, left-wing populism, and left-wing extremism. 

The lecturer then presented a brief overview of the trend toward populism and authoritarianism in the Czech Republic. At the moment, it is important to mention that right-wing extremism in the country is relatively weak, if we look at the partisan level, without parliamentary or regional/local representation, and only some small hard-liner groupings linked to the anti-vax movement, partly pro-Kremlin and with a pan-Slavic orientation. However, the country now has a relatively strong right-wing populism, thanks to the parliamentary representation (9.56 percent in 2021) of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement, led by Tomio Okamura. Most importantly, centrist populism in the country is strong and has a strong presence in major newspapers; it is especially represented by the ANO (‘Yes’) party, which is currently the strongest party in the Czech parliament, a member of liberal structures at the European level, but which has been labelled as an ‘entrepreneurial party’ (term used by Hloušek, Kopeček, and Vodová, 2020) because it largely depends on one entrepreneur, its leader (and previous president of the country, now in the opposition) Andrej Babiš, who is the owner of important newspapers. On the other hand, left-wing populism is relatively weak in the political spectrum, but has some impact on the media. Finally, left-wing extremism (largely associated with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia[KSČM]), only has one member in the European Parliament after the 2021 elections, and no domestic national representation (3.60 percent). 

In contrast to the Czech Republic, Slovakia has a relatively strong right-wing extremism, with the so-called ‘hard-liners’ of Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS)—rooted in the neo-fascist movement, despite some slight attempts at moderation in the last few years; it received 7.97 percent of votes in 2020, but some members of the party split from it in 2021 (distancing themselves from the strong ties to historical fascism of LSNS). Likewise, right-wing populism finds relatively strong representation in the country, with the national-conservative, “We Are Family (Sme Rodina)” party—which is a governmental party since 2020 (8.4 percent of the votes that year), strongly associated with the figure of its leader, businessman Boris Kollár—as well as the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (3.16 percent in 2020). The impact of centrist populism in the country is questionable. Left-wing populism in the country is strong, represented by the Smer–SD (Orientation – Social Democracy) party, a member of socialist international structures and of the Party of European Socialists, which received 18.29 percent of the vote in 2020, and is currently in the opposition. Left-wing extremism is still weak in Slovakia and mostly confined to the non-partisan scene, but important Smer–SD deputy LubošBlaha and his followers are well-known for their sympathies to some left-wing extremist entities.  

Finally, Prof. Mareš, drawing a comparison between the two countries, concluded that: the strongest position comparatively is that of centrist populism in the Czech Republic, and that of left-wing populism in Slovakia; on the other hand, right-wing populism is strong in both countries, even though the ideological positioning of the parties on the ground (SPD and Sme Rodina) is different. There has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both countries is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era. 

Reported by Héloïse Albrecht

Casa Pound, an Italian neo-fascist extreme right-wing political association, held a manifestation in honor of fallen comrades in Milan on April 29, 2012. Photo: Eugenio Marongiu.

Report on Panel #2 / Mapping European Populism: The Peculiarities and Commonalities of the Populist Politics in Southern Europe

Schütz, Imke & Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “Report on Panel #2 / Mapping European Populism: The Peculiarities and Commonalities of the Populist Politics in Southern Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0003

 

This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements. 

The panel, which opened by Dr. Erkan Toguslu’s welcome speech on behalf of European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), was continued with the overall assessments of Dr Daphne Halikiopoulou who is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Reading over the populist politics and tendencies in these countries. Then, 2-hour panel went on with the striking presentations made by Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou on populism in Greece, Professor Oscar Mazzoleni on Italy, Professor Andrés Santana on Spain and Professor Susana Salgado on Portugal. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session. The panel was moderated by Professor Halikiopoulou.

This report is a by-product of this fruitful panel and intended to keep the record of this successful scholarly gathering. The report includes brief summaries of the speeches delivered by our panelists and, also, links to the full video of the panel. ECPS thanks Imke Schütz and Maximilian Wolf for writing the report. 

 

Prof Sofia Vasilopoulou: “Greece: A Case of Populism in Decline?” 

Prof Vasilopoulou argued that the 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse.

Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou, Professor of Politics at the University of York, sought to shed some light on the unique populist conjuncture in Greece, almost exactly 10 years after the “seismic” 2012 elections that saw the far-left and far-right reshuffle the playing field amid an ailing Greek economic situation marked by unmanageable debt, huge unemployment, and a war of words with the European Central Bank (ECB). She argued that it was that election — indeed two elections in rapid succession, in May and June respectively — that lastingly changed the party landscape in the country. The center-left PASOK, until that point one of Greece’s two main parties, came in third, ceding much ground to the more radical left SYRIZA, which became the largest opposition party. On the right, meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, running on an anti-democratic platform, managed to gain some 7 percent and almost 20 parliamentary seats in the process. By the time of the next round of elections in 2015, SYRIZA became the largest party, gaining over 35 percent of the vote as PASOK essentially vanished from the political scene, while Golden Dawn was able to solidify its hold in Greek politics. More surprisingly, SYRIZA finally formed an unexpected coalition with the radical-right ANEL, an unusual bedfellow for the left-wing SYRIZA in a country that historically has struggled with coalition governments.

Following this historic overview, Prof Vasilopoulou argued, however, that these 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse. Despite the discord between the party’s pre-electoral promises and its governmental record, Prof Vasilopoulou noted, they were able to consolidate their status as a major player in the Greek system, coming second in the 2019 elections. The story of Golden Dawn is even more complex: after their dramatic rise to the Greek parliament, a number of legal issues, including a five-year-long trial around the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in Greece and a number of violent attacks on migrants and political opponents, finally led to the imprisonment of a number of its leaders and the designation of the party as a ‘criminal organization.’ 

So how are we to interpret these developments? Prof Vasilopoulou’s work focused on the demand side of Greek politics, specifically voter attitudes around the values of liberal democracy. Data from the European Election Study 2019 indicated that significant portions of the Greek electorate held illiberal opinions. On the question of the value of a judiciary independent of political influence, some 10 percent were opposed while another 20 percent saw themselves as ‘on the fence.’ On whether a government should be able to prohibit a peaceful protest under certain circumstances, approximately a quarter of respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed fully.’ On a more positive note, freedom of public media free from political influence scored better, with only 5 percent disagreeing. Approximately a quarter of Greek respondents felt that ‘having a strong leader that bends the rules to get things done’ is a good thing, while, reflecting populist attitudes in the country, over half of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘the people and not politicians should make the most important policy decisions.’ 

Prof Vasilopoulou linked these sentiments to another important statistic which indicated that some 75 percent of the Greek population felt dissatisfaction with the Greek political system. In all, she argued that these persistent illiberal attitudes provide fertile ground for threats to Greek democracy in the future, particularly if they will again be able to find concrete political expression in anti-democratic movements like Golden Dawn.

Reported by Maximilian Wolf

 

Prof Oscar Mazzoleni: “Italian Multiple Populism: Evidence, Causes and Impacts”

Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.

Professor Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Science at the University of Lausanne, reflected on Italy’s status as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ To begin, he explained why Italy can be considered a case of ‘multiple populism’ – Italian populism is not limited to the radical right; there exists a multiplicity amongst Italian populists. For one, populist parties have been persistently present in Italian politics since the 1990s. Second, both cooperative and competitive patterns evolved between populist parties as they competed in the country’s electoral arenas, for both parliament and government. Third, Italy’s populist parties espouse various ideologies: there are regionalist, radical-right, nationalist, left-wing, moderate, and syncretic populist parties. This highlights the ideological flexibility and the complexity of Italian populism. 

So why does populism thrive in so many forms in Italy, despite parties’ diverse ideological and organizational features? Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Not only has the system shifted from proportional to majoritarian, but changing parliamentary coalitions exacerbate instability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum, especially when connected with anti-corruption stances. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena. 

Since the 1990s, populist trends in Italy have foreshadowed trends in other Western European democracies. According to Prof Mazzoleni, two of the most notable trends are the breakdown of the traditional party system with its mass party organizations after World War II and the permanent redefinition of the relationship between politics and the media. The former led to an unprecedented openness of the political system to new parties, while the latter introduced a strong media logic into politics. One well-known case combining these two trends is Berlusconi, who switched from the media to politics. For these reasons, Prof Mazzoleni argues, it is reasonable to label Italy as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ Another factor that contributes to Italy’s ‘multiple populism’ is the populist actors themselves. Living up to populism’s chameleon reputation, Italian populists stand out for their entrepreneurship and flexibility; both the political system’s insiders, like Salvini, Meloni or Bossie, and its outsiders, like Berlusconi, Grillo or Conte, are confronted not only with the uncertainty of their parties’ electoral success but must also deal with the challenges of managing their authority both inside and outside their parties. Furthermore, they have had to develop strong political marketing skills – when in government positions, populists tend to tone down their agendas and discourse, to ensure the party’s continued political success and authority. 

Prof Mazzoleni recommends, then, that the study of populism focus on populism’s impact on policy and changes in the polity. Observing these dimensions, one might investigate the reciprocity of populist and mainstream parties’ performative styles. Changes in the latter’s performative style set the context in which populists must act and influence the framing opportunities they can take advantage of. This is particularly visible in Italy, where the populist performative style connects with anti-party attitudes. Slowly transforming democratic communication and reshaping constitutional and judicial rules, populists reshape their structural opportunities over time. Thus, it is important to connect the dimensions of polity, policy, and politics when examining populists’ success.

In sum, the case of Italy as a ‘laboratory for populism’ sheds light on populist actors’ myriad forms and paths. The openness of Italy’s political system to anti-establishment actors leads to the continuous presence of a multitude of populist actors. Extending the scope of populism research to include populism’s effects on the polity dimension could yield valuable insights and greatly improve our understanding of populism. 

Reported by Imke Schütz

 

Prof Andres Santana: “Podemos and Vox: Opportunities and Challenges Posed by Left- and Right-wing Populism in Spain”

Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for (right- and left-wing) populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.

Professor Santana, Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid turned the spotlight on the populist battleground of Spain. By way of introduction, he noted that Spain was not always a populist battleground: until 10 years ago there were two relevant parties in Spain, the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right PP; much like in the Greek case, however, the mid-2010s proved a fruitful conjuncture for populist movements on the right and left to gain and consolidate some ground. For a long time, Spain had considered itself “immune” to populist challenges. 

All of this changed, however, in 2014 when — almost simultaneously — Podemos on the left and Vox on the right threw the “Iberian exception,” and Spanish democracy into disarray. Vox, born in late 2013, was initially as unsuccessful as many other small right-wing movements vying for influence in Spain, gaining a few percentage points here and there; however, Vox did not follow those others to what Santana called the “graveyard of small right-wing parties,” instead, becoming, some years later, a serious player in Spanish politics and polling as high as second in recent polls. Podemos, led by a university professor and born out of the ‘Indignados’ protest movement, came into being around the same time and, much more immediately than Vox, made an immediate impact on the Spanish political scene, winning some 1.2 million votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections. 

Despite both movements coming into being in the ‘populist moment’ of the mid-2010s that spawned many similar movements on the right and left throughout Europe, Prof Santana argued that, while many such movements have since faded into irrelevance again, this is unlikely to occur with Podemos and Vox. He noted that the Spanish electoral system generally rewards larger parties, meaning the barrier for new challengers is relatively high; this very mechanism, intended to strengthen and stabilize the winners of elections, has had the unintended consequence of generating a significant turnaround for medium-size parties: while, in 2015 and 2016, Podemos was able to secure some 20-25 percent of the vote, behind PP and PSOE, the next election in April 2019 saw their support crater to 14 percent and a new movement, Ciudadanos, taking third place; this was only to last until an election re-run in November of the same year, where Ciudadanos dropped to 6th place, while Vox — led by the enigmatic Santiago Abascal, leapfrogged the field to come third with 15 percent of the vote. This “dance,” as Prof Santana called it, attests to the fact that the Spanish electoral system is not built for five major parties; indeed, he argued, it struggles to accommodate three. In his estimation, Vox looks most likely to secure that coveted third spot in the political space, with Podemos relegated once again to a fringe movement. 

Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for both populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist. 

Reported by Maximilian Wolf

 

Prof Susana Salgado: “Support for Right-wing Populism in Portugal: Protest or Deep-rooted Attitudes”

Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. As Chega crushes this long-held view, Prof Susana Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.

In the last contribution, Professor Susana Salgado, Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, investigates whether support for right-wing populism in Portugal is a manifestation of deep-rooted attitudes or if it is merely a protest phenomenon. To begin, Prof Salgado points to the nationalist and populist party Chega as a case study of Portugal’s right-wing populism. The party was founded a few months before the 2019 parliamentary election. As expected, Chega’s obtained vote share of 1.3 percent was insignificant. Despite this initially poor vote share, public support has been growing exponentially. In the same year, Andre Ventura, the leader of Chega, ran for president and increased the party’s publicity. He surprisingly received 11.9 percent of the vote, placing him close to the 2nd runner-up. The snap election in 2022 confirmed the trend of electoral support: Chega increased its number of MPs from 1 to 12 as the party with the third-most votes. 

Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. To explore whether latent populist sentiments existed prior to Chega’s emergence, Prof Salgado tested for latent populist sentiments amongst various Portuguese population groups in 2017. Her data revealed that Portuguese politicians, as a group, are most negatively regarded and blamed for many of the country’s issues, followed by the wealthy, then immigrants. These results suggested that an attitude of blame towards politicians could be a structural characteristic of the Portuguese population. Moreover, it appears that news items containing anti-elitist and right-wing populist content had a greater influence on the study’s participants than left-wing populist news items. Thus, Prof Salgado suggests that respondents were more susceptible to right-wing claims and potentially more prone to right-wing populism. She also found that anti-immigrant discourse activated more populist sentiments than anti-elitism discourses. Prof Salgado furthermore noted that Chega’s voters do not, according to self-assessments, consider themselves right-wing, and refuse the radical-right label. Moreover, they consider themselves less right-wing than voters of the Conservative party. Correspondingly, Chega integrates its supporters’ self-perception into its image as a conservative, nationalist, liberal and anti-establishment party.

To further explain Chega’s attractiveness to Portuguese voters, Prof Salgado turns to Ventura’s tactics and political discourse. Prof Salgado’s work reveals that voters’ main motive to vote for Chega was a desire for change. Chega voters evaluate Portugal’s state of affairs and economic problems more negatively than other voter groups. These attitudes correspond with the geographical distribution of Chega voters; districts with relatively high numbers of immigrants and few hospitals and schools showed the highest electoral support for Chega. Accordingly, Chega voters’ testimonies emphasize their desire for improving their regional situation, and for someone who cares about them. To gain popularity, Ventura taps into these desires; he promotes Chega as an anti-system party and uses typical populist discourses, such as exclusionary ideas, calculated ambivalence, provocation, appeals to a national identity, an ideal nation, and historical and religious symbols. While Ventura paints other parties as a syndicate apathetic towards the ‘authentic people,’ he presents himself as the people’s ‘true representative’ – a typical populist tactic.

Finally, Prof Salgado notes three interesting demographic characteristics of Chega’s voters. First, men tend to vote for Chega, while women tend to vote for left-wing parties. Second, voters with higher education tend to vote for right-wing parties; contrary to the belief that the uneducated are particularly susceptible to populism and right-wing parties, Chega’s voters are not the least educated. Finally, Portugal’s young voters tend to vote for new parties such as Chega. In conclusion, Chega crushes the long-held view that the Portuguese are immune to right-wing populism. Furthermore, Prof Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths. 

Reported by Imke Schütz

Symposium

Symposium Report—The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy

Wolf, Maximillian; Grueso, Gadea Mendez; Robinson, Tom; Lortkipanidze, Mariam; Schutz, Imke; Sezer, Julide; Aelbrecht, Heloise and Blink, Melissa. (2022). “Symposium Report—The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0002

 

The ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium, titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022, and brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the Symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations. 

Introduction

This report is based on the ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” which was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022. 

The symposium brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic—i.e., how populist leaders handled the pandemic, to what extent they could use populist strategies and tactics while dealing with pandemic-related issues, and what kind of challenges populist policies pose to global governance and democracy. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations.

The symposium was held under the auspices of Sir Graham Watson, Honorary President of ECPS, who delivered the opening remarks. Distinguished scholars in the field contributed their insightful speeches: Mark Findlay (Professor, Director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Data Governance, Singapore Management University), Manuel Funke (Kiel Institute for the World Economy), Aline Burni (German Development Institute), Eckart Woertz (Professor of Contemporary History and Politics, The University of Hamburg), Neil Robinson (Professor of Comparative Politics, The University of Limerick), Axel Klein (Professor of Social Sciences on East Asia / Japanese Politics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), Jens Maesse (Institute of Sociology, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen), Brett Meyer (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change), and Sheri Berman (Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University). The closing remarks were delivered by Hercules Milas (ECPS Advisory Board Member).

The symposium panels were moderated by: Eser Karakas (Professor of Economics, Strasbourg University, ECPS Advisory Board Member and Senior Research Fellow), Werner Pascha (Emeritus Professor of Economics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), and Naim Kapucu (Pegasus Professor, School of Public Administration & School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida).

Last, but not least, Professor Ibrahim Ozturk (Director, Resident Senior Research Fellow at ECPS) chaired the organization committee composed of ECPS staff members and interns. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the event and made it a real success.

Keynote Address

Professor Mark Findlay: “Rehabilitating Globalization, Repositioning Populism, Proportioning Pandemics – Does Law Have a Place?”

To counteract mythologies, divisive languages and the structures of hate and exclusion, it is necessary to create safe spaces for informed dissent, the exercise of common sense, considered challenges to obsessive rationality, and allow for prudent doubts – a space for the collective flourishing of human consciousness.

Professor Mark Findlay’s keynote began the proceedings. Based on his most recent book, Globalization, Populism, Pandemics and the Law – The Anarchy and the Ecstasy, his wide-ranging account sought to identify the linkages and common themes between governance, the global economy, and populist governance within the context of disillusionment and pessimism.

Beginning with globalization, Findlay argued that critics and pessimists—whether populists or not—had fundamentally misunderstood what the term meant; globalization, he argued, is a process, one incredibly effective at tackling global crises. As such, it is not in itself good or bad; rather, how it is employed, what structures it engenders, and who benefits from them, are the more important questions. Findlay noted that the globalization of today has developed into a mechanism for proliferating a neo-colonial and neoliberal economic order—as such, it is seen by many, including but not limited to radical, disenfranchised protest movements, as the cause of savage exploitation, rather than as an opportunity to arrest the true sources of marginalization. Globalization, Findlay argued, has become a scapegoat, catching the blame for the insidious effects of neoliberal free trade, radical individualism, and co-option of legal protections for exclusionary private property rights which exploit the global North-South divide. Legally speaking, he argued that global law has become an accomplice to neoliberal expansionism, a consequence of neo-colonial political domination from the North and focused almost entirely on the protection of private property, rather than the defence of human rights.

Climate change and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have shown us that the shared consequences of global crises cannot be avoided through national protectionism. Globalization, Findlay suggested, needs to be re-thought as a process for international engagement which might provide legitimate legal pathways for wider representative governance and universal democratic rights. The internet has proven valuable in this regard, he argues, as it disrupted previous understandings of intellectual property and has changed the way in which we understand the concept of property itself; this has led to large-scale transformations in a number of legal structures and presents the ability of the law to adapt and transition. It is these transitions that might allow us to combat populist anxieties, and come to represent, he believes, “a new global moral culture,” away from the dysfunctional, individualist structures that fuel populist resentment and towards a communal understanding of wealth as well as of crises.

Law, if reformulated as a communal resource, can provide the foundational background for a transition into a normality that is more concerned about human dignity than it is about individualist and exclusive wealth creation, which has been the heart of populist politics in recent decades.

Thus, a new understanding of the law—and the necessary transitions it must undergo—might reclaim and rehabilitate globalization. At the moment, Findlay maintained, neoliberal globalization promotes power asymmetries and disaffection; cultural identity has become a battlefield—populism and ‘cancel culture’ are used as languages of criticism, and the necessity of multiculturalism is ignored. This new emotional grammar, a “taxonomy of disaffection,” aims to give a voice and a language to the experiences of resentment, indignation, and anger that a structurally flawed global system engendered. The issue is that, as it stands, this emotionally charged discourse misses the mark: neoliberalism, the true culprit in his eyes, is let off the hook in favour of superficial cultural grievances. So again, Prof. Findlay asked, how can we rehabilitate globalization? His answer: by settling the sources of disaffection with globalization. He expressed the hope that the ‘neo-statist’ impulse witnessed throughout the pandemic proved the insufficiency, rather than the usefulness, of protectionist logics.

Regarding populism, Prof. Findlay noted a number of paradoxes. Authoritarian populist politics are driven by a sense of economic injustice and exclusion, yet this is the essence of neoliberal wealth creation, which most right-wing populists nonetheless celebrate. Populism rejects conventional, establishment political remedies, but neoliberal elites capture political institutions and processes under populist governments. Findlay argued that inequality is essential for populism in order for an ‘other’ to emerge and the Manichean ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ discourse to function. In power, populists thus often perpetuate the very conditions they claim to combat.

The process that allows this apparent contradiction to sustain itself in paternalistic authoritarian regimes like Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s is what Prof. Findlay termed ‘anxiety governance.’ It is what got Trump elected and was the driving force behind the ‘Brexit’ movement. It is a sense of anxiety, set in the context of radical technological transformation and ever-accelerating economic shifts, fuelling a fear amongst populist voters that they are unable to access political spaces and will thus be left behind. The Canadian truckers’ protest, argued Prof. Findlay, is an example of this: the physical attempt to overtake the traditional spaces of governance occurred under the facade of ‘reclaiming liberal rights,’ when the protest was, in many respects, fed by populism, anxiety, and anger.

Populist populations have been told that their space is restricted, their economic power is shrinking, and that they must, therefore, rely on the authoritarians of the world to give that power back to them. In other words, Findlay explained, populist politics creates anxiety—and an anger against that anxiety—then offers a ‘politics of hope’ as an answer to it. It is the power of populist charisma, however, that Prof. Findlay considers the truly challenging dimension. This power rests on populist leaders’ mass-legitimized ability to create political narratives, name enemies, and bring “new tonalities into the political conversation.” Social media is crucial to these dynamics: ‘Twitter populism’ demonstrates the anxiety, echo-chambers, toxic feedback loops, and crowd-sourced funding that enable and strengthen populist leaders. Unfortunately, Findlay said, artificial intelligence (AI) has been co-opted into the populist machine.

What, then, can be done? And what is an antidote to anxiety? Findlay suggested a return to considerations of human dignity. It is essential, according to Findlay, that the inequality that underlies neoliberal economic politics, driving discrimination and exclusion, be revealed. Anxiety politics, he said, is the product of collective experiences, but it is bound together by a constructed confusion and maintains a mythological dimension. It is important, then, to expose and acknowledge the genuine risks to be feared and talk back at the voices who stir up misplaced anxieties for populist gain. He cited vaccine scepticism as an example of such misplaced fear; besides the danger inherent in such a public health discourse, we must combat the underlying structures that enable and strengthen the resonance of discourses of that kind. For this reason, finding and occupying (actual or digital) safe communal spaces is critical—transformed law, he says, might provide helpful signposting for this shift.

The pandemic, Prof. Findlay argued, proved a double blow against human dignity in two almost contradictory fashions: on one hand, the right-wing populists charge that public safety measures have eroded our libertarian rights grows stronger as the ‘new normal’ of day-to-day pandemic management lingers on; on the other, the facts two years into the crisis speak of an untold suffering and a lack of consideration for those populations, especially in the Global South, who are dying in their thousands due to lack of vaccines and effective protective equipment as global logistics’ slowdowns and ‘panic protectionism’ have again exposed the unequal dividing lines in the neoliberal economy Only by recovering human dignity as a guiding principle, enshrined in an adaptable and effective legal framework, can we provide the platform by which globalization could be turned into a positive tool that might yet engage the threats and challenges posed by the pandemic, global warming, and other global crises. This, in turn, should be embedded in a broader return to what Findlay termed ‘sociability’: pandemic risk, vaccine scepticism, and ‘economic realism’ are all products of a neoliberal individualist logic which diverts attention away from the importance of globalized sociability and solidarity. Human dignity can only be understood as collective and universal.

Reported by Maximillian Wolf

 

Panel 1

Populism and Governance in the Time of Pandemic

Dr. Manuel Funke: “Populist leaders, the economy, and the pandemic: What can we expect?” 

Populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear. The key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity.

 The first panel of the symposium came from Dr. Manuel Funke of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Kiel, Germany. Dr. Funke began his talk by addressing the fact that, although the academic scholarship on populism as a political phenomenon has grown exponentially over the past years, the research of what happens when populists are in power—and in particular, what happens to economies under populist leadership—remains somewhat undertheorized. 

Much of Dr. Funke’s attempt at remedying this deficit centred around a 2020 paper co-authored with two Kiel Institute colleagues, Prof. Dr. Christoph Trebesch and Dr. Moritz Schularick, and succinctly titled “Populist Leaders and the Economy.” Their paper, he explained, sought to provide some concrete empirical data on whether the impact of populist governance was detectable in a number of key economic metrics. To achieve this, they sampled a vast database of articles on populism spanning some 60 countries over 120 years, finally classifying over 1500 leaders into a two-by-two matrix: ‘populist’ or ‘not populist,’ and ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing.’ Out of this mountain of data, said Dr. Funke, emerged 50 clear-cut populist actors. Some immediate trends became clear: populism reached its ‘peak’ popularity—primarily owing to the wave of Latin American populist regimes—in the 1950s and 60s; there has, however, also been a discernible uptick in instances of populist leadership since the 2000s, as new forms of right-wing populism spread throughout Western democracies. Dr. Funke added that the average time in power for populist leaders, at around seven and a half years, was nearly double that of non-populist leaders assessed in the same time span, and their rate of re-election, at around 30 percent, was also twice as high as their non-populist counterparts. 

As concerning as those numbers are, they at least provide clear-cut timeframes in which Dr. Funke, and his team were able to accurately assess the economic impact of those populist leaders’ governance respective to control cases elsewhere. Dr. Funke noted that not only are populist campaign promises often centred around redistributive policies in favour of the ‘little man,’ but that those proposals often come in tandem with protectionism and economic nationalism. Overspending and fiscal mismanagement is rife, and checks and balances aimed to limit the power of government and restrict the leaders’ options with regards to monetary policy often come under threat over the course of prolonged populist rule. 

While such tendencies are well-known and documented, Dr. Funke’s team sought to establish just how significant the impact of populist rule was in real terms. Turning their eyes to perhaps the most influential economic determinant of all, economic growth, the team examined national output indicators from those countries under populist rule and comparing them to the global average growth rate over the same period, finding a 1 percent output loss—a “growth gap”—over that period. The trend became even more pronounced after the team took a more rigorous methodology, constructing hypothetical counterfactuals—which Funke terms “doppelganger economies”; in such cases, populist leadership shows up to a 10-percentage point gap in economic growth indicators over a 15-year timespan. Their findings also showed a 10-percentage point increase in import tariffs, a greater debt-to-GDP ratio, and a marked erosion in indexes highlighting the functionality of the judiciary. 

Although this historical approach is not completely compatible with the post-Covid landscape, Dr. Funke cited another paper by the Kiel Institute on the impact of populist governance on Covid management. That paper, assessing 11 populist leaders compared to 42 non-populist ones, found reduced containment efforts and an excess mortality rate that was twice as high in populist-run states at the end of 2020, per data by the Oxford University Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. 

It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude, argued Dr. Funke, that populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear; the key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity. The ‘dual crisis’ of economy and public health precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous factors at play, means that even scientists have no access to the full picture; as Dr. Funke concluded: “We will have to wait and see.”

Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso

 

Dr. Aline Burni: “Will the pandemic bring an end to populism? What are the lessons from the pandemic in a comparative perspective?”

From the outset I believed the claim that ‘the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions’ with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries… On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists. How effectively they can capture those new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, will have to remain to be seen. 

Second on the panel examining the ties between the pandemic and populist politics was Dr. Aline Burni, researcher for the German Development Institute. Dr. Burni’s sought to illuminate, in a comparative perspective, how the political transformations brought about by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic two years ago have shaped populist discourse and its popularity. 

In response to more hopeful commentators, Dr. Burni stated from the outset that she believed the claim that “the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions” with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries. She noted that the impact of Covid-19 on populist movements differed substantially from region to region and depending on whether the movement was in government or in opposition. While early evidence suggested that populists had lost popularity as a result of their own mismanagement of the crisis when compared to non-populists, for example, those initial studies focus on populists mainly in Europe and predominantly during the first wave of the pandemic; it would be premature, she argued, to draw long-term conclusions from these short-term trends. 

According to Dr. Burni, the pandemic was, in many ways, new territory for all global political actors, not just populists. While the link between the emergence of crises and the resonance of populist discourse is well-documented, data from the early months of the pandemic showed a noticeable decline in popularity of populists in power, as scientific denialism and early mismanagement undermined the legitimacy of many populist governments in the West and elsewhere. While populists in opposition also struggled, their popularity stabilized rather quickly. Overall, however, Dr. Burni diagnosed a clear difficulty among populists to capitalize on the Covid-19 crisis: next to the inherent difficulties of mobilizing against a health crisis, she argued that citizens valued, above all, expertise and decisive leadership throughout the pandemic, and that most governments experienced a drastic ‘rally around the flag effect,’ particularly in the early months. Staples of populist discourse, like anti-immigration stances, also quickly faded into the background as many nations shut their borders to prevent the spread of the virus. All these factors, combined with obvious showcases of populist mismanagement in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), or Brazil, made for a potent anti-populist surge in many democracies worldwide. 

As the Covid-19 crisis progressed, however, and the initial shocks made way to a ‘new normal’ of pandemic management, data—especially from Europe—showed a stabilizing of populist movements. While some populist-right actors, like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to weather the early stages of the pandemic without suffering much loss of support, others, like Chega in Portugal even gained support in the months that followed, with the party going from one MP to twelve in the 2021 elections. As pandemic politics persisted throughout many Western democracies and lockdown measures and vaccine mandates proved less and less popular, most populist actors in the West consolidated their positions. Populists in government were hit more lastingly, with Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, but even then, he received the second highest electoral tally in US history with over 74 million votes, behind only Joe Biden’s 81 million; Bolsonaro and Johnson, though weakened, remain in power. “Populists in government have been resilient despite their mismanagement of the pandemic, at least in these prototypical cases,” Dr. Burni concluded. “Therefore, in a nutshell, I do not think that [populism] will be defeated by the pandemic.”

To explain this stabilization, Dr. Burni pointed to several factors. First, the pandemic will likely aggravate economic and political conditions that populists thrive in—for example, see the impact of post-Covid inflation, slowed GDP growth, rising income inequality and shocks in the job market. Additionally, populists will likely bring cultural issues like immigration back on the agenda, especially in Europe. Other extant political conditions troubling many democracies—such as corruption, lack of trust, polarization, and cultural cleavages—remain and have, at times, been aggravated by the pandemic. The ‘anti-vax’ movement in the West, largely already captured by far-right populist actors, is a key example of old anti-system discourses receiving a fresh coat of post-Covid paint.

The old fault lines that energized the pre-pandemic ‘culture war’ discourse in the West not only remain in place but have been invigorated by a new anti-authoritarian thrust in response to lockdown measures and mandates. As mainstream parties who so successfully channelled the initial ‘rally around the flag’ effect mismanage the ‘new normal,’ the easier it will be for populist actors to adjust to their own ‘new normal’ and incorporate more failures of the status quo parties into their existing anti-elite discourse. As Dr. Burni concluded, “On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.” How effectively they can capture these new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, remains to be seen. 

Reported by Tom Robinson

 

Panel 2
Pandemic of Authoritarianism/Populism: The State of Democratic Institutions, Rights and Freedoms

Professor Eckart Woertz: “The need for multilateral institutions against global challenges: The impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation 25 years after the Barcelona Process”

The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.

Panel II was inaugurated by Dr. Eckart Woertz, professor of Contemporary History and Politics at the University of Hamburg and Director of the GIGA institute for Middle East Studies. Dr. Woertz talked about the impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. To begin, Dr. Woertz pointed out that the idea of Mediterranean cooperation is not a politically neutral one. Indeed, the notion of ‘Mediterraneanism’ reverberated in Mussolini’s ideas and French colonial policies, and this baggage should be considered to a greater extent by the European Union (EU) and European politicians in general.

The 1990s marked the pinnacle of Mediterranean cooperation, with the Barcelona Process or Euro-Mediterranean Partnership that started in 1995 at the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean Conference. After the great European disunity regarding the Iraq war, European ‘Mediterranean cooperation’ shifted into a neighbourhood policy—a kind of ‘privilege bilateralism,’ where some countries (like Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, etc.) were regarded and treated as ‘good pupils,’ and others as ‘bad students’ (e.g., Algeria).

Another landmark was the establishment of the Union of the Mediterranean in Barcelona, which to this day functions as a vehicle of projects between European states and other regional actors. Here we find a tension between a drive towards a re-nationalization of policies by conceptualizing this as an exclusively Mediterranean union, and a push to make it a broader European initiative—which is why, today, we find non-Mediterranean countries like Sweden or Finland part of the Union for the Mediterranean. Therefore, increased institutionalization does not necessarily mean increased consensus when it comes to Euro-Mediterranean policy.

How has populism affected Euro-Mediterranean cooperation? Dr. Woertz argued that most of the impact has come from right-wing populism, with the topic of migration being a major stumbling stone. Populist leaders in Eastern European countries, in particular, have opposed the refugee quota system proposed by Angela Merkel. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has become a kind of bugbear of the EU, actively torpedoing a more unified stance and damaging the core brand of the EU as a model of democratic cooperation. Thus, it has been very difficult for the EU to push forward initiatives, for example regarding human rights and NGOs, not just in the Mediterranean, like in Egypt or Turkey, but also in Hong Kong, where Orban openly sided with European adversaries. As Dr. Woertz explained, this kind of personalistic populist approach can exacerbate existing tensions that are rooted in diverging national interests. Euro-Mediterranean cooperation is also affected, however, when Europe is on the receiving side of populism from the MENA region (e.g., Turkey, Israel under Netanyahu, Tunisia under Kais Saied).

The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence, argued Dr. Woertz. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.

In summary, Dr. Woertz outlined the extent of populist influence on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. Whether in power (most notably Eastern Europe but also in Italy, with Salvini as Minister of Foreign Affairs), or in opposition, populists still have considerable influence in terms of agenda-setting, perhaps best illustrated by French President Macron’s own co-opting of populist rhetoric on migration. Nevertheless, the weight of institutions behind Mediterranean cooperation has somewhat mediated the impact of populism, and the pre-existing national interests that remain provide a potent counterweight to the new wave of nationalisms taking hold. The situation remains dynamic, however: we have seen that the personalization of power within populism can exacerbate existing tensions and lead to the relative emasculation of the diplomacy-making bureaucracy necessary for cooperation.

Reported by Mariam Lortkipanidze

 

Professor Neil Robinson: “Future course of global governance under the rising hybrid regimes that cohabitate with populism”

According to Professor Robinson, possible solutions to populist problems will be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.

Next was Professor Neil Robinson of the University of Limerick, who spoke of the undertheorized connection between populism and what he called “hybrid regimes.” Introducing his subject matter, Robinson pointed to two ways in which populism today threatens the existing liberal order. First, populism is a threat to globalization as a process: in general, economic actors demand the facilitation of international trade and its regulation, as a key driver for creating and maintaining global governance; populists, as a threat to economic liberalism, jeopardize the economic actors’ ability to press for global mechanisms of regulation. Second, populism is a threat to political liberalism: while often themselves creating a demand for global governance issues like human rights, populists undermine the liberal NGOs and IOs that advocate for such values. Pointing out that populism in established democracies is predominantly driven by domestic changes, Prof. Robinson briefly explained the economic motivations that mobilize the economically disadvantaged. Referring to Trump voters or to supporters of Brexit, he described how communities that support populist main narratives frequently promote forms of sovereigntism.

Prof. Robinson then turned towards the cases where politicians use populism to exacerbate crises of democracy. Two cases were distinguished: in the first case, populists come to power and use this to make significant changes to the democratic order, leading to a “hybridization” of the political regime. He cited examples of such a turn in Venezuela, Hungary, or Poland. In the second case, politicians in power use populist discourse to secure power and to consolidate their position against challengers. Here, the political space gets constricted. In addition, their use of the populist logic of social and political antagonism often reformulates the basis of legitimate political agency. From the post-Soviet space to nowadays, Russia exemplifies this shift to authoritarian law. These countries are normally not perceived as being a threat to the international liberal order and to global governance because of their alleged peripheral or small economic position. Furthermore, they are not seen as actually affecting global governance or playing major roles in international organizations, or indeed, as is the case with Russia today, become pariahs whose very resistance consolidates the organizations themselves. 

It is sometimes argued that such countries reject so-called Western modernity, because the international liberal order is based on its rules rather than on brute power. However, for Professor Robinson, it would be too simplistic to break this down into some form of revolt against the West and modernity. According to him, there are two key issues that need to be considered when trying to assess the impact of hybrid populist regimes on the liberal international order. First, one must differentiate between states that are “rule-benders” and states that are “rule-breakers.” In short, rule-breakers (e.g., Russia) endeavour to become the centre of new regional projects, both in terms of security and economy, carving out a zone of influence that lies considerably outside the liberal international order. The rule-benders (e.g., Hungary), on the other hand, are more constrained by a greater degree of relative democracy and international commitments with neighbouring states.

The second key issue of which to be aware is hybridization as a political rather than an economic revolt. Global governance and a liberal international order seek to enforce certain standards of political behaviour and promote certain types of issues in politics, such as human rights. Rather than opposing the global economy, hybrid states would reject the political elements of global governance. Being part of global financial systems and benefiting through revenues from global trade, hybrid regimes are economic actors. Thus, these hybrid regimes wish to decouple political issues or perceived political issues such as security from value-driven politics, which are often cherished by Western states. In short, depending on the power, type, and immediate environment of the hybrid regime, the degree of revolt against global governance varies.

The standard solution to populist problems is to advise the affected countries to sort out their problems at home, to get rid of their basis for populism. This answer, according to Professor Robinson, needs to be revised. Possible solutions would be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.

Reported by Imke Schutz

 

Professor Axel KLEIN: “Is there populism in Japan? A closer look at Asia’s oldest democracy.”

Polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely. 

Dr. Axel Klein, Professor of Social Sciences on East Asian and Japanese politics at the Institute of East Asian Studies of the Duisburg-Essen University, dealt with the topic of populism in Japan, or, more concretely, the conspicuous lack thereof. As Dr. Klein pointed out in his introduction, Japan is not discussed when scholars talk about populism. In fact, some scholars, such as Ian Buruma and Jennifer Lind, have argued that there is no populism in Japan. Their arguments focus on the lack of elites in the country’s population, its society’s egalitarianism, its low immigration, and the government’s contribution to Japan’s economic growth. Another key for understanding Japanese politics is its political system: Japan has a one-party-dominant regime, in which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power for sixty-two years.

Nevertheless, some figures have been labelled as ‘populist’ in the Japanese public discourse. For instance, Shinzo Abe (2012- 2020), the longest-serving prime minister, is an example of such a politician. Indeed, Abe tried to push his opinions on national security legislation, and consequently, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan, Vox, labelled him a populist. Another example was prime minister Koizumi Junichiro (2001- 2006): his different leadership style, clashing with people in his own party for being too inflexible and against reform, as well as his media savvy and his ambitious reform projects, all led to him being called a populist. This is because, Dr. Klein explained, in Japanese public discourse, populism has come to refer to ‘mass opportunism.’ The discourse of mass opportunism occurs when the politician engages with the public generously, shows attention to public opinion, and tries to satisfy the target audience. So, promises to raise the child allowance or reduce taxes would be enough for a politician to be seen as a populist in the Japanese political landscape.

To counter this, Prof. Klein aimed to clarify this conceptual confusion by focusing on two of the more prominent definitions of populism in the literature today. First, the political-strategic approach sees populism as a strategy through which a leader gains support from unorganized followers and comes to encompass governmental power by establishing, or claiming to establish, unmediated links to these otherwise weakly attached mass constituencies. Second, the ideational approach pioneered by Cas Mudde and others sees populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ that divides society into two opposed groups, the ‘pure people’ and ‘the elite.’ The ideational approach sees populism as always aiming to be the expression of the general will of the people. Applying these two important concepts of populism to the Japanese politicians most often labelled as populist, Prof. Klein concluded that, in the absence of a ‘pure people vs. elite’ discourse, and of serious anti-pluralism or illiberalism, it would be difficult to seriously consider them as actual populists.

Prof. Klein therefore introduced the concept of ‘Populist In Name Only’ (PINO), to refer to such figures that may be called populist by those who seek to attack them politically but are not actually populists. Examples of this phenomenon include the Reiwa Shinsengumi Party and its leader Tarō Yamamoto, who argue that Japanese people lack love and money from the state; the Okinawa Party, whose goal was to remove US military bases; and Hashimoto Toru, the former leader of the Japan Restoration Party who was aggressive in attacking bureaucracy. But none of these have populist tendencies in the theoretical sense.

Consequently, the cultural and political background of countries plays a crucial role in determining and measuring populist figures and actions. Due to the political culture in Japan, some ways of competing politically and being outwardly in favour of reformist ideas may brand one a populist, whereas similar strategies may be seen as acceptable (and not populist) in a Western democracy. In fact, Dr. Klein concludes, there are no serious populist politicians or populist parties in Japan, according to any serious theoretical definition found in the literature today. The small number of phenomena discussed in Prof. Klein’s speech allows Japan to be considered as ‘low on populism.’ This, however, raises the question why there is so little populism in Japan. If one looks closely at the country, there are multiple opportunities to have populism in the territory: there is rising social inequality, one dominant party, and a ministerial bureaucracy that could be categorized as a ‘corrupt elite.’ Furthermore, Dr. Klein observed, the economic crises and negative effects of globalization should lead the population towards some political frustration that would eventually open space for populism.

Dr. Klein’s presentation demonstrated that polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, Prof. Axel Klein concluded that populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely.

Reported by Julide Sezer

 

Panel 3

What’s Next in a Post-COVID-19 World?

Professor Jens Maesse: “Post-neoliberalism in Europe? How economic discourses have changed through COVID-19 pandemic” 

New institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the pandemic situation; a short-time allowance, ‘Kurzarbeitergeld,’ was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the ECB as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context.

In his presentation, Professor Jens Maesse from the Institute of Sociology at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany, presented his research and explained how economic discourses have changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Maesse outlined three different levels of neoliberal influence and analysed how they were impacted by the pandemic. In doing so, he examined the discursive logic and structure of institutions within the European Union, as well as the EU economy in the world global economy.

First, the Professor Maesse explained the context that allowed the collapse of neoliberalism during COVID-19, outlining a number of key reasons: the rise of China as a major economic partner, technological competitor, and systemic rival; Brexit-populism—a shock experience which changed the political majorities in the EU; various ambivalent experiences with crisis management since 2009; and, finally, climate change and the changing production chains within Europe since the 1990s. As such, he concluded, “the neoliberal competition state does not make sense anymore.”

Indeed, since the Covid crisis, there has been a sharp change in economic discourse in Europe. The first, according to Maesse, was one of temporality. Previously, institutional temporality created space for categorizations and evaluations over longer timespans; today, the virus has replaced discursive temporality in a logic of what he called “crisis-deixis,” a process of specification and localization. Second, the authority is no longer the same: during the pre-crisis period, in the neoliberal EU-Maastricht system, the authorities were in competition. However, the crisis has become a master signifier and a discursive authority. It has become a dominant element that challenges the neoliberal balance. Finally, the ethical themes within economic discourse have radically altered: there has been a shift from professional objectivity to more emotional investment and, indeed, sometimes hysteria. Thus, Professor Maesse holds, one of the pandemic’s consequences has been a major transformation in the way EU economic experts perceive the EU and its economic policy. There is a new discursive logic in Europe, based on reasoning, and it is this discursive shift that has further occluded populist discursive logics. 

Moreover, he elaborated, new institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the ‘Corona’ situation; a short-time allowance, Kurzarbeitergeld, was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context in which it previously existed and thrived. In the world economy, however, there is a perpetuation of existing trends. Brexit, the crisis of the North Italian industrial structure, the ‘under-stratification’ of the central and Eastern European industrial suppliers, and the tourism crisis in Southern Europe show us that the world has not really changed, and that familiar problems persist. Professor Maesse argued that we, now, “observe an intensified path-dependency and further splits and fissures among European regions, classes and sub-economies,” a state of affairs that remains quite similar to the old one.

Professor Maesse concludes that Covid has had many consequences for European economic discourse. Firstly, according to him, “economic experts [now] speak in the name of the ‘crisis’ as authorization device and take measures that no longer follow a clear economic theory.” Second, institutions and their structures are constantly changing, and “there is no longer any decency and continuity possible in the institutional path.” Third, national societies and communities are now “dis-embedded and reticulated along post-national spaces of inequality.” Finally, the structures of the European and global economy are constantly creating new crisis events. Thus, he concludes that the post-neoliberal ‘new normal’ lies between the old and the new structure.

Reported by Heloise Aelbrecht

 

Dr. Brett Meyer: “An analysis of populist leaders’ responses to Covid-19” 

Many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out.

Dr. Brett Meyer, research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, presented his research on populists’ performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Meyer’s research tracked the types of policies populist leaders pursued, how their countries fared in terms of cases and deaths, and how the pandemic affected support for populists.

At the start of the pandemic, many believed that the nature of the crisis would prove a problem for populist leaders, who tend to eschew expert advice and favour show over substance. Indeed, Dr Meyer found that 2021 saw the biggest decline in the number of populist leaders ever, down from seventeen to thirteen populist leaders in power, the lowest number since 2004. Correlation does not equal causation, but this trend provided an interesting topic for investigation. 

In August 2020, Dr. Meyer published a report detailing populist leaders’ responses to the pandemic in its first few months. Most headlines stating that populists were doing poorly during the pandemic focused on the US’s Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom downplayed COVID-19. However, only five of the world’s eighteen populists downplayed the pandemic during the early months. The remaining thirteen took it seriously: most responded similarly to non-populist democratically elected leaders. Five of the thirteen, however, took ‘illiberal responses,’ involving punishing lockdowns, excessive emergency powers, and biased enforcement. Dr Meyer also looked into the responses of populists in Northern and Western Europe. Although there are no populists currently in power there, there are many right-wing populist parties. Like most populists around the world, they took COVID quite seriously.

Dr. Meyer also elaborated how COVID affected support for populists. In 2020, he looked at support for different types of parties in Western Europe over the first few months of COVID. He found that the lead parties in government enjoyed big boosts in support, but that other mainstream parties did not benefit from COVID. Right-wing populist parties suffered most. Dr. Meyer later expanded his sample to track support for leaders in both Western and Eastern Europe. He found that before the pandemic populist-led governments enjoyed higher support than non-populist governments. This immediately changed upon the onset of the pandemic and remained so throughout. Towards the end of the collected sample support flipped in favour of populists again, but by this time several populists in Eastern Europe had lost power.

Dr. Meyer also investigated how populist- and non-populist led governments polled against death rates in corresponding countries. He found that, at the first spike in mortality numbers during the pandemic, support for non-populists shot up, and remained at a high point throughout the pandemic. Support for populists suffered a gradual decline after the first mortality spike, a trend that continued after the second spike. Dr. Meyer referred to this as a “flight to seriousness,” foreshadowing the consequences COVID might have for populism. During crises like pandemics there is increased support for established politicians, perhaps because they are the ones who appear to follow experts’ advice and take responsible approaches to the crisis. Puzzlingly, populists did worse even when they took COVID seriously. This might, again, be explained as a lack of patience for populist leadership styles during uncertain times.

Finally, Dr. Meyer discussed populists’ prospects going forward and how the opposition might counteract populism. For one, many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out. Furthermore, Dr. Meyer found that of three of the four elections that populist leaders lost in 2021, the opposition parties had focused their campaigns entirely on ousting the populist leader, despite their very different goals and commitments. This was successful in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Israel.

An issue, however, is that an ideologically diverse opposition uniting may dislodge populism but lack the stability to form a lasting government once the populist has been ousted. Israel’s extremely diverse government is taking strategic policy steps, focused on implementing institutional changes designed to prevent populist retrenchment. Another issue appears in countries like Turkey, where populist leaders have set up significant institutional roadblocks, granting them institutional protection and increasing the chance of electoral corruption. Again, strategic institutional changes appear an advisable tactic.

Reported by Melissa Blink

 

Dr Sheri Berman: “Populist and non-populist governance performance during the Covid pandemic and prospects for democracy in the West going forward” 

Studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.”

Dr. Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, began her talk with a basic observation: COVID-19 appeared as a crisis at a particularly difficult time for democracy. Since approximately 2010, scholars have observed a period of backsliding or ‘autocratization’ during which numerous countries seemed to turn their backs to democracy. Data from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute also shows that satisfaction with democracy has been in decline over the past decades, a decline that is particularly prevalent in the US.

One manifestation of this dissatisfaction with democracy is growing support for populism, which tends to feed off dissatisfaction with the establishment. At the beginning of the pandemic some feared that the crisis would accelerate these negative trends. However, data sources like V-Dem and others did not find any broad trend towards leaders, populist or otherwise, using the pandemic to further erode the foundations of democracy. Particularly in Europe there was no acceleration of autocratization or general increase in support for populist parties. In the US, however, the health of democracy did continue to decline during the pandemic, and the populist portion of the Republican Party grew ever stronger, to the point where it is now a dominant tenor in the party. Neither, though, did the pandemic boost the fortunes of democracy; dissatisfaction with democracy remains quite high. 

Professor Berman mentioned two notable connections. The first is that satisfaction with democracy is partially dependent on performance. She explains that democracy enjoys ‘systemic legitimacy’—people value it not only for its outcomes, but because they value its central goals and tenets. As such, democracy does not rely on performance legitimacy as much as contemporary dictatorships do, for example. Nevertheless, performance also matters. Dr. Berman cites data from the Bennett Institute, which found strong connections between actual crises and levels of satisfaction with democracy. When crises hit and governments seem unable or unwilling to deal adequately with incoming problems, satisfaction with democracy goes down. This was observed throughout the Euro and refugee crises, and again during the pandemic. Leaders who seemed to react clearly, effectively, and rationally were generally rewarded.

One might wonder why some leaders were better able to respond to the needs of their population than others. This leads to the second significant connection: both satisfaction and performance are linked to the variable of trust. One study, recently published in The Lancet, found that when citizens were more trusting both towards their government institutions and towards fellow citizens, pandemic outcomes were better because, Dr. Berman argued, individual citizens are more willing to sacrifice for the common good when they can expect politicians and fellow citizens to do the same. Trust creates a feedback effect, enabling governments to do better. The United States, Dr. Berman notes, is anomalous here: trust in government has plummeted, reflected in the way the pandemic played out in the US, as people were hesitant to follow rules, and suspicions about leaders’ and experts’ directions persisted. The politicization of vaccines was, according to Dr. Berman, another tragic result of this mistrust. 

Finally, Dr. Berman commented on the contemporary situation: studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.” They can trigger right-wing fears, for example, as seen in the US and Canada. She also noted that these restrictions have negative effects on the left, too, where increasingly, many people are willing to support severe punishments for people who disagree with their views on necessary health measures.

Dr. Berman warned that we do not want to end up in a situation where the long-term implications of extensive government restrictions on freedom are tested: hardening views on the left and further triggering populist attitudes on the right and dissatisfaction with democracy overall. As such, Dr. Berman concluded, scholars and analysts would do well to turn their attention increasingly to the potential long-term consequences of the crisis on populism and other social and political trends.

Reported by Mariam Lortkipanidze

Cover

Religious Populism, Cyberspace and Digital Authoritarianism in Asia: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Saleem, Raja M. Ali; Pargoo, Mahmoud, Shukri, Syaza; Ismail, Idznursham; and Shakil, Kainat. (2022). “Religious Populism, Cyberspace and Digital Authoritarianism in Asia: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0001

 

 

Authors: Ihsan Yilmaz, Raja M. Ali Saleem, Mahmoud Pargoo*, Syaza Shukri, Idznursham Ismail* and Kainat Shakil

 

1. Contents

1.     Contents

2.     Abbreviations and Acronyms

3.     Foreword

4.     Executive Summary

5.     Democracies in Transition

5.1.     Cyber Space and Democratic Citizenship

5.2.     Changing Democracies

5.3.     The Digital Authoritarian Toolkit

5.4.     Conceptual Framework

5.4.1.     Obstacles to Access

5.4.2.     Limits on Content

5.4.3.     Violations of User Rights

6.     Applying the Toolkit: Case Studies

6.1.     India

6.1.1.     Obstacles to Access

6.1.2.     Limits on Content

6.1.3.     Violations of User Rights

6.2.     Indonesia

6.2.1.     Obstacles to Access

6.2.2.     Limits on Content

6.2.3.     Violations of User Rights

6.3.     Malaysia

6.3.1.     Obstacles to Access

6.3.2.     Limits on Content

6.3.3.     Violations of User Rights

6.4.     Pakistan

6.4.1.     Obstacles to Access

6.4.2.     Limits on Content

6.4.3.     Violations of User Rights

6.5.     Turkey

6.5.1.     Obstacles to Access

6.5.2.     Limits on Content

6.5.3.     Violations of User Rights

7.     Faith, Cyberspace, and Populist Authoritarianism

7.1.     Religious Justifications of Internet Curbs by the Government

7.2.     The Prominent Role of Religious Leaders in Restricting Digital Freedom

 

2.   Abbreviations and Acronyms

AI Artificial Intelligence
BJP Bharatiya Janata Party
CMA Communications and Multimedia Act
CMS     Central Monitoring System
DDoS   Distributed denial-of-service
ECPS European Center for Populism Studies
EU European Union
FRT      Facial recognition technology
IP Internet Protocol
IRG Iranian Revolutionary Guard
ISIL Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
J-KOM Department of Community Communication 
MCMC Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission
RSS Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
TLP Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan
OTT     Over-the-top media
PH Pakatan Harapan         
PKK Kurdistan Worker’s Party
PTA Pakistan Telecommunication Authority
PTI Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
VPN Virtual Private Network

3.   Foreword

I am honored to be writing this foreword for the first research report of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). This newly-founded, Brussels-based independent research organization investigates and analyzes the various manifestations of populism and the challenges posed by its increasing spread across the world.

The world has been suffering from the fatal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. This horrible and costly experience has reminded us that we really do live in a global village in every sense. A contagion that emerged in a wet market in one part of the world spread in a matter of months to all four corners of the earth and turned rapidly into a global pandemic. As of January 17, 2022, almost 329 million people have been infected, and over 5.5 million people from every walk of life and continent have died. It is evident that problems emerging in far-flung places have the potential to affect us all in ways we could scarcely imagine.

At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the rise and spread of the most recent wave of global populism carry many of the same characteristics and pose, in the view of many, no less a global threat than COVID-19. Alongside renewed racism, rising authoritarianism, and ongoing oppression, exclusion, mass persecution, extremism and radicalization, bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and climate change denial, populism has come to reinforce the sense that the world confronts a new age of severe global crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and which no country or region on earth can hope to avoid.

After all, who could possibly argue that the poisonous mixture of populism and religious bigotry we see today on the streets of Lahore does not affect the feelings and security perceptions of the people walking peacefully through the streets of Amsterdam? And who among us can ignore the fact that the anti-Islamic discourses and exclusionary populist narratives expressed from the comfortable rostrums of splendid buildings in European capitals have no impact on the Egyptian youths who watch TV in their lounge rooms and are mobilized by feelings of hate and enmity? Against this backdrop, we can readily see that opposing extremisms fuel each other and create fertile ground for a vicious cycle of worsening extremism that threatens to engulf the planet.

If we agree that the physical, offline world is a global village, it is no stretch to argue that the online world is a global town hall. And in this online global town hall, conspiracy theories, extreme emotions, and destructive discourses spread much faster than in the offline global village. So, the ECPS has decided to examine authoritarian religious populists and to research the dangerous nexus between faith and populism in cyberspace and, of course, its fatal effects in the offline world. I am sure that this report, as an impressive product of comprehensive research across five different Asian countries, will help us to understand the role of digital space in Asian democracies, especially concerning religious populism.

Being aware of the fact that the global rise of populism can lead to democratic decay, the spread of authoritarianism worldwide, and threats to global peace, security, and stability, I want to thank the scholars who have poured their efforts into preparing this report. I also sincerely hope that this report will fill a crucial gap in this research field and become a valuable resource for scholars and practitioners alike.

Dr. Bulent Kenes

ECPS Executive Director

 

4.   Executive Summary

Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently moved toward populist authoritarianism. Populism —once considered a distinctively Latin American problem that only seldom reared its head in other parts of the world— has now found a home in almost every corner of the planet. Moreover, it has latched on to religion, which, as history reminds us, has an unparalleled power to mobilize crowds. This report explores the unique nexus between faith and populism in our era and offers an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place. The report focuses, in particular, on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in the five Asian countries we have selected as our case studies.

The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases is an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcase powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. This report compares internet governance in each of these countries under three categories: obstacles to accesslimits on content, and violations of user rights. These are the digital toolkits that authorities use to govern digital space. Our case selection and research focus have allowed us to undertake a comparative analysis of different types of online restrictions in these countries that constrain space foropposition and democratic voices while simultaneously making room for authoritarian religious populist narratives to arise and flourish.

The report finds that surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks—along with targeted arrests and violence spreading from digital space—are common features of digital authoritarianism. In each case, it is also found that religious populist forces co-opt political actors in their control of cyberspace. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. Religious leaders support these laws as a means to restrict “moral ills” such as blasphemy, pornography, and the like. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion. Some common themes found in all the case studies shed light on the role of digital space in shaping politics and society offline and vice versa.

The key findings of our survey are as follows:

  • The future of (especially) fragile democracies is highly intertwined with digital space.
  • There is an undeniable nexus between faith and populism which offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined.
  • Religion and politics have merged in these five countries to shape cyber governance.
  • The cyber governance policies of populist rulers mirror their undemocratic, repressive, populist, and authoritarian policies offline. As a result, populist authoritarianism in the non-digital world has increasingly come to colonize cyberspace, and events online are more and more playing a role in shaping politics offline.
  • “Morality” is a common theme used to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws and the active monopolization of cyberspace by government actors.
  • Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment, hurling abuse without physically seeing the consequences or experiencing the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on their victims.

 

5. Democracies in Transition

5.1.         Cyber Space and Democratic Citizenship

Over 60 percent of the world’s population has access to the internet, with some 4.66 billion active users in January 2021.[1] While there is a global divide in access to the internet related to income disparities and unequal human development, the overall growth remains staggering. The largest share of the planet’s internet users, nearly 52 percent, reside in Asia, with its dense population and steady increasing uptake of digital communication technology.[2] Moreover, the widespread availability of cell phone technology and the rapid development of the mobile internet has meant that digital platforms are a well-integrated part of daily life. In 2009, less than 1 percent of internet traffic was generated by mobile phones compared to 50 percent in 2020.[3] Internet use is forecast to grow again in 2022 and beyond.[4] It is, thus, not surprising that governments are keen to adopt digital technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their governance strategies. As a result, political processes—including in the region’s democracies—are becoming highly intertwined with digital space.[5]

At the dawn of the internet age, the global community shared a sense of optimism about the prospects for a bright digital future. Indeed, the web was often spoken about as an agent for democratization. Cheap and ready access to the internet was hailed by scholars as an inherently democratizing development that would ensure the widest possible dissemination of information to the people.[6] The internet was supposed to facilitate the creation and expression of ideas and political views by ordinary citizens in a media ecosystem dominated by powerful corporate or state-controlled television, radio, and print media.[7] Indeed, many democratic theorists cast the world wide web as a virtual Habermasian “public sphere” promising a global “society engaged in critical public debate.” The online network society was expected to serve as a forum for the formation of public opinions, like the coffee houses of Vienna (in Habermas’ original theory), in which all citizens would have equal access to influence public debate. Several mass protests in the late 2000s and early 2010s that were mostly organized and facilitated by digital social media further boosted this techno-optimism in developing countries.[8] The Arab Spring, in which Twitter featured prominently as a mobilizing tool, saw the fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.[9]

5.2.         Changing Democracies

This optimism over the increase in cyber activity and access to the internet came in the wake of the “third wave” of global democratization that began in the 1970s and peaked after the end of the Cold War. However, the first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a significant “democratic retrenchment” worldwide and the rise of an unprecedented wave of populist governments on virtually every continent.[10] Unlike in the past, this new wave of populism has affected longstanding democracies once thought immune. For instance, America and India, the world’s two most populous democracies, have seen populist leaders rise within the democratic system.[11] Moreover, despite unprecedented democratization since the mid-2000s, Pakistan and Turkey, countries with a history of military interventions, have chosen populist Islamist leaders.[12]

Over the years, the populist wave has not only expanded but diversified as well. There are at least three broad categories of populism today. The most familiar is anti-establishment, where the “political elite” and other groups are demonized as part of the populist narrative. Socioeconomic populism is a center-left outlook featured in movements such as the Wall Street Protests and the leadership of political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The last and most widespread category is cultural populism, which pictures elements within society and outside the country as “the enemy” of the “pure people.”[13]

Along the spectrum of cultural pluralism, religious populism is prominent and has been championed by leaders around the world since the early 2000s.[14] While most major religions of the world have been politicized by populist leaders and religious movements, there is distinctiveness in how they manifest. When Islam is politicized and deployed as Islamism by populist leaders, it manifests not only as a way to distinguish “the pious people” from “the corrupt secular elite” but also wields a religious symbolism and style wherein followers are encouraged to adopt explicit religious morals and “traditional” lifestyles in everyday life.[15] These populists are nevertheless adept at leveraging technology and have been at the forefront of political messaging in digital space. As early as the 2000s, political parties in Muslim-majority countries were exhibiting a greater online presence compared to those in non-Muslim countries. Given that democracy is in a precarious state across the Muslim world, introducing draconian measures is not difficult for such governments, even on digital platforms.[16]

In non-Western, non-Muslim-majority countries, identarian populism, another form of religious populism, has arisen. It uses religion to demarcate a civilizational division between “the people” and “the Other.” Arguably the most pernicious example here is India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has long espoused a highly exclusivist and chauvinistic Hindutva politics, which declares Hindus to be “the true people” and non-Hindus by implication as “Other.” Despite its moralistic overtones, the BJP has shown little interest in moral reform but still champions a Hindutva construction of society as the epitome of “civilization.”[17]

Consequently, in a world where democracy appears “in retreat,” the early digital optimism has given way among analysts and intellectuals to a kind of digital pessimism, or at the very least skepticism. While at one end, individual citizens can use social media and digital technology to stay informed and engage in online and offline activism, there is a growing concern that authoritarian (and democratic) governments can use digital tools to assert their control over this space. Extensive digital capabilities—especially AI and Big Data—are increasingly being utilized by governments to exert control over their citizens. Indeed, some observers are talking about the spread of full-blown digital authoritarianism —namely, “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to survey, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.”[18] In response to the rise of digital activism, authoritarian regimes—not just populist ones— have been fast to catch up and adapt, launching their own digital countermeasures of repression. Governments have been observed employing advanced digital technologies to undermine democracy in various ways, including surveillance, censorship, disinformation, cyber-attacks and hacking, internet shutdowns, and targeted arrests.

Against this backdrop, the present report contributes to our understanding of how emerging digital technologies affect, enable and undermine democracy, human rights, freedom, and the electoral process. While scholarship on the topic is in its infancy, the focus has generally been on Western democracies. Despite the scale of internet usage in Asia, this part of the world— and the Global South more generally— has been largely excluded from such studies. Thus, studies focusing on non-Western countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding under the rule or influence of authoritarian religious populists are sorely needed. In all the cases analyzed in the present report, digital platforms have been used intensely by governments and dissidents and can reveal much about the contested role of digital technology and the future of democracy.

5.3.          The Digital Authoritarian Toolkit

States implement multi-layered and complex measures to manipulate the use of and access to cyberspace by people residing in their territory and to restrict online freedoms. The key measures in the toolkit of digital authoritarianism are:

Censorship includes “restrictions on what information can be publicized or viewed on the Internet.”[19] Examples of internet censorship are blocking undesirable content, apps, and social media and passing laws that allow the removal of certain forms of content. Some countries have created so-called “sovereign internets,” facilitated by technology. Think of the “Great Firewall” of China and Russia’s Roskomnadzor, which enforces data localization, and Iran’s National Information Network (also called the Halal Internet).

Disinformation campaigns involve the spread of large volumes of false content by state-owned and regime-friendly media against the opposition. This can include social media manipulation through “cyber warriors” using bots and cyber-trolls. Examples include Iran’s so-called “cyber battalions”[20] linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). Disinformation campaigns also involve the manipulation of elections, including voter engineering and influencing voter behaviors and outcomes by micro-targeting propaganda and individualized campaigns using AI and Big Data capabilities.[21] The creation of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in elections can also undermine meaningful exchanges of ideas in electoral debates.

Cyber-attacks and hacking. Cyber-attacks include any “attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage. Cyber-attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within these systems.”[22] Such attacks often target opposition groups’ data centers, networks, social media accounts, and computer systems to undermine their public image and spy on their campaigns. There are reports that the Iranian government has been proactively gathering intelligence on Iran’s opposition by hacking applications, even secure ones like Telegram, which uses sophisticated symmetric encryption.[23]

Internet shutdowns. “An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.”[24] Short of complete shutdowns, governments can disrupt the internet and other electronic communications through rolling blackouts or selected blocking/filtering of the internet and social media.

Targeted arrests and violence occur when “a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.”[25] There are many reports of influential digital activists and actors being physically assaulted, arrested, and sentenced to jail.[26]

Surveillance. In the digital realm, this usually takes the form of software that is specifically “marketed for or that can be used (with or without the authorization of the business) to detect, monitor, intercept, collect, exploit, interpret, preserve, protect, transmit, and/or retain sensitive data, identifying information, or communications concerning individuals or groups.”[27] Today, this includes facial recognition technology (FRT), video surveillance, and so-called smart policing, monitoring communications and social media, tapping mobile phones, monitoring locations, using spyware, intercepting networks, biometric identification, and text/data mining.

5.4.          Conceptual Framework

There are several frameworks for monitoring and measuring restrictions on freedom on the internet. One of the earliest frameworks to investigate and analyze internet filtering and surveillance practices was developed by The OpenNet Initiative (ONI). Initially, the ONI focused on measuring internet filtering under four main categories: pervasive filtering, substantial filtering, selective filtering, and suspected filtering.[28] Further elaborating the index, ONI distinguished filtering based on its locus—namely, whether blocking is conducted centrally and infrastructurally (at the level of the underlying internet architecture) or decentralized (at the level of ISPs). In their later work, ONI researchers studied how governments “shape, limit, and control the Internet.” Unlike the first-generation controls, which often focused on denial of access, the second generation utilized a repertoire of manipulation techniques to normalize and legalize control. These techniques included “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, targeted malware, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, and stringent terms-of-usage policies.”[29]

A more detailed categorization, which is partly based on previous work by ONI, is used by Freedom House in its annual Freedom on the Net reports. Here, three areas are covered: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The current report follows Freedom House’s framework, which offers a comprehensive conceptual apparatus to investigate modern manipulations of the internet. The table in the Appendix provides a brief explanation of each category of violations of internet freedom based on the Freedom on the Net 2021 report.[30]

5.4.1.     Obstacles to Access

Governments can erect several types of obstacles to restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. This includes making the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons. Governments can also exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure to restrict connectivity or impose legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers. Finally, national regulatory bodies can impose controls on service providers such that digital technology fails to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner.

5.4.2.     Limits on Content

The state can block or filter internet content—or compel service providers to do so. As well, state or non-state actors often employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content. Often, restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process. Limits can also be self-imposed, such as when online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship. There are also examples where online sources of information are controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest or where economic, regulatory, or other constraints exist that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online. Finally, the online information landscape may lack diversity and reliability such that conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues.

5.4.3.     Violations of User Rights

The constitution or other laws of a country may fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and may be enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence. Violations also occur when laws exist that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those protected under international human rights standards. In some countries, individuals are penalized for online activities, or the government restricts anonymous communication or encryption. Another concern is state surveillance of internet activities, which infringes on users’ right to privacy, and the monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies, which also infringe the right to privacy. In serious cases, individuals are subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or other actors concerning their online activities. Finally, the websites of government and private entities, service providers, or individual users may be subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack.

 

6.   Applying the Toolkit: Case Studies

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP – a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

6.1.         India

India’s current prime minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, worked at a tea stall in his childhood and rose to become the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies. His first taste of politics came during his meteoric rise within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindutva social movement linked to the BJP. In launching his election campaign in 2013, Modi emphasized social mobility and progress for a “new India.” An end to corruption, dynastic politics, and socioeconomic gulfs seemed tantalizingly close when he was elected as prime minister in 2014.

However, after nearly two consecutive terms, Modi’s promised “new India” has yet to materialize, while there has seen a drastic decline in democratic freedoms, mainly due to right-wing policies. According to the Freedom House Index, freedom for Indian citizens declined for a third straight year in 2020–21. With a ranking of 67, India has been downgraded from “Free” to “Partly Free” status.[31] Ripples of deteriorating democracy are also felt in cyberspace. Nearly 58 percent of India’s population has access to the internet, and this is rising fast. The total number of internet users in India rose from 795.18 million at the end of December 2020 to 825.3 million at the end of March 2021.[32] As the following discussion shows, despite widespread internet access and India’s positive track record of democracy, today internet freedom in India is severely compromised.

Figure 1: Global internet shutdowns in 2020

Source: Access Now

 

6.1.1.     Obstacles to Access

In 2014, Modi declared, “I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers,” a far cry from where the country stands today.[33] During its second term (2019—present), the BJP government has increasingly resorted to full internet shutdowns. The most prominent example was the full shutdown in the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019. The only Muslim-majority state in India before its autonomy was taken away that same year, Jammu and Kashmir’s internet was totally blocked for almost five months. Even when restored, only 2G or 3G service was available in most places, making the opening only partial. The 4G internet service was only available after more than a year. Another service block in 2019 came during the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which was widely seen as targeting Muslims. Largely organized by civil society concerned over the discriminatory nature of the law, the protests soon spread all over India. Lasting well into 2020, many parts of the country saw massive internet shutdowns at the peak of the protests.[34] As Figure 1 shows, India has recently had the largest number of internet shutdowns globally.[35] Inspired by the federal government, the state authorities in India have also started using network curbs. In October 2021, in the state of Rajasthan, the districts of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Dhausa closed mobile network services and cell phone access to curb cheating in regional examinations.[36] The country lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to internet shutdowns.[37]

6.1.2.     Limits on Content

The Indian government frequently uses Section 69A of the IT Act 2000 to block websites. The 2009 blocking rules published by the Indian government are themselves vague and allow the government to withhold information on which sites are actually being blocked. There has also been a marked increase in the number of blocked websites. Some 633 websites were banned in 2016, rising to 9,849 in 2020.[38] Investigative journalists have revealed that most blocked websites belong to human rights groups, separatist movements, feminist platforms, NGOs, and even sites linked to United Nations agencies.[39] The government justifies most blocks on the grounds of “national security.”[40]

The year 2020 was quite testing for India. In addition to the burden of COVID-19 and the continued economic downturn and massive unemployment, there was the Indo-China border clash, all of which presented the BJP government with a range of social and political issues to address. The government responded by cracking down in cyberspace. Between January and October 2020 alone, India blocked 100 websites, 1,364 online domains, and 157 Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.[41] Due to the extensive blockade of content, the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) has surged. Only 3.28 percent of Indian internet users used a VPN in 2020. In the first two quarters of 2021, 25.27 percent of users used one.[42]In October 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the government ban VPNs in India.[43] No action has been taken as yet.

India has one of the largest number of Facebook users globally, the third-largest Twitter population, and is the world’s largest market for WhatsApp.[44] Under the government’s 2021 information technology rules, issued under the IT Act 2000, social media platforms are required to remove content identified as “illegal” by the government within three days, provide access to user information for law enforcement officials. The rules also extend the data retention period to 180 days and increase the penalties for non-compliance for the global platforms, putting end-to-end encryption in India at risk.[45] These rules have been presented as necessary to protect individuals’ privacy, stop terrorism, riots, and breakdowns of law and order.[46] Yet, the regulations give the government greater control over social media.[47]

Since the law came into effect, firms have been obliged to share a monthly report with the government. These briefs showcase the amount of content removed. The first three months of published data revealed that Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and others removed a staggering 110.88 million posts.[48] While content that is sexual or graphic in nature makes up a hefty chunk of the requested take-downs, there is also the question of what constitutes “terrorism” and “hate speech,” which the government frequently requests be removed from social media sites. Despite the tradition of rule of law in India, mob lynching of minorities triggered by misinformation via social media continues as well.[49]

When India was struck by the Delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021, posts on social media that were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the virus were removed from these platforms because of the pressure from the government.[50] Deemed “false statements,” these were posts from opposition leaders and concerned citizens over the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.[51]

Online streaming services have yet to face legal reproach by the BJP government, yet the government has supported the RSS (and the broader Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalist movement, of which it is a part) in their protests against these services. The group targeted Netflix and Amazon Prime for offending Hindu religious sensibilities. The government has also done little to prevent harassment of producers and movie stars by Sangh Parivar attackers, who have bullied them in person and online.[52]

6.1.3.     Violations of User Rights

Digital surveillance measures ranging from targeted to mass surveillance have been normalized in India.[53] Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 2008 have justified these measures as necessary for “security.” Thus, the Central Monitoring System (CMS), an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social media engagement, and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications, was launched after 2008. Under the law, citizens targeted by it are not obliged to be informed whether their data has been intercepted. There are reports that the CMS has become a mass surveillance tool by the state without valid legal and constitutional authority.[54] In addition, Indian police in several states have routinized the use of fingerprinting and FRT to stop and screen people on flimsy pretexts, turning vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones.[55] The CMS and the FRT have frequently been used to profile and target protesters.[56] These tools have been extensively used in the conflict-ridden zone of Jammu and Kashmir and for profiling people based on race, religion, and profession (among other factors) without legal permission.[57]

Under such close monitoring, it is not surprising that journalists and social media activists continue to be arrested under terror or treason charges. Independent right-wing organizations, such as those of the Sangh Parivar, use these laws to file reports regularly against those opposing the government online. Legally speaking, right-wing factions act as “partisan supporters” reporting these incidents. Since 2016, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has slid from 133 to 142 in 2021. Moreover, India is seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job.[58]

Along with the CMS, India has been using other ways to snoop and surveil its citizens. In July 2021, India was also caught up in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is Israeli software that has purportedly been used to spy on terrorists and marketed exclusively to governments. However, like many other governments worldwide, the Modi government has bought this spyware and secretly used it to spy on anyone considered a political threat. The Supreme Court of India has ordered an inquiry into the matter as of October 2021.[59]

 

Thousands of protesters from various Islamic organizations rallied in front of the Indonesian Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on November 4, 2016. Photo: Dani Daniar.

6.2.         Indonesia

Indonesia’s recent surge in attacks on minority religions has been instigated mainly by right-wing Islamist movements who have enjoyed much greater freedom after the sudden collapse of the New Order regime in 1998.[60] After a period of democratic flourishing in the 2000s, Indonesia has recently been in a steady state of democratic decline, as highlighted by its 2017–2021 scores by Freedom House. Further complicating the matter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has deliberately side-lined democratic norms in the interests of building a modern economy, which he and his supporters contend is a prerequisite for the future consolidation of democracy.[61] The government’s reduced tolerance of criticism and discriminatory regulations against minorities has been an unfortunate consequence. Combined, both elements have led to increased abuses of religious freedom. Interestingly, Indonesia’s level of discrimination against religious and social minorities has seemingly remained unchanged since 1998.[62] There are also signs of an increased Islamization with a rise in the visibility of Islamic gatherings, modest clothing, Muslim-only residential compounds, and Shariah-compliant banks.

Given shrinking public space, minorities have resorted to going online. Social movements such as those supporting LGBTQ+ or women’s rights have sought refuge on cyber platforms.[63] While online communities enable like-minded individuals to interact, there are still limitations as the Indonesian government censored, regulated, and controlled the internet. Though Indonesia’s internet governance laws (see Table 1.0 in the Appendix) have been described to be well-intended, censorship regulations have created controversies. This highlights the presence of a specific moral compass being used by the government imposed on its citizens. Additionally, their loose definitional parameters also facilitate their instrumentalization by the government.

6.2.1.     Obstacles to Access

The Indonesian government has resorted to internet shutdowns to manage riots. In 2019 alone, there were three reported cases: one protesting the 2019 presidential election results, a successionist riot in Papua in reaction to the arrest and racist treatment of Papuan students in East Java, and a second similar riot in Papua triggered by racism toward Papuan students in Wamena. Of the three riots, the internet shutdown was the longest in the second riot spanning a two-week period from August 21 to September 4. While the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua in 2019 violated the law, the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise on October 27, 2021. In April 2021, internet access in West Papua was disrupted on three separate occasions coinciding with events related to Papuan successionist movements. These coincidental disruptions were blamed on a damaged sea cable in the area.

6.2.2.     Limits on Content

Indonesia continued its tactic of banning websites deemed inappropriate, including those that purportedly promote religious extremism, pornography, entertainment streaming websites, and websites promoting content piracy. This practice of selective blocking started in 2008 when the government attempted to prevent its citizens from accessing an anti-Islamic film, Fitna. In 2018 alone, nearly 3,000 websites disseminating extremist ideologies were blocked, and about 9,500 other sites were under review. Based on Google’s recent “Content Removal Transparency Report,” Indonesia submitted the largest amount of requests from January to June 2021 on all of Google’s platforms, including YouTube, Google Search, and Blogger. While the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is responsible for blocking sites found inappropriate, ministry officials do not assess the sites requested for review. Instead, agencies like the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) are responsible for the assessments. One potential issue is how such assessments are made and what happens when agencies disagree. Additionally, repeated blocking of popular websites has driven Indonesians to become au fait with countermeasures such as VPNs. In 2019, Indonesia had the most extensive VPN usage in the world.[64] In addition to website blocking, the government banned homosexual emojis in 2016, citing its potential for public unrest.

Indonesia recently passed an internet bill that mandates online service providers to remove or block content on their platforms when requested by the government. According to Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, the law is essential to address disinformation and the destabilizing effects of “fake news.” Under the new rules, service providers must also register with the government by the end of 2022 to obtain the licenses required to operate. This is not the government’s first attempt. Indonesia threatened to ban Blackberry (a handset maker) in 2011 and Telegram (a messaging service) in 2017 on security grounds. These mandatory registrations and the threat that licenses will be withdrawn enable the government to exert control over multinational companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. In complying with Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, these companies are required to ensure that their platforms do not contain or facilitate the distribution of prohibited content. Unfortunately, as with other censorship laws, defining what is prohibited is problematic due to its broad definition.

6.2.3.     Violations of User Rights

One of Indonesia’s cyber laws, known as UU ITE, severely threatens civil liberties.[65] This law, passed in 2008, has been used more frequently by Jokowi’s administration than previous administrations in response to the growing polarization on social media and to counter accusations against it such as corruption and misconduct.[66] In November 2020, it was reported that since 2016, more than 300 criminal cases had been brought under UU ITE.[67] The key issue with the law is its broad definitions. Though its stated purpose is to safeguard the populace against immorality through its criminalization under Article 27(1) of UU ITE, what is deemed immoral is not clearly defined, leaving it open to manipulation. Similarly, in this article and Article 27(3), “transmission” of immoral content is open to interpretation, thus, enabling even private consensual sharing of “immoral” content to be considered an offense. Not only has the government leveraged UU ITE, but also the police, government officials, and business people who form the three largest cohorts to make use of the legislation to pursue their interests.[68]

In Indonesia, cyber harassment is a common way to target “the Other.” The weak legal framework for combating cyberbullying emboldens trolls such as the Muslim Cyber Army, which has a history of harassment and intimidation of individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. Numerous members of this group who go by a multitude of aliases were arrested for crimes such as spreading false reports and inciting racial and religious discrimination. In such an atmosphere, LGBTQ+, non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and other marginalized groups commonly self-censor.[69]

 

Protester with mask strolling through he street filled with Malaysia flags in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 12, 2012. Photo: Soong Kim Huei.

6.3.         Malaysia

For six decades under the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, Malaysia functioned as a hybrid regime. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated Barisan Nasional in the general elections, and for the first time, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition in government. The contested Anti-Fake News Act in December 2019 was also repealed as part of the reform promised by the new government. Unfortunately, the PH experiment lasted for a mere 22 months before a soft coup by the Malay Muslim establishment. Since then, Malaysia has dropped in the rankings on various measures of democratic freedoms. The overly broad, colonial-era Sedition Act remains in place. The change in government and the COVID-19 pandemic actively prevented private media from covering events.[70] However, Malaysians enjoy greater freedom online than they do offline. It is also worth noting that despite the 2020 soft coup, the Perikatan Nasional government has maintained a relatively open space for dissent online.[71]

Returning to the prime ministership in 2018, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad—introducing his new agenda—promised no internet censorship under Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (hereafter the CMA).[72] However, over the years, there has been an increase in laws that govern cyberspace (see Table 1.0 in Appendix for detailed laws).

6.3.1.     Obstacles to Access

The Malaysian government has yet, to completely shut down the internet. The closest the government was accused of affecting the entire network was in 2012 when mobile phone usage was disrupted during a rally.[73] Officially slow internet speed was blamed for the disruption. Another reason given in 2016 was that the government was more focused on providing greater coverage across the country than on increasing the internet speed.[74] In general, Malaysia suffers from a relatively low mobile internet speed, which was 31.34 Mbps on average in September 2021 (the global average was 63.15 Mbps).[75] Slow internet connections were exacerbated during the lockdown period in 2020 and 2021 as more people went online. The government remains committed to improving this by introducing 5G technology in Malaysia in 2023.[76]

6.3.2.     Limits on Content

The Malaysian government has actively blocked thousands of web pages that fit the definition of the “offensive” contained in the CMA Act 1998. As of April 2021, 18 websites were confirmed blocked in the country, whereas many others face anomalies,[77] ranging from pornography to websites that criticized Islam. From 2018 until 2020, 2,921 pornographic websites were blocked, while 4,277 pornographic websites were blocked from 2015 until 2016.[78] Most of the banned websites included terrorist-backed platforms, gambling sites, and the like, which infringe the Muslim ethos of the country.[79] The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocks websites when it receives complaints and applications from government ministries and agencies. This means that the MCMC may abuse its power against the opposition. For example, during the general election in 2018, the MCMC ordered 11 internet service providers to block three websites of Malaysiakini, a popular online news portal known for its neutrality (and thus not being a proxy for the government), on live updates of the election results for fear it could affect “national stability, public order and harmony, and economic stability.”[80]

Compared to the other case studies, the Malaysian government has been less restrictive toward social media companies. In 2018, 97.3 percent of internet users owned a Facebook account, making it the most popular social networking site, whereas 98.1 percent of users preferred WhatsApp as a communication channel.[81] At the same time, the MCMC had requested social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to take down content violating local social and cultural norms. For Twitter, 275 legal demands were made to remove or withhold content from 2012 until 2020.[82]Interestingly, out of the total, 153 requests, or 55.6 percent, were made from July through to December 2020, a huge spike compared to previous years. The same trend is observed with Facebook posts with 376 items of content restricted between January and June 2020, more than double the previous count at 163 from July until December 2019.[83] The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the government to clamp down on critics under the guise of combating fake news. This is done through the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021, which was enforced throughout the Emergency Ordinance period from January until July 2021.

The government has also prosecuted online news portals. The latest major case would be the Federal Court’s finding in February 2021 that the online news portal Malaysiakini is liable for contempt of court over five readers’ comments that the court alleged “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity.”[84] This goes beyond proxies to individual users as well. The 2012 amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 enables enforcement of Section 114A against social media organizations, online forums, news webpages, or even public places that provide wifi, all of which may be liable to legal action from an online user’s action. Although Malaysiakini was fined an exorbitant RM500,000—beyond the RM200,000 sought by the prosecution—they were able to crowdsource the fund within a few hours after the judgment.[85]

6.3.3.     Violations of User Rights

 Prosecution and harassment of users are the most common methods for the Malaysian government to control the internet. In 2020, six journalists from Al Jazeera were investigated for alleged sedition, defamation, and transmitting offensive for airing a critical documentary. Al Jazeera’s staff were faced with abuse and death threats for allegedly sullying Malaysia’s image. Similarly, a Bangladeshi national, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was arrested and later deported for criticizing the government’s treatment of undocumented migrants in an interview. Individuals are commonly charged and prosecuted under Section 233 of the CMA 1998 or the Sedition Act 1948. Fahmi Reza, a well-known graphic designer, has been investigated at least nine times by the police for his satirical artworks criticizing the government. Even a 17-year-old, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who exposed a male teacher on TikTok for allegedly making a rape joke in class, was served with a defamation suit and called on by the police to make a statement apologizing for “breaching the peace.”[86] Ain also faced cyberbullying. During the pandemic, civil servants were barred from sharing online comments critical of the government.[87]

In 2020, the Department of Community Communication (J-KOM) was awarded a budget of RM40 million. The opposition accuses J-KOM of being the government’s propaganda machine and of funding “cyber troopers” who are paid to create positive content for the government and ruthlessly criticize the opposition. It is also true that bots flood social media, spread disinformation, and engender further social polarization at the behest of the state.[88]

In this environment, self-censorship is common in Malaysia. To make matters worse, the MCMC released a statement in January 2021 reminding internet users not to post anything offensive involving the “3Rs”: royalty, religion, or race.[89]

Supporters of the religious political party, chant slogans during a protest following the Supreme Court decision on Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, in Lahore on November 02, 2018. Photo: A. M. Syed.

 

6.4.         Pakistan

The decolonization of British India in 1947 and its subsequent division into two countries, India and Pakistan, was a highly traumatic event that took millions of lives. In the over seven decades since, Pakistan’s politics has been very turbulent, with long periods of military-led dictatorships and hybrid regimes interspersed with a few short periods of democracy. The 2018 general elections brought a new party to power, but the military remains the most potent political force, and while this remains the case, the prospects of true democratization in Pakistan remain thin. After more than three years in power, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has largely failed, and misgovernance and corruption have increased. In a populist fashion, the last three years have seen increased curbs both in and out of cyberspace by the government as it seeks to consolidate its position in office.

The digital footprint of Pakistani citizens has drastically increased in the last decade, with cheap cellular and internet packages becoming available.[90] According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 98 percent of households own a mobile phone. In addition, there was a 17 percent growth in internet usage in just one year, with 90.1 million users recorded in October 2020.[91] Despite this development, the future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall, is bleak in Pakistan due to the ever-increasing rules that control cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, the military establishment, backing the PTI government, has warned the public about “internal enemies” carrying out “fifth-generation warfare” online to justify the curbs.[92]

6.4.1.     Obstacles to Access

Pakistan has a high rate of internet outages. Blackouts on social media and the internet are not uncommon in Pakistan. Since 2005, the state has used blackouts to restrict information from the public. There are three types of shutdowns. First, there are regular internet shutdowns on specific dates, primarily religious and national holidays, as the government argues that there is a greater likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. Second, there are regional shutdowns in areas where there is insurgency or threat of insurgency, such as border areas close to Afghanistan (merged districts, formally known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) and areas in Balochistan. Finally, there are local internet shutdowns, usually for a few hours when the government perceives a threat of terrorism or communal violence. Such shutdowns usually happen at times of protest.[93] In 2012 alone, an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) were lost due to internet outages during Eid (a religious festival), and another 500 million rupees were lost during curbs designed to discourage Ashura processions, a Shia religious practice.[94] Despite these mammoth losses, such blackouts are justified as necessary for “security.”[95]

Long-term shutdowns are usually disciplinary mechanisms. Areas experiencing extended shutdowns are usually the ones where those that the state treats as “Other” tend to reside.[96] Nevertheless, the latest annual report from the PTA has no information about the internet shutdowns.[97]

6.4.2.     Limits on Content

The censorship of websites is one of PTA’s key activities. A hefty chunk of the blocked content is done so based on “indecency” such as pornographic websites and content that threatens Islam or the state. The exact number of websites blocked is unclear as PTA reports give contradictory numbers. They vary between 824,000 URLs to 418,139 URLs.[98]This banning trend has escalated in the last four to five years.

In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published a report called “Anti-State Trends,” which highlighted websites and trends from June 2019 to August 2021 it considered “anti-state.” The report accused separatist movements, political opposition, critical Tweets, and India of colluding with separatists in waging a “fifth-generation warfare” against Pakistan[99]. In reality, these movements are less “anti-state” and more critical of the present government. There are trends of blocking the websites lending support to these factions.[100]

PTA is armed with legislation to ban the operations and content of intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and many more. It usually forces these companies to remove materials and restrict their content based on local laws and sensibilities. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies can be blocked.

One of the most famous episodes of this kind of censorship was when YouTube was banned in Pakistan in September 2012 after refusing to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie, “Innocence of Muslims.” The ban continued for more than three years. During this time, the National Assembly passed a non-binding but unanimous resolution to lift the ban, and courts also ordered negotiations, but the ban was not lifted till 2016.[101] More recently, TikTok has been a target of repeated bans because of its potential to “corrupt” and “misguide” the youth due to its dance dub mashes, pro-LGBTQ+ content, etc.[102] In addition, it has become a routine matter to suspend messaging applications on social media during times of protests or huge processions. The big social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not completely banned nowadays, but they continue to be banned for very short periods as a “security measure.” For instance, in April 2021, a major social media blockage was put in place when the militant religious organization Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) carried out protests in Punjab.[103]

On the pretext of stopping fake news and criminal activity, the PTI government enforced the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content in 2020. This highly problematic regulation compelled the Asia Internet Coalition to write an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to condemn the measure and its consequences. These regulations demand that big tech firms open a local office in Pakistan, mandate storing Pakistani users’ data within the country and oblige companies to remove content when ordered.[104] The near future will indicate the degree to which this law has been instrumentalized.

6.4.3.     Violations of User Rights

Over the years, Pakistan has earned the title of a “surveillance state.”[105] The “war on terror” alliance with the United States allowed Pakistan to enhance its surveillance capabilities with modern standards. As a result, a mass surveillance network has been built in Pakistan since 2005, with the government obtaining technology from both local and foreign surveillance companies, such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8, and Utimaco, to use against its citizens.[106] Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and feminists, among others, now suffer at the hands of this well-designed apparatus.

Through content monitoring and interception, social media have led to cases of enforced disappearances and harassment of journalists and human rights activists who have used platforms, such as Twitter or YouTube, to challenge state narratives and criticize the state.[107] In addition to the “establishment” (i.e., the nexus of politicians and the military), the PTI’s online followers are known for harassing anyone from opposition leaders to journalists critical of PTI facing cyberbullying at their hand.[108] These insults are highly derogatory, and chauvinistic sexism is rampantly used to target women victims. In addition, those who oppose the army, take a positive stance vis-à-vis India or show “liberal” tendencies also encounter similar hostility in online space. Despite the explicit abuse, to date, there are no records of actions taken to curb this bullying under cybercrime laws.[109]

 

Turkish pro government supporters gather in Taksim Square, Istanbul/Turkey on July 19, 2016 after a controversial coup attempt. Photo: John Wreford.

 

6.5.         Turkey

A glimmer of hope was visible for democracy in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the odds by defeating the Kemalist hegemony in Turkish politics.[110] With peace-building processes to reconcile with historically marginalized communities, reforms to improve human rights, and a commitment to join the European Union (EU), the odds of democratization seemed promising when the AKP came to power.

However, after 2010, the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian path. The narrative of the ruling government instils fear and insecurity to legitimize growing authoritarianism.[111] These changes that increasingly curb dissent, criticism, and muffle debate are present both on and offline. Since 2016, 150,348 individuals have been dismissed from office, with 500,650 being criminally investigated, with 96,885 arrested, while 3,003 educational institutions and facilities closed, 6,021 academics have been driven out of their jobs, 4,463 legal professionals such as judges and prosecutors have been terminated, 319 journalists arrested, and 189 media outlets completely closed. In addition to massive crackdowns, it is common for the state to use military custody, and various people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, both inside and outside the country, without reasonable evidence in many cases.[112]

By 2020, cyberspace had become an essential space of resistance in Turkey. Between 78 and 82.6 percent of the total population uses the internet. In addition, some 54 million people, 64 percent of the total population, use various forms of social media, with the average time spent on the internet per day averaging 7 hours and 57 minutes in 2021.[113] Turkey’s digital realm is thus a highly contested political space. It is, thus, not surprising that the digital realm has been meticulously regulated and increasingly surveilled by the AKP government through various measures.

6.5.1.     Obstacles to Access

The Gezi protests in 2013 marked the beginning of internet closures to curb the ability of civil society and activists to organize in Turkey. The aftermath led then Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan to label Twitter the “worst menace to society.”[114] What followed was a marked increase in internet governance. Internet blackouts are one of the many ways of controlling the space, and the newly formed Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK) looks over these procedures. While the government insisted that internet curbs are in place to combat “terrorism,” there was also a political motivation behind some of these.

The Turkish government’s internet shutdowns peaked between 2015 and 2017.[115] The eastern regions faced the major brunt of internet and cellular shutdown during this period. During high-risk security incidents, such as the 2015 Suruç suicide bombing and the 2016 Atatürk Airport bombing, localized internet and cell phone blocks were put in place. With the government’s growing authoritarian approach, digital anti-terrorism laws are increasingly used to persecute marginalized groups such as the Kurds.[116] Most shutdowns have occurred in the southeast, where Kurdish resistance is firmly grounded. One example was the 2016 landline and internet closure in 11 cities in the region with 6 million citizens devoid of access following the arrests of the mayor and co-mayor of Diyarbakir, which led to protests.[117] Additionally, these internet shutdowns cost millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Even though internet shutdowns have decreased from six in 2016 to only one in 2020, the cost is still high, at US$51 million in 2020.[118]

6.5.2.     Limits on Content

The political climate in Turkey has given birth to many “threats” manufactured by the AKP government, such as “FETOists”[119] following 2016, demonizing youth activism during Istanbul’s Bogazici University events of 2021 or the Gezi protests along with pre-existing hostilities toward minorities.[120]

Human rights organisations have reported that the right to privacy online and offline in Turkey has been increasingly under threat. In April 2014, Turkey passed a new law that expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) that was given sweeping powers to amass private data, documents, and personal information in all forms without a court order.[121] Working in tandem, the BTK and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) have targeted pornographic websites, weblinks belonging to armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and since 2016 have targeted sympathizers of the Gülen movement, and LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish voices.

In addition to the lack of transparency, since the website owners do not always receive clear reasons for blocks, they cannot appeal the decision. Without accountability, mere suspicion and precaution are considered sufficient reasons to block a website.[122] From just four websites being blocked in 2006, the number jumped up to 1,014 in 2008 when Law No. 5651 was initially introduced, a dramatic annual rise was visible in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with respective annual blocks of 19,715, 36,287, 27,812, which coincided with the Gezi protests, the corruption exposés and a wave of terrorism in Turkey.[123] From 113,137 websites blocked in October 2016, the number more than doubled in three years to 288,310 in December 2019.[124] Similarly, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 Tweets have been banned in Turkey during 2020.[125] While this pace of blockage has slowed down, the laws in place still play a key role in regular surveillance of websites that are taken down in thousands on an annual basis.[126] Even information platforms such as Wikipedia faced a ban in Turkey when Ankara’s 1st Criminal Court found that certain articles linked Turkey to “terrorist organizations.” The court demanded that relevant articles be edited before the website could function again in Turkey. The ban was lifted in 2020.[127]

Social media intermediaries in Turkey have faced various types of restrictions. It was reported that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all temporarily blocked or throttled in 2016 until they agreed to remove “objectionable” content.[128] Even as early as 2014, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) was mobilized to urge Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to remove critical information that was impacting the AKP’s chances in the future local elections. While Facebook was quick to comply, Twitter and YouTube were blocked nationally for several hours before they eventually complied.[129] Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals. Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.[130]

In addition to social media, the search engine Google has since complied with the thousands of content removal requests by the Turkish state, which peaked in 2016.[131] The government has further cemented its hold on these entities by allowing them incentives to open data centers in Turkey that are obliged to follow Turkish laws under Decree-Law No. 678.[132] Moreover, over-the-top media services (OTTs), such as Netflix, PuhuTV, and BluTV, are now regulated by BTK, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issues mandatory licenses to OTTs before they can stream content in the country.[133] In October 2020, Law No. 7253 with harsher requirements for social media companies was introduced. The impact of this new law is still to be seen.

6.5.3.     Violations of User Rights

While keeping pressure on social media, the Turkish government has also kept the prosecuting individuals for their internet activity open. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, many people faced the government’s wrath. Six months after the coup, the Ministry of Interior stated that more than 10,000 individuals were investigated, 3,710 faced some legal action, and 1,656 people were arrested for their online activity. More recently, in the two months between mid-January and mid-March 2018, 6,342 social media accounts were investigated, and 2,177 individuals were subjected to legal action. Another report states that, between 2013 and 2018, there were more than 20,000 cases against citizens because of their social media activity.[134] They are sometimes indicted under “terrorism” under Article 314(2) on association with an armed organization and Article 147(5), which concern crimes associated with terrorist organizations and aims.[135]

Essentially limiting space for AKP opposing voices has left a void for healthy debate, and pro-AKP voices tend to dominate physical and digital space. In a blunt move during May 2020, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications warned Turkish citizens that even liking or sharing a post could lead to trouble. Journalists, scholars, opposition leaders, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government are more likely to face prosecution. A large number of arrests has a chilling effect and has given rise to self-censorship.[136] Law No. 7253 not only asserts control over social media companies, it also makes individuals using social media ever more vulnerable to the legal system as “the legal or natural person who facilitates its users to create, view, and share content such as text, image, sound, or location to enable social interaction” are open to scrutiny.[137]

While the AKP is also blocking users from digital space, there is also a parallel attempt to leave AKP trolls quite ungoverned as they indulge in cyberbullying. Academics, journalists, and artists who have criticized AKP have found themselves attacked under a culture of “digital culture of lynching and censorship” by the AKP army of trolls.[138] A significant number of trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools.[139] It has been reported that these individuals receive regular payments, and there are also traces that pro-AKP networks further provide benefits to successful trolls, which include entities such as TRT and Turkcell.[140] In addition, AKP has used bots to boost its presence in the digital space, leading to its narrative overrepresentation on online platforms.[141] It was revealed that on a daily average, some 26.7 percent of the top ten trends of Twitter were made by fake accounts or bot trolls. In the same year, the highest impact of these accounts led them to constitute 47.5 percent of the top five Twitter trends.

7.   Faith, Cyberspace, and Populist Authoritarianism

Photo: Andrey Popov.

 

7.1.          Religious Justifications of Internet Curbs by the Government

Religious leaders and movements wield influence, leading to pressure on governments in how they govern digital space. These curbs are justified in civilizational terms, drawing on various themes, including morality, religion, nationalism, and the like. Consequently, many rationales are provided on religious–nationalist lines for cyber governance.

In Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) has attempted to facilitate self-censorship on two occasions. In 2017, the MUI issued Fatwa No. 24 of 2017 to guide Muslim interactions online, prohibiting the spread of hoaxes. Previously, in 2016, the MUI’s branch in Central Sulawesi prohibited married Muslim women from uploading their photos online. It was believed that such acts could “have negative impacts on the individual and their families.” These groups also drive movements that claim to make one a better Muslim with trending hashtags such as #antiselfie, #indonesiatanpapacaran (literal meaning: Indonesia without dating)—this movement advocates singles marrying without courting in advance—as well as #hijrah and #akhwatbercadar (meaning, veiled Muslim ladies).

While highly diverse culturally, Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority. Since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, Islam has been institutionalized within the state apparatus. Consequently, the administration of cyberspace involves justification that has Islamism logic. The MCMC has been deliberating censoring Netflix shows with themes of nudity, sex scenes, and LGBTQ+ content on the platform. Politicians and the government also condemn fake news and justify internet curbs, especially through self-censorship. The ministry deems “fake news” as “fitna” (slander). A religious term is thus instrumentalized to target opposition and critical groups.[142]

In Pakistan, the narrative has become dense in terms of justifying cyber security. In addition to claims that online spaces promote “fifth-generation warfare” against the country by foreigners, religious justifications are being used for cyber governance. The 2020 law has excessively focused on preserving “decency and morality” and promoting “Islamic culture” as opposed to “Western rock and roll” culture.[143] Thus, around 95 percent of the websites banned in 2019 were because of religious reasons.[144]

The Erdoğan regime has always focused on raising a “pious youth”[145] as part of its ideological program. Typically adopting religious connotations in his language, Erdoğan has repeatedly delegitimized public demonstrations against the government, from the Gezi protests in 2013 to those at Bogazici University in 2021, arguing these are Western ploys to bring down the country. Using the same rhetoric that Western values are “corrupting” the youth, AKP trolls have targeted LGBTQ+ communities online. While it has never been illegal to be gay in secular Turkey, the AKP has requested that TikTok’s local moderation ban LGBTQ+ content.[146] “Cleaning up social media” platforms of “questionable” advertisements from Twitter, Pinterest, and the Turkish PeriscopeCo are quite common.[147] This prevents LGBTQ+ and other opposition forces from generating advertisement-driven revenue from the platforms that support them. The anti-queer “moral” jihad also saw Netflix pressured to cancel a Turkish series with an LGBTQ+ storyline.[148]

In 2011, the government ran a “Safe Use of the Internet” campaign, which mandates that organizations offering public internet access (e.g., libraries, cafes) use a Turkish-built filter called the “family filter.” Essentially designed to block foreign and domestic sites containing adult content, the law was positioned to safeguard young children from age-inappropriate content.[149] By 2017, the BTK had blocked some 1.5 million websites in areas such as cafes and refuses to share a list of the websites it blocks.[150]

7.2.         The Prominent Role of Religious Leaders in Restricting Digital Freedom

Interestingly, religious leaders and popular figures that hold power to sway public opinion have a paradoxical stance toward the internet. In countries where they warn against the “evils” of cyberspace, they use the same space to communicate their messages to followers. Of course, each country differs in this regard, yet overall, these religious figures seem to hew close to the line of populist governments and find justifications for the authorities’ authoritarianism.

Religious leaders in Malaysia have usually not taken any firm position regarding restricting online freedom. Instead, they encourage self-censorship to avoid invoking the wrath of God. The highest order of muftis via fatwas have permitted social media usage, but it is deemed prohibited when the platforms are used for actions such as calling someone a bad name, insulting and degrading others, betraying and lying, slander, and malicious gossip.[151] In a less centralized manner in 2014, two muftis, in vain, urged the National Fatwa Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, to release a fatwa prohibiting conversation through social media or messaging apps between unmarried men and women.[152]

In India, beyond religious leaders, Bollywood celebrities have also played a key role in adopting the Hindutva ideology and defending the BJP’s questionable actions. The most prominent of them is Kangana Ranaut. An active Twitter user with millions of followers, she has been suspended on the platform in the past for Islamophobic Tweets. However, since 2014, Ranaut has actively defended the BJP’s politics. Recently she declared that “India got freedom in 2014” (since Modi’s victory) rather than 1947.[153] India’s vast entertainment industry, which influences millions of Indian citizens, has many pro-BJP voices both in front of and behind the camera, which give full support to the BJP, whereas those who question them face a massive backlash from RSS-affiliated online trolls.[154]

In Pakistan, the religious political parties have never done well, politically never managing to gain more than 10 percent seats in general elections. However, religious movements such as TLP that advocate for severe blasphemy punishments and right-wing clerics such as Maulana Tariq Jamel, Farhat Hashmi, and late Dr. Israr Ahmed have millions of followers on their social media. Ironically while they use these platforms actively, these individuals have repeatedly warned against the “dangers” of “Western technology” and have expressed concern over “anti-Islamic” sentiments of “misguided” liberal youth and Westerns.[155]

Internet governance is also justified by pro-government religious institutions and scholars in Turkey. During the last two decades, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the centralized religious authority, has provided faith-based explanations to back Erdoğan’s moral crusade against the “external” and “internal” enemies.[156] For example, in 2016, the “Social Media and the Family in the Context of Privacy” forum was held to guide Turks on building strong Muslim families, including the rights and responsibilities of each member to avoid the dangers of social media. The President of Diyanet at the time, Mehmet Gormez, directly targeted social media in his opening speech.[157] More recently, Diyanet has published a booklet, “Social Media Ethics,” which advocates for stronger control of the realm and the use of Islam as a yardstick.[158] Ali Erbas, the current president, often uses his bully pulpit to promote pro-AKP stances. His inflammatory comments on LGBTQ+ youth “spreading HIV” became a polarized Twitter debate.[159] Erbas has also used his Twitter to participate in AKP-led political campaigns highlighting Islamophobia. In 2021, a Twitter post targeting Islam by far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders led top AKP leaders and Erdoğan himself to criticize the Dutch firebrand, and Ali Erbas was also found following the trend of condemning Wilders.[160]

Beyond Diyanet, a host of pro-AKP Islamic scholars have echoed similar narratives. These figures include a close AKP circle of individuals such as Nihat Hatipoglu, a TV show host, and Hayrettin Karaman, a columnist, both Islamic scholars.[161] They use these mediums to sow the idea that social media is full of misinformation targeting Turkish national interests, and it harbors the ability to mislead youth. Karaman has gone as far as publishing a highly emotive poem in his column that warns readers of the dangerous pull of capitalism and immorality of social media, while Hatipoglu has issued a so-called “tele-fatwa” warning of ethical ways of exchanging messages between unmarried women and men.[162]

7.3.         Laws to Limit Blasphemy, Heresy, Heterodoxy, and Pornography

Faith being a highly emotive subject, once instrumentalized, it seems to hold power over millions. Our case studies show that populists have a nuanced approach that creates a moral or religious crisis. Consequently, they justify their authoritarianism as means to “save” “the people.” These real-life realities are echoed online and, for many, lead to serious consequences such as losing personal safety and possible legal prosecution.

There is no blasphemy law in India, but hate speech is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. However, rather than formal punishment targeting minorities (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs), it is common for the BJP and its pundits to encourage or overlook the questionable acts of the pro-Hindutva “cyber volunteers.” In the country, 87.4 percent of fake news spreads via social media,[163] which sometimes results in communal rioting or targeting harassment and killing of individuals accused of consuming beef known as “cow lynching.”[164] Most events of mob killing by BJP representatives have been dismissed or have led to blatant victims blaming who “asked for it” because of their “hurtful” actions.[165]

In other regions, explicit blasphemy laws are in place that permit curbs on freedoms online. In Indonesia, blasphemy is covered by Articles 156 and 156(a) of KUHP (criminal code) and in the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965) on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. As outlined in Article 156(a), those “who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuse or defame a religion recognized in Indonesia,” face a maximum of five years imprisonment. When an online video of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), a Chinese Christian, discussing Qur’anic verse surfaced during his election campaign in 2016, Ahok was charged and later sentenced to 20 months in prison for insulting Islam. It led to the end of his political career.[166] In 2021, an Indonesian Christian preacher landed in hot water after uploading a video stating that he was the “26th Prophet,” while in Europe, Interpol’s assistance was sought to extradite and trial him.[167] Unfortunately, this encouraged some clerics to demand the “head” of the accused.[168] Additionally, the pornography law has been used to target the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the loose definition, the law aids in identifying “suspects” and sometimes leads to public humiliation such as being strip-searched, photographed, and forced to march naked into police vehicles.[169]

Malaysia also has strict laws on blasphemy. Under the law, Sunni Islam is recognized, with Shiites, Ahmadis, and those from al-Arqam being “deviant.” There is evidence of groups spreading sectarian hatred. One such example is Gerakan Banteras Syiah, with more than 25,000 followers.[170] The government has also suspended a Tamil-language daily for mistakenly printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette under the law.[171] More commonly, the laws have been instrumentalized to target the LGBTQ+ community.[172] There has been some discussion steered by the minister of religious affairs to regulate LGBTQ+ activity online, yet nothing has come out of it.[173] There is no law against simply watching porn online in Malaysia, but the MCMC is active in blocking the websites, and in 2013, two persons who were charged for posting pornographic images of themselves on their blog were charged and tried.[174]

Similarly, the colonial-era blasphemy law enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution is misused by right-wing clerics and movements both off and online. These groups have mainly targeted minorities and democratic voices. It is common for people to face imprisonment and, in the worst cases, be issued death sentences if their internet posts or cell phone messages show “questionable” remarks about Islam.[175] While governments and political parties have stayed away from making anti- or pro-comments, the grassroots clerics and their movements have used cyberspace to pressure the state judiciary to target these individuals by running online campaigns.[176]

While Turkey remains secular via its constitution, blasphemy charges have been made possible under a 2016 amendment to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). While no specific religion is mentioned in the legislation, it is usually used to “defend” Islam. For example, under the amended article, the pianist Fazil Say was tried and sentenced to a jail term for tweeting his skepticism over Islamic values, while actress Berna Lacin was charged with blasphemy for contesting capital punishment in a Tweet in 2018 (she was acquitted after two years). Also, two journalists were each handed two-year sentences for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo sketches satirizing Islam under the law in 2016. In 2020, Enver Aysever, a journalist, was arrested and charged for mocking clergy and their attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic.[177] Astonishingly, people who shared the video of “Bella Ciao” being played in an Izmir mosque were also warned to take off the posts or otherwise face charges by Izmir’s Chief Public Prosecutor.[178]

7.4.          More Restrictions on Religious Minorities or in Areas Where Religious Minorities Live in Large Numbers

The countries that display direct targeting of minorities are mainly confined to India and Turkey. In the former, the hurried abrogation of Articles 35a and 370, in August 2019 from the constitution of India, the region of Kashmir administered by India, has witnessed one of the world’s worst forms of suppression of freedoms, lasting 213 days.[179] The region alone accounts for 90 percent of internet shutdowns in the country.[180] The curbs are justified as means of primitively controlling jihadist activity in Kashmir.[181] Despite the crippling impact on tourism, healthcare, education, and the overall economy, the curbs continue.[182] Between January 2012 and March 2021, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far.[183] In Turkey, the internet shutdown that explicitly targets a region is based on ethnicity rather than religious conflict. Due to the prolonged conflict with the Kurdish community, the regions with Kurdish resistance pockets, as mentioned above, have faced the largest brunt of internet blackouts. However, like India, these are explained as measures to curb “terrorism,” whereas it is rooted in an ideological conflict between the Turkish state and the right of the Kurdish people to exist freely.

8.   Conclusion

Change is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Once considered a Latin American issue or a rarity, the most recent wave of populism has resulted in a drastic global political transformation so much so that it looms large in two of the world’s largest democracies (the United States and India). Impressively, if worryingly, it has latched on to religion which has the power to mobilize crowds and cloud judgment regarding the capabilities of populists in power. This report has brought to light a unique aspect of this nexus between faith and populism, and it offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which events are taking place.

Religion and politics merge in each country to shape cyber governance. For most countries, the last two decades have been dominated by the introduction and rapid adoption of digital technology. Thus, there is still debate about where laws should and should not intervene. The wading of religion into politics in context, it has to be said, usually begins with the right intentions—to regulate cyberspace in the interest of citizens. However, over the years, both politicians and political movements have used relatively lax legal frameworks to their partisan advantage.

Nevertheless, partisan entities have exploited the law in an instrumentalized fashion to curb opposition, exert control, and use the space for growth in popularity. Most populist governments’ cyber governance politics mirror their offline undemocratic policies. For stakeholders outside the ambit of power, cyberspace allows them a medium of connection to spread their ideology. Ironically there is a love-hate relationship with social media. Most of these leaders organize and communicate with their followers using digital media, yet, at the same time, constantly warn against the “ills” of such platforms. Essentially, morality has been a common theme used by all stakeholders to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws. Moral panics about digital space simply juice up widespread anxieties and catalyze populist appeal while simultaneously acting as a curtain for their undemocratic actions.

Mirroring and interconnectedness of cybers and offline spaces in quite evident. Firstly, it is noteworthy that populists understand the value of digital space. Thus, in most cases, we notice an active monopolization of the realm that uses both religious and security-driven justifications to limit space for opposition and civil society and at the same time reclaim that space for themselves and their allies. With total control over an alternative space, populists replicate offline socio-politics there. Essentially, this sees populist authoritarianism migrate to the digital realm and also plays some role in shaping offline events such as the case of cow lynching in India or Tweets leading to trials under blasphemy laws in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

The future of democracies is highly intertwined with digital space. The narrative that plays a part in bringing a movement to life or aiding political victory is determined in this realm to a great degree. While the overall picture of free digital space seems precarious in the near future, on the other hand, the individual differences in each case study offer some hope that a move toward democracy might lead to a reconsideration of digital authoritarianism. However, the degree of social damage they are causing is hard to determine. Today Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment where they can hurl abuse without even physically seeing any consequences or feeling the victim’s plight. 

9.   Appendix

 

10.        Author Bios*

IHSAN YILMAZ is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the European Center for Populism Studies (Brussels). He has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism (Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, India); securitization; “sharp power”; nation-building; citizenship; Islamism; ethnic-religious-political minorities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); Muslim minorities (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; Turkish politics; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; and intergroup contact (Australia). Professor Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008–2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001–2008), and was a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999–2001). He is the author of Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

RAJA M. ALI SALEEM is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.

MAHMOUD PARGOO is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney. Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

SYAZA SHUKRI is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. She has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at syazashukri@iium.edu.my.

IDZNURSHAM ISMAIL, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a Master in Strategic Studies and a First Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.

KAINAT SHAKIL is a non-resident Research Associate at the European Center for Populism Studies. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. A large part of her work was qualitative research mapping to understand the public’s perceptions, feelings, reactions, and engagement with government policies and vice versa. Shakil also develops interactive cultural, historical, and political curricula for middle school pupils with a focus on inclusivity. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.


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[13] Jordan Kyle & Brett Meye, “High Tide? Populism in Power, 1990–2020.” Tony Blair Institute of Global Change, (2020): 7, accessed November 15, 2021 https://institute.global/sites/default/files/2020-02/High%20Tide%20Populism%20in%20Power%201990-2020.pdf

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[16] Philip N. Howard Philip, “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” in Oxford Studies in Digital Politics (2010): 29, 62 & 91. 

[17] Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson, “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion and Emotions,” Religions 12, no. 4 (2021): 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272

[18] Alina Polyakova & Chris Meserole, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese models.” Brookings, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/exporting-digital-authoritarianism/.

[19] Amnesty International, “Internet Censorship,” May 19, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.amnestyusa.org/themes/business-human-rights/internet-censorship/; IP Locations,  “What is Internet Censorship?,” July 18, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.iplocation.net/internet-censorship.

[20] Radio Farda, “The head of the Basij announced the existence of a “cyber thousand battalion” of this force in cyberspace, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/30151235.html

[21] Anita Gurumurthy & Deepti Bharthur, “Democracy and the Algorithmic Turn,” International Journal of Human Rights 39 (2018): 40–41; Karl Manheim & Lyric Kaplan “Artificial Intelligence: Risks to Privacy and Democracy,” (2019). Robin Jeffrey & Assa Doron, “Mobile-izing: Democracy, Organization and India’s First ‘Mass Mobile Phone’ Elections,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 1 (2012): 63–80.; Sasha Issenberg, “How President Obama’s Campaign Used Big Data to Rally Individual Voters,” Technology Review 116, no. 1 (2012): 38–49, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2012/12/19/114510/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/.

[22] Mary K. Pratt, “Cyber Attack.” Tech Target, January 2021, accessed November 15, 2021 https://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/cyber-attack

[23] Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi, “Iranian Hackers Found Way into Encrypted Apps, Researchers Say.” The New York Times, September 18, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/world/middleeast/iran-hacking-encryption.html.

[24] Internet Society, “Policy Brief: Internet Shutdowns,” December 18, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.internetsociety.org/policybriefs/internet-shutdowns/.

[25] Pen America, “Defining ‘Online Abuse’: A Glossary of Terms,” 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/defining-online-harassment-a-glossary-of-terms/.

[26] Steven Feldstein, The global expansion of AI surveillance. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019); Steven Feldstein. “When It Comes to Digital Authoritarianism, China is a Challenge—But Not the Only Challenge,” War on the Rocks (2020).

[27] Ishan Sharma, “A More Responsible Digital Surveillance Future,” Federation of American Scientists (2021): 5, accessed November 15, 2021, https://uploads.fas.org/2021/02/Digital-Surveillance-Future.pdf

[28]Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan L. Zittrain,  Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, (MIT Press, 2008): 18.

[29]Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski and Jonathan L. Zittrain, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace, (MIT Press 2010).

[30] Adrian Shahbaz & Allie Funk, “Freedom on the Net 2021,” Freedom House, 2021: 30–35, accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2021/global-drive-control-big-tech.

[31] Freedom House, “India,” 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/india/freedom-world/2021.

[32] Megha Manchanda, “Internet users up nearly 4% to over 825 million in Q4 of FY21: TRAI data,” Business Standard, August 27, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/internet-users-up-nearly-4-to-over-825-million-in-q4-of-fy21-trai-data-121082701105_1.html

[33] Shadab Nazmi, “Why India shuts down the internet more than any other democracy,” BBC, December 19, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50819905.

[34] R. Sharma, “#AntiCAAProtests: Negotiating Online and Off-Line Resistance,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 37, no. 2 (2021): 121–126, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://doi.org/10.2979/jfemistudreli.37.2.09.

[35] Ankita Chakravarti, “India saw highest number of internet shutdowns in the world in 2020, ” India Today. March 4, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/news/story/india-saw-highest-number-of-internet-shutdowns-in-the-world-in-2020-1775608-2021-03-04.

[36] Diksha Munjal, “In India, are internet shutdowns in accordance with law? Not always,” News Laundry, October 29, 2021,  accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.newslaundry.com/2021/10/29/in-india-are-internet-shutdowns-in-accordance-with-law-not-always.

[37]Sandhya Keelery, “India: Social Media urls blocked by government 2020,” Statista, August 10, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1102154/india-urls-blocked-on-social-media-by-government/.

[38]Ibid.

[39] Regina Mihindukulasuriya, “These are the apps and websites Modi govt blocked in 2020,” The Print, March 18, 2021, accessed November 15, https://theprint.in/india/governance/these-are-the-apps-and-websites-modi-govt-blocked-in-2020/623337/; Jay Mazoomdaar & Ritu Sarin,  “India tops list of websites blocked, its telcos filter the most,” The Indian Express, April 25, 2018, accessed November 15,   https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-tops-list-of-websites-blocked-its-telcos-filter-the-most-netsweeper-5150620/

[40] Jay Mazoomdaar & Ritu Sarin,  “India tops list of websites blocked, its telcos filter the most,” The Indian Express, April 25, 2018, accessed November 15,   https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-tops-list-of-websites-blocked-its-telcos-filter-the-most-netsweeper-5150620/

[41] Regina Mihindukulasuriya, “These are the apps and websites Modi govt blocked in 2020,” The Print, March 18, 2021, accessed November 15, https://theprint.in/india/governance/these-are-the-apps-and-websites-modi-govt-blocked-in-2020/623337/

[42] Yasmin Ahmed, “Use of VPNs in India spiking because of blocked websites, experts say ban proposal will not help users,” India Today, October 18, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021, https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/features/story/use-of-vpns-in-india-spiking-because-of-blocked-websites-experts-say-ban-proposal-will-not-help-users-1866073-2021-10-18.

[43] Ibid. 

[44] Katharina Buchholz, “Infographic: The cost of internet shutdowns,” Statista Infographics, January 6, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021, https://www.statista.com/chart/23864/estimated-cost-of-internet-shutdowns-by-country/.

[45] Seema Jhingan Priyam R. Kumar, “Code of Ethics Under the Information Technology Rules, 2021—Stay Orders By The High Courts Of Bombay And Madras,” Mondaq. October 7, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021,  https://www.mondaq.com/india/media-entertainment-law/1118278/code-of-ethics-under-the-information-technology-rules-2021-stay-orders-by-the-high-courts-of-bombay-and-madras.

[46] Kavita Chowdhury, “Modi Government’s Growing Use of the Iron Fist,” The Diplomat, September 20, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021https://thediplomat.com/2021/09/modi-governments-growing-use-of-the-iron-fist/.

[47] Ibid.

[48]Debangana Ghosh, “Social-media giants remove 111mn posts,” Business Line, October 25, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/social-media-giants-remove-111-m-posts/article37151570.ece?__cf_chl_captcha_tk__=HNSu8RkDzl1yxa37WStk2Wr7FNfKIQpIV8mIRpFkWKA-1636582516-0-gaNycGzNCOU.

[49] Ibid. 

[50] Karan D. Singh and Mozur, Paul, “As Outbreak Rages, India Orders Critical Social Media Posts to Be Taken Down,” The New York Times, April 25, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/25/business/india-covid19-twitter-facebook.html.

[51] Ibid. 

[52] Zee Memdia Bureau, “Tandav, Mirzapur to a suitable boy–Ott content which courted controversies!,” ZeeNews. February 25, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021, https://zeenews.india.com/web-series/from-tandav-mirzapur-to-a-suitable-boy-ott-content-which-courted-controversies-2344324.html..

[53] Sangeeta Mahapatra,  “Digital Surveillance and the Threat to Civil Liberties in India,” GIGA, May 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021,  https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/24697659-digital-surveillance-threat-civil-liberties-india/.

[54] Internet Freedom Foundation, “Explainer: Why India’s new rules for social media, news sites are anti-democratic, unconstitutional,” Scroll.in, February 27, 2021, accessed on November 15, 2021,  https://scroll.in/article/988105/explainer-how-indias-new-digital-media-rules-are-anti-democratic-and-unconstitutional.

[55] Sangeeta Mahapatra,  “Digital Surveillance and the Threat to Civil Liberties in India,” GIGA, May 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/24697659-digital-surveillance-threat-civil-liberties-india/.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Jahanzaib Haque & Atika Rehman, “Hacking Team hacked: The Pakistan connection, and India’s expansion plan,” Dawn. June 22, 2017, accessed  November 15, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1196767.

[58] Krishn Kaushik, “World press freedom index: India retains 142 of 180 spot, remains ‘one of the world’s most dangerous countries’ for journalists,” The Indian Express, April 20, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/world-press-freedom-index-india-remains-one-of-the-worlds-most-dangerous-countries-for-journalists-7281362/.

[59] Al Jazeera, “India’s top court asks: Did gov’t use Pegasus spyware to snoop?,” October 27, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/10/27/indias-top-court-asks-did-govt-use-pegasus-spyware-to-snoop.

[60] Stanley Widianto, “Bound by Culture and Religion, Indonesia is Paranoid about LGBT rights, but We Won’t be Silenced,” The Guardian, February 26, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/26/bound-by-culture-and-religion-indonesia-is-paranoid-about-lgbt-rights-but-we-wont-be-silenced.

[61] Saiful Mujani & R. William Liddle, “Indonesia: Jokowi Sidelines Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 4 (2021): 72–86.

[62] Nathanael Gratias Sumaktoyo, “A Price for Democracy? Religious Legislation and Religious Discrimination in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 56, no. 1 (2020).

[63]  Stanley Widianto, “Bound by Culture and Religion, Indonesia is Paranoid about LGBT rights, but We Won’t be Silenced,” The Guardian, February 26, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/26/bound-by-culture-and-religion-indonesia-is-paranoid-about-lgbt-rights-but-we-wont-be-silenced

[64] Martin James Moloney, “An Exploratory Study of the Usage of Banned Social Networking Site “Reddit” in Indonesia,” WACANA Jurnal Ilmiah Ilmu Komunikasi 18, no. 2 (2019): 181–190.

[65] Saiful Mujani & R. William Liddle, “Indonesia: Jokowi Sidelines Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 4 (2021): 72–86.

[66] Ibid. 

[67] Ibid. 

[68]  M Rosseno Aji, “Pejabat dan Pengusaha Paling Sering Pakai UU ITE untuk Laporkan Orang,” Tempo.co. February 19, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://nasional.tempo.co/read/1434509/pejabat-dan-pengusaha-paling-sering-pakai-uu-ite-untuk-laporkan-orang.

[69] Kate Lamb & Stanley Widianto, “Digital attacks raise fears over press freedoms in Indonesia,” Reuters, August 24, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-media-hacking-idUSKBN25K14G.

[70] Freedom House, “Malaysia,” accessed November 15, 2021,  https://freedomhouse.org/country/malaysia/freedom-world/2021.

[71] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2021: Malaysia,” accessed November 15, 2021,    https://freedomhouse.org/country/malaysia/freedom-net/2021.

[72] MSC Status Office, “Bill of Guarantees (BOGs),” 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, http://www.mscstatus.com/bill-of-guarantee-incentive.

[73] Meikeing Yuen, “Govt denies jamming calls during Bersih rally,” The Star, June 14, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2012/06/14/govt-denies-jamming-calls-during-bersih-rally.

[74] Malay Mail, “Ministry: Slow Internet in Malaysia because focus more on coverage,” April 5, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2016/04/05/ministry-slow-internet-in-malaysia-because-focus-more-on-coverage/1093967.

[75] Speedtest, “Speedtest Global Index,” 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.speedtest.net/global-index#mobile.

[76] Farah Adilla, “Malaysia’s 5G deployment moved to 2023?,” New Straits Times October 21, 2020,  accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.nst.com.my/business/2020/10/634029/malaysias-5g-deployment-moved-2023.

[77] OONI, “Malaysia,” April 5, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://explorer.ooni.org/search?probe_cc=MY&probe_asn=4788&since=2021-04-03&until=2021-04-05&only=confirmed.

[78]   Mahaizura Abd Malik, “MCMC: Almost 3,000 pornographic sites blocked since Sept 2018,” New Straits Times January 25, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.nst.com.my/news/crime-courts/2021/01/660369/mcmc-almost-3000-pornographic-sites-blocked-sept-2018.; Borneo Post Online, “MCMC blocks websites ‘to keep Internet users safe’,” December 31, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.theborneopost.com/2016/12/31/mcmc-blocks-websites-to-keep-internet-users-safe/.

[79]Borneo Post Online, “MCMC blocks websites ‘to keep Internet users safe’,” December 31, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.theborneopost.com/2016/12/31/mcmc-blocks-websites-to-keep-internet-users-safe/.; Borneo Post Online, “MCMC Blocks Over 5,000 Websites for Various Offences—Jailani.” December 14, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.mcmc.gov.my/en/media/press-clippings/mcmc-blocks-over-5-000-websites-for-various-offence.; MCMC, “2,195 Laman Sesawang Judi Dalam Talian Disekat, 19,765 Talian Telefon Ditamatkan (Cont’),” April 21, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.mcmc.gov.my/en/media/press-releases/2-195-laman-sesawang-judi-dalam-talian-disekat-19

[80] Malaysiakini, “MCMC ordered at least 11 ISPs to block Mkini GE14 sites,” May 19, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/425819.

[81] MCMC. Internet Users Survey 2018. (Cyberjaya, Selangor: MCMC, 2018)

[82] Twitter, “Malaysia,” Twitter Transparency Report, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://transparency.twitter.com/en/reports/countries/my.html.

[83] Facebook, “Malaysia,” Facebook Transparency Center, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://transparency.fb.com/data/contentrestrictions/country/MY/.

[84] Malaysiakini, “AG files application to cite Mkini for contempt over readers’ comments,” June 16, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/530477.

[85] Ibid. 

[86] N. Goh, “#MakeSchoolASaferPlace: anger and dismay after Malaysia investigates student who called out teacher’s rape jokes,” South China Morning Post August 7, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3144201/makeschoolasaferplace-anger-and-dismay-after-malaysia-investigates?module=perpetual_scroll&pgtype=article&campaign=3144201.

[87] Yiswaree Palansamy, “Health Ministry issues gag order against staff after public complaints on Covid-19 vaccine rollout,” Malay Mail. March 4, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2021/03/04/health-ministry-issues-gag-order-against-staff-after-public-complaints-on-c/1954820.

[88] Samantha Bradshaw, Ualan Campbell-Smith, Amelie Henle, Antonella Perini, Sivanne Shalev Hannah Bailey & Philip N. Howard, “Country Case Studies: Industrialized Disinformation: 2020: Global Inventory of Organized Social: Media Manipulation,” Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute(2019), accessed November 15, 2021, https://demtech.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/127/2021/03/Case-Studies_FINAL.pdf.

[89] MCMC, “Pengguna Media Sosial Diingatkan Jaga Kesopanan Dan Kesusilaan Ketika Memberikan Pandangan Atau Ulasan,” 2021, January 12, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.mcmc.gov.my/en/media/press-releases/pengguna-media-sosial-diingatkan-jaga-kesopanan-da.

[90] ITU, “Global Cybersecurity Index 2020,” 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-d/opb/str/D-STR-GCI.01-2021-PDF-E.pdf.

[91] PTA, “Annual Report 2019–20.” PTA, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/annual-reports.

[92] Ahsan I. Butt, “Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?,” Al Jazeera January 4, 2021,  accessed November 15, 2021,https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/4/are-india-and-pakistan-in-a-fifth-generation-war.

[93] Shah Meer Baloch, “Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown,” The Diplomat March 25, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/balochistans-great-internet-shutdown/.; Ben Wagner, “Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan,” International Journal of Communication. 12 (2018): 3917–3938.

[94] Ibid. 

[95] S. Afzal Khan, “Internet and Social Media Blackouts Are Hurting Businesses in Pakistan,” The Diplomat May 6, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/internet-and-social-media-blackouts-are-hurting-businesses-in-pakistan/.

[96] Ben Wagner, “Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan,” International Journal of Communication 12 (2018): 3917–3938.; Lucy Purdon, , Arsalan Ashraf & Ben Wagner, “Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns, Case Study Telenor Pakistan,” The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), 2015, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.ihrb.org/uploads/reports/2015-09%2C_IHRB_Report%2C_Security_v_Access_-_The_Impact_of_Mobile_Network_Shutdowns.pdf..

[97] PTA. Annual Report 2018–19, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/annual-reports.

[98] PTA. Annual Report 2019–20. 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/annual-reports (accessed on November 15, 2021); PTA. Annual Report 2018–19, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/annual-reports.

[99] Ahsan I. Butt, “Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?,” Al Jazeera January 4, 2021,  accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/4/are-india-and-pakistan-in-a-fifth-generation-war.

[100] Mehtab Haider, “PTA blocks website in Pakistan,” The News, January 23, 2021,  accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/778521-pta-blocks-website-in-pakistan. Ali Kalbe,  “900,000 websites blocked over content, says PTA,” Dawn, September 27, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.dawn.com/news/1507590/900000-websites-blocked-over-content-says-pta.

[101] CNBC, “Pakistan lifts YouTube ban after three years,” January 18, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2016/01/18/pakistan-lifts-youtube-ban-after-three-years.html; Tommy Wilkes, “Pakistan lifts ban on YouTube after launch of local version,” Reuters., January 18, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-youtube-idUSKCN0UW1ER.

[102] Unnati Sharma, “Vulgarity monitors for TikTok is the new thing in Pakistan after four bans,” The Print, September 28, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://theprint.in/go-to-pakistan/vulgarity-monitors-for-tik-tok-is-the-new-thing-in-pakistan-after-four-bans/741902/.

[103] Asad Hashim, “Pakistan temporarily blocks social media over potential protests,” Al Jazeera April 16, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/16/pakistan-temporarily-blocks-social-media-amid-anti-france-rallies.

[104] Ramshah Jahangir, “Pakistan among countries with most content removal requests: Facebook,” Dawn, May 13, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1556715/pakistan-among-countries-with-most-content-removal-requests-facebook..

[105] Dawn, “Surveillance State,” March 22, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.dawn.com/news/1613927/surveillance-state.

[106] Privacy International,  Tipping the scales: Security & surveillance in Pakistan, 2015, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://privacyinternational.org/sites/default/files/2018-02/PAKISTAN%20REPORT%20HIGH%20RES%2020150721_0.pdf.

[107] RSF, “Pakistan: Surge in harassment of journalists who ‘criticize’ on social media,” September 17, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://rsf.org/en/news/pakistan-surge-harassment-journalists-who-criticize-social-media.

[108] H. R. Raja “Dissecting the actions of PTI’s online brigade,” The Express Tribune December 20, 2020, , accessed November 15, 2021,  https://tribune.com.pk/article/97251/dissecting-the-actions-of-ptis-online-brigade; Hina Butt, “PTI trolls and social media toxicity,” Daily Times, January 16, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://dailytimes.com.pk/714047/pti-trolls-and-social-media-toxicity/.

[109] Ibid. 

[110] Ihsan Yilmaz, “Muslim Democrats in Turkey and Egypt: Participatory Politics as a Catalyst,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 11, No. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 93-112.

[111] Freedom House, “Turkey,” 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,   https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020; Ihsan Yilmaz, Erdoan Shipoli, and Mustafa Demir, “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of A Secularist Far-Right Party,” Democratization 28(6), 1115-1132

[112] Human Rights Watch,  “Turkey Events of 2020,” 2020, accessed November 15, 2021,    https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/turkey.; Maxim, Edwards, “Erdoğan’s Long Arm: The Turkish Dissidents Kidnapped From Europe,” Haaretz. August 30, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021,    https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/turkey/.premium-erdogan-s-long-arm-the-turkish-nationals-kidnapped-from-europe-1.6428298

[113] Daily Sabah, “Rate of internet users in Turkey rises to 82.6%,” August 26, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/rate-of-internet-users-in-turkey-rises-to-826/news; World Bank Data Bank, “Individuals using the Internet (% of population),” accessed November 15, 2021,    https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.ZS?locations=TR; Retro Digital, “Türkiye İnternet ve Sosyal Medya Alışkanlıkları Raporu, Ocak 2021,” https://recrodigital.com/turkiye-internet-ve-sosyal-medya-aliskanliklari-raporu-ocak-2021/, accessed November 15, 2021.  

[114] Melih Kırlıdoğ & Mustafa Akgül, “The internet and the recent coup attempt in Turkey,” Internet Policy Review, September 14, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://policyreview.info/articles/news/internet-and-recent-coup-attempt-turkey/423.

[115] Fevzi Doruk Ergun, “National Security vs. Online Rights and Freedoms in Turkey: Moving Beyond the Dichotomy,” Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), April 3, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://edam.org.tr/en/national-security-vs-online-rights-and-freedoms-in-turkey-moving-beyond-the-dichotomy/.

[116] J. Conditt, “Turkey shuts off internet service in 11 Kurdish cities,” Engadget. October 27, 2016accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.engadget.com/2016-10-27-turkey-internet-shutdown-kurdish-cities.html.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Katharina Buchholz, “The Cost of Internet Shutdowns,” Statista January 6, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.statista.com/chart/23864/estimated-cost-of-internet-shutdowns-by-country/.

[119] “Fethullahist Terror Organisation or FETO” is a derogatory term invented by the Erdogan regime to securitize and label the Gulen Movement after gigantic December 17/25, 2013 graft scandal, see in detail Ihsan Yilmaz and Erdoan Shipoli, “Use of Past Collective Traumas, Fear and Conspiracy Theories for Securitisation and Repression of the Opposition: The Turkish Case,” Democratization, doi: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1953992.

[120] Ihsan Yilmaz, Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey  (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Andrews Wilks, “Turkey’s student protests: New challenge for Erdoğan,” Al Jazeera February 6, 2021, accessed November 15 2021,  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/6/turkeys-student-protests-new-challenge-for-erdogan; Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.

[121] Human Rights Watch, “Turkey: Internet Freedom, Rights in Sharp Decline,” Human Rights Watch, 2 September 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/02/turkey-internet-freedom-rights-sharp-decline, accessed November 15, 2021.

[122] Fevzi Doruk Ergun, “National Security vs. Online Rights and Freedoms in Turkey: Moving Beyond the Dichotomy,” Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) April 3, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021, https://edam.org.tr/en/national-security-vs-online-rights-and-freedoms-in-turkey-moving-beyond-the-dichotomy/.

[123] Ibid. 

[124] Freedom House, “Turkey,” accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020.

[125] F. Timuçin, 8-Bit Iron Fist: Digital Authoritarianism in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes: The Cases of Turkey and Hungary, Master’s thesis (Sabanci University: Istanbul, Turkey,  2021) accessed November 15, 2021,  https://research.sabanciuniv.edu/42417/.

[126] Julius M. Rogenhofer and Ayala Panievsky, “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel,” Democratization 27, no. 8 (2020): 1394-1412, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

[127] Hurriyet Daily News,“Wikipedia ban lifted after top court ruling issued,” January 15, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/wikipedia-ban-lifted-after-top-court-ruling-issued-150993.; The Guardian, “Turkey blocks Wikipedia under law designed to protect national security,” April 30, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/29/turkey-blocks-wikipedia-under-law-designed-to-protect-national-security.

[128] Fevzi Doruk Ergun, “National Security vs. Online Rights and Freedoms in Turkey: Moving Beyond the Dichotomy,” Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) April 3, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021, https://edam.org.tr/en/national-security-vs-online-rights-and-freedoms-in-turkey-moving-beyond-the-dichotomy/.

[129] Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.

[130] Freedom House, “Turkey,” accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020.

[131] Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.

[132] Ibid. 

[133] James Pearce, “Turkey to Introduce New Regulations for OTT Services,” IBC August 6, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.ibc.org/trends/turkey-to-introduce-new-regulations-for-ott-services/4239.article.; Turgay Yerlikaya,“Supervision or Censorship? Turkey’s Regulation on Netflix and Web-Based Broadcasting,” Politics Today August 29, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://politicstoday.org/supervision-or-censorship-turkeys-regulation-on-netflix-and-web-based-broadcasting/.

[134] Freedom House, “Turkey,” accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020); Fevzi Doruk Ergun, “National Security vs. Online Rights and Freedoms in Turkey: Moving Beyond the Dichotomy,” Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) April 3, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021, https://edam.org.tr/en/national-security-vs-online-rights-and-freedoms-in-turkey-moving-beyond-the-dichotomy/.

[135] Ezel Sahinkaya, “Erdoğan Says Media Are ‘Incomparably Free,’ But Turkish Journalists Disagree,” VOA News, October 13, 2021, accessed November 15 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/turkey-erdogan-press-freedom/6269435.html.

[136] Freedom House, “Turkey,” accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020.

[137] G. B. Coşkun, “Media capture strategies in new authoritarian states: the case of Turkey.” Publizistik 65 (2020): 637–654, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11616-020-00600-9.; Yusuf M. Özer, “Parliament Finally Amends Internet Law: New Social Media Regulations and Removal of Content,” IRGlobal August 24, 2020, accessed November 15 2021, https://www.irglobal.com/article/parliament-finally-amends-internet-law-new-social-media-regulations-and-removal-of-content/.

[138] Ergin Bulut & Erdem Yörük. “Digital Populism: Trolls and Political Polarization of Twitter in Turkey,” International Journal of Communication 11 (2017): 4093–4117; Maeve Shearlaw, “Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks,” The GuardianNovember 1, 2016, accessed November 15 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/turkish-journalists-face-abuse-threats-online-trolls-attacks.

[139] Maeve Shearlaw, “Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks,” The Guardian November 1, 2016, accessed November 15 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/turkish-journalists-face-abuse-threats-online-trolls-attacks.

[140] Ibid. 

[141]Daghan Irak & Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, “Redefinition of state apparatuses: AKP’s Formal-Informal Networks in the online realm,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 20 (2018): 439–58.

[142] Malaysiakini, “Ahmad Maslan: Jangan sebar fitnah, fikir sebelum tular,” Malaysiakini. December 6, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/404616.

[143] The News, “’Immoral content’ on social media will now be punishable,” October 14, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/900299-immoral-content-on-social-media-will-now-be-punishable.

[144] PTA, Annual Report 2018–19, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/annual-reports.

[145] Carlotta Gall, “Erdoğan’s Plan to Raise a ‘Pious Generation’ Divides Parents in Turkey,” The New York Times June 18, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/world/europe/erdogan-turkey-election-religious-schools.html.

[146] Annabelle Woodward, “Documents Reveal That TikTok Once Banned LGBTQ, Anti-Government Content in Turkey,” Forbes October 2, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabellewoodward1/2019/10/02/documents-reveal-that-tiktok-once-banned-lgbtq-anti-government-content-in-turkey/?sh=5145d5c81d7e.

[147] Neha Banka, “Why Netflix cancelled a Turkish drama after row over an LGBTQ character,” Indian Express, July 22, 2019, accessed November 15, 2021,  https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-netflix-cancelled-a-turkish-drama-after-row-over-an-lgbtq-character-6518401/.

[148] Ibid.

[149] Hurriyet Daily News, “Wikipedia ban lifted after top court ruling issued,” January 15, 2020, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/wikipedia-ban-lifted-after-top-court-ruling-issued-150993.; Mathew Brunwasser, “Turkish Internet filter to block free access to information,” DW January 6, 2011, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/turkish-internet-filter-to-block-free-access-to-information/a-15123910.

[150] Bilge Yelis, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory. March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.

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[152] Malaysiakini, “Mufti: Haramkan sembang maksiat di laman social,” January 9, 2014, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/251329

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[154] Nivedita Menon, “Hindu Rashtra and Bollywood: A New Front in the Battle for Cultural Hegemony,” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 24/25 (2020), accessed November 15, 2021, https://journals.openedition.org/samaj/6846.

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[163] M. Syed Al-Zaman, “Social Media Fake News in India,” Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research 9, no. 1 (2021): 25–47, accessed November 15, 2021, https://doi.org/10.15206/ajpor.2021.9.1. 

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[165] Ibid. 

[166] P. Marshall, “The Ambiguities of Religious Freedom in Indonesia,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 16, no. 1 (2018): 85–96.

[167] Johannes. Nugroho, “‘Façade of Tolerance’: Is Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law Unfair to Minority Groups?,” South China Morning Post May 16, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/lifestyle-culture/article/3133561/facade-tolerance-indonesias-blasphemy-law-unfair.

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[176] Amnesty International, “Pakistan: Christian couple on death row for ‘blasphemous texts’ must be released,” February 24, 2021, accessed November 16 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/02/pakistan-christian-couple-death-row/; Alizeh Kohari, “What It’s Like to Be Thrown in Jail for Posting on Facebook,” Wired March 20, 2019, accessed November 16 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/what-its-like-to-be-thrown-in-jail-for-posting-on-facebook/.; Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, “Pakistan Issues First Death Sentence for Digital Blasphemy,” The DiplomatJune 13, 2017, accessed November 16 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/pakistan-issues-first-death-sentence-for-digital-blasphemy/.

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