Authors: Meherab Hossain and Md. Obaidullah*
Populism and nationalism represent two discrete political ideologies; however, they may pose potential threats to democracy. Populism is a political ideology and approach characterized by the emphasis on the interests and concerns of ordinary people against established elites or perceived sources of power and privilege. Populist leaders often portray themselves as champions of the “common people” and claim to represent their grievances and desires. It is a political stance that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group against “the elite”.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. It represents a political principal positing that there should be congruence between the political entity and the nation-state. While populism emphasizes the idea of “the people,” nationalism emphasizes the idea of the nation-state.
In what ways can populism pose a threat to democracy?
While some argue that populism is not a threat to democracy per se, others contend that it poses a serious risk to democratic institutions. Populism can become a threat to democracy by undermining formal institutions and functions, discrediting the media, and targeting specific social groups, such as immigrants or minorities. This threat arises from its potential to confer a moral legitimacy upon the state that it might otherwise lack. Consequently, it can jeopardize the defense mechanisms established to safeguard against tyranny, including freedoms, checks and balances, the rule of law, tolerance, autonomous social institutions, individual and group rights, as well as pluralism. Populism imposes an assumption of uniformity onto the diverse fabric of reality, distorting not only factual representations but also elevating the attributes of certain social groups above those of others.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and policies have led to the erosion of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Populism in Turkey can be traced back to the era of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime, during which Atatürk’s elites, who had limited commonality with the broader society, assumed the responsibility of educating and guiding the masses. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘regime elitism,’ has rendered Turkey susceptible to populism, which fundamentally revolves around the conflict between the elites and the general populace.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist government has been accused of undermining the rule of law, limiting press freedom, and targeting civil society groups. He has established a repressive and progressively authoritarian state that operates under the guise of democracy.
In media discourse, he has been designated as a populist leader. Empirical analysis reveals that Hungary is currently governed by a form of political populism, characterized as conservative right-wing populism. The salient features of Hungarian political dynamics encompass the government’s claim of challenging established elites, a lack of a clearly defined political agenda, the utilization of propaganda as a prominent tool in its political communications, advocacy for the preservation of a Christian Hungary, intervention in areas traditionally considered independent from state interference such as education and jurisdiction, the implementation of mass clientelism to reward its supporters while exerting pressure on critics, and overt criticism of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Consequently, this trajectory underscores the ascendance of authoritarianism within Hungary.
How Nationalism can be threat to Democracy?
Nationalism can pose a potential threat to both democracy and international relations when it manifests in forms of discrimination, violence, and the exclusion of specific groups. The ascension of nationalism may jeopardize the established efficacy of multilateralism, which has historically been instrumental in preserving lives and averting conflicts. This can result in unilateral actions by certain nations, thereby undermining the collaborative approach to the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Nationalism can serve as a catalyst for conflict and division, fostering tendencies toward exclusivity and competition that impede the resolution of common global challenges. The ascent of economic nationalism has the potential to undermine global collaboration and policy alignment, resulting in a resurgence of nationalist economic strategies in many regions worldwide. Such strategies often prioritize individual national objectives over the collective global interest. Unrestrained nationalism can pose a threat to stability by inflaming ethnic tensions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence and conflict.
In Europe, nationalism has historically been a significant catalyst for conflict and division, spanning from the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930s to more recent upsurges of nationalist movements in various countries. Nationalism tends to foster exclusivity and competition, thereby complicating efforts to address common global challenges. Under nationalist ideology, exemplified by Hitler, instances of extreme cruelty and inhumanity have been documented.
Another instance of nationalism, which presents a significant challenge to democracy, is the ascendance of Hindu extremism and nationalism in India, resulting in communal tensions. Since the Hindu nationalist BJP came into power, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims in India, with the situation reaching unprecedented levels of concern. The government has actively employed media, television, and the film industry to propagate Islamophobia among the Hindu majority. In 2018, the Indian High Court rendered a judgment advocating for India to be declared a Hindu state, citing the country’s historical religious divisions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that, in accordance with its constitution, India is mandated to maintain a secular state. Needless to say, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fueling sectarian tensions and undermining the country’s secular democracy.
Indeed, while populism and nationalism are distinct concepts, their simultaneous global rise poses a considerable threat to democracy. These ideologies frequently favor specific groups over the broader population and can corrode democratic principles. They tend to exacerbate polarization and undermine vital democratic institutions. Hence, many countries are grappling with substantial challenges to their democratic systems, which puts their stability and effectiveness at risk.
*Md. Obaidullah holds both a BSS and an MSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His writing expertise spans various subjects, including Public Policy, Politics, Governance, Climate Change, and Diplomacy, on which he frequently contributes