Panel by ECPS & SZABIST University: Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World

Please cite as:
Zaman, Zahra & Shahid, Syeda Abeeha. (2023). Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and SZABIST University. December 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0046     

 

This report offers an overview of the panel on “Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World,” jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists.

Report by Zahra Zaman* & Syeda Abeeha Shahid**

This report offers an overview of the panel on "Populism and Electoral Politics Around the World," jointly organized by the European Center for Populism Studies and SZABIST University, Karachi, on 17th November 2023. The panel featured distinguished speakers addressing various dynamics of populism influencing electoral politics. This report comprises summaries of the presentations delivered by the esteemed panelists. 

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Fizza Batool, Assistant Professor at SZABIST University, Karachi. Panelists comprised Dr. Andrej Zaslove (Associate Professor of Empirical Political Science at Radboud University, Netherlands), Dr. Bert N. Bakker (Associate Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research), Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (Associate Professor at the London School of Economics), Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui (Associate Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad), and Dr. Salim Cevik (Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, SWP in Germany).

 

Dr. Andrej Zaslove: “The Radical Right and the Radical Left in Anno 2023: What Does Populism Got to Do with It?”

Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

Dr. Andrej Zaslove discussed the diverse and constitutive elements of populism, emphasizing its implications in the electoral achievements of both left- and right-wing populist parties. Advocating for systematic measurement approaches, he introduced an instrument designed by him and colleagues to assess populism within political parties. Dr. Zaslove underscored the electoral success of populist parties, attributing it to their gradual dominance and integration into the political landscape, evolving into mainstream and stable features with shifting electoral cycles. He highlighted a recent substantial shift in left-wing politics, originating from the transformation of traditional left-wing parties into populist radical left entities. Additionally, he noted the expansion of populist parties across the political spectrum, surpassing national boundaries.

The presentation emphasized the necessity for empirical measures on both the supply and demand sides of populism. Dr. Zaslove shared insights from a recent study in which he utilized two instruments for measuring the supply of populism: PopuList, employing a dichotomous measure, and POPPA, which used a continuous approach with five items based on a thin-centered ideology. To gauge the demand side, the Akkerman scale was employed to assess populist attitudes in the public. The study revealed that mainstream populist parties scored lower on POPPA compared to radical right populist parties. The results indicated variations in the degrees and dimensions of populism, shedding light on the identity of populist parties and voter choices. While populism had limited impact on political praxis, it broadened its application to multiple actors, showcasing its ability to align parties along the left and right axes and garner support for diverse political entities.

In conclusion, Dr. Zaslove underscored the importance of employing a mechanism in a systematic and streamlined manner. Populism, as a political mechanism, plays a crucial role in shaping the interaction of political actors and institutions, as exemplified in Italy. Drawing a contrast between Georgie Meloni and Matteo Salvini, the presentation highlighted the impact of insider-outsider dynamics on popularity and emphasized the paramount role of populism in defining political representation for individual voters. It was noted that parties can modify or relinquish their populist identities depending on their governmental status, and populist voters may become less populist based on the varying motives and actions of political parties. Importantly, this does not imply a diminishing significance of ideology as a political mechanism. The evolving stances and political statuses of figures like Meloni and Wilders illustrate that populism will continue to dominate the political landscape, rooted in party establishment within institutional structures.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker: “Psychological Roots of Populist Voting”

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people.

Dr. Bert N. Bakker delved into the psychological underpinnings of populism, highlighting the central role of anti-establishment rhetoric and people-centric themes in populist political discourse. He explored the implications of psychological dispositions, noting a positive correlation between openness and conscientiousness. Specifically, he associated dogmatic adherence to conservative policies, especially in cultural domains, with narrow-mindedness and conscientiousness.

Dr. Bakker shared research findings indicating that individuals with low agreeableness tend to resonate with anti-establishment and populist rhetoric, characterized by cynicism, distrust, and a tough-minded attitude. This sentiment aligns with the populist narrative, which criticizes the elite for self-centeredness and a disregard for the interests of ordinary people. Statistical and correlational evidence suggests that those with lower agreeableness are more inclined to vote for populist parties, a pattern observed in the USA, the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland. Additionally, the lower agreeableness trait is linked to anti-establishment rhetoric. It’s crucial to note that authoritarianism moderates the effect of ideology measures, distinguishing ideology as the factor between authoritarianism and populism.

Dr. Bakker highlighted physiological responses to political rhetoric, explaining how individuals physically react to speeches by populist radical right politicians. He suggested that those with lower education levels might be more susceptible to political manipulation, swayed by a leader’s charisma rather than the substance of the argument. Dr. Bakker emphasized the need for additional research to examine the role of emotions in politics, exploring how political ideology and populist discourse shape people’s perceptions and the mechanisms of politics.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington: “The Psychological Appeal of Populism”

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington argues that collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington presented on the political psychology of populism, examining the impact of groups, hierarchies, and emotions. Her research delved into populism as a mobilizing discourse, emphasizing its psychological appeal in terms of intergroup relations, hierarchies, status concerns, and collective emotions. Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington elucidated the significance of groups and identity formation in her theoretical framework, drawing from social dominance theory to explore the role of hierarchy within groups and its connection to status concerns as a potential explanation for populism. She argued that populist leaders act as identity entrepreneurs, constructing narratives that align with populist rhetoric.

The research shared by Dr. Sheehy-Skeffington involved a combination of thematic analysis, content analysis, and rhetorical analysis of 163 speeches from election campaigns, including UK General Elections (2017, 2019), the Brexit referendum, and US presidential Elections (2016, 2020). These speeches were delivered by leaders of radical right populist, radical left populist, right-wing mainstream, and left-wing mainstream parties. The analysis revealed that mainstream parties emphasized national unity, while concerns about hierarchy manifested differently based on political orientation and populist status. Left-wing parties were more focused on social justice, with no significant difference based on populist status. Both left- and right-wing parties expressed concerns about system rigging, and emotional mobilization was more pronounced in the rhetoric of populist leaders compared to mainstream leaders. 

In both populist and mainstream parties, politicians discussed ingroup and outgroup dynamics in their speeches. However, collective emotions in left populist parties were predominantly negative and linked to dissatisfaction with social conditions. In contrast, collective emotions in right populist parties were mainly positive, centered on bringing change through challenging doubters from the opposing side. Regarding temporality, mainstream right parties focused on the future, mainstream left on the present, and populists on both sides emphasized the past.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui: “Electoral Populism in Pakistan and India”

Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Farhan Hanif Siddiqui explored electoral populism in India and Pakistan, focusing on populist trends and nuances evident in the election manifestos of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Pakistan. The discussion delved into the nature of populism, its societal impacts, and various aspects observed in the political landscapes of both countries.

Dr. Siddiqui commenced his presentation by emphasizing the unique characteristics of populism and nationalism, underscoring the analytical distinctions between these two ideologies. Populism, he explained, establishes a vertical division within society, separating elites from the general population, while nationalism creates a horizontal differentiation between people within and outside the nation’s borders. Addressing a potential critique, he acknowledged the argument that far-right parties in Europe, which are anti-immigration and anti-immigrant, may intertwine populist and nationalist discourses, challenging the clear-cut analytical differentiation between the two.

He elucidated the characteristics of populism, emphasizing its reliance on the instrumentalization of hate and differentiation within political populist discourse. Dr. Siddiqui focused on the simplification of complex socio-political issues, the appeal to emotional sentiments, and the manipulation of electoral sensitivities as key elements of populism in shaping public opinion. His presentation underscored the role of populist leaders in effectively navigating the political landscape, often at the expense of social cohesion. Furthermore, he delved into the contributing factors to the rise of populism in India and Pakistan, highlighting the institutional weaknesses of political parties as a significant factor.

Examining the developmental populism in India through an analysis of the BJP election manifesto, Dr. Siddiqui highlighted its combination of class and caste systems, with a particular focus on the middle class and consumerist neoliberal capitalism. He emphasized Narendna Modi’s vision of a "New India" as a sustaining narrative for populism in the country. The presentation also delved into the rise of religious populism in Pakistan, exemplified by the manifestos of PTI and TLP. The implementation of blasphemy laws targeting the Ahmadi community was discussed as a singular focus of TLP to preserve the sanctity of the Prophet. Finally, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the negative impacts of populism and the incorporation of populist elements by mainstream parties, emphasizing the adverse effects on social cohesion, diversity, acceptance, peaceful coexistence, and the instrumentalization of hatred, which pose challenges to harmony.

Dr. Salim Cevik: “Populist Strategies of Erdogan in 2022 Election”

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats.

Dr. Salim Cevik’s presentation covered three aspects: Erdogan’s employment of mixed populist strategies, the concept of Erdogan remaining a populist leader for 20 years in power, and his techno-nationalism as a political strategy. 

First, he analyzed Erdogan’s election strategies as a populist leader and his electoral victory in 2023. Dr. Cevik portrayed how Erdogan remained in power for 20 years with reference to the inherent ambiguity in the definition of populism. His talk highlighted the controversial usage of populist methods in Turkey. Accordingly, Erdogan’s policies appealed to emotional sentiments rather than material well-being. Second, he discussed how Erdogan sustained his populist appeal by redefining the establishment narrative, shifting it from a national to a global level, portraying himself as a leader fighting against a global elite opposing the rise of Turkey.

Dr. Cevik highlighted Erdogan’s “techno-nationalism” strategy and mega projects, such as national Turkish drones and new fighter jets, symbolizing Turkey’s technological progress. This techno-nationalism shifted the discourse from economic issues to national security, positioning Erdogan as a defender of Turkey against external threats. From his successful election strategies to implementing policies in Turkey, Erdogan adopted and adjusted populist language over decades by addressing the emotional and sentimental needs of the voters.


(*) Zahra Zaman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at the Department of Social Sciences, SZABIST University, Karachi. She has demonstrated active engagement in both academic and co-curricular activities, previously serving as a Prefect, Proctor, President of the Literary Society, and Head Girl during high school. At SZABIST, Zahra has held various leadership roles, including Program Representative of the Social Sciences Department, General Secretary, Treasurer, and President of the SZABIST Student Council. With a strong interest in International Relations, she aspires to pursue research in areas such as security studies, foreign policy, and diplomacy, employing both comparative and case study approaches to comprehend global politics.

(**) Syeda Abeeha Shahid is an undergraduate Social Sciences student majoring in International Relations at SZABIST University, Pakistan. Her graduate research project focuses on examining the use of cultural diplomacy and soft power tools by populist leaders, employing a comparative analysis of two Asian populist leaders in power – Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Her primary areas of interest encompass diplomacy, foreign policy, and intergovernmental organizations. Fueled by an unwavering passion for understanding the complexities of global relations, shaped by political choices and culture, she actively engages in social work initiatives through volunteer activities aimed at supporting socially deprived segments of society.

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