Populism, Elections and the Ever-present Crisis

*Anti-government protests in Macedonia, May 2015. Source: Balkan Insight ©

Populism, Elections and the Ever-present Crisis

Last week, Macedonia’s Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski announced his resignation and nomination of his party’s (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity- VMRO DPMNE) secretary general Emil Dimitriev as the head of the interim government, headed to lead the country for snap elections in April 2016.

While the Macedonian Prime Minister, who has been in power since 2006, unilaterally pressed for early elections in April, the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SDSM) claims that there are currently no conditions in the country for fair and free elections. The voter registry is full of fake and deceased voters and the government-controlled state broadcasting service and national news agency are extremely partial in their coverage towards the incumbent VMRO and Gruevski. Since 2006, the country has gradually evolved towards a party-state with the capture of the judiciary and clientelism involved in public jobs and benefits; Macedonia is dangerously polarized between the main opposition and the ruling party. The opposition stated that under these conditions they would boycott the snap elections and consider street protests. The push for early elections shows that Gruevski is obviously convinced that his party would win and he would return to power.

If the situation in Macedonia rings a bell for those familiar with Turkish politics and the latest elections, it is worth a look at the background of the current crisis in Macedonia. The crisis broke out in February 2015, when the opposition  Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) started releasing tapes showing that the Prime Minister Gruevski, his close circle of ministers and the chief of the intelligence service were involved in large scale corruption, electoral fraud, clientelism and the wiretapping of 20,000 people; including ministers, journalists, businessmen, top academics, religious leaders and members of the judiciary. The tapes also showed that the government had interfered in the judiciary and the media. The PM quickly denied the allegations. The statement by VMRO in response to the accusations would be music to the ears of the Turkish government, which responded to the 17 December corruption scandal in a similar fashion: “tapes were cut, edited and created by unnamed “foreign secret services” in collaboration with the opposition”. The opposition leader Zoran Zaev was accused for being ‘a foreign puppet’, working for the interest of third parties that seek to destabilize the country that do not ‘want any good for Macedonia’. He faced charges of espionage and plotting a coup against the democratically elected government.

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*Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (Source Hürriyet Daily News ©) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (source Wall Street Journal ©) with supporters.

Huge anti-government streets protests took place in May. While the ruling VMRO blamed these protests on the opposition, riot police used force to disperse the protesters and Gruevski gathered his own supporters in a counter-rally to show that “Macedonia is much stronger than all the scenarios and agendas from abroad”.  In the meantime, pressure from the EU mounted on the government, pressing for investigation. Despite the resignation of two ministers, political turmoil continued until the EU struck a deal between the government and the opposition. According to the deal, Gruevski would resign and a new government would take the country to snap elections in April 2016. Reform of the electoral law, clearance of the voter registry, a parliamentary committee and a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations were also foreseen. In return, the opposition agreed to join the governing coalition and stop releasing the tapes.

So, the current crisis about the elections is just the most recent episode illustrating the deep political crisis that an illegitimate ruling party (for at least a considerable part of the society) offers to Macedonia. Dane Taleski, an expert of Macedonian politics, noted that very limited progress has been achieved with the previously agreed reforms to ensure the fairness of the upcoming elections. And, despite the political turmoil, high unemployment and poverty in the country, one of the government’s main occupations has been to indulge in costly construction projects, including erecting monuments of national heroes, construction of a ‘White House’ as the party’s headquarters and shopping malls.

It seems surprising in the first instance that the EU could have faith in the Macedonian government to implement the agreed reforms. The consensus logic that drives the EU has only played a role in failing civic protests and overlooking the unacceptable practices of a delegitimized government. What is even more surprising is the striking similarity of the populist strategies and discourses of semi-authoritarian governments in future EU member states: not only in Turkey and Macedonia, but similar one-man government parties can also be found in Montenegro and Serbia. Their authoritarian practices are masked behind tight electoral victories, personalized politics around the mediagenic leaders and elections that are not fought fairly.

The long-term incumbents in Macedonia and Turkey share sheer populism as a winning formula for the elections. Populism is an thin ideology that “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”. In other words, populism promotes a people-centric worldview that draws on the idea of the superiority of the sovereignty of people over all institutions. ‘The people’ are subject to moral valorization as the only source of legitimacy. However, a more essential feature of populism is its exclusive definition of ‘the people’. There are always demonized out-groups and depending on the political current; dissidents, minorities, international actors, intellectuals and opposition parties and politicians are blamed as enemies of ‘the people’ and the ‘national will’. The standard repertoire of populist leaders includes accusations based on inferences, generalizations and stereotypes; metaphors to define dissidents or minorities; undiplomatic, confrontational and polarizing use of populist language when responding criticism; and victimization rhetoric when defining ‘us’ and ‘them’, as well as stigmatization and oppression.

Populist leaders in government use this dichotomy between ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and overtly moralized language to polarize society when they are challenged, and to create an ever-present crisis in the country. While they demonize any kind of opposition as immoral and enemies of the national will, they are able to legitimize their authoritarian practices of intervening in the judiciary, dismantling checks and balances and oppressing civil dissent. The latest example of construction of out-groups in Turkey is President Erdogan’s targeting of the Academics for Peace as pseudo-intellectuals that are distant from ‘the people’.

Populists gradually replace democratic checks and institutions with frequent elections and referendums to capitalize on the invented crises and to enact and perpetuate their grip on power. Just as with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, in Macedonia, elections have become the main criteria to claim that the country is ‘an independent and democratic state’ where the elected rulers represent the national will (which often turns out to be a tight majority against almost other half of the society). Elections are used to mobilize voters, personalize politics by party leaders and regenerate the feeling of ‘crisis’ to reunite supporters and to secure one more term in office.

The real threat to democracy is that populists undermine the system from within through a different interpretation of democracy (unity over plurality, direct democracy over deliberation and consensus), rather than striving to destroy the democratic order totally. As long as the elections result in their victory, they can claim to be the one and only true representatives of the national will. This is why populist incumbents often resort to early elections, referendums and public polls. This is also why they dislike the institutions of representative democracy and pluralism as elite fashions and as disrespectful of the sovereignty of the ordinary people. And this is why if there is any reaction to the populist politics, it should come from inside. An EU-brokered deal or international condemnation can achieve little to tackle problems of semi-democratic regimes in the candidate countries.

Populists are formidable political competitors due to their unmatched ability to claim representation in the name of ‘the ordinary people’. Only persistent civic activism and a credible parliamentary opposition that resist the crisis-making efforts of the populist leaders by emphasizing the importance of establishing a new social order and pluralism over society-wide polarization and antagonism would return countries like Turkey and Macedonia back to a path of democratic consolidation. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. Meanwhile, we witness populists consolidate their grip on institutions; while the elections, one of the main conditions for democratic regimes, just become a tool to confirm transformation into semi-authoritarian regimes under the disguise of people’s sovereignty.

Bilge Yabancı

Yabancı, Bilge, “Populism, Elections and the Ever-present Crisis”, Independent Turkey, 23 January 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=10499

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