Tag Archives: Populism

Turkey – Is there a way out of Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism?

In the March 2019 local elections President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party suffered a blow when it lost almost all big cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Adana and Antalya, to the opposition (the Nation Alliance of the Republican Peoples Party/CHP, the Good Party/IP). The greatest loss was undoubtedly Istanbul. Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising start of Turkish politics was a relatively unknown candidate for Istanbul before the election. He ran against the former PM Binali Yıldırım, but his real rival was President Erdoğan himself. President Erdoğan campaigned fiercely for his candidate, using state resources and public funds; the government controlled major media outlets ignored all opposition candidates, including Imamoglu.

Defying all obstacles, Imamoglu won the election with a small margin of 13.000 votes. The High Election Board, however, annulled the Istanbul mayoral election after the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alleged irregularities. While President Erdoğan called on the Board several times to rerun the election alleging vote rigging, the board found no evidence of election fraud. Its decision was based on a weak legal argument that certain ballot officers were not civil servants, despite the fact that they had been appointed and cleared by the Board itself.

Many Istanbul voters reacted negatively to this decision, convinced that the government had pressured the Board to cancel Imamoglu’s rightful victory. In the end, Imamoglu won again in the rerun, this time with more than 800.000 votes, thereby increasing his support nearly ten per cent in two months’ time. In a short time, Imamoglu transformed from a relatively unknown mayor of the not “so important district” of Beylikdüzü into a hugely popular politician, winning twice against president Erdoğan who had not lost a single election for a long time.

In the Turkish context, Imamoğlu’s victory may be more significant than a simple mayoral election win. President Erdoğan who was once the mayor of Istanbul himself, famously said that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Erdoğan’s regime has been said to have four distinct characteristics; electoral authoritarianism as its electoral system, neo-patrimonialism as its economic system, populism as political strategy, and Islamism as political ideology.[1] Losing big cities in general, and Istanbul in particular, has the potential to affect all four aspects.

Imamoğlu gives hope to people that it is still possible to win and transfer political power through the ballot box – meaning that Turkey’s electoral authoritarian regime is competitive in nature. There is an uneven playing field, but there may still be a slight window of opportunity for the opposition to gain political power through elections, no matter how unfair or unfree they are.

Imamoğlu’s campaign strategy was to reach people in the streets, talk, and listen without grand meetings. All major media outlets are controlled by Erdoğan and they all proved useless against this strategy. Erdoğan’s discourse is premised on the existence of an enemy. His often angry, divisive, and threatening rhetoric was beaten by Imamoğlu’s good natured, hopeful, inclusive, and pluralist approach. He has been backed not only by The Nation Alliance but also the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party/HDP and the conservative Happiness Party/SP. He managed to form a larger alliance to restore Turkish democracy which he called the “Istanbul coalition”. Many people believe that he now has an opportunity to create a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s regime by running Istanbul successfully. He might also prove that it is possible to beat populist, authoritarian politicians in their game.

As for the economic system, opposition wins in big cities including Istanbul means losing one of the biggest sources of patronage for the AKP. Funds and public companies run by mayors have been channels for charitable patronage as well as other types of economic “reward” and “punishment” mechanisms. Under the current poor economic conditions in Turkey, the government has been increasingly short of funds to feed its patron-client relations, especially through charitable patronage.

Campaigning fiercely for big cities, and especially for Istanbul and losing it twice, Erdoğan seems to find it hard to keep his political support intact. This display of political weakness affects his position as the patron of his neo-patrimonial regime, as the patron’s weakness pushes clients to search for other patrons or new positions under the changing conditions.  There are already signs of this happening as former Prime Minister Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Babacan have resigned from the AKP to form new parties. But the most important client disobedience has yet to come from the judicial elite which meters out punishments for the regime. The rule of law and constitutional rights have long been undermined in Turkey. Many journalists, academics, elected mayors, and members of parliaments have been imprisoned due to their opposition to Erdoğan’s regime.

As Erdoğan’s regime is rapidly losing legitimacy and funds to feed its patronage network, he may try to compensate by increasingly leveraging the judicial system to prosecute opponents. There is already a criminal case filed against the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and another case against Imamoğlu is to be filed. President Erdoğan has alleged that İmamoğlu insulted the governor of Ordu while visiting the town and the governor has declared his determination to file a criminal case, adding that Imamoğlu will lose his office if he is convicted. Erdoğan has also threatened breakaways from his party, saying that “they will pay the price for treachery”.

As for the ideological power of political Islam to support and sustain Erdoğan’s weakening regime, it is highly doubtful that it could replace legitimacy derived from the ballot box or economic performance, or that it could console voters for the lack of charitable patronage. In short, Erdoğan’s political charm is no longer unbeatable – there is a new rival in town charming voters by just being the opposite of everything that Erdoğan is.  


[1] Ihsan Yilmaz & Galib Bashirov (2018) The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey, Third World Quarterly, 39:9, 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371.

South Africa – Ramaphosa faces populist pushback

This is a guest post by Dr. Jason Robinson, Oxford Analytica

While trying to inspire a nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa is hamstrung by those within the ruling ANC and outside who are seeking to derail reform efforts.

Two months on from the May general election, an ongoing populist pushback led by allies of former President Jacob Zuma (2009-18) is distracting Ramaphosa’s focus and posing serious governance risks.

Restoring the state

Voters and investors alike hoped after the May 8 polls that Ramaphosa would quickly move to unveil various measures to reform government, boost economic growth and curb unemployment. However, such hopes have largely been dashed.

Key turnaround plans for state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom and South African Airways (SAA) have yet to be unveiled, while Zuma’s allies in the ANC, in particular Secretary-General Ace Magashule, are regularly undermining Ramaphosa’s authority with statements contrary to party and government policy, spooking both markets and citizens alike.

Even some of his supposed allies are causing Ramaphosa problems, with the president recently forced to take national and provincial officials to task for contrasting public utterances on controversial e-tolls.

All the while, economic growth remains stagnant, rampant unemployment persists, and high crime and insecurity is a pressing (longstanding) concern; troops from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are shortly about to deployed to gang-plagued areas of the Western Cape province after a recent spike in killings.

Many of the predicaments facing Ramaphosa are undoubtedly not of his own doing, but rather the damage wrought by what he has previously dubbed ‘nine wasted years’ under Zuma.

Key among these are the corrosive undermining of key institutions through ‘state capture’, including the country’s law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.  

Since taking office 18 months ago, Ramaphosa has begun to repair their functions, with a newly installed head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) bolstered by a new anti-graft unit.

Similarly, an overhaul of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), once a shining light of South African governance but gradually decimated during Zuma’s tenure, should gradually help overturn declining tax returns and help to improve currently subdued growth prospects.

Shortly after the May election, Ramaphosa appointed a new streamlined cabinet, trimming the number of cabinet ministers from 36 to 28, with an avowed goal of more effective governance and service delivery, and giving long overdue policy certainty in key sectors.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly cognisant of his still precarious hold over his party and forced to placate the ANC’s alliance partners, Ramaphosa was forced to keep the same number of deputy ministers, in addition to retaining several poorly performing officials (including Zuma allies) in the interests of increasingly illusory party ‘unity’.

Similarly, tainted ANC figures pervade parliament, with several of those implicated in ongoing state capture revelations recently selected to head up various legislative committees, reaffirming public perceptions of a largely unreformed ANC.

Populist pushback and attacks from within

Yet while core state institutions can, over time, be repaired, perhaps one of the most problematic legacies of the Zuma tenure is the stifling of South Africa’s policy space replete with a populist resurgence.

For all the goodwill that Ramaphosa still has both at home and abroad, even as the hopes of quick post-election reforms have largely been dashed, this pushback represents a dangerous long-term challenge.

Not only does it threaten to derail Ramaphosa’s reform programme but, in the worst-case scenario, it could leave openings for his ouster and space for a populist figurehead to ascend to the ANC leadership once more.

Such infection of public discourse has been evident in the recent (largely redundant) debates over the the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), with Magashule and others resurrecting the trojan horse of altering its scope and mandate, including a potential policy of quantitative easing, which sent markets reeling and the South African rand tumbling.

Similarly, a renewed clash between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkwhebane and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, a key Ramaphosa ally, reflects the latest deflection tactics on the part of the Zuma-aligned elite.

In a July 5 report on alleged maladministration at SARS, Mkhwebane accused Gordhan of creating an illegal ‘rogue unit’ during his time as SARS commissioner (1999-2009), and separately that (as minister) he lied over meetings with the controversial Zuma-aligned Guptas, after previously stating that he had not met members of the business family, but later clarifying that he may have on one occasion.

Mkhwebane mandated the president to take disciplinary action against Gordhan within 30 days; the latter has lodged an urgent court application to interdict the report and its remedial findings.

While Mkhwebane’s charges against Gordhan may come to naught, amid apparent investigative failings and questionable understanding of both the law and her constitutional mandate, they are an unwelcome distraction for Ramaphosa given the host of pressing political issues currently facing him.

Although Mkhwebane is viewed as a Zuma surrogate after repeatedly erratic and politicised findings, she has received the backing of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have long tried to sideline Gordhan.

Last week, EFF legislators called Gordhan a “constitutional delinquent” and attempted to disrupt his budget speech, before they were removed from parliament.

In bitter contrast, Mkwhebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, showed just how South Africa’s Chapter 9 institutions (eg, independent electoral commission, human rights commission) could hold the executive to account, when led by a capable individual.

When the ANC stood firm behind Zuma as graft and state capture allegations proliferated during the end of his tenure, it was Madonsela who shone a light on the unconstitutional upgrades to Zuma’s personal homestead at Nkandla, and later the problematic state capture allegations involving Zuma, his associates and the Gupta family.

Mkhwebane’s approach thus puts Ramaphosa and his allies in a substantial institutional and public relations bind.

Should the president push for her ouster by the ANC in parliament, something backed by several opposition parties, Ramaphosa will be accused of the very kind of executive overreach perpetrated by his predecessor. Similarly, given Mkhwebane is shortly expected to release a report into donations to Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign, such a move could be portrayed as politically motivated.

Plus ca change?

In his State of the Nation Address last month, Ramaphosa outlined key strategic goals for a prospective two terms and ten years in office, including tackling hunger; getting 2 million more young people into employment; raising economic growth above that of population growth; halving violent crime; and improving child educational outcomes.

However, like so many of the government’s stated aims over the past decade, the problem is not for want of ambition, but rather governance and implementation. While Ramaphosa has taken steps to halt the rot across national government, corruption pervades at the provincial and municipal levels: only 18 of 257 municipalities received a clean audit in fiscal year 2017/18.

Ramaphosa’s allies speak to a calculated long game in the president’s cautious and methodical approach, arguing the consensus-seeker and pragmatist will ultimately (indirectly) sideline many of his enemies as the capacity of law enforcement agencies are gradually restored, and anti-corruption cases gain traction.

Nevertheless, while the deflection tactics of Magashule, Mkhwebane and the EFF may be transparent to most outside observers, they are successfully muddying the waters and distracting the president’s focus. 

EFF leader Julius Malema has suggested that Mkhwebane’s forthcoming report into Ramaphosa’s leadership campaign will damage the president and could even prompt his replacement by controversial Deputy President David Mabuza, a provincial powerbroker and former Zuma ally with a questionable past.

A continual whittling away of Ramaphosa’s pro-investment mantra and overall authority, coupled with still dormant economic growth, ongoing insecurity and high unemployment, risks ever increasing voter apathy and disillusionment with government over Ramaphosa’s first full term in office.

All the while, Ramaphosa’s enemies will be circling, hoping to undermine his good governance mantle and hasten his downfall.

Dr. Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions expressed are his own.

Twitter handle: @SpeedTrials

Romania – How much ‘deep state’ and where to find it

Social Democrat Party (PSD) chairman Liviu Dragnea delivered the most important speech of 2018 at a party rally in June. The ‘parallel state’ featured most prominently among his choice of words. ©presidential – power.com / Veronica Anghel

In the 2013 novel ‘A Delicate Truth’, former MI5/6 spy and novelist John le Carré presents the ‘deep state’ as ‘the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.’ The popular writer has constantly known how to position his plots in the palm of contemporaneity. Increasingly, politicians use the scare of the secrecy of the ‘deep state’ for a useful one-dimensional identification of an enemy and conspiracy theorists are slithering from the margins towards the mainstream on the waves of social media. At the same time, political scientists increasingly acknowledge the existence of unquantifiable intervening factors that may alter the predictable outcomes of formal institutions. How much is the balance between democratic institutions affected by the existence of a ‘deep state’ and is there a use to professionally trace its attributes without falling in the traps of literally mystery or legitimize populist discourse?

The ‘deep state’ by any other name…. and where to find it

The most common place to find the ‘deep state’ is in the results of discourse analysis. While politicians can use different names for what it is, they rely heavily on its power to be all encompassing and mobilize electoral sensibilities. In the US, Stephen Bannon announced the White House’s war against the ‘administrative state’, a conception of the ‘deep state’ that pits President Trump not against an economic privileged class, but against clerks and civil servants who are perceived as obstacles against the success of his political platform. Republican Ron Paul referred to such obscure interests as ‘the shadow government’.  This understanding of detrimental networks of authority for representative governance finds its adherents further back in US history. President Theodor Roosevelt announced his own belief in the existence of an ‘invisible government’ that cannot be held accountable by the people.

In Central European politics, reproving the ‘colonizing interests’ of the West – via Western corporations or enabled through Brussels and its EU civil servants – and/or chastising the secret services as enablers for hidden undefined interests are increasingly more common elements of political rhetoric. Such discourses use the logic of a Manichean zero sum game approach – the ‘good’ us against the ‘evil’ others – and incentivize emotional societal division. The Polish Kaczyński administration actively pursued the re-investigation and promotion of the Smolensk tragedy not as a result of faulty rational decisions as shown by a previous report, but of treacherous intrigues sponsored by Russia and other perpetrators that remained nameless. In Hungary, a useful name was at hand, as George Soros was identified as the social – liberal Western capitalist who is an obstacle against the state sponsored return to conservative values and nationalist economy. Consequently, the ‘deep state’ became known as the ‘Soros Army’. Contenders of the Orban regime use the term ‘mafia state’ to identify the structures that run parallel with state institutions and which are run through oligarch proxies of PM Orban and the FIDESZ party. Bulgarian PM Boiko Borisov announced during his first mandate in 2009 his own fight with what he considered is a deep infiltration of organised crime inside the government, working for personal economic interests. Similarly, his contenders claim (ex. here or here) it is PM Borisov and other government leaders with long running ties in the Bulgarian Communist Party who chair networks that result in a ‘state capture’. In other hybrid democracies, such as Turkey, the military is an unaccountable power group that more blatantly and more frequently curbs the power of elected civilians.

In Romania, this inner core of the establishment able to conduct in secret a blurring of public and private interests is branded as the ‘parallel state’. The ‘parallel state’ allegedly represents a consortium of unidentified interests of secret services, foreign – connected NGOs and representatives of different branches of the judicial system linked to former president Traian Băsescu who use state resources for their aims. A quantitative analysis of the most important political speech of the year 2018, delivered by the chairperson of the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, at an assembly of over 150 000 PSD supporters shows that the ‘parallel state’ is at the core of his concerns. At the same political assembly, another PSD leader delivered a speech in English, cheering president Trump’s fight against the ‘deep state’. Mr. Dragnea considers it the main obstacle standing in the way of PSD fulfilling its policy program, while also having the ability to change election outcomes and intimidate state officials through prosecutions. Similar analyses show comparative frequencies of references to the ‘parallel state’ in public discourses of other leaders of the governing coalition. Such concerns are reinforced by junior partner ALDE and senate chairperson, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu. This phrase has become so common use in Romanian politics that even in internal fighting of PSD members, members accuse each other of ‘using the means common to the “parallel state”’. By these, they mean illegal phone – tapping or other types of interception of communications using state resources. This is usually a cause for escalation of tensions and media speculation.

The wide spread use of the scare of an almighty  ‘parallel state’ that reminds of the communist security service is a source of citizens’ erosion of confidence in state institutions and the progress made towards the independence of the judiciary and in the anti-corruption fight. Electorally, this translates into support for the government’s program to reform the justice system. It also leads to steady decrease in voter turn – out as citizens increasingly believe politics is a murky territory their vote cannot affect either way. Lower voter turn –out is a technical advantage for the PSD who relies on a captive electorate.

President Băsescu, the main actor accused of chaperoning this complex system of  interests during his mandate, declared there is no such thing as a ‘deep state’, but affirmed the existence of prosecutors, judges and other persons, from within institutions, but not representing those institutions, who abused and misused power. President Klaus Iohannis altogether denied the existence of anything similar to what the PSD leaders claim exists in Romania.  The identification of this useful enemy that is everywhere and nowhere is a useful campaign tool. But is there anything that can be taken out of the shadows and systematically researched for a better understanding of weaknesses of formal institutions?

The aristocracy of pull or how much ‘deep state’ ?

The study of ‘interest groups’ and the need for their judicial review has been a long running preoccupation of political science (ex. here and here). More recently, post-communist transition theory identified that informal powers and networks that political elites use to their benefit is as an important factor in limiting democratic state building (see Grzymala – Busse and Jones Luong 2002). In such evaluations, the extent of the use of parallel networks of authority and power personalisation make the difference between ‘democratic’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘personalistic’ states. Other researchers claim the tension between formal and informal institutions precedes communist times (see Ekiert and Ziblatt 2012). Disaggregating the state analytically into actors at various levels of the decision-making process and state administration provides insight into the struggle between formal and informal institutions and permits a categorisation that can be used irrespective of time and space:

”In the formal democratic state, informal institutions are largely in accord with formal democratic institutions. In the semiformal state, dual domination signals the deep state’s existence. In the informal state, deep state is converted into the state, the rule, and the norm.” (Soyler 2013)

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) increasingly prove to have multiple centres of informal authority with fluctuating degrees of influence on the process of democratization and state institutionalization. The introduction of democratic institutions – and their intrinsic formalisation of elite relationships -clashes with persistent informal practices. In other words, the formal changes introduced from above met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the source of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage. The widespread acceptance of these informal norm systems caters for whichever presiding force finds its way into loci of state power. By circumventing predictability, their effect is anticompetitive and antimeritocratic, favouring those who are ‘in-the-know’ and have privileged access to politicians. This eases the appearance of one – party state forms of political organisations, regardless of ideological inclinations.

Conclusion: the ‘deep state’ is a puzzle, not the Leviathan    

Consequently, the Romanian ‘deep state’ is much less the conspirator centralized system chaired by any one interest group at any one time, but a fabric of relationships that uses different types of barter as a source of maintaining power among an established political and economic elite. The extent to which this is a part of the decision making process affects the state of democracy as a whole, but cannot controllably and substantially satisfy the interests of any one centralized interest group in the longer run. The ‘deep state’ is not in itself the all-powerful Leviathan, but resembles the timeless aristocracy of pull. It is a complex puzzle of unwritten, informal norms and relations that requires empirical research for a better understanding of power dispersion and agenda setting.

Presidents and Populism in Latin America

Last week, Ecuador’s constitutional court decided to allow a constitutional reform, which would effectively remove term limits and allow President Rafael Correa to run for re-election in 2017, go forward for a vote in congress. Given Alianza Pais controls 100 of the 137 seats in the Assembly, it looks almost certain that this reform will pass.[1] Correa has already overseen a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term.

Attempts to reform term limits in Latin America are becoming a recurrent theme in my blog posts. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism and prevent the long-term concentration of power in the hands of a few, limited presidents to one term in office. In fact, in 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only country that allowed presidential re-election.

But this has changed. In the 1990s, presidents such as Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori brokered deals to allow for an extension and/or redefinition of term limits. The trend has gathered pace in recent times. Under Hugo Chávez, term limits were abolished in Venezuela. In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term (this was stymied by the constitutional court). Last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua. And this year, the Bolivian electoral council allowed Bolivia’s incumbent president, Evo Morales, to run for a third consecutive term in presidential elections this October, which Morales duly won with an impressive 61 per cent of the popular vote.

Is there any pattern here? Well, there does appear to be one thing that unites all of these leaders – they have all been accused of being populist, from the neo-populists of the 1990s such as Menen and Fujimori who began the process of dismantling term limits, to the present day left-leaning populism of Chávez and Correa, and the security-orientated populism of Uribe.[2] Populism is a term frequently bandied about in the context of Latin American presidents. One widely used definition views populism as the ‘top-down political mobilization of mass constituencies by personalistic leaders who challenge elite groups on behalf of an ill-defined pueblo, or ‘the people.’[3]

Within this context, it makes sense for these leaders to attempt to abolish term limits. If they are acting on behalf of a discontented population, who view political elites as venal and corrupt, and by extension the institutions they have established, then the reform of these institutions is a logical next step, particularly the abolishment of term limits, as the populist, as the true agent of the people, should not be constrained by such institutions. So it comes as no surprise that we tend to see constitutional reform and the reform of term limits go hand-in-hand with populism.

Having said that however, a caveat. Although it is something of a trope to suggest populism in Latin America is a much-debated concept, I had the pleasure of attending a recent talk here in Oxford by Kirk Hawkins, where Kirk highlighted the ongoing conceptual debates surrounding populism and proposed an ideational definition of the concept. Kirk’s definition has important implications. It suggests that populism is actually not that recurrent a feature of Latin American politics, despite a popular interpretation to the contrary. Secondly, Kirk’s definition eschews the organizational or political overtones to be found in the definition above (in addition to Dornbusch and Edwards’ classic economic conceptualisation of populism). Nonetheless, this definition also focused on how populists use a discourse to critique existing political elites (or actors). Again, even here, constitutional reform and the abolishment of term limits would seem to naturally follow such signals.

Of course, when presidents win three or four consecutive terms, it becomes much more difficult to rail against the established political order, given they are now the political elite. That however, is an issue for another day.

[1] The court ruled that this proposal did not need to be approved by a popular referendum, but given Correa’s very high approval rating, this would most likely have been passed anyway.

[2] E.g. see Roberts, Kenneth M., 2007. “Latin America’s Populist Revival,” SAIS Review, Vol. XXVII (1), pp. 3-15.

[3] Roberts, 2007, p. 5