The recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu underlines the persistence of what some call “populism”. Despite the Israeli Prime Minister facing imminent charges of corruption, the seriousness of which would have been the undoing of any normal politician, Netanyahu not only won the election, but his Likud party won additional seats in the Knesset.
In other countries, the persistence of populism remains as strong as ever. Despite the hype about the success of Turkey’s opposition in recent local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in steadfast control of the country and has significant support. US President Donald Trump also remains as strong as ever despite the release of the Mueller Report. Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains firmly in the helm and so does India’s NarendraModi and the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Populists don't need to be right wing either. Just look to France and Emmanuel Macron holding steady in hisposition as President of the French Republic, and, despite facing a corruption scandal, Justin Trudeau still sits conformably as Prime Minister in Canada.
So let’s revisit the question of populism and try and understand what it is and why it persists.
Some argue that populism is an ideology, or, moreover, a “thin” ideology (like nationalism, Feminism and ecologism) and can therefore be hosted by other more defined ideological positions. I disagree. Populism does not have the same depth of so-called “thin” ideologies. However, the point that populism can latch onto the left or the right is an important one. I think the Australian academic Benjamin Moffitt gets it more or less right in his explanation of populism as a political style, a kind of repertoire. You might want to call it a performance (Max Weber also saw politics as a form of performance as well).
Indeed, one could certainly add that it's a form of political theatre where social media is the stage and soundbites within 140 characters are the actor’s lines. The populist leader, usually an archetype “charismatic” figure, likes to simplify policy and groups political life into “us” and “them” with appeals to “the people” against a particular group, nation or outsider. This may be the traditional elite, the supreme court, nefarious international forces or the hostile media. And as we have seen in numerous examples, it works.
But why does it work? Why do these messages resonate? Different scholars and commentators have offered a range of suggestions. Some say the rise of populist politicians is a reaction to economic recession. Similarly, others point to the spread of neo-liberalism, especially the discontent of those left behind. Others see it as a reaction to political correctness. Some attest that it is a result of the decline of ideological politics or the perceived failure of traditional elites to deal effectively with the problems of today, or perhaps ignoring it while it is plain sight to the general public.
My personal take is that populism emerges when large segments of a population feel that what was once familiar has become unfamiliar and strange, perhaps even unrecognisable. You might want to call it 21stcentury alienation. It is a very strong reaction to the speed of change which happens so quickly that people have had no time to adjust or pause for thought.
These rapid changes which make the familiar unfamiliar can be broad in range and can include urban regeneration and rapid demographical shifts within a given neighbourhood. They might include the pace of technological change and innovation or the closure of shops on the high street or the local factory or power plant. It might even be something as trivial as the imposition of metric units of measurements as required by EU regulation.
What happens when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the political elite not only ignore your concerns but shut it out from mainstream discussion and instead insist that these changes are a good thing? Those who feel alienated develop a mythical nostalgia of the past and resent those who they perceive have contributed to their alienation.
When a charismatic figure emerges and purports to speak for the alienated, the resentment of this segment of the population is channelled into the support for the charismatic figure who claims to seek the rectification for the wrongs of the past. For Netanyahu supporters it is the error of the Oslo peace process, for Erdogan it is failures of the Kemalist elite to fully realise Turkey’s potential, for Trump it is anything Obama did. And the populist does this through performance in an appeal to the disenchanted for their support.
Populism emerges when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a sizeable population becomes alienated from their own society. Is it any wonder that populism still persists today?
Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent election victory, his comments alluding to the annexation of Israeli West Bank settlements are more pressing now than ever. The possibility that Israeli law will be extended to the settlements, home to 400,000 Israelis but deemed illegal by almost all interpretations of international law, is very real.
As is typical in Israeli politics after an election, in the following days or even weeks Netanyahu will engage in a mammoth coalition building exercise. Netanyahu will play a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where the pieces argue back. His aim will be to cobble together smaller parties such as the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism and the radical right-wing United Right into Netanyahu’s Likud led coalition government.
In order to see through this process effectively, Netanyahu will no doubt offer cabinet and ministerial posts to leading cadres of these smaller parties. However, they will also seek assurances from Netanyahu that their policy goals will be if not implemented then at least put on the agenda.
This is why Netanyahu’s irresponsible announcement about settlements will not go away. Netanyahu’s words were music to the ears of ideologically inclined members of Netanyahu’s own Likud as well as the United Right whose 5 Knesset seats make them the guarantor of Netanyahu’s coalition. In return for joining Netanyahu’s government and supporting his attempt to make himself immune to indictments over corruption pertaining to no less than three different cases by legislating the so-called French Law which would prevent a sitting prime minister form being prosecuted, such parties might seek to press Netanyahu on his settlement pledge, or at least push him to make it part of his policy agenda.
Add to the equation the Trump factor, the issue of settlement annexation is no mere election bluster. It is on the table.
Indeed, the unpredictability of the Trump administration and the possibility that the White House may actually support such a move is very real. Within just two years the administration reversed decades old US policy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognising the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
It is worth briefly reminding ourselves what is at stake if Israel were to extend Israeli law to the West Bank settlements.
In Europe, North America and the West, the perception of Israel as an international pariah would move from the fringe of the debate about Israel’s future to the mainstream. The BDS movement would gain unprecedented support. There will not be a campus on Earth (except maybe Ariel University) where students will not seek divestment. Parliaments across the globe will be lobbied to reconsider political and economic ties with Israel. Many will even be successful.
Attempts to exclude Israel from international civil society would gain momentum and accusations that Israel is an apartheid state would gain legitimacy as notable statespersons, public intellectuals and politicians will also adopt the same rhetoric and corporations would think twice about doing business in Israel. The Jewish diaspora will be split and many Jews outside of Israel will not only feel alienated from Israel, but they also will publicly campaign against the Israeli government in unprecedented numbers. Anti-Semitism across the world will skyrocket.
Even US support for Israel will be hurt as the emerging left-right split over support for Israel will turn into a gaping wound. Israel’s ties with the Arab world including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf, which Israel has to done well to forge strong strategic understandings, will be undermined. It might even represent one step too far for these countries even though they share a joint fear of Iranian influence.
Just as troubling, if not more so, the threat to the viability of the Palestinian state would lead to a third Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and another conflict against Hamas in Gaza. This would overturn the security that has won Netanyahu much political success.
Netanyahu knows how to win an election, but in order to win this one he has put the future of the state of Israel in a precarious position, a dereliction of the state that he is tasked to promote and protect. Watch this space, the settlement annexation issue is not going away.
Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
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