Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: “The crucial question is what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric … because he can still present himself as an ‘outsider.’”
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
One of the leading academics in the field of populism, Prof. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argues that Turkey under the Erdogan regime can no longer be considered a democratic system and should now be classed as a competitive authoritarian regime. Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser—who teaches at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile—also stresses that once a populist is able to entrench him or herself into the political system, as Erdogan has, he or she is likely to be at the helm of the country for an extended period of time: “And this is [what] I think that the experience from Turkey, but also from other countries like Venezuela, shows…”
Asked whether authoritarian populism is itself here to stay, Prof. Rovira Kalwasser says it will in part depend on the aftereffects of COVID-19: “I’m thinking here mainly about the social and economic aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.” He indicates that if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal in a systemic way with those aftereffects, populism could lose its appeal. If not, Rovira Kaltwasser says, populist forces will exploit socio-economic tensions and the aftereffects of COVID-19, which — he stresses — could strengthen populism.
The following excerpts from our interview have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Populist Voters Tend to Have Very Illiberal Understanding of Democracy
You argue in your article on “the Populist Citizen” that “evidence suggests that populists are politically engaged citizens who do not want to overthrow the democratic system but rather push for the democratization of democracy.” If this is the case, do we not need to worry about the surge of populism?
This is an interesting question. I think it depends on how you analyze the data. What we found out when analyzing data in different countries—we have Latin America, Turkey, and a couple of European countries—is a striking commonality in all those places. The commonality is that citizens tend to have strong populist attitudes. At the same time, populist citizens tend to be in favor of the democratic system. From this study, one might conclude that democracy and populism are compatible. But I think this would be too easy an interpretation of the data because we don’t know what concept of democracy citizens have in mind. We only know that these citizens are in favor of democracy.
In fact, one of the issues we mention at the end of the paper is that we need much more research on the type of understanding of democracy that populist citizens have across all these countries. Currently, I am researching with two colleagues, analyzing data about populist citizens on the one hand and citizens’ concepts of democracy on the other. The data we have collected covers several Western European countries. What we found out is pretty interesting. We have data for those who voted for populist radical right-wing parties and populist radical left parties. One interesting commonality among those voters is that—when we ask them which concept of democracy they have in mind—they reference a very illiberal understanding of democracy. Populism can be a democratic threat, mainly because those who support populist ideas tend to have a very peculiar understanding of democracy at odds with the liberal institutions we know are crucial for consolidating a liberal democratic regime.
Populism: Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism
In the same article, you argue that the demand for populism can be interpreted as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Does this mean populism can also be something that corrects the defects of democracy? Could you elaborate?
Well, I mean, here you’re combining two questions in one, and each of them, I think, is interesting. The first question is about whether populism is a threat or a corrective for democracy. I would say that populism is both—there are many examples in which it is very clear that populism has destroyed the democratic system.
Venezuela under Chavez is one example, as is Turkey. If you think about Turkey and what is happening in the country with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. These are two examples in which we can clearly see that the coming into power of a populist figure represents a democratic threat. But there are also many instances in which you have populist forces that sometimes enter into government in a coalition with other parties. Think about the case of Spain’s radical left party Podemos, which is in a coalition with the Socialist Party. Or think about the case of Austria where we have radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party), which between 2017 and 2019 was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. And the democratic system didn’t collapse in Austria—probably some things have been changing, but it’s not that the system has disappeared. And this is why I think that we need to be very careful with the theoretical arguments about populism and the empirical analysis. Depending on the case in question, we can say whether it is a threat or a corrective.
And the second part of your question is about this argument that I had been developing with my friend and colleague Cas Mudde that populism can be understood as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. And the argument that we develop is that if we think about liberal ideas both in the cultural sense and also in the economic sense, to a certain extent, many of these ideas have been pushed without asking the people whether they want to go in that direction. I think that the European Union (EU) is the best example of that. This is why we see in different countries within the EU that many citizens ask themselves whether this is the kind of EU they want. People are questioning the extent to which “we, the people” can control those liberal institutions, and I think this is a good question. While populism probably is not offering the right answers, it’s posing the right questions.
Erdogan Still Presents Himself As an “Outsider”
You’re currently researching Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), showing voters for the party are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about malign global forces than those who vote for other parties. Why is this the case?
Well, this is the topic of a new article that I have written with two colleagues from Turkey. They know much more about Turkey than I do but based on the findings from our article, I can say two issues are quite interesting here. This article is based on survey data that we have for contemporary Turkey. The first finding is very peculiar. We realize that those who support the AKP tend to have less populist attitudes than those supporting other parties. And this is sort of a paradox because we know that Erdogan and the AKP articulate a populist discourse.
But our data shows that those who support the AKP and Erdogan are not that populist compared to those in the opposition. So how can we interpret the paradox? And the argument that we develop here, and this is also based on literature covering other countries, is that once you have a populist force in government who can stay in power for a long time, that sort of populist actor becomes the establishment. I mean, Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years, so he’s controlling the system. So, in this sense, those who support Erdogan and AKP, for them populism is not really the key driving force for their support because they know that they are part of the elite, so to say.
But here comes the second finding that it’s also interesting, and this is related to your question. We find out that those who support the AKP tend to have a much firmer belief in conspiracy theories against global forces. And I think this is the sort of discourse the AKP is developing. This is the discourse populist forces typically develop in government. They say, in fact, “we are not the real elite of the country because the real elite who controls the country lives outside of the country, and they are controlling the system.” And this is why we cannot do all the things that we want for “the people” because we have these outside forces that are blocking the will of the people. And in this way, the populist figure can still present himself or herself as an outsider. And I think this part of the analysis that we develop in our paper and analyzing this interaction between conspiracy theories and populist attitudes is very promising for the case of Turkey, but probably for many other places in the world as well.
Erdogan Can Stay in Power for a Long Time
The AKP has been in power since 2002 as a single-party government. How long do you think the AKP can stay in power as a single party, given the rising populist rhetoric of Erdogan?
Well, again, I’m not an expert on Turkey, but based on my knowledge, my main fear here is that it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. It is, in fact, what many scholars call a competitive authoritarian regime. Turkey is a country in which you still have elections. Elections take place, there is opposition, but running against the AKP and Erdogan is very, very complicated. And this is why I think that the experience from Turkey, but also other countries—like, for instance, the case of Venezuela—shows that once you have a populist figure who is able to entrench itself into the political system, this figure can stay for an extended period of time. In the case of Venezuela, in fact, Hugo Chavez died, but even he was able to appoint (Nicolas) Maduro, who is the head of the government now. I think the case of Turkey, it’s very, very dependent on the leader Erdogan, so the crucial question is, “can we have AKP without Erdogan?” A similar question arose in Argentina a long time ago, “can we have Peronism without Peron?” In Argentina, that became a possibility.
The crucial question is, what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric, as I mentioned before because he can still present himself as an “outsider.” [Propagating the idea that] powers from outside are controlling the country … is the sort of language that many populist leaders in government develop.
Are populist systems able to stay in power for a long time, or are they prone to collapse? Can you offer examples for each one?
Well, you can see it all if you look at different cases across the globe. I mean, you have cases in which populist figures could come into power, and they had to leave quickly because they were not able to build a strong alliance with crucial actors. Or there was an economic collapse or something like that, and because of that, they had to leave power relatively fast. If you think about Brazil at the beginning of the 1990s, they elected Fernando Collor de Mello as president. A huge corruption scandal popped up, and after two years, there was an impeachment, and he left office. His brief story was one of a very unsuccessful populist figure.
But we also have other instances, as in the case of Turkey, where Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years. So, I think it’s difficult to generalize based on different examples. For example, Alberto Fujimori in Peru was ten years in government, and after that, he left office and disappeared from the political scene. But the division within society in Peru, to some extent, falls on whether you are in favor of Fujimori or against him. If you go to Venezuela nowadays, the whole political debate is the same: whether you are for Chavismo or against it. And I can imagine that, for example, in Turkey, there will arise a debate after Erdogan of whether you were in favor of Erdogan or not. Then you have the emergence of a new political cleavage. That is not necessarily a cleavage between left and right politics but a cleavage between being in favor or against that sort of populist project.
Liberal Institutions May Challenge the Will of the People
How do you explain the recent success of populist parties in the EU, which was once seen as the embodiment of liberal democratic values?
This goes back to our discussion before about this idea of undemocratic liberalism. I think that the EU, to a certain extent, is an example of pushing liberal values in an undemocratic way. If you think just in economic terms, consider that the EU has been developing both the eurozone and a whole infrastructure concerning economic integration and economic liberalization. Very often, citizens were not necessarily in favor of that process. However, politicians at the national level said, “Well, this is what Brussels is doing, and we cannot do anything.” To a certain extent, these politicians were using the EU as a foil, displacing responsibility to Brussels for these developments, which they supported at the national level but did not want to be held accountable for.
Later came the Great Recession (2008–2009), and then we realized the power of the EU economic structure. You had the European Central Bank telling certain countries, particularly in Southern Europe, you have to do A, B, and C. Then you realize that you have these liberal institutions that challenge the will of the people. If you asked people in Italy, in Greece, or Spain, they were saying, “we don’t want these policies.” So, you have here a supranational institution — a liberal institution —pushing against the will of the people. This is just one example that has not been completely developed in an engagement with the will of the people, and because of that, now we have the rise of populist forces of both right and left. They are politicizing specific issues that are relevant for certain sectors of the electorate.
British political scientist Paul Taggart argues that “populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary people.” Do you agree with him, and could you elaborate?
Yes, I one-hundred percent agree with that beautiful sentence from Paul. This is again a sort of a paradox because populist figures usually talk about ordinary people. But if you think about populist figures very often, they tend to be very peculiar. Think about Donald Trump, think about Nigel Farage, think about Fujimori and figures like that. This is part of the paradox because populists’ leaders try to do two things simultaneously to rise to prominence. The first thing that they try to do is to break certain taboos. If you break certain taboos, you will get a lot of visibility, and therefore they’re very good with social media because they say certain things that generate a lot of tension within society. So, in this way, they are in the news the whole time. At the same time, populist figures are very clever in presenting themselves as outsiders, although they’re not necessarily real outsiders. Take the example of Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire—I mean, he’s not a real outsider. But he presents himself as an outsider within the political system, and in that way, he generates a lot of publicity. This is part of the paradox that very well describes that sentence from Paul Taggart.
Socio-economic Inequality and Declining Legitimacy Threatens Liberal Democracies
After the end of the Cold War, it was predicted that liberal Western democracy had prevailed, and all the other systems would try to be like these democracies. However, as you mention in your book Populism: A Very Short Introduction,populism is at odds with liberal democracy. What went wrong, and why did Francis Fukuyama prove to be wrong?
Well, I think that the problem is, at the beginning of the 1990s, when we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and also a process of re-democratization in most Latin American countries, many people, I mean many people within academia— Fukuyama is probably the best example of that sort—thought this was “the end of history,” in the sense that we expected the prevalence of liberal democracy all over the world. But I think that sort of prediction was a bit naive, and it was based on seeing the expansion of democracy across many places of the world in a very short period of time. In contrast, what we’re experiencing today is an unambiguous signal that to have liberal democratic systems that can stabilize over time, we need specific prerequisites that are not necessarily present across all—or even most—societies. This is a problem not only for Latin America or for Turkey—for developing countries, so to say—but this is also a problem in developed countries like in Europe and the United States.
I think the two prerequisites are, to a certain extent, under stress today. The first prerequisite is legitimacy because most citizens believe that democracy is the only game in town. As I mentioned at the beginning, my feeling is that there is an important section of the electorate across different societies with a very peculiar understanding of democracy. I mean a non-liberal understanding of democracy. And this is why legitimacy is failing in many countries across the globe. The second prerequisite, I would say, is related to the issue of socio-economic inequality. To have a democratic system that can prevail over time, you need a certain minimum and a safety net within society. And if you don’t have that, there is a real chance that many people will start to feel deprived on either a subjective or an objective level because they’re saying the system is not working in a fair way. And this is a real problem for most countries of the world because of economic globalization. Socio-economic inequality and declining legitimacy are two of the main—although not the only—reasons that liberal democratic systems across the globe are under stress today.
How Is the World Going to Look After COVID-19?
Do you think current populist authoritarianism trends will continue? If yes, what sort of a world is waiting for us in the next five to ten years?
Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I think this is probably related to the major crisis that we’re experiencing today. This is the coronavirus, and the question is, how is the world going to look after COVID-19? One of the trickiest aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is that it generates a lot of social and economic inequality within countries and across the world. Take the whole debate, for example, about vaccines—we are seeing what is happening in India, a developing country that is not able to get enough vaccines. And this is generating a lot of tensions within that country. Also, we realize that social and economic inequalities are getting wider within countries. As mentioned, the expansion of socio-economic inequality is one of the main reasons there is democratic fragility across much of the world.
So, in this sense, the answer to your question of whether populist forces will continue to experience success in the near future is related to how well we can deal with the aftereffects of COVID-19. I’m thinking here mainly of the social and economic aftereffects of the crisis. And I think if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal with the aftereffects of the crisis in a systemic way, the likelihood is that populist forces will continue to diminish. But if this is not the case, I think the opposite will be true, and we might see populist forces of the radical right or the radical left exploit the tensions that arise with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.
Who is Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser?
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a full professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University (UDP) in Santiago de Chile and an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES)
Kaltwasser received his PhD in political science from the Humboldt-University of Berlin in 2008. His main area of research is comparative politics and he has a special interest in the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Before his current job Kaltwasser worked as a research fellow at the University of Sussex, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Human Development group of the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Together with Cas Mudde (Georgia University), Kaltwasser has written the book “Populism. A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai amongst others.