It is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Turkish President Erdogan’s prolonged tenure in Turkey allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule. By monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo that insulted the way of life of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a deep polarization in society to maintain his grip on power.
In my Project Syndicate piece titled “Erdogan’s Success Story” (June 14, 2011), I provided a positive assessment of Erdogan’s remarkable economic achievements over the past decade, highlighting Turkey’s expected entry into higher-income country status during his third term. However, I concluded the article by posing the question: “How will Turkey utilize its rapidly growing economic power?”
In a notable departure from the initial period (2003-2011) when Erdogan strengthened his position and reformed the regime, he veered away from the essential factors that contributed to his success. The period following the 2011 election victory witnessed a shift towards a process of power intoxication, culminating in the complete consolidation of the presidential government system (PGS) in 2018. This marked a departure from the so-called “orthodoxy,” replaced by a more arbitrary approach characterized by learning by doing and trial-and-error, which Erdogan referred to as “heterodoxy.” Although this era resulted in unprecedented economic and political turmoil, Erdogan’s election for a third term as president raises the question of why a populist government that initially came to power amidst an economic crisis did not encounter more significant challenges.
However, empirical evidence suggests that populists often come to power through relatively “free,” if not entirely “fair,” elections, yet only a few of them are consistently able to exit power. This usually occurs through being voted out of office, primarily if they manage to stay in control long enough to transform the system into a more authoritarian one. Consequently, the modes of departure often involve scandals, impeachment or resignations, constitutional crises, refusals to step down, coups, suicides, or tragic accidents. The recent elections in Turkey have demonstrated that in cases of democratic backsliding, an economic crisis alone is a necessary but insufficient condition for an authoritarian leader to change course. The positive case of successfully defeating an authoritarian populist in Brazil in March 2013 highlights that the sufficiency condition lies in the opposition’s ability to employ and manage various factors more effectively than the government, even when the latter abuses state power.
Erdogan as a Mastermind of Populism
Engaging in debates about the fairness or fraudulence of Erdogan’s election victory at this stage does not provide significant insights. As highlighted by Funke et al., when populists manage to remain in power for a decade or longer, they often shape their country’s political destiny in negative ways. After Erdogan’s prolonged tenure, Turkey has regressed from being considered a “free” country, as indicated by the Freedom House Index of 2023, and the elections can no longer be deemed fair. In a country like Turkey, where the general election results show that the opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP – 25%) consistently lags behind the ruling party (Justice and Development Party, AKP – 35% on May 14, 2023) by approximately 10 percentage points for nearly 21 years, the transfer of power appears unlikely, regardless of the coalition formed.
While the definition of populism may vary, as the Pope declared, it is commonly viewed as an “evil” that tends to lead to undesirable outcomes. Erdogan’s brand of populism aligns perfectly with a Machiavellian approach, where any means or methods to secure victory are deemed permissible or legitimate. Engaging in a political game with a leader like Erdogan, who does not hesitate to employ divisive tactics and polarize society through the creation of antagonistic groups such as “us vs. them,” “the people (ordinary, virtuous citizens) vs. the elite (pro-statuesque, corrupt, self-serving),” “true believers vs. infidels,” and “nationalists vs. traitors,” is a recipe for a nightmare scenario. He consistently invents and substitutes (foreign or domestic) enemies, identifies (internal or external) scapegoats, stokes security concerns within society, and perpetuates a state of conflict to solidify his hold on power.
Populism, with its rhetoric in defense of the rights of the “innocent and silent majority” against the perceived beneficiaries of an establishment or elite, implies that political power should not be held by economic, financial, intellectual, or political elites, but by a homogenous and virtuous “people.” This perspective, as highlighted by Arnesen and Peters, draws from Norris (2018) and encourages the emergence of a charismatic leader who presents themselves as an outsider to the establishment and claims to understand the “true desires” of the people, representing their voice and serving their interests. Consequently, this discourse undermines the significance of “mediating institutions,” particularly in the countries dominated by a paternalistic or patrimonial culture like Turkey. As a result, modern governance institutions, norms, and values, such as the division of labor and expertise, lose their relevance. Merit is increasingly replaced by loyalty and militant advocacy, and professional, autonomous specialized institutions are either weakened or filled with supporters. Erdogan’s era exemplifies the harm inflicted upon institutions and the economy as populists remain in power. It is important to note that Erdogan’s “populism” is not a learned, an acquired or imported ideology but an original synthesis deeply connected to geography, culture, history, and the cult of his leadership personality.
Several factors play a decisive role in Erdogan’s populist discourse:
A multipolar world in power transition without an omnipotent hegemonic power dictating its unilateral will to the “rest.”
Geopolitics, which can be negotiated and marketed in such a world, just like the geography of Turkey. A situation that brings both high risk and return.
A majority population whose “memory” has been manipulated and updated with an older version of the software, ancestors, and religion being the two strategic tools.
In such a geostrategic location of great power rivalries, Erdogan’s situation can be likened to a person who owns few rooms but several keys to open them. Obviously, it is almost impossible to find the right key and open the door in time always quickly. But he doesn’t waste time opening the door; either he breaks it in an emergency or uses the only lock in this geography to open all the doors with a magical capacity; culture! In that regard, Erdogan can be called the “inventor of populism” in the 21st century when it comes to the creation and exploitation of a nostalgic “populist heartland” that corresponds to a retrospectively imagined utopia built on an abandoned but undead human based past.
As Yilmaz and Morieson put,“the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.” Keeping society intact with his constantly renewed agenda, Erdogan’s emotional populism allows him to employ the elements of religion-history-culture and friends-foes antagonism.
An additional defining trait, and perhaps surprising to some, is Erdogan’s religious belief, encapsulated by the motto “After you have done all you can, leave the rest to God and trust it.” This philosophy stems from the recognition that in the face of complex and ever-changing circumstances, risks are amplified by deteriorating institutions and declining human capital. Such challenges reflect the vulnerability of the “one-man system,” where even an omnipotent dictator cannot single-handedly handle significant challenges. In such situations, prayer becomes the only recourse, driven by the conviction that “the new day will come with new hopes or opportunities!”
Erdogan’s approach to economic management serves as a field where his populism is exemplified through the stylized characteristics outlined above.
The Transformation of Turkey’s Economy: From Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy
In countries with strong institutions, an orthodox economy signifies a market that operates based on its internal dynamism, guided by market-friendly rules that address potential market failures. Conversely, in a country dominated by authoritarian populism, a heterodox economy implies arbitrariness and uncertainty. Both of these approaches were tested and experienced in Turkey from 2003 to 2023. In this article, Erdogan’s economic management can be examined within three distinct periods: the first period (2003-2011) characterized by the application of good governance principles to a reasonable extent, the second period (2011-2018) marked by a turbulent transition to a completely different regime, and finally, the consolidation of the authoritarian PGS since 2018.
In the following discussion, I will summarize the key achievements and highlight unresolved problems that have spiraled out of control, particularly with the consolidation of the single-man regime under the PGS.
During the first period, the orthodox approach primarily involved:
(i) the establishment of quality institutions such as central bank autonomy and the rule of law,
(ii) fostering peaceful coexistence and regional relations through the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, and
(iii) pursuing integration with the EU, the global community, and global governance institutions.
Except for the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the first period witnessed domestic reforms, solid institutional capacity, and comparable long-term growth performance to similar countries. The economy expanded by an average of around 5.8 percent, as depicted in Figure 1, although with a visible loss of momentum. By 2013, national income surpassed the trillion-dollar threshold, and per capita GDP reached $12,500, propelling Turkey to the status of an “upper middle-income country” for the first time.
Figure.1 Economic Growth in Turkey (2003-2022)
i) According to Acemoglu and Üçer, a notable development during this period was the dominance of overall productivity growth over factor inputs, marking a significant shift. Additionally, the implementation of monetary and fiscal discipline contributed to a decrease in inflation from 55% in 2002 to single-digit figures by 2005.
ii) In terms of financing economic growth, there was a notable increase in capital inflows across all categories and terms, which facilitated a smooth expansion. Furthermore, thanks to fiscal and monetary discipline, interest rates experienced a significant decline across all categories and terms. This period also witnessed a reduction in the budget deficit and a decrease in the share of interest burden on the budget.
iii) According to World Bank data, there was a striking improvement in income distribution during this period. This was evident in the decrease of the Gini Coefficient from 0.45 in 2005 to 0.38 by 2007, indicating a more equitable distribution of income.
On the downside, despite positive progress in leading economic indicators and relative macroeconomic stabilization, the following aspect remained fragile, with long-term implications:
i) While the population increased from nearly 65 million to 85 million as of 2023, primarily due to the influx of millions of unorganized refugees, GDP receded to nearly 800 billion dollars after 2019. As a result, per capita GDP also declined by 8000-9000 dollars, indicating Turkey’s middle-income trap status as of 2022.
ii) Turkey’s potential for growth did not improve, primarily due to a decline in productivity growth resulting from the discontinuation of reforms after losing external anchors, such as Turkey’s full membership negotiations process with the EU.
iii) The halted structural transition led to the persistence of a growth model based on classical low-value-added, capital-labor intensive industries. Moreover, the share of upper-middle-income technology in production and exports remained stagnant at around 2.5% until 2022, showing no improvement over nearly two decades. It is worth noting that countries like South Korea and China achieved a share of 35% at a similar development level.
iv) Reflecting the insufficiency of national savings and structural weaknesses, Turkey’s reliance on imports and capital inflows for growth persisted. As a result, each period of economic growth led to a significant increase in the current account deficit, which reached approximately 5-6 percent of GDP in 2022.
In his third term, which began in June 2011, Erdogan exhibited an increasing authoritarian tendency, reflecting a sense of power intoxication. Unfortunately, this period saw a decline in the gains that had been achieved. The process was initiated by the corruption operations on December 17-25, 2013, and further exacerbated by the self-orchestrated coup attempt by “the team Erdogan” on July 15, 2016. It culminated in a complete overhaul of the system in 2018, leading to a severe economic downturn referred to as a “free fall.”
Throughout the years, Erdogan systematically politicized and undermined the independence of key judicial institutions, including the Council of State, Court of Cassation, Court of Accounts, and the Constitutional Court. He also exerted control over institutions such as the Central Bank, Statistical Institute, Competition Authority, and banking supervision and regulation bodies. This process resulted in a loss of control over inflation, unemployment, domestic and foreign deficits, and the accumulation of national debt. Official figures indicate that annual inflation reached 86% in 2022, significantly higher than the global average rate of less than 8%. These macroeconomic imbalances were primarily causedby the excessively low policy rate pressure imposed on the Central Bank of Turkey and excessive monetary expansion, which became rapidly unsustainable. Moreover, these policies enabled Erdogan-backed speculators to generate exorbitant profits.
Then Why and How Erdogan Wins: A Hate and Hope Paradigm
In a country the size of Turkey, lacking abundant natural resources, it is impossible to conceal economic facts and failures from the public and international community for an extended period. Manipulating data through Soviet-style fabricated politburo methods or exerting strict militant control over autonomous policy-making authorities like the statistical institute is ineffective. This is because the impact of these developments is directly felt in people’s daily lives.
This finding aligns with the overall understanding that populist economic policies have a short lifespan and are not sustainable. Furthermore, it predicts that such a government either loses power or transitions into complete authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Turkey currently teeters on the brink of such a development following the May 2023 elections.
Does Erdogan’s continued stay in power, particularly with the main opposition party CHP trailing the ruling party by almost 10 points, imply that economic factors have lost importance in authoritarian regimes during elections? While the literature suggests that populist parties often come to power after a macroeconomic crisis, the reverse is not necessarily true. These elections demonstrated that an economic crisis is necessary but insufficient to dislodge an authoritarian government. It also indicates that Erdogan skillfully constructed an ‘uneven playing field’ and relied on a dependent electoral majority. The opposition made every effort to win the rigged game, even adopting the populist-ethnonationalism strategies of its adversary, but ultimately failed. In addition to Erdogan’s “success” in providing livelihood security to a significant portion of the electorate, he also stoked security concerns and fear of a return of the old status quo elites, known as “White Turks,” who previously threatened and humiliated the lifestyle of ordinary citizens.
The most crucial factor that neutralized or balanced the devastating economic crisis, as indicated in Table 1, is the extensive and effective use of the “Welfare regime.” Despite Turkey’s unfavorable rankings in all categories compared to similar authoritarian populist countries like Argentina and Brazil, it excelled in implementing widespread social support programs, including those targeting the most vulnerable families. Furthermore, these measures were presented skillfully within the framework of culture and religion, yielding profound political consequences. Culture matters. In a region where the notion of citizenship demanding justice and the rule of law as a public good has remained premature for centuries due to the culture of patrimonialism, citizens perceived “social support” not as a constitutional guarantee but as a benevolent offering from the Sultan. Their “loyalty” was consequently secured through a minimum level of economic security, protecting those who felt neglected and left behind.
Table.1 Governance in Selected Populist/Authoritarian Countries
The second decisive factor is the utilization of immigrants as a source of cheap labor and a voting reserve for the ruling AKP. Despite having to work informally in low-wage sectors without social security protection, Erdogan adeptly leveraged foreign funds, primarily from the EU, to compensate for their losses, including providing social protection. In the midst of a deteriorating economic environment, the opposition’s discourse of repatriating immigrants did not resonate, particularly among small and medium-sized companies, due to this practice that alleviates labor costs for millions of refugees and grants a comparative advantage to low value-added sectors.
In addition to financial support, Erdogan fostered a strong emotional connection and sense of belonging among the immigrants by invoking a highly susceptible concept from religious literature known as “ummah” or “Ansar brotherhood.” Moreover, he transformed this imaginary notion into tangible expectations that shape the minds of millions of people. Depicting a mythical “global land of brotherhood” based on religious commonalities and historical memories, Erdogan conveys the message: “Just like our esteemed ancestors, it is time to reclaim our history as the worldwide Muslim diaspora eagerly looks to us as protectors.” As a result, sympathy towards Erdogan among the average person on the streets of any Muslim country may be higher than in Turkey itself.
While these “pull factors” served their economic purpose, Erdogan also strategically employed “push elements” in his rhetoric. Believing in the power of media under his control and the limited memory of the people, Erdogan not only took credit for past successes but also shifted blame for past failures onto present-day politicians who were not in power at the time and never governed Turkey. In a country with low levels of political, religious, and economic literacy, he manipulated the decision-making capacity of the electorate through the media he seized. The production of manipulated statistics, inventions, and innovations within this context instilled a sense of pride and superiority in a society yearning for a return to the glory days of the past.
Therefore, it is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Erdogan’s prolonged tenure allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule.
By capitalizing on and monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo which oppressed and insulted the life patterns of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a significant divide that was crucial for maintaining control.
To secure the loyalty of the people, with whom he had “connected with heart and imagination,” particularly those who were likely victims of economic difficulties, Erdogan employed a combination of cultural and economic transactional policies. He not only provided various economic benefits but also manipulated them by instilling fear of losing their privileges and fostering a sense of national security, sovereignty, and even independence. When one considers the opposition parties’ leadership, policy quality, and communication skills with the public, it becomes clear that Erdogan would not be replaced with the configuration of such a coalition.
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The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Brussels for research on and analysis of challenges posed by increasing political populism. ECPS promotes open society by adhering to the principles of liberal democracy, including the rule of law, human rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, gender equality, social and environmental justice, transparency, and accountability. It does so by facilitating collaboration among networks of academic experts, practitioners, policymakers,
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Our contemporary society is becoming increasingly interconnected granting us unprecedented access to international knowledge. Having said that, this has also transformed academia, forcing scholars to become more competitive and innovative. This has resulted in academics having to be constantly up to date with the most advanced methods and theories. Hence, one vital element of current times is carrying out an ongoing dialogue between one’s work and other inspiring thinkers’ insights.
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Seeking the ways of keeping the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead, Dr. Heidi Hart’s commentary considers books by Annie Dillard, Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Beal, and others in light of the climate crisis and populist fears in a changing world.
In the late 1990s, before terms like “Anthropocene” and “climate crisis” had become part of everyday vocabulary, I heard American writer Annie Dillard read from her book For the Time Being in manuscript form. This generously ecumenical cycle of prose fragments startled me: here was a writer describing humanity from the perspective of geologic time. The book had equally startling humor, too, even when facing grim facts: “Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with our heels in the air? The living might well seem foolishly self-important to us, and overexcited” (Dillard, 2000: 49). From the excavation of clay soldiers in China to a neonatal hospital ward, from the Qur’an to Kabbalah, Dillard’s incisive vision refuses to reduce human specificity and mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all of this, too, will pass.
I return to this book in the burning summer of 2022, having fled the megadrought in the American West and watching in pain as war, water and food scarcity, fires, and floods threaten humans and many other species, and as populist fears continue to drive exclusionary thinking as resources contract across the world. Dillard’s take on humans’ brief, creative, and destructive reign on Earth comes as a welcome contrast to much Anthropocene writing of the past ten years, with all its wrangling over terminology and worry over how we humans perceive ourselves.
Two more recent books respond to the Anthropocene in bracing and generous terms that remind me of Dillard’s, but from very different perspectives. Joanna Zylinska, a photomedia artist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, published a slim but powerful book in 2018 titled The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Noting existing theoretical variations on the word “Anthropocene” (“the Anthrobscene, the Capitolocene, the Chthulucene, the Eurocene, the Plantationocene, and the Technocene,” to name a few [Zylinska, 2018: 5]), this author tests Kate Raworth’s term “Manthropocene” to signal the problem of mostly male climate science panels, Silicon Valley bro-culture neoliberalism, the cult of scientific genius, and Elon Musk-style “planetary messianism” (Zylinska, 2018: 15).
The End of Man is not the kind of “man-bashing” rant stereotyped in far-right circles but rather an effort to understand how the Anthropocene idea became entangled in gender and race norms that exclude “others.” This occurs either by focusing so much on humankind that other species become tokenized, fetishized, or simply sidelined, or by taking White male cultural norms for granted to the point that even educated thinkers can block movement out of the status quo, if not directly feeding populist fears of the White establishment being “replaced.” Zylinska draws on a key concept developed by science fiction writer Stanisław Lem (perhaps best known for inspiring – and resenting – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris): the idea of “encystment,” in which “a civilization … threatened with the loss of control over its own homeostasis … will construct ‘a world within a world,’ an autonomous reality” (Zylinska, 2018: 31, citing her translation of Lem, 2013) that sounds much like what current political commentators would call a “bubble.”
Progressive and regressive “cysts” are not mutually exclusive, however. Just as concerns about organic food and wellness culture can spill from left to right on the political spectrum, sometimes veering into conspiracy or “conspirituality”thinking, the wish to conserve a healthy planet can also feed xenophobic populism and even ecofascism. Zylinska puts it this way: “[t]he progressive politics of degrowth on the planetary scale in the face of the Anthropocene finds, perhaps too easily, its ugly twin in the localized discourses of information and matter overload: cyberterrorism, multiculturalism, immigration flood, the refugee crisis” (Zylinska, 2018: 32).
As an antidote to Anthropocen/tric end-times thinking that panics over White patriarchal structures at risk of collapse, Zylinska proposes what she calls a “counterapocalypse,” an alternative vision that includes both human-nonhuman “relationality” (a common thread in much feminist environmental writing) and “precarity” (drawing on Anna Tsing’s example of mushroom pickers and others who live without “the promise of stability” [Tsing, 2015: 2] outside privileged capitalist structures). This is not a romantic or naïve approach to “Nature” but an ethical re-orientation that accepts that humans are already “invaded” by the world (Zylinska, 2018: 56).
As Tsing notes, “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves” (Tsing, 2015: 20). How different from the fear-based populist stance of barricading or “encycsting” oneself, as war and climate disaster send refugees fleeing for survival, and as other species need habitat protection and restoration as well. Tsing’s idea of the “encounter” recalls Annie Dillard’s recurring sections with that title in For the Time Being, in which she traces, without sentimentality, a shared cigarette and language misunderstanding with a Palestinian van driver, or a moment in the desert when “two humans stand side by side to look at a crab … Who are we people?” (Dillard, 2000: 112). Openness to the “other” is key to adapting to a burning world, where collective solutions must come before rigid or fear-based individualism.
But what if “we people” don’t actually survive the next century or centuries on a damaged planet trying to return to its own homeostasis? What if we are one more casualty of biodiversity loss? The Malthusian temptations of a “world without us” may seem grimly appealing (and they do drive some strains of ecofascism), but ultimately humans may not have a choice. The world may well go on, long after we are gone. How to imagine such a future without falling prey to populist fantasies of “other” people going first, or to simple depression that leaves no energy for creativity and care?
Pointing out that many ages have suffered from apocalyptic anxieties, Annie Dillard finds that fear of death is difficult enough for the human individual, not to mention the whole species. She asks, “Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us?” (Dillard, 2000: 119). Extending this question to the planet at large, in a posthumanist sense, I keep returning to the word “splendidly.” The image of a thriving ecosystem that may or may not include humans as we currently know ourselves is unsettling but relieving, too. If the image loses its ecofascist utopian edge (of any remaining people looking White and heterosexual in a “pristine” landscape), it reminds me that every day we have on Earth is still worth savoring.
A newly released book takes this view, not from a feminist but from a critical religious-studies perspective. Timothy Beal’s When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropoceneargues for appreciation and “deep adaptation” over depression or overly optimistic, profit-driven climate fixes. The book is grounded in biblical thought but seeks to outgrow the “denial of death” that is also “denial of the body” (Beal, 2022: 68) and the exclusions that come from Christian populism (Beal, 2022: 37). Noting that the word “apocalypse” implies “unmasking” (102), Beal calls for honest grief that yields both anger (at White supremacist systems that harm both people and planet) and hope.
Learning from Indigenous and other traditions that resist what Beal calls “the dominionist strain” of the Anthropocene (Beal, 2022: 122) also helps to encourage respectful relationship with the Earth and the vulnerability to recognize our own small place in it. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, which bridges Indigenous knowledge and academic botany, has become a touchstone for ecologists and general readers alike, as a guide to seeing other species as subjectivities in their own right. “In the indigenous view,” Kimmerer writes, “humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders” (Kimmerer, 2013: 346). Throughout When Time Is Short, Timothy Bealuses the word “creatureliness” to describe this re-orientation. Like all creatures, we humans exist on Earth for a short time, enmeshed with others and more or less vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Knowing the limits of a lifetime makes that life more precious, as conventional wisdom goes, and there is truth in this.
Annie Dillard meditates repeatedly on sand, not only in the cinematic desert but also in the “micrometeorite dust” that “can bury you, if you wait,” in the detritus of locust swarms and spider legs, in the rising of the New York City streets (Dillard, 2000: 122-123). If she were writing about rising seas now, about deserts growing where seas used to be, about the floods that carry off small children in Kentucky and the wildfires burning from Yosemite to southern France, she would be as sad and anxious as most other humans. But I sense that she would also note the balance of the fight for what remains and the strange, generous acceptance that comes sometimes at the deathbed. She would note the beauty of a chance encounter with another creature in the woods or on the road. This is how to keep the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead.
Beal, Timothy. (2022). When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dillard, Annie. (2000). For the Time Being. New York: Vintage.
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Dr. Manuel Funke (International finance and macroeconomic, Kiel Institute for the World Economy) made this presentation at the First Panel titled “Populism and governance in the time of pandemic: What we can expect?” during the First Annual International Symposium on The Future Course of Populism in Post-pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy — Brussels, Belgium, February 18, 2022.
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2022). “Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 1, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010
Although populism has become a focus of research in the last decade, there hasn’t been much academic work on how militaries around the world have reacted/acted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to 1970s. Given that populism was largely understood in the context of left-wing politics, with the rise of right-wing populism, the literature on the military and populism needs to be advanced by studying the relationship between right-wing populism and the military. This article aims to address this gap by looking at the right-wing populism case study of Pakistan, where the military has actively participated in the rise of a religious populist leader. To situate the case study within the larger literature of the military and populism, the dynamics and history of military associations with populism and populist leaders are revisited in the article’s first part.
Even though a lot has been written about populism and its relationship with numerous institutions of the state, the link between current populism(s) and the military remains mostly unexplored (see for recent exceptions, Yilmaz and Saleem, 2021; Hunter and Vega, 2022). This article addresses that gap, giving a brief overview of the relationship between the military and populism. Populism and left- and right-wing populisms are explained in the first part of this article. In the second part, different relationships between the military and populism are explored. The final part gives a brief historical summary of how the Pakistani military helped Prime Minister Imran Khan’s populist party win elections against all odds in 2018 and has since helped govern the country.
What Is Populism?
Global politics is increasingly divided between “the people” who are galvanized against “the elite” and the “other.” As populist leaders and parties exploit these divisions based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, and other socio-political constructs, societies are becoming are fractured (Moffitt, 2016; Mudde, 2010; Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008; Laclau, 2005). In the past, the concept was understood as something unique to Latin American politics, where left-wing populism predominated from the 1930s to the 1980s (Hawkins, 2010; Weyland, 2001). Even when there were populist leaders in other regions, they were rarely called or recognized as populists.
As populism rose in the twenty-first century, it has often been used as a right-wing narrative; some of the past explanations and theories were no longer useful. During the first two decades of this century, hundreds of articles have been written on how to define populism and attempting to understand what facilitates and maintains it.
The wave of Islamophobia post-September 11, increasing instability in the Middle East, and the resulting migration crises have led to populist ideas filtering into politics. In Europe, the Five Star Movement in Italy has vehemently opposed immigration and has repeatedly expressed its concerns with Islam (Fieschi, 2019; Mosca & Calderoni, 2012; Casertano, 2012). Its right-wing agenda has caught the increasing attention of many: the movement presents itself as the legitimate “volonté générale” of the true and pure Italian “people” against the “intruders.”
In a similar fashion, secular India—the world’s largest democracy—and its multicultural traditional is under increasing threat from the “saffron tide” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Saleem et al, 2022). The BJP government has used the populist ideological approach to divide the country based on religious lines: “the people” are Hindus and “the others” are Muslims and Christians (Hameed, 2020; Hansen, 1999).
As populism is a thin ideology, it can partake in both left-wing and right-wing ideas. Populist leaders attack the “corrupt elite” from both left and right. Their plans and policies can be a messy blend of left-wing and right-wing—and at times contradictory—ideas. The following section gives a brief overview of left-wing and right-wing populism.
Left-wing populism casts the “elites” as “the others” who have illegitimately seized power from “the people.” Left-wing populists want to return power to “the people” and re-balance society (Moffitt, 2016: 12-3). In practice, their policies differ from classical Marxists or socialists. Left-wing populists are closer to the concept of “populist socialism,” a hybrid of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism (Martin, 2012).
Earlier agrarian movements organically faded away in the early twentieth century. It was not until the rise of the left wing in the twentieth century that the term populism was extensively explored. Latin America, in particular, underwent a rapid political transformation and saw the rise of populist governments and dictatorships. A blend of style, ideology, strategy, and discourse was used by populist leaders, such as Júan Peron in Argentina, Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, to gain popularity. With the help of personal charisma combined with the rhetoric of anti-elitism, these leaders amassed a huge amount of public support. Latin American politics was thus known as “populist”—gaining the support of “the people” by harbouring feelings of “popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a…ruling class which is believed to have a monopoly on power, property, breeding, and culture” (Shils, 1956: 100-101).
Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, but they were not limited to the Western hemisphere, and many leaders in Asia and Africa adopted populist rhetoric and policies (Young, 1982). Many populist leaders of that era, such as Kwame Nkrumah, are still revered in their countries today. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, which was directed at not only local elites but also international elites (Western governments and international companies primarily controlled by the West), these leaders became very popular. Neo-colonialism was regularly arranged by these leaders, and anti-globalization was part of the African and Asian left-wing populist repertoire.
With the fall of the communist bloc in the 1990s, both Marxism and left-wing populism saw a decline in popularity. There was the gradual, widespread acceptance of liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics.
Populism—on the left but especially the right—would return in the first decade of the 21st century. March and Mudde (2005) term this new surge in populism as “social populism,” a doctrine rooted in principles of “correct” and “fair” class politics and that seeks to establish an egalitarian society that is for the “proletarian” and has elements of “anti-elitism.” The “social populist” movement found support following the global financial crisis of 2008 when it emerged along with various other political movements that sought to “fix” the “broken” system (Augustin, 2020: 5-6; Gandesha, 2018). The new wave of left-wing populists is democratic, unlike its twentieth-century predecessors, yet it uses similar ideological strategies, discourses, and style.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, global politics is undergoing a surge in right-wing populism. As opposed to its left-wing form, right-wing populism is rooted in ideas of “the pure,” religious “righteousness,” “nativism,” and a “sacred” right to “native” land (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to protect their culture and values from the “others.” These “others” are a wide variety of groups, based on ethnicity, language, race, religion, etc. For instance, in Central Europe, people who believe European civilization is a “Christian civilization” view Muslims as a threat, “outsiders” who are unable and/or unwilling to integrate. Haynes (2020:1) points out, “As Muslims are not capable, so the argument goes, of assimilating to European or American norms, values, and behaviour, then they must be excluded or strongly controlled for the benefit of nativist communities. Right-wing populists in both the USA and Europe pursue this strategy because they see it as chiming well with public opinion at a time of great uncertainty, instability, and insecurity.”
Along with this “Christian” civilizational, right-wing populist ideology—with Muslims as the outsiders—right-wing populists also sometimes engage in anti-Semitism and misogyny, are staunchly anti-immigrant, homophobic, and anti-EU and anti-globalization (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture.
Former US President Donald Trump entered the White House with the help of this right-wing populism. Trump’s brand of populism heavily relies on notions of Judeo-Christian—although unlike his running mate, Mike Pence, he did not clearly identify with the dominant and deep-seated emotions in the Bible Belt and beyond. He has constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “others”—even, paradoxically, including Mexican immigrants who are mostly Christians (Hosey, 2021; Mudde, 2021; Espenshade, 2020). The January 6th attack on the US Capitol has shown Trump’s encouragement of and tolerance for domestic far-right terrorist groups that are part of a radical right in America (Mudde, 2021).
Beyond Europe and the Western world, right-wing populists have also prospered and even gained power in Asia and Africa. Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has used a right-wing ensemble of Hindu nationalism and populism for over two decades and has essentially altered the social fabric of India (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017: 184; Saleem et al, 2022). During Modi’s first and second tenure as Prime Minister, the Hindutva ideology—and Modi’s populism—engulfed not only the politics, but also the psyche, of Indian society. From revoking the autonomy of Indian-held Kashmir to instigating security forces’ violence against student protestors across India to the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Modi-led BJP has used Hindutva and populism to engulf the brains and bodies of ordinary Hindus (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Saleem et al, 2022). Next door in South Asia, Imran Khan has also used Islamist populism (Shakil and Yilmaz, 2021) —and the power of the military (to be discussed in detail later)—to gain power in Pakistan. He invites people to a new Pakistan that is a modern version of Prophet Muhammad’s state, called the Riyasat-e-Madina.
Beyond ideology and discourse, right-wing populism has also been used in a performative sense as a style and as a strategy. Modi’s use of the sacred saffron colour, Khan’s habit of carrying around prayer beads, Trump holding the Bible before ordering peaceful protesters to be shelled with tear gas, and Erdogan’s habit of crying while reciting the Qur’an are various strategy- and style-based right-wing populist tactics to evoke propitious, favourable emotions in “the people.”
The divisional lines between right- and left-wing populism are not always clear cut. For instance, the idea of anti-elitism can also be espoused by any populist. Leaders such as Modi and Erdogan have been using their humble beginnings to position themselves as a voice or of the common, working-class people. Thus, Erdogan calling himself a Black Turk (as opposed to an elite White Turk) and Modi referring himself as a chaye wala (tea seller) are symbolic gestures to highlight their working-class roots and deep relationship with an average Turkish or Indian citizen (Sen, 2019).
On the other hand, Mette Frederiksen and her party, the Social Democrats, in Denmark are proponents of left-wing values such as strong welfarism. Yet, in recent years, even when in power, the party has taken an anti-immigration stance which is traditionally a right-wing policy (Al Jazeera, 2019; Nedergaard, 2017). The party justifies its move by rationalizing, “As Social Democrats, we believe that we must help refugees, but we also need to be able to deliver results in Denmark via local authorities and for the citizens. […] We have therefore been tightening asylum rules and increased requirements for immigrants and refugees. And we will continue to pursue a tight and consistent asylum policy, which makes Denmark geared to handling refugee and migratory pressures” (Nedergaard, 2017).
The Military and Populism
While populism is largely a political ideology, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can fall prey to populism, too. Some characteristics of populism endear the military to it while others make the military oppose it. Military men and women, being part of a bureaucracy and an institution working under strict rules and regulations, often dislike political manoeuvring and manipulation; they may be drawn to populists who commonly talk in simple, straight language and are not ready to spare those who they think are enemies of the nation. Although populist leaders do make deals and change their opinions based on what is politically feasible (such as Trump’s change of opinion about abortion), they project themselves as straight shooters, not politicians. This apparent dislike for political expediency is also appealing.
However, there are also many points of disagreement between the military and populists. Populists generally oppose wars and foreign interventions, as they take money away from domestic welfare programs. Many populists propose cutting defence budgets to increase domestic welfare spending. Most populist leaders are also anti-science or lack basic scientific knowledge. Trump, Modi, and Khan have said many things that would make a 10th-grader laugh. This makes populist leaders difficult partners for the military, home to the most sophisticated technologies available.
There are many types of relationships between the military and populism. The most direct would be a coup leader himself becoming a populist. It is uncommon today, but in the 20th century, generals did transform themselves into populists after successful coups to gain legitimization and support. Perhaps the most famous left-wing populist general was the Argentinian Júan Peron, who became the face of socialist populism (Calvo, 2021; Gillespie, 2019). During his two terms in office, Peron was able to amass popular support through welfare and pro-labour policies combined with nationalization (Gillespie, 2019). While in the short term these benefited the Argentinian people, the government was unable to support such measures in the long run when combined with the growing military oligarchy in the country. “Peron used the presidency to maintain support for the military through modernization and promotion projects. […] Perón removed generals when he saw them as troublesome and promoted the generals who supported him instead” (Calvo, 2021). This clientelism between the military elite was used by Peron to prolong his “iron first” populist rule over Argentina (he ruled from 1946-55 and again from 1973-74).
Similarly, in Mexico too, General Lázaro Cárdenas (in power from 1934-40) adopted socialist populist policies that led to major improvements in the economy and also general welfare, as he touted issues such as affirmative action for indigenous groups and women’s rights (Philip, 2000). By mobilizing the rural poor and urban middle class, Cárdenas dominated Mexican politics with socialist ideas, but his military background led his government to assume the posture and course of populist authoritarianism (Philip, 2000).
Left-wing populism was also adopted by many military coup leaders in Africa, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (ruled 1956-70), Ben Bella (ruled 1962-65) in Algeria, and Thomas Sankara (ruled 1983-87) in Burkina Faso. Some of these generals “thickened” their populism with nationalism and transnationalism. Nasser was traditionally a left-wing populist leader, yet he used the ideas of pan-Arabism to create not only a national identity for Egypt but for Arabs around the Middle East.
Right-wing populist generals are not uncommon. These populist generals have promoted nativism, militant nationalism, an aggressive stance against immigrants, minorities, and outsiders, and a “my country first” policy. The Greek “regime of the colonels” in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation. They also talked about a “national renaissance” to resurrect Greece, which was compared to a patient on her deathbed (Couloumbis, 1974; Xydis, 1974).
Military Support for / Opposition to Populists
Most of the time, the military supports or opposes populists but does not directly intervene in a country’s governance. Populists—who want to change the decades-old way of doing politics—usually need or feel the need to have this indirect support. Supporting populists indirectly allows the military to protect its interests, such as regular increases in military expenditures, as well as increase its political power.
The military’s support for left-wing populist leaders primarily comes from the mid-century period in Latin America. During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Brazilian President and dictator Getulio Vargas (1930-45 and 1951-54) came into power supported by the Brazilian military. He adopted a wide array of social and political policies that benefited labour, workers, and women, and the Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution (Green, Langland, & Schwarcz, 2019: 321-4).
Some left-wing populists have been opposed by the military. Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, who came to power with the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, stayed in power from the 1950s to 1980s. His rhetoric was anti-elitism and targeted the ruling military elite. “In the revolution of April 1952, the worker and peasant masses defeated the oligarchy’s military,” and he established a rule which led to the rapid nationalization of resources (Funke, Schularick & Trebesch, 2020: 85).
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common. One of the reasons might be the changing nature of the military vis-à-vis society in the decolonized world. Earlier, the military in most developing countries was a modernizing force as it had education, scientific knowledge, and regular interaction with other militaries. Numerous military coups led to land reforms and less power for the religious right. By the end of the 20th century, most militaries in these countries had become status-quo-supporting organizations.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a right-wing “strongman” populist, has been able to garner support through his “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” etc. (Dizon, 2020). Duterte’s “action” oriented strategy to “crush” the bad guys has led him to use penal populism. His aggressive policies are supported by the military, on whom he has relied heavily for cracking down “undesirables” (Dizon, 2020).
Another instance of a right-wing populist leader being supported by the military comes from Latin America. In Brazil, conservative, populist President Jair Bolsonaro has appointed military officers to key technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. One figure suggests that “individuals with military experience have occupied almost half of all cabinet seats since 2019, including President Jair Bolsonaro himself as well as retired army general and current vice president Hamilton Mourão” (Scharpf, 2020).
Finally, right-wing populists have been opposed by the military in some countries. For nearly eight decades, the modern Turkish Republican was dominated by the Kemalist military elite that advanced a reformist agenda to modernize and secularize the country. After the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, the Kemalist military launched a series of attacks on the AKP. This led to what the AKP called a “digital coup” against them when the Kemalist military questioned the AKP’s nationalism and loyalty as being counter to the constitutional spirit of the country (Elver, 2014). Between 2010 and 2020, the AKP became increasingly populist and used its increasing power to constitutionally limit the Kemalist military elite from interfering.
From this brief survey, it is evident that in developing countries where mass mobilization takes place on populist grounds, the military is likely to get involved directly or indirectly in state affairs due to the power vacuum left by politicians. The armed forces are either part of “the elite” that the populist wave rises against, or they are direct agents of “the people” or supporters of those who claim to represent “the people.”
Case Study of Pakistan
Pakistan is no stranger to military involvement in civilian matters (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016; Hussain, 2012). The country witnessed its first military coup in 1958, hardly a decade after its formation in 1947. From the late 1950s to the late 2000s, the country experienced four successful military coups and numerous unsuccessful ones. Pakistanis lived nearly half of those seven decades under military dictatorships (1958-1971, 1977-1988, and 1999-2008). Over the years the military has not only deposed democratically elected leaders but forced them into exile—and in the case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, organized his execution (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016).
Since the last dictatorship, the military has adopted a covert approach regarding its involvement in politics. They have tried to manage Pakistani politics from backstage. The fame, power, and charisma of Imran Khan, a famous sportsman and philanthropist, has allowed the military to browbeat the two most popular parties in the country. With the rise of populism, Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party (see in detail, Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz and Shakil 2021c) and the military have cooperated repeatedly and projected themselves as the “defenders” or “the voice” of “the people” against the malicious “others.” Imran Khan’s journey to the country’s power corridors is closely tied to his relationship with the military. Khan’s PTI, however, has gone through various stages before becoming fully immersed with the military. Due to the changing dynamics of the relationship, we have divided Khan’s journey into various chronological periods.
Years of Warm Non-engagement (1996-2001)
The PTI was founded as an anti-elite and anti-corruption party that sought to bring social justice to the disenfranchised people of Pakistan. In its early stages, the party was welfarist and reformist in its ideas. It wanted to make politics “for the people,” as a break from conventional politics which was increasingly dynastic and self-centred. The party’s non-political background meant it had to work from the grassroots to ensure its political presence in a country where family and baradari (tribe or caste) ties play a key role in politics (Shah, 2020; Mushtaq, Ibrahim & Qaleem, 2013; Lancaster, 2003). During its initial years, the PTI was not a fixture on the political landscape other than Khan, its chairman, making headlines for issuing pro-people statements due to this social status as a former Pakistani cricketer. Abbas (2019) correctly notes that in its early years, the PTI was not seen as a political party but rather viewed as an Imran Khan fan club or a social justice movement; its membership was confined to the upper middle class and affluent members of society who wanted to play a proactive role in politics.
The PTI’s pro-establishment stance positioned it close to the military when General Musharraf deposed the sitting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In Khan’s view, elite’s corrupt and incompetent leadership had come to an end, and Musharraf’s progressive ideals would benefit the country. During this period, the relationship between the PTI and the military was cordial. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, a charity founded by Khan, even was donated $500,000 by Musharraf in 2002 (Arab News, 2019).
Antagonistic Relationship (2002-10)
The distant yet pleasant relationship between the regime and the PTI took a turn in 2002. Musharraf offered Khan a significant role in politics and a large number of seats in the 2002 national elections but, in turn, Khan had to support a large group of corrupt politicians. To his credit, Khan refused, and the PTI only won one seat in the 2002 military-rigged elections. Musharraf’s embrace of the corrupt and religious parties—including the KP, PTI’s political rival—turned Khan into a bitter rival. Khan also became a fierce critic of the Pakistani military’s role in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. For nearly a decade, Khan increasingly became the face of resistance towards US-led or promoted operations in Pakistan’s rural tribal areas.
Khan’s opposition to the army’s activities and the Musharraf regime led to him being put on house arrest several times (Indurthy, 2004). In 2007, Khan and his party also publicly opposed the regime’s efforts to evacuate a hub of extremists from the Red Mosque in Islamabad (Samiuddin, 2018). Crucially, the PTI chose to remain silent on the issue of extremism being spread by the militants and radicals at the mosque and instead chose to criticize the draconian measures taken by the Musharraf-led government to dislocate the militants from the mosque complex. Later on, Khan was one of the leaders of the movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, who was unconstitutionally sacked by Musharraf. It was this movement and the murder of Benazir Bhutto that resulted in the fall of Musharraf in 2008-9.
Close Alignment (2011-17)
With Musharraf in exile and The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leading governments at the federal and provincial level, there was little hope for the PTI. Khan’s original supporters were long gone, and the PTI was unable to make a dent in the political arena. Similarly, the military was looking for partners to increase its clout after the undignified ouster of Musharraf. So, it seems that the two most probably decided to strike a deal. There aren’t signed papers but there is enough circumstantial evidence of the PTI’s support for the military and vice versa. The prime piece of evidence is the shift in the PTI’s “other.” While Khan was still passionately leading rallies and pointing out policy issues regarding the war on terror, the overall target of the party’s criticism was not the military but the “Western nations” which, according to Khan, had engulfed the Muslim nations into war (Dawn, 2013). Khan’s support of the Afghan mujahideen and his increasing focus on the “good” Taliban drew international criticism (Boone, 2014).
Gradually, the calls for accountability were targeted at the political elite, leaving the military out of the PTI’s retributive politics. While it’s true that civilian politicians such as the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaries had amassed fortunes by misusing their offices, so, too, had the military elite; generals became multi-millionaires (Siddiqa 2017). Yet PTI’s accountability was partisan: it sought a return of the looted wealth only from the civilian governments. The military supported Khan by providing him allies and ensuring favourable media coverage. Because of political deals and Khan’s alliance with the military, the PTI’s position became hypocritical. Khan spoke about those who were killed by the Western militaries in Afghanistan and refused to condemn the Taliban, who were also involved in killing innocent Afghans. While he drew excessive focus to the police brutality of the PML-N government against various protestors, such as at the Model Town incident in 2014, there was no mention the lives lost due to various military operations in the country’s western regions.
The PTI had always prided itself as a pro-democracy party, yet it did not object to the constitutional amendments that went against the democratic spirit of the country. For example, Khan did not raise an objection to the controversial 21stConstitutional Amendment, which was passed in 2015 (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; The News; 2014). Because of this amendment, the military could set up its own courts that could try civilians if they were deemed “terrorists.”
As the 2018 elections grew closer, Pakistan went through major political developments when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office after a prolonged court case. It was very difficult to believe that this verdict did not have the military’s support, as Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were major witnesses against the sitting PM. This sent into motion an openly bitter relationship between the military and the PML-N. The latter blamed the military for interfering with politics, as the exiled Sharif made speeches blaming the “aliens” or “deep state” that targeted him and his family through their “proxy,” the PTI (Dawn, 2018). Sharif went on the offensive and called out the military leadership for their constant interference in matters of the state while simultaneously labelling the PTI as the military’s “puppet” government (Dawn, 2020).
Support During the Election Campaign and On Election Day (2017-18)
By the end of the PML-N tenure, the party had suffered major setbacks. The PTI was the talk of the town and sought vengeance for the country’s “wronged” people. The PTI attacked the political elite, and its populist rhetoric resonated with the population, which felt failed by successive corrupt governments. The PTI emerged victorious in the National Assembly and in three provincial assemblies.
The PML-N, after its defeat, accused the PTI of using military support to rig elections to secure its victory. While the PML-N was a bitter loser, there was some truth in the allegations. For instance, in the July 2018 elections, the Pakistani Army had deployed over 371,000 troops to “secure” polling stations, and the counting of votes was delayed for several hours (Khan, 2018; Panda, 2018). While the presence of the military at voting stations was not new in a country where security has been a prolonged issue, there were worrying reports about the integrity of the election (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Khan, 2018). Even before the election, various PML-N candidates issued statements claiming that they were being harassed by security forces and that their campaign headquarters were targeted (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018). The allegations were profound enough that the spokesperson for the military, Major General Asif Ghafoor, had to address them during a press conference, where he brushed the allegations aside (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Panda, 2018).
Following its electoral victory, the PTI revealed a plan to address the nation’s issues in 100 days. While most of the PTI’s campaign promises remain unfulfilled—and the party even reversed some of its positions—it is worth noting that a large number of former Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) or pro-Musharraf/military political members have become part of Khan’s core team (Abbasi, 2018). At least 13 core ministries were handed out to former PML-Q members, or those who had served in an advisory capacity to Musharraf (Abbasi, 2018).
Support For PM Imran Khan (2018-21)
In office, Imran Khan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the military. A huge change in his previous stance was visible when a court announced a public hanging sentence for Musharraf for disrespecting and violating the constitution between 1999 to 2008 (Geo News 2019). In 2014, Khan himself urged the judiciary to do justice by not allowing Musharraf to escape trial (Ilyas, 2014). Once the 2019 verdict came down, Khan explicitly called the judge “mentally ill” for using such a “harsh” verdict as the Prime Minister felt it insulted the institution of the military (Shahzad, 2019). Khan gave a full three-year extension to the current Army Chief, after his normal three-year tenure ended in 2019, although previously Khan himself (and others) had publicly declared that giving Army Chiefs extensions undermines democracy (Philip 2019; Afzal, 2019). In, 2021 the PTI government passed another bill aimed at supporting the military. Under this new bill, anyone who criticizes the military will be tried under section 500A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC); the accused could face two years of jail time and/or a fine of up to 500,000PKR, or roughly 3,270USD (The News, 2021).
In addition to supporting legislative changes that bolster the military, Khan has openly talked about a “5th generation warfare” and the opposition’s “seditious” attempts. The government, with the help of the military, has registered numerous cases on major opposition figures and has used an anti-corruption agency to keep opposition leaders terrified and/or in jail. Khan and the military’s top brass have used the populist rhetoric of threats from “within” and “outside” the country to browbeat the political opposition (Butt, 2021; Sareen 2020). Both have synchronized efforts to portray the opposition as friends of India and the “enemy” of Pakistan, ensuring they’re viewed with suspicion while the PTI and military are viewed as the “protectors of the nation.”
This case study demonstrates the partnership between a populist leader and a country’s military leadership that allows the latter to play a covert role in politics. In Pakistan, the military has always been closely tied with politics. It has been deemed a necessary evil that is there to protect the people from the “incompetent political elite” or to defend the country against its many “enemies.” These notions have helped construct an image of the military as a “reliable” political actor who is normally incorruptible. However, with growing concerns in civil society over repeated military regimes, the military apparatus changed its form of involvement in politics. Rather than imposing martial law and becoming a pariah on the international stage, it decided to co-opt a populist party and “help” it form a government. The PTI government now provides the generals with the necessary leverage and cover through its verbal, legal, and legislative power while the military provides Khan and his PTI with political space to run the country even when its performance is pitiful and the opposition is numerically strong. Both get what they want while also maligning the opposition as “traitors” and “enemies of the people.”
The Pakistani case study is informative. It tells a story that can easily happen elsewhere in the developing world. A military, having staged many successful coups and accustomed to unconstitutional powers, looks to keep or increase its illegal powers against the onslaught of political parties, without imposing martial law. Thus, it decides to back a populist party, which is unable to challenge the control of the established parties on its own. Separately, both the military and the populist party may not succeed, but, using each other, they manage to take control of the government.
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This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.
Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?
Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “politicaljihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.
Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.
As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).
While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).
Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?
Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”
Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).
For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).
The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).
What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?
Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by PrabowoSubianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).
In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).
While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).
The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”
The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”
This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).
At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).
Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?
Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).
This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).
The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.
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In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.
Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.
Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.
Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”
Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.
After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.
Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.
The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.
Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?
We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.
When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.
At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.
The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.
Heidi Hart:Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?
Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.
Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?
I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.
‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’
Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?
That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.
Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.
What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.
Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?
I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?
So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.
‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’
Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?
I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …
When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?
But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.
It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.
Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?
That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.
For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.
When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].
‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’
They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.
Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?
Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.
So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.
I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.
Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?
That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.
‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’
However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.
Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?
I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?
I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.