The rise of far-right populism in the US and Europe has shocked the world. In the wake of both the Brexit victory and the election of Donald Trump, the media has monitored the uncomfortable rise of extremism in Western democracies with bated breath. But while pundits bicker over whether Islamophobia, globalization, neoliberalism or Russian intervention opened up Pandora’s box, they’re overlooking some major countries, particularly in the developing world, that have faced similar democratic upsets. In countries like Turkey, India, and the Philippines, we’ve found recent victories for leaders who have actually embraced and furthered far-right ideologies worldwide. A quick background of these three different countries and their respective populist surges may help us better understand why the far right has been making such dramatic gains.
Turkey: Recep Erdogan
In Turkey, a burgeoning economy with long-standing ties to Europe, multi-party democracy has often struggled against military coups--despite the country’s long history of freedom of speech (as enshrined by its nationalist foundations). Recep Erdogan runs the presidency, having switched in 2014 from being prime minister since 2003, and while his administration has seen a continued growth in GDP, human-rights groups are alarmed by his efforts to curb free press. In 2013, protests against the regime were met with police crackdown and shutdowns on social media. In 2016, opposition roared its ugly head again when the military attempted a coup while Erdogan left the country. The coup failed, but was used as an excuse to enforce a state of emergency since.
Erdogan’s right-leaning tendencies come from his accumulation of power and repeated attacks in recent years against the courts, military, and presses that challenge him. They also come with numerous accusations and links to corruption scandals, a presidential “palace” built on government-protected parks, and a sizable ego. In one instance, Erdogan greeted a visiting leader while flanked by guards dressed in traditional Ottoman imperial garb, and he has been accused of attempting to make himself a new sultan. Just this weekend, he might have fulfilled that dream: in a national referendum, a small majority of Turkish citizens voted to give the president expanded powers, including removing checks by the parliament on Erdogan’s office. The referendum campaign has proven more than slightly controversial, as the government announced halfway through the day of the vote that ballots without proper stamps would be counted (in contrast with previously-established electoral policy), and critics claimed the voting materials were confusingly written.
Turkey stands at a critical point in politics between Europe and the Middle East. Erdogan’s “tough” foreign and internal policies have heavily restricted the rights of Kurdish minorities in the name of “security” while also providing military support in nearby conflicts like the war against ISIL and the Syrian Civil War. Recep Erdogan managed to secure almost unchallenged dominance over his government in only a matter of years, focusing on popular support from the masses to ensure his success. After the referendum that put Erdogan in a position on par with a “modern sultan,” Donald Trump called to congratulate him.
But Turkey is only one example of the success of far-right populism.
Philippines: Rodrigo Duterte
In the Philippines, the recently-elected president Rodrigo Duterte won on a platform focused on his self-proclaimed support of the extra-judicial killing of drug users and criminals. Rodrigo Duterte, who won on 38% of the vote, is another colorful character who never shies from controversy, even at several points admitting to personally killing people and claiming that “corrupt” journalists deserve to be murdered. Calling his policies “far-right” might be too on the nose; on several notable occasions, Duterte has been caught fantasizing about raping murdered missionaries, whistling at women journalists, and disbelieving his own daughter’s rape. In spite of all this, Duterte continues to maintain approval ratings around 80%.
The Philippines have often been written off as almost a military satellite to the United States, but in recent decades they’ve seen a similar increase in GDP to Turkey and are often placed in the same grouping of fast-developing nations. While Duterte was just elected last year, he’s already seen a huge downturn in the Filipino peso’s value, which Duterte blamed on the US “manipulating” the currency.
Instead of economics, Duterte has focused on his “war on drugs”, complete with a militarized campaign against drug users which has raised concern among international organizations. But don’t get it twisted: Duterte has plenty of distractions to keep voters proud of him. During the last months of Obama’s term, Duterte repeatedly disavowed the U.S.--a position that has set him apart from past presidents--and frequently hinted at a desire to work with China and Russia instead.
This seemed to change after November, as Duterte has repeatedly called Trump to congratulate him and invited him to visit, with Trump returning the gesture in kind. If Erdogan represents the authoritarian push of government, Duterte represents the vigilante, workingman’s conception of “justice” that far-right populists seek out. One dreams of a Philippines safe from crime, even if it means executions in the streets. Or a return to traditional family norms that let men “be men”--at the expense of ignoring accusations of rape. And, surprisingly, Duterte represents a populist’s greatest tool of pointing to dangerous foreign forces pulling the strings that cause the catastrophes a populist fails to prevent or even prepare against. Americans should see Trump in Duterte, but the British should see Farage as well in the presentation of foreign influence being the “real” problems for pocketbooks.
But if you think Erdogan and Duterte finish off far-right populists in all their sabre-rattling, dog-whistling glory, prepare to meet Narendra Modi.
India: Narendra Modi
A man who supposedly rose from being a lowly peanut-hawker to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and his party won the biggest election that has ever happened in his country. In 2014, around 550 million people voted, and a healthy 31% went for one party, with the rest going to dozens of other parties. In such a fractured government, wherein the victorious BJP won the smallest majority of any Indian election, its no surprise that Narendra Modi might not be the model of a unified nation.
Modi and his party won their position despite their rather dark past. Modi in particular has been publicly investigated for his connections to the 2002 Gujurat riots, wherein widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims effectively ripped apart the state he was in charge of at the time. The BJP, which reflects the political values of the Hindu right, doesn’t really shy away from communal violence: at best, they tend to view Muslims and other religious minorities as misinformed; at worst, the BJP sees them as a potential enemy.
Modi and the BJP get enormous credit internationally for making a unique push towards the right in Indian politics, one that seeks to be socially exclusive while still somehow pushing for economic liberalization. Modi ran with the purported goal of upsetting the “social norms” of government corruption in India, yet he also managed to greet the US president in an expensive suit with his name written literally all over it.
Essentially, Narendra Modi stands to claim a similar title to Donald Trump or even Marine Le Pen: the political “outsider” who comes to “save” his voters from oblivion itself. When Trump first signed his travel ban, Modi applauded it while numerous countries (including Turkey) derided it. As Modi heads a government that has turned a blind eye to forced conversions of religious minorities by his own party, he seems to have embraced just as much the worldview that Steve Bannon presented of “economic nationalism” with a special focus on protecting vested domestic interests at the expense of minority rights.
In many of these instances, populist leaders elected on rather broken political grounds have pushed forward with a bravado only matched by their foreign counterparts, reinforcing crises to empower their own regimes. In Erdogan, we find the tyrant that has played the long game of becoming sultan in all but name. Then Duterte represents the ruffian unafraid to speak his mind or take the people’s “justice” into his own hands. Meanwhile, Modi appears as the political outsider vowing to deconstruct government bureaucracy with the promise of more jobs and a protected national heritage.
In this context, the far-right populists of the West don’t represent a new wave of authoritarianism so much as they are arguably just now jumping on the bandwagon of a global trend towards this majoritarian rule--a trend enabling reactionary people with outdated views on nearly every matter of life to rise to the top. Many people have been slow to alarm, insisting that Trump and his cohort will have trouble pushing their regressive agenda through the aisles of red tape that dominate Capitol Hill. But here’s the thing: when reactionary leaders don’t like the rules of the game, they change them.