Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted 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 the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights. This commentary tries to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders.
Although populism has become a focus of scholarly interest in the last decade, there has been much less research on how militaries worldwide have reacted 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 the 1970s. Since it is the right-wing populism that is surging nowadays, that research offers at best partial insights.
This commentary seeks to fill this gap by looking at the dynamics and history of military connections to both right-wing and left-wing populist movements and leaders. It also distinguishes between cases where the military supports populist leaders from those in which military leaders themselves become populist leaders.
The Role of Military in the Modern Nation-State
The contentious debate over whether war is part of human nature or the product of nurture continues. However, the link between power and the forces organized and trained to wield violence (i.e., the military) is ancient. As democracy becomes an ideal accepted by people worldwide, it is easy to forget that, for millennia, the military was the primary component for attaining and retaining power. The origins of almost all of the ancient and medieval empires can be traced to a single warrior (or a group of warriors). Most kings and emperors in the past spent more time learning how to fight than learning how to govern. The head of the military was either the king himself or a close confidant. Unsurprisingly, discussion and analysis of war and military force form a large part of the established literature and religious books. Both The Iliad and Mahabharata are war epics, and the Old Testament devotes much space to the Israelites’ wars with their enemies. Almost all heroes of antiquity were warriors, from Achilles and Arjuna, through to Karna and David.
Even today, the military cannot be separated from statecraft, public policy, and governance. The unbelievable misery suffered by the soldiers during the global conflicts of the twentieth century and the gross iniquity and carnage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not resulted in lesser admiration for the military. Violence and turmoil across the world stare us in the face as an undeniable reality that calls for the maintenance and use of military force.
Militaries also play a critical role during emergencies. As an organized force, ready to be deployed at short notice, the military has assisted governments during floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has again shown the utility of military forces, which have been deployed in many countries to enforce lockdowns, transport medical equipment and patients, assist in delivering vaccines, and much more besides.
Modern nation-states are obviously different from the kingdoms and empires of old. The key distinction is that the ancient and medieval empires lacked a national core. Although some scholars have argued that proto-nationalism was present in some of them, nationalism was absent in these empires. Imperial control over subjects and the governance required of the center was minimal compared with the nation-state. Emperors left peripheries largely to themselves or appointed feudal lords or regional hegemons to rule in their stead. Unsurprisingly, emperors had few responsibilities. They were not responsible for education, health, potable water, sewerage, or any of the modern public utilities that we have come to expect. Nation-states, in contrast, usually exert complete control over their territory and are generally thought responsible for providing basic amenities. However, the military’s primary role has changed little from ancient times —namely, to defend the territory from internal and external enemies using instruments of violence.
Modern nation-states can be divided into two major categories—democracies and non-democracies. Various constitutional and legal bounds are either absent, defined, or violated depending on whether a nation-state is democratic or not. These variations determine the interaction between the military and the rulers. In non-democracies, the role of the military is generally not clearly demarcated or regulated. Constitutions or laws are usually absent, and if they are present, they give the ruler broad leeway. For example, the basic law of Saudi Arabia barely mentions (just two articles) the armed forces. In addition to the legal ambit, multiple and varied factors—such as the history of conflict, threat perception, governance, militarism, and public opinion regarding the role of the military and rulers—determine the checks and balances on the military.
In a state where the constitution is respected, there is usually a consensus within the political domain as well as in society at large to respect the clear constitutional role of the armed forces and its relationship with the state apparatus. This enables the civilian state apparatus to form a well-defined working relationship with the military, with the parliament and civilian leaders responsible for governance and security matters. The constitutional arrangements and laws also ensure that both civilians and the military have a mutually agreed framework to collaborate and cooperate for national security in a synergistic manner. In addition to the constitutional definitions, the power of the parliament to determine the budget also gives the civilian rulers a fair advantage as they can decide and limit the military’s size and activities. Lastly, public perception regarding the military’s defined role and its efficacy vis-à-vis its civilian counterparts is crucial to ensure the military remains subservient. Like the civilian bureaucracy, the country’s armed forces need to stay out of partisan politics and support all elected governments.
Thus, to ensure the apolitical nature of the national military, a country requires strong democratic checks and balances. However, not all democracies are fully functional—some are highly susceptible to military intervention, where—for various reasons—the military is a partisan political force and generally plays an extra-constitutional role. Most of these states have suffered military coups and subsequently martial law and even military governments. Unsurprisingly, once a coup is successful, it increases the probability of more coups in the future. Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar are examples of pro-coup states. South America was once a continent replete with pro-coup states and adventurist militaries but, during the last three decades, democracy has taken hold, and the armed forces have largely adhered to constitutional boundaries.
Populism, very broadly, refers to the idea that a small, corrupt elite is exploiting the moral majority. Besides this vertical dimension, there is also a horizontal dimension where the above-mentioned moral majority is also threatened by outsiders and traitorous insiders that are in cahoots with the corrupt elite. Populist leaders claim to represent this moral majority and condemn the financial and moral corruption of the elite. At the national level, populist leaders generally also add a temporal dimension to the populist idea. Thus, national history is divided into three parts: a glorious past, a vile and odious present, and a magnificent future. The populist leader then presents him or herself as the vehicle the nation can use to move from the execrable present to the promised nirvana.
Before the 1950s, populism was a term primarily used by historians to describe two 19th century agrarian political movements—the People’s Party in the United States (nicknamed “Populists”) and the Russian Narodniks, which means populists in the Russian language. While these movements took place continents apart, they shared agrarian origins and common beliefs—namely, anti-capitalism, people’s rights, and anti-monopolism. Both stood opposed to industrial interests, which they saw as the driver of income and wealth inequality in their respective societies.
These left-wing populist movements cast the “elites” as those groups that illegitimately acquired and held onto economic power from “the people.” Economic power being the basis of all other types of power, it should therefore be returned to “the people” to restore balance in society. Their policies are closer to the concept of “populist-socialism” as coined by Crawford Young, which constituted of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism.
Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, where populist leaders such as Júan Peron in Argentina used a blend of charisma, ideology, strategy, and discourse to sway the masses. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, these leaders amassed a vast amount of public support. Many left-wing populist leaders also emerged in post-colonial Asia and Africa. They included multinational corporations and the Western governments as part of the international “elite” that has subjugated their “people.” Neo-colonialism was the strategy through which the former colonial powers continue to rule over Asian and African people. This added anti-globalization to the left-wing populist repertoire.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is right-wing populism, which is currently undergoing a surge globally. As opposed to its left-wing counterpart, this variant is rooted in ideas of “the pure people,” religious “righteousness,” and ideas of right to a “sacred” or “native land.” “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to “protect” their culture and values from “the other.” A wide variety of individuals are “otherized.” For instance, in Europe, an emphasis on “Christian civilization” has seen Muslims as “outsiders” who are unable and unwilling to integrate. Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of the “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture. Former US President Donald Trump constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “the other.”
Beyond Europe and the West, populism has also found ground across the world in a diverse range of political landscapes. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has deployed right-wing populist rhetoric based on the Hindu religion (Hindutva) to win two back-to-back national elections. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Imran Khan have used Islamist populism to gain and retain power in their respective countries, Turkey and Pakistan. In southeast Asia, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced populist rhetoric to win people’s confidence.
There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. However, in coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges.
Military and Populism
The points of contention between populists and the military are primarily populism’s anti-capitalism, anti-science, and anti-war program. Populists are generally anti-capitalistic, which is problematic to the military as capitalists are enthusiastic about military expenditures and generally support wars. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a former five-star general, warned the Americans about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Populists are also against foreign interventions and wars and are generally ready to decrease defense expenditures to increase the budget for social programs, which is not acceptable to the military. Populists are also anti-science, making their alliance with the army difficult as nowadays the armed forces use the most sophisticated technologies available.
There are several possible ways in which the military deals with populism and populist leaders. In advanced consolidated democracies, the military, as an institution, keeps its opinions to itself and serves whoever is elected. Populist leaders—because of their fiery rhetoric and meager respect for conventional legal rules—are more difficult to deal with. Depending on their institutional interests, the military elite silently helps or thwarts populist leaders while remaining within the laws and rules in advanced democracies. The interests of the military generally find more acceptance in right-wing populism than left-wing populism. The idea of the nation being in danger from foreigners or traitors who are constantly conspiring against it supports authoritarianism and an increased role of law-enforcement agencies, including the military.
The military is also considered the most nationalistic and less corrupt part of the elite. The familiar populist refrain of the glorious past is usually based on the past military victories of the national core—namely, the majority ethnolinguistic or religious group. This refrain also helps otherizing minorities, which the right-wing considers part of the problem. The right-wing populists are ready to militarily deal with this “problem,” which has less representation in the military. Left-wing populism is generally pacifist and against war and using the military against minorities. One area where both right-wing and left-wing populists seem to agree is that military interventions in other countries should be limited or avoided altogether.
While populism is largely a civilian political dynamic, as discussed above, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can become embroiled. In coup-prone states, the military plays a significant role in politics, so a populist leader can be a major threat to its power, perks, and privileges. They may include the military in the corrupt elite they are fighting against. Therefore, neutrality is usually not an option. The army either negotiates and then aligns itself with the populist leader or opposes and condemns the populist narrative as destabilizing and traitorous. A closer relationship between the military and populism occurs when the leader of the military junta ruling the country becomes a populist. The populist military leader condemns the previous ruling elite and presents themself as the nation’s savior.
The following section presents examples of the different scenarios discussed above.
The Military’s Support for Left-wing Populist Leaders
During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Getulio Vargas became the President of Brazil in 1930, and—during his long tenure as elected president and then dictator—he favored socialist policies and was supported by the Brazilian military. Under Vargas, policies such as nationalization of industry, the 40-hour workweek, the expansion of education, a minimum wage, and many others were adopted, and laws regulating banks, insurance companies, and other industries were passed. The Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution.
Gualberto Villarroel led a successful coup in Bolivia in the 1940s. He adopted socialist policies to gain a foothold with the masses. His reforms included expanding indigenous peoples’ rights, recognizing worker unions, launching a retirement pension scheme, labor reforms, and much more besides. The Bolivian military initially supported him but later abandoned him when he became unpopular.
The Military’s Resistance to Left-wing Populist Leaders
In Pakistan, the populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) came to power on the back of a populist program of socialism and welfarism, combined with Bhutto’s personal charisma. He ended more than thirteen years of military rule that ended in ignominious defeat by India and subsequent division of the country, resulting in Bangladesh’s independence. Bhutto adopted socialist policies, such as nationalizing banks, industry, educational institutions, and land and labor reforms. Throughout his tenure, the military refused to accept him as the country’s leader and eventually dismissed his government and hanged him after an unfair trial.
Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, came to power using an anti-elitism rhetoric that targeted both the civilian and military elite. After the 1952 populist revolution, he carried out a wide range of reforms, including land distribution, nationalization of the largest tin companies on which the Bolivian economy relied, and universal suffrage for all adult citizens. He also disbanded the military and was replaced by workers and peasant militias led by men from his party. He was removed by a military coup in 1964.
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force.
The Military’s Support for Right-wing Populist Leaders
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common as the military in many developing countries has become more of a conservative status-quo-supporting organization instead of a modernizing force. One of the most famous right-wing populist leaders supported by the military was Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. He was elected president in 1965 but led a coup and imposed martial law, with the support of the military, in 1972. He remained in power until 1986 with the continued support of the military as he shared the spoils by increasing the defense budget, expanding military recruitment, boosting military industries, and placing military officers as heads of civilian organizations. The Catholic Church also supported Marcos during most of his rule as he protected the privileges of Catholicism as the majority religion.
Currently, in the Philippines, another right-wing populist supported by the military governs the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, a “strongman” populist leader, has been able to garner support with “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” and other social undesirables. Duterte’s action-oriented strategy to “crush” these undesirables has led him to use penal populism. This variant of populism is supported by the military, which Duterte has relied on heavily in his crackdown on those groups in the Philippines deemed a threat to good social order.
In Brazil, right-wing populism has also been supported by the military. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro —a right-wing populist leader and a retired military officer— there has been a growing trend of military presence in technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. According to one estimate, almost half of all cabinet seats, including those of President Bolsonaro and his vice president since 2019, Hamilton Mourão, have been occupied by retired military officers.
The Military’s Resistance to Right-wing Populist Leaders
One of the longest oppositions to right-wing populism by the military was seen in modern Turkey. From the 1950s to 2009, for more than five decades, the Kemalist military elite defended an aggressive secular nationalism against right-wing populous elected governments. The Kemalist military—supported by the judiciary, academia, and the media—kept right-wing governments on a short leash and imposed martial law on three occasions to thwart any attempts to challenge its control.
Another example of military opposing right-wing populist leader was in Egypt when President Mohamed Morsi was opposed by the Egyptian military and was deposed only one year after his inauguration. President Morsi was the only democratically elected leader in the history of Egypt and came into power after almost six decades of continuous rule by military officers. Still, he faced opposition by the military and was replaced by General Sisi in a coup.
Left-wing Populist Military Leaders
In rare instances, the military leaders go beyond their constitutional roles and assume power. Dictators, however, also require public support, so military leaders try to adopt policies that increase their popularity. Some embrace populism to legitimize their unconstitutional rule. In Argentina, Júan Peron, an army general, became the face of socialist populism. He was able to amass popular support by leading welfare and labor protection policies, combined with nationalization.
In Mexico, a similar pattern was observed when Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) came to power. His program led to significant economic strides and boosted people’s welfare by supporting the rights of women, indigenous groups, and rural communities. A similar course was taken by soldiers-turned-populist-politicians in Latin America and beyond, including President Manuel Odría of Peru (1950-56), Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (1956-70), Ben Bella in Algeria (1962-65), and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1983–87).
Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry took power in Sudan after leading a coup in 1969 and remained in control until 1985. He initially projected himself as a populist leader adopting socialist policies, such as land reforms and nationalization of banks and industry. He banned all political parties except his own, the Sudan Socialist Union.
Right-wing Populist Military Leaders
Right-wing coup leaders adopting populism is also quite common. Colonel Nimeiry started as a left-wing populist but became a right-wing populist at the sunset of his regime. In 1983, he introduced a campaign of Islamization across the country. Nimeiry justified his campaign by adopting populist rhetoric of going back to one’s roots and eliminating foreign colonial influence. This rhetoric was accompanied by populist measures such as emptying thousands of liquor bottles into the Nile, the prohibition of interest on loans, asking for bayah (the pledge of allegiance) from government officers, and declaring himself an Imam. Like other populists, he refused to acknowledge any divisions in the country and claimed frequent rebellions in South Sudan were driven by imperialist plots.
The Greek regime of the colonels in the late 1960s and early 1970s was another 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, Greece’s glorious past, and claimed it would restore the nation to its ancient grandeur. This obsession with race, heritage, and nation was combined with paranoia about foreigners and the use of religious imagery to bolster the military’s weak legitimacy.
Usually, ethnolinguistic or religious nationalism, conservatism, socialism, or Marxism are added to populism to develop a comprehensive political program. However, certain aspects of populism make it amenable – even attractive – to the military. Populism encourages the centralization of power as it exalts one people and extols one leader. Dissent and diversity are downplayed or ignored. The military, as an institution, is based on strict hierarchy, and the criminalization of dissent within is closer to populist politics than constitutional politics, which is based on the separation of powers. The anti-intellectualism and xenophobic rhetoric of populists are often also closer to the military’s thinking. The military—save for the most senior ranks—can also be anti-elite. Military officers, especially in lower ranks, may identify more with ordinary people than the ruling elite. Populists and the military may also agree on the importance of “getting the job done” instead of following legal or constitutional processes, which may cause delays.
Examples from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe demonstrate that populism is not a new phenomenon and that the military relationship with populism is largely dependent on context. Very broadly, it can be argued that the era of military leaders themselves becoming populist leaders is drawing to a close. Furthermore, one can see more affinity between right-wing populist leaders and the military than populists of the left because right-wing populists extol the military and are ready to increase defense budget in these times of fiscal constraint and austerity.