People, Power, Politics

cedar-podcastThe People, Power, Politics podcast brings you the latest insights into the factors that are shaping - and re-shaping - our political world. It is brought to you by CEDAR and features leading scholars in the field of comparative politics from the University of Birmingham and other institutions all over the world. Join us to better understand the factors that promote and undermine democratic government around the world and follow us on X at @CEDAR_Bham 

Latest Podcast

The Politics of Development. A conversation with Claire Mcloughlin and David Hudson

  • With host Nic Cheeseman
  • Guests: Claire Mcloughlin and David Hudson

Development is political but what does that mean for how we solve some of the biggest challenges facing the world today? A pathbreaking new book, The Politics of Development (Sage, 2024), sets out to answer this question and many more. Why is it so hard to reduce corruption, deliver good quality healthcare, and create more equal societies? And what can be done to remove these blockages, so that politics goes from being the problem to the solution? Join three of the editors – Claire Mcloughlin, David Hudson and People, Power, Politics host Nic Cheeseman – as they talk about the novel approach of their volume (co-edited with Sameen Ali and Kailing Xie) and the many lessons it reveals about why getting it right can be so hard. Listen now to find out why The Politics of Development is “destined to become essential reading” (Duncan Greene)!

Claire Mcloughlin is Associate Professor at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham, and the lead editor of The Politics of Development.

David Hudson is Professor of Politics and Development, also at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham, and an editor of The Politics of Development.

Nic Cheeseman is the Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham and Founding Director of CEDAR, and was also an editor of The Politics of Development.


00:00:01 Intro Jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:15 Nic Cheeseman

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks so much for joining us again on the people Power Politics Podcast where I'm delighted to say that I have a special treat for myself and hopefully for you, because I'm joined by two of my favourite colleagues from the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham, the head of IDD, David Hudson and Associate Professor Claire Mcloughlin. We're here today because we've recently produced a book on the Politics of Development that's come out now with SAGE. And we thought it would be really interesting to have maybe the three of us discuss it, having me as one of the editors actually host the show and ask questions to the other two. So to kick us off, Claire as the lead editor and really you know, if we're honest, the person whose energy and insights kind of really brought the book through to fruition, could you tell us a little bit about where did this book come from? Why is a book on the Politics of Development relevant today? Why have you spent so much of your life over the last few years worrying about this project?

00:01:09 Claire Mcloughlin

Of course, and thanks for having us on the podcast, Nic, it's a pleasure to be here and it's great to see the podcast go from strength to strength.

00:01:16 Claire Mcloughlin

So, as with all great books, I think this one starts with a puzzle. So what's our puzzle? Our puzzle is, how can we think about the relationship between politics and development. How should we be analysing this? How should we be teaching this? How should we be doing this? And I think this comes around from this growing recognition over the past, at least 20 years that politics matters for development, and in fact everything about development is political. We've reached this point where it's commonly accepted that everything about development is political, right? The challenge is, what does that actually mean in practice and how can we analyse that? Because it's one thing to say everything about developments is political, but often times that is the end of the conversation. We will just blame politics for everything that goes wrong in development or reasons why the reforms we want to see are blocked or the social transformation we want to see isn't achieved. So in this book, what we're trying to do is offer a kind of operational working definition of the politics of development that people can use, apply, unpick, contest. We see politics of development as the unavoidable process of contestation over alternative desired futures. Now there's a lot to unpack in that, including what is contested, why is contestation unavoidable? Where does this contestation happen, and also, how does it happen? So these are the kinds of questions we're addressing to try to get to a more fine-grained framework for thinking about and teaching the politics of development.

00:03:04 Claire Mcloughlin

Obviously over the past 20 years or so, we've had a kind of revolution in thinking about development. We I think can agree collectively as scholars, as researchers, as practitioners, that everything about development is political. And I think it's hard to argue against that now, even when we think about the most technical, technocratic investments, whether it's building a road or laying a water pipe. These things inherently involve people who have interests and who are likely to contest these outcomes.

00:03:39 Nic Cheeseman

I think that's a really great example like building a road, because that's an archetypal example that most people will think that's just technical. You just need to know where the road needs to go. You get your people, you dig a path, you stick some tar down. How can that be political? So give us an example. What could be the sort of contestation there? Why is that about the politics of development?

00:03:59 Claire Mcloughlin

Sure. Yeah, absolutely. We think about a road we might think about the materials it takes to build that road, as you said, where does the road go? The pathway of the road. These are engineering tasks or they appear to be deceptively simple design tasks maybe. We just need good architecture, etc. But of course, even the very simple question of where does the road go involves some dynamic contestation between people who have different interests in where that road sits. I mean people with different livelihoods investments in roads, politicians with an interest in the roads being in their particular constituency, we can think about who wins the contract for that road and who is contesting the value of that contract.

00:04:48 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, Claire. And I think a lot of our listeners will be in countries where they know well that you can go from one part of the country where their roads are good to another part of the country where the roads are bad and they know why that is. So it's because of the political support base of the ruling party or it's because it goes to the President's home or it's because it goes to a particular area that has natural resources and all of a sudden you could start to see, as you say, that these are actually political decisions. They're not administrative decisions.

00:05:13 Nic Cheeseman

Now, David, coming to you for a minute, isn't this kind of something that the literature has recognised for a long time? Has there been a sort of focus on on technicality in the development research? I think some listeners might be sitting here thinking, is this really something new that we needed to say or isn't this just been something everyone's kind of accepted? So maybe you could tell us a little bit about where the development studies literatures come from and why you think this in book was important at this time.

00:05:39 David Hudson

Yeah, it's a great question, Nic. Thank you. And I do think that the book makes a contribution. It is a textbook, but there's an argument in it as well, and an argument that we develop at the beginning and the introduction that has picked up in all the subsequent chapters as well. But I also think that we think about politics a little bit differently in this book that has often been thought about in the literature hitherto. So like in the really old stuff around modernisation theory, politics was seen as this very linear progressive thing that as states modernise that it led to development and development led to that modernisation process as countries industrialised and so forth. And then there was lots of critical work around post development approaches, and that led to, I think, a renewal of interest in politics. And then there's a lot of the work done around political economy analysis and thinking, working politically, that was driven by donors as well. So it was quite applied and I think where we've got to now is a point where we're seeing an interesting development of the critical work and the more applied work that comes through in the book and in the book, rather than seeing, trying to understand the politics behind development or politics as an outcome of development. Actually development itself is inherently political, and it's impossible to get around that and that's where I think we are making a contribution which is thinking about how we define this process of development if everything is political.

00:07:14 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. That's interesting. So maybe coming back to you, Claire, the book sets out a framework for how to think about the politics of development, because of course one of the things that people might think is, well, it's great if everything's political, but then where does that leave us? Doesn't that just leave us in a blanket world where everything is political? And so we can't differentiate. And the book tries to develop this framework for how we would think about the relationship between politics and development around the three ‘I’s. Maybe you could tell us, you know a little bit about that. Where are the three 'I's come from? What are the three 'I's and why you think that's a sort of helpful lens through which to get at this problem?

00:07:48 Claire Mcloughlin

Great. Yeah. So first of all, yes, we have come to realisation that politics matters sort of feel like that's where the conversation often stops and it becomes a dead end. And sometimes actually there's a bit of a washing of the hands that happens when we could say, well, that's just a political problem or politics gets blamed for some of the things that some of the barriers to some of the challenges we're trying to address as communities, as individuals, as nations, Even so I think in the book we're trying to go that bit further. So we're trying to say it's not enough to just know that politics matters. We have to try to disaggregate politics. We have to go beyond just blaming politics. We can't use it as a shorthand for everything that goes wrong. And in fact, one really important thing we do in the book is twist that around and talk about and think about how politics isn't just the barrier to change. It's actually the way change happens. So what David said about politics being inherent within this definition of development is really kind of what we're trying to develop and unpack in the book.

00:08:50 Claire Mcloughlin

So how do we do that? We do that by offering people a way of thinking about the politics of development through these three 'I's, institutions, interests and ideas. And what we argue in the book is that any political problem, any development problem can be unpacked, analysed and ultimately you can think about designing ways of mobilising around or trying to tackle that problem through this framework of interests, institutions and ideas.

00:09:25 Nic Cheeseman

Great. So maybe and I don't know who wants to pick this up? Who whoever feels like it, you know, maybe you could give us an idea or sense of what would be a way in which institutions, ideas, interests for each one of those. How do they shape the kind of development outcomes that people might be interested in? You know, how do they shape who gets what? How do they shape whether or not we actually managed to resolve development trap?

00:09:49 Claire Mcloughlin

OK, Nic, first just giving an overview really of what we think has interests, institutions and ideas cause I think that gives a sense of why we think they're so powerful as forces for development and social transformation.

00:10:03 Claire Mcloughlin

So institutions, we always think about these as rules of the game. This was the famous North definition. And of course it can also be informal institutions. And in the book we're kind of thinking about rules as formal and informal systems that guide human behaviour, so everyone everywhere is always subject to rules, whether it's rules about authority or distribution of goods that people try to get hold of to survive and thrive in their own everyday struggle.

00:10:36 Claire Mcloughlin

Interests, then, are more about how we conceive what is good or bad for ourselves and what we think is the best way to achieve that. So what's in our interest is, you know, we often think about this in a very negative way, right thinking about politicians as pursuing quite venal opportunistic strategies as trying to just maximise their own self interests and we often think about interests as problematic in terms of elite capture or corruption, or fuelling systems that profit the few at the expense of the many right. So we think about interest in this very negative way. But again, in the book really we see interest more as the motivational engine for development that can be positive or negative force for change, right?

00:11:27 Claire Mcloughlin

In fact, you could argue that one of the critical problems that we have in development that perhaps overlays all of them, is the need to generate systems that encourage individuals to act in the collective interest rather than their own interest. So this is the classic collective action problem. And then finally, ideas. So ideas are often neglected if you look at many political economy analysis frameworks often really focused on these formal systems and interests and power, which of course matter. But when you ask yourself what really drives our interests, and how do we think about and generate our perceptions of what's in our interest, it really comes from our ideas, and it comes from our philosophies, our world views, the information we're exposed to and our values around what is right and wrong for society. So we think these are motivating forces in development and and that's why we really focusing in on them and how they operate around different problems in the book.

00:12:32 Nic Cheeseman

So David, perhaps now we've got institutions, ideas and interests on the table, you could talk to us a little bit about how they interact. Are these three separate, distinct forces that people can go and analyse politics of development from or is it actually a bit more complicated than that?

00:12:48 David Hudson

Yeah, it could be as simple as that, as if you wanted to, especially in kind of pedagogically when we're teaching them and getting students to think about the individual roles of institutions, interests and ideas. But I think the really interesting analysis is when you look at how they interact or overlap. Because they're clearly fuzzy, right? It's not that these things are entirely independent of one another, and Claire started to unpack that a little bit. So when we think about where interests come from, then it's clearly the role of ideas that help people construct their interests, like the famous sociologist Margaret Archer always talked about how agents or people, individuals need to have an internal conversation to figure out what they want and why, and then when we think about institutions, often the distinction between ideas and institutions is very indistinct, and that institutions are just crystallised and formalised ideas and actually ideas, when we think about the role of social norms are really just informal institutions. And so I think by looking at where they interact and another interact I think is the really interesting stuff, so perhaps if we're thinking about whether or not citizens receive public goods, whether or not they're provided clinics and schools and so forth and thinking about the way that those three things connect to each other and interact is really helpful because we can think about the interests of citizens and politicians. But then the way that politicians' interests are guided is shaped by the electoral system and the way that constituencies are carved up. And the way that they maybe want to provide goods to people who vote for them. Or maybe it's the role of identity and ideas. When we think about co-ethnic citizens and so those politicians, they have their interest to get reelected and provide goods to citizens, but actually it's the ideas of which group they identify with and and who will repay them in terms of votes for the provision of goods and services. So I think taking all three together is incredibly powerful and can give us a really quick but actually pretty deep analysis of the forces that drive change that are going on in society.

00:15:11 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, David. Yeah, and I think one of the things that doing that can also help us to do is to understand why people don't always have the interest we think they should, right? So if you meet, for example, somebody who might be conceived of as being poor, part of the working class but votes for the party that spends a lot of money on business and doesn't give much money in redistribution. It looks maybe a bit strange to some of us if we see, for example, women in a particular society who are very in favour of gender norms that seem to constrain their own ways of operating and behaving again for some outside of that society, that all seems strange. And so I think one of the things that I really like about bringing those three things together is that you can then understand how the institutions and the ideas shape what people think of as being in their own interests and what's acceptable, and vice versa, and therefore you get this more dynamic model which actually explains, you know, the variation we have in the world, these countries that we talk about in the book are very different with very different sets of ideas and interests and only by actually putting them all together can you understand how that variation came about. Now that brings the question, Claire, that I wanted to push to you, which is what countries do you talk about in the book and how did you make that decision?

00:16:21 Claire Mcloughlin

It's not the question that we've thought about as the driving idea of content behind the book, right. So we weren't necessarily thinking what countries can we use as illustrative examples? We're really try in the book to instead think about everyday lived realities and I think this is another thing that sort of sets the book apart from perhaps other textbooks or books that use comparative politics, or perhaps just are somewhat more focused on theories as abstracts or maybe even thinking about politics as more just incurring informal arenas, what we're really looking at here is the variety of spaces, every day spaces, actually where people can test through these institutions, interests and ideas.

00:17:10 Claire Mcloughlin

What is desirable for them, and so that means that we actually do end up with quite a rich range of illustrative examples, not just from different countries across the North and the South. And we can talk about that as a a false distinction anyway, if we want to come back to that, but also, between people who are excluded, people who are in power, people, who is decision making, people who are subject to arbitrary decision making.

00:17:41 Claire Mcloughlin

And every chapter of the book begins with a vignette, a kind of story of someone who is experiencing a political problem, and it could be a very deceptively simple problem. Sort of why does my identity matter in this particular scenario, or why am I being excluded from this certain good or service, or should I accept this system of authority? Is it going to benefit me? And so we kind of look at these everyday questions and then we unpack them from the ground up. So I would say thinking about the book, it was less important to think about how many different contexts do we want to address. But actually, what's the variety of lived experience that we can bring to bear to really try and understand the politics of the everyday.

00:18:31 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. I want to pick up on something you said there because I think some people coming to a development book that sort of wants to be, you know the state-of-the-art and to give us a new way of thinking about development might be a little surprised to see references to countries like the United States and the United Kingodm.

00:18:46 Nic Cheeseman

So I think it'd be interesting perhaps just to spend a minute explaining why. Why are those cases also included? What is the kind of thing that the book is trying to say about what development is and how we should conceptualise it that leads to the inclusion of some of those countries, as you say, it's kind of called the 'Global North' as much as we might not like that term.

00:19:07 Claire Mcloughlin

So I think there's an academic answer to that, which is that obviously we're in this space right now with the discipline of development and maybe the sub discipline of the politics of development. We're we're having this really useful conversation about what's the future of development. Is it about certain categories of countries or is it universal? And there are different debates on either side. It's obviously a fiction to say that development only happen in lower socioeconomic countries or these distinctions don't hold because obviously we have rich and poor inequality across all countries of the world. So it is a fiction. There's obviously also the normative labels that are invoked when we think about North-South divides and the kind of colonial normative ideas that was associated with underdeveloped countries. So this idea that there were developed and developing countries were completely jettisoned in the book. However, if you go too far along that line analytically, what you can do is kind of flatten lived realities to a point where you're then in a space where you're saying everyone faces the same challenges, which is also patently not true, obviously also because of colonial legacies which had hugely detrimental effects on growth, inequality, dependency, all of those things that we're all very well versed in, or those who study development.

00:20:36 Claire Mcloughlin

But what we're trying to do in this book is to find development, first of all as something that happens everywhere and something that patently affects everyone but that looks different depending on colonial legacies, issues of scarcity, diversity, power and inequality, which are all themselves colonial legacies, and that there isn't really a universal endpoint to development. There is a way of thinking about development that is people centred which asks what do people actually want and need in their particular context? So how would they self define their desired future? And we define development in the book as alternative desired futures. Why are they alternative? Because obviously there's a diversity of interests. People have different views, they have different lived experiences, but what we think is really powerful in the book is moving beyond this debate around should we still be thinking in binary terms to actually putting people at the heart of development and what we understand to be development.

00:21:50 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. And I think that leads us nicely into the question about decolonising development studies and how the book deals with that. Of course, the book has a very early chapter which explicitly takes this on upfront, so it would be interesting to hear from you guys about one, why have that chapter so early in the book? Why was it so important to do that? And two, what are the kind of key messages that come out there? You've already talked a little bit, Claire, about how kind of the people-centred focus, making sure we don't lose sight of the fact that these struggles happening in all countries, that scarcity and contestation happens everywhere in a sense, is is part of that process. But that chapter in particular identifies other things that you know we need to do to decolonise development and development studies. So yeah. Why did you have that chapter so early? And what is it that that chapter tells us?

00:22:39 Claire Mcloughlin

Yeah. And I would always answer question of what's my favourite chapter in the book with this chapter actually 'Whose knowledge counts'? It's the second chapter in the book after the major definitional chapter. Why does it matter? The whole book is about contestation. It's about how people come together to deliberate, to navigate, to negotiate through power, interests, institutions, ideas, what is right or wrong, and of course the most fundamental thing we can contest about development is knowledge about development, and I think that's why this chapter was so important and so powerful, because it encourages us all, not just us, as authors of the book, but readers of the book, producers of knowledge, users of knowledge, to think about what forces are shaping the knowledge that they are exposed to and what power and interests lie behind that. So obviously again we know as a group of scholars as a discipline, egregious effects of colonialism on knowledge systems and systems of knowledge production, right. So we know that we are living in a world where certain voices are propelled. Certain ideas are propelled above others and I think what we're inviting readers to do in reading this text is to appreciate their own implicit assumptions that have been shaped by these forces of knowledge production and to sort of jettison them quite early on in the book and be open to thinking about and contesting whose knowledge really counts.

00:24:16 Claire Mcloughlin

In terms of what we do about decolonising scholarship around development, that's a much bigger debate and one that we can only really touch on in the book and one that you've worked on, Nic as well, I know. But I think what we're trying to do here is begin with decolonising the mind, which is of course, where we all begin. Really, in our own thinking, in our own addressing our own positionality and thinking about that, I think that's the first step to decolonising knowledge, decolonising the mind.

00:24:46 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, Claire. We should just say that our brilliant colleague Zenobia Ismail wrote that particular chapter that we're all lauding. So thanks to Zenobia for that contribution. It's a really important one. Maybe we don't have too much more time, but I know that listeners are going to be really interested in hearing some practical ideas around the ways these interesting concepts the three 'I's can actually be used.

00:25:07 Nic Cheeseman

In terms of generating, you know fresh ways of looking at problems, one of the chapters, David, that you were involved in in the book looks at the thorny question of inequality and exclusion. And I just wondered whether there are any kind of examples from that chapter or the issue of, you know, how to understand the conceptualised inequality more broadly that might be interesting to sort of bring out the three 'I's in practice.

00:25:30 David Hudson

Yeah. I think in many ways it goes back to the previous answer of thinking about some of the distributional politics that we talked through in terms of the way that ideas, interests and institutions work together. But just to give a kind of a practical example, something that we use in the classroom. So this chapter was written by Soomin Oh, my colleague and myself and a really nice pedagogical feature that Soomin has developed and uses in the classroom, we reproduce in the chapter, which is essentially a voting game where it gets students to play the roles of politicians and of citizens, and depending on the different theories that we introduce in the chapter around medium voter and the extent to which that people are and politicians are driven by either core voter theory or swing voter theory plays out in reality. So we can explain those theories using institutions, ideas and interests that actually we show and involve the students and it's that way that they really, really remember it and they will repeat that over the years. And that's the sort of thing they share with friends and family as well and showing that they understand how to apply these. The other thing I think I want to say about the book in relation to working through examples. One of the things that we were really keen on as editors was to make sure that it was interesting, and it was fun. And it wasn't the same old stuff that we tend to read. And in another chapter that's in there, which is the institutions chapter that was written by Niheer Dasandi, Jasmine Burnley and myself, we we start off by looking at pirates. And I was asked the other day how many times we mentioned pirates. 20 times, apparently, but the reason why it's actually quite important. Because pirates we often think about, and I'm talking about early 18th century Caribbean here. We think about them as living outside the law, living outside of rules, outside of institutions. But actually, pirates had an incredibly sophisticated and ordering set of institutions around a constitution, voting, articles of agreement, the roles that the Captain and the Quartermaster will play, how treasure was divided, etcetera, and so even in those places that we think of as the most anarchical, the world we see the power and importance of rules and order, and again, it's the kind of thing we try to include to make students remember what we're trying to teach them. And it's not just, although we do, not just the classic examples of the difference between South Korea and North Korea or Nogales etc. So I think that's the other thing that we try and do in the book we make it interesting and memorable.

00:28:12 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks and that's a good moment on which maybe to ask the final question, which is maybe to you, Claire, as the lead editor, how do you hope people are going to use the book? It is a book that kind of has a dual role. It's written as a textbook and in design for people to use in their courses. But it's also written, as David said earlier, as an argument about how we should think about development for anybody interested in the kind of challenges facing the world today? But how do you think you know that you want people to actually use this moving forward?

00:28:40 Claire Mcloughlin

Yeah, that's a really great question and, and I think there are several answers. One thing we kind of returns to what I was saying earlier, which is about sort of decolonising the mind, I mean I think what we're trying to do here is maybe even provoke people to think differently. We're not telling them what to think about development or the politics of the development, more we're trying to encourage them to think about development in a certain way, which is to contest what they're reading, to think about the processes of contestation and to unpack them. So I think the one key message of this book is that when you're approaching a political problem, don't think that it's impenetrable or come to quick assumptions based on some of the I guess some of the mindsets and the models that we've all got that we all come to political problems with. But try and you know, use this framework to break it down. So that's the first thing that I think we as editors we’ll be very pleased if this actually helps people to think through, analyse, diagnose and propose solutions to some of the issues that they're tackling, whether that be the, the hyper local, the local, the national or the international level. And in that regard, I think the book, although it was written primarily for students, hopefully will appeal as well to policymakers to people who are actually doing development. Secondly, I think we want people to talk about it and to contest it right. So we've put forward a new definition of the politics of development, really, this idea that the politics of development is about contesting alternative desired futures through these three 'I's. I know enough about the politics of development as a discipline to know that that will not be taken without some kind of debate, and we just want to be part of those debates. We want to encourage those debates because ultimately, the future of development studies with this new recognition that politics is integral to development studies, has to involve some deeper fine-grained analysis of what we mean when we're talking about the politics of development and we hope this book can contribute to to that endeavour.

00:31:04 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, Claire. It's been a real pleasure to talk to you and David today. Hopefully everyone at home has enjoyed the conversation. If you have, make sure you join us next time for more from the people Power Politics podcast.

00:31:31 Outro Jingle

Thank you for listening to the People Power Politics Podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work that we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @Cedar_bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description. 

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Social media’s business model is changing democracy, and not for the better

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00:00:01 Intro Jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Licia Cianetti

Hi everyone and thanks for joining us. I am Licia Cianetti, deputy director of CEDAR and I'm your host today. I am delighted to welcome to the podcast two of my great colleagues here at the University of Birmingham, Charlotte Galpin and Verena Brändle. Charlotte Galpin is Senior Lecturer in German and European politics. She's currently working on a book on British national identity and the gendered underpinnings of the Brexit debate. But she also works on the European public sphere media representation and the impact of social media, which will be the focus of this episode. Verena Brandle is Assistant Professor in Political Science and International Studies. She is also a specialist in European politics, and her research focuses on the democratic implications of social media, political communication and digital migration studies. Welcome to the podcast.

00:01:13 Verena Brändle

Thanks for having us.

00:01:15 Licia Cianetti

Perfect. So, the topic of our conversation today is social media and the impact on democracy. Now, given your geographical specialism, we will be talking primarily about European democracies, but I believe that many of the points that we will touch upon have wider implications also beyond Europe.

00:01:36 Licia Cianetti

So now the context for this conversation is that for the past 15 years, we've changed quite a bit. The way in which we talk about social media. So, we went from this kind of dreamscape of social media that we were expecting to democratise political communication to enable more egalitarian, horizontal sharing of information and allow for this more efficient citizen participation to discover techno dystopian hellscape where social media are fragmenting society, are facilitating hyperpolarization, spreading misinformation, disinformation, and basically contributing to the erosion of democracy. So, to get us started, I'd like to ask you, what do you think? Is the role of social media in democracy today, and what would you say is the main challenge that social media poses to democracy? So maybe Charlotte, do you want to start?

00:02:38 Charlotte Galpin

Yeah, I think when we're talking about social media and democracy there's a tendency to talk about social media as separate from democracy, and then we measure causal impact on democracy. But really, we're in a situation today where we can't separate social media from democracy. It's an arena where democracy is happening. But then where politicians and candidates looking for votes. But it's also social media companies are actors in a way. And so, you have causal arrows going in all directions. And so, I think regardless of whether you're on the positive side of that discussion or the negative side, actually that it's where we are today and we have to find some way to deal with these challenges.

00:03:37 Verena Brändle

So the the problem is that since social media and politics is so inseparable we still struggle with saying is this a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It's both. I mean, I started my PhD right after the Arab Spring uprisings where there was a lot of hope and thing, and scholars were very hopeful that social media would really democratise a lot of areas around the world and now democracies are particularly struggling because of social media potentially, but also because we don't really know how politics works as something that happens on social media right now.

00:04:24 Verena Brändle

So, I don't actually have a lot to say about this because I'm struggling as well about trying to figure out. So, what is the role of social media? It hasn't created something completely new the way we do politics, but on the other hand there are many things that we did before in politics that are now just amplified and it's very difficult to say, OK, well, this is new because of social media or this is something that we've always done. And the question is, does it actually matter or do we actually just need to come up with some solutions or some ways to measure these concepts in a better, more appropriate way maybe.

00:05:09 Charlotte Galpin

One thing that I've been working on is this issue of online abuse and that's become the topic of conversation. The level of abuse, particularly women or racialised people, receive online and and the implication that that has, or their ability to participate it. So, if we take the Brexit debates after the referendum, there's there was an extraordinary amount of volume of abuse that was directed at particularly women MP's that were contributing to Brexit debates, including death and rape threats, all kinds of misogynistic and racist abuse. And you had eighteen women MP's stepped down in 2019 and many of them citing this kind of abuse. But what's kind of really interesting and also important to remember is that there's not a new thing that women in public life face misogyny. The form has changed, and there's a speech by Diane Abbott in Parliament a few years ago and she was the first black woman MP to be elected. I think in the 80s and she talks about how she it, it's the form that's changed and also the volume. But the messages of reminiscence, what she was receiving via letter and telephone and back in the 80s and through the 90s. There's a little bit of a danger, I think that we kind of focus so much on social media, but ignore the embeddedness within these wider structures.

00:06:57 Licia Cianetti

Yeah, and thanks all for bringing that up because it was actually my next question, because the way I read your work for both of you is that you both point to the fact that to understand the effects of social media on democracy, we cannot separate the two. As Verena was saying, and we must actually look at the interface between online and offline. These are not two separate spheres, but are interpenetrating. So what happens on social media? They filter bubbles their abuse and disinformation, but also potentially emancipatory transnational mobilisation is in a two way relationship with what happens offline and the actors involved navigate and sometimes exploit this interface. So I guess starting with you Charlotte, then continuing what you were already starting to talk about, there's an article you published a few years ago in Politics and Governance where you looked at the online experiences of already marginalised groups. And you argue that, and I'm quoting from you here that to fully understand the impact of social media on European democracy, we need to pay attention to gender and racialized dynamics of power within the digital public sphere that have unequal consequences for democratic participation. So in a way, I want you to expand it. What do you mean by that and what does it mean for how we should understand social media and democracy?

00:08:30 Charlotte Galpin

Yes, if we go back to what Verena said earlier about that this kind of period of optimism around the role of social media and that was kind of my starting point in engaging with literature, particularly around EU politics and the possibilities for social media to facilitate that kind of engagement with EU, European politics and and to then create a kind of engaged European demos and I found a lot of this literature incredibly positive about this, what's described as participatory promise of social media that the social media would kind of really facilitate engagement with European democracy. But none of it really kind of addressed what that engagement would look like for people from marginalised and minoritized groups and if we start to kind of ask specific questions about what it's like to engage in politics as a woman, as a woman of colour, as a queer person, as a trans woman, as a migrant, whatever different kind of particular location then you have a very different experience online and that a lot of that is shaped by that experience of online abuse, which, drawing on Nancy Fraser and calling participatory inequality, that this is a kind of form of silencing of particular voices in public debates.

00:10:10 Charlotte Galpin

But then there are certain opportunities that social media brings for minoritized groups around social media removed the gatekeepers of traditional media that has allowed for mobilisation, social groups to come together to have a voice and engage in what's become kind of talked about as digital counter publics. So on the flip side, those counterpublics are also shaped by kind of exclusions and other kinds of marginalisation, so there are all these kind of nuances that we can take into account.

00:10:52 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. So the power dynamics that we have in society would be replicated and potentially amplified in social media. So Verena just to bring your work in here. Your work eliminates a different aspect of this interface between online and offline and between the informal and formal actors that inhabit these spaces. So in some recent work on migration information campaigns you looked at how certain European governments have used online campaigns through social media to dissuade people from migrating to Europe, and you show that while this is an online practise and it spreads through social media via a variety of online actors, it is also part of very offline in a way, government migration governance and it contributes to setting the stage for and I would say also normalising prison levels of border violence in Europe, so we're used to thinking about how populists weaponize the post factual relativism that comes with social media and fake news. You know, nothing is true. Everything is true. And you know, I'm entitled to my own opinions, both to my own facts kind of dynamics.

00:12:14 Licia Cianetti

But your work seems to show that that's not only the remit of populists, but that non populist governments also exploit this kind of post truth condition. So what does this mean for how we understand the post truth condition and the role of democratic governments in responding to the votes, in shaping it?

00:12:37 Verena Brändle

Yeah, that... That's a good question. When I looked at these migration campaigns, I looked first at the goal. So what are the declared objectives of these campaigns? What do governments say they want to do? And I looked specifically at democratic, democratically elected governments, and you find that they all say and you know, it's not just like specific governments. Sometimes these these campaigns are also outsourced to other actors, such as the International Organisation for Migration and International Organisation. So you have all of these actors say we have an interest that migrants don't risk their lives on these very, very dangerous journeys. And then you look at the the content of the campaigns and you just really wonder how that would help their objective because so what we know about these migration campaigns is that they usually don't work. We can't just provide people with information and then they stop doing things. That they do for completely different reasons than what governments and governments like just think they do. So if we think about, you know, why people migrate, you can't just say it's dangerous. Don't come. People have different reasons. They know it's dangerous, so governments completely underestimate the knowledge that people have when they migrate. They completely underestimate the decisions they make. They think it's irrational. You know, you just you want a better life. But it's often they actually flee from difficult situations. And there's this entire claiming that you want your governmental actor. Once you have these goals, that you actually are an authority and know the truth.

00:14:37 Verena Brändle

That is not really the case. So, and these migration campaigns are really slippery because in a way, there's not really any factual issues in these campaigns. There's no lies in there. There's no, there's no disinformation in them. But the way they're framed, they're basically just reiterating policies as natural facts that cannot be changed. So, this really hinders actual change and they're just governments are actors that communicate in their own best interest. So, in a sense, shouldn't have been surprised about this and they have their own objectives. I don't know if that answers the question, but that's something that we often underestimate.

00:15:18 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. And the thing that brings us to is this the whole slippery grey wall between the clear disinformation and in different ways of framing, that this is not new to social media, right? This is kind of part of media and media representation in general. So is there anything new that social media bring to the table of this information, misinformation, framing and kind of ways that hide part of the reality. In the case of your study, hide the fact that those journeys are more and more perilous because they're made so by policy.

00:16:03 Verena Brändle

I think what social media do especially is that they multiply voices and coming back to the optimistic view, in the sense it was like, yeah, we give finally, people have the voice that usually don't have a voice, but that also means that social media, not a tool for good. They haven't been designed to be to do good in the world, their economic, their economic interests behind business interests, so all sorts of actors can use social media and all of a sudden you have this mix of information and news and maybe disinformation, misinformation that you have to navigate, and I think that's incredibly hard. And I think it's that is something that social media has definitely added to the picture.

00:16:54 Charlotte Galpin

I mean the work that I've done on post truth politics, we're kind of quite clear that we're not imagining like a completely new era of post truth that can be contrasted with like a golden age of truth, because we know that there's always been disinformation in the public sphere that has come from government that comes from newspapers, particularly around gender, sexual and racial minorities. This has always been a facet of democracy and democratic and non-democratic regimes. Yeah, I think what is new about social media is we now speak of like a hybrid media landscape. So, we don't just have social media on the one hand and kind of traditional legacies on the other. But we now have a hybrid landscape where legacy media kind of rely on social media and and vice versa, and you can't really easily separate them. And I think one thing that's happened is that it's changed the nature of the news, though. Previously newspapers could rely on kind of the brand of the newspaper to sell newspapers. What's happened now is that they are reliant on clicks that are achieved through individual stories. So, each individual story that's published in news needs to kind of aim at generating clicks. That leads to advertising revenue.

00:18:35 Charlotte Galpin

For news organisations and that means that stories or journalists, editors need to orient themselves around a social logic of news in terms of how many clicks is this going to generate? Is this going to get shared? Is it going to get liked? Is it going to get commented on? And what's happened is that that encourages legacy news to publish stories that are sensationalist, whip up anger or also, sadness or so things that can be or provoke emotion. And what that does is then encourage the kind of stories that aren't necessarily factual or are framed in particularly sensationalist ways. And it has also changed how the very business models of legacy newspapers because they can't rely on print sales anymore. They're very reliant on clicks.

00:19:39 Charlotte Galpin

This means that journalists are under a lot more pressure to publish a lot more stories, a lot more quickly, and that has lowered the possibility for fact checking, for traditional professional kind of journalism, where you go and you investigate a story. You go and interview people. You double check your facts. So part of social media's impact is not just on what gets circulated by kind of nefarious actors, but also what it's done to those traditional sources of trusted information in lowering the quality.

00:20:25 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. And definitely also lowering their income, the advertising revenue of big tech companies have skyrocketed. And at the same time and not unconnected, the advertising revenue for, let's say, traditional media has gone down. And as you say, there can be change in the business model. So in deep kind of age or initial age of optimism around social media, I guess there was a bit of naivety about this platforms. They were treated as a public space and instead now there is much more awareness that these are not public space. They are privately owned, they have their own agendas. They're kind of a profit making. And they have their own logics. And one of the effects has been discussed the most that this business model is driving is polarisation, right? So, the idea is that through social media, people are more likely to find themselves in information bubbles, and because social media algorithms that tend to amplify the more extreme, the more controversial views, as you were saying to drive engagement then this reinforces the impression that the other side is terrible, that we can't talk to them that they had are to be feared and that undermines the potential for compromise and you know democratic deliberation. Now, I would like to know what you think about this polarising effect, but also I'd like to pick your brains on something else which I think is a separate effect and cannot be subsumed under polarisation, and this is the fear that the way the algorithm works, it tends to suggest and promote content that is extreme. That might facilitate, let's say, accidental exposure to radical, often white supremacist content. And so it's in this way there is, to me at least, seems not only polarisation and the society becomes divided, but that certain extreme positions are spread and perhaps normalised. Now I know this is relatively new area of research. Both you know for you and in general but what do we know about this? And is the key risk here that a few particularly susceptible individuals might be radicalised, or that these extreme views become more normal for the general public?

00:23:03 Verena Brändle

Social media work, you know, everyone knows how social media work. We use a hashtag that use certain words and tag each other, and it's a big network and the polarisation literature measured. So what they're doing is to say how different are groups from each other. For example, in their opinions or, you know, and how do social media kind of play into this difference and separating this so polarising, these different, potentially political groups, ideologies from each other. And but then if you look at social media, how they work, they actually make networks and we also know this. So this whole idea of accidental exposure, meaning that what you can actually do with social media is you create a new path, you say well this specific hashtag is connected to this, but it's also connected to something else. Charlotte will talk about this more, I'm sure you know the cottage core discussion.

00:24:08 Verena Brändle

And, you know, people are interested in certain lifestyle choices. Look at that on Instagram and TikTok and all of a sudden they kind of get learned into these at times really, really strange, dark places on the internet where you have all of a sudden very strange nature memes with old, very strange Nazi symbolism in there. The problem is that some of these symbols are. You know you need to know a lot in order to know that this symbol is from that specific group, that is, that is co-opted. There's this overlap of different symbols and at times people start getting dragged into this.

00:24:52 Verena Brändle

I think I'm rambling a little bit because I'm still trying to figure this out and I think both Charlotte and I, we started working on this a little bit and we're looking to like what's out there and there are a lot of things that you actually need to know the communities in order to identify them, and you need to know what kind of symbols they use in order to be aware what they mean, and I think that's the danger.

00:25:17 Charlotte Galpin

Yeah, I think there's this growing body of evidence that's showing that what seems like very positive or innocuous content online can lead you down a kind of path to the radical rights, Neo-Nazism, nationalist kind of communities. And yeah, I'm going to mention this one project that I saw presented at a conference by Robin O'Luanaigh, I think. That was talking about a study that she had done on the cottage core aesthetic on Instagram, which became very popular during COVID, and it's an aesthetic kind of around natural living, homesteading, kind of country gardens. The English cottage kind of aesthetic. And that was during COVID people kind of felt a comfort in that in the context of lockdowns. But they did this study of cottage core and related hashtags and found that what can happen is that you're led down a kind of pipeline on social media where you're kind of gradually shown more and more related content from related hashtags that become extremely conservative and can even lead you down to white nationalism and Neo-Nazi groups. So they talked about how there's an overlap with the Chad wife phenomenon, which is this idea of like glorifying traditional gender roles in in marriage. So the traditional wife who stays at home looks after the house and the children and the cooking does, their kind of grows her vegetables and this kind of thing. This is all from American context, but I think there, particularly in the UK, there's, there's quite a lot of overlap and that in some of these cases, you can get them shown symbolism and content from a like, more explicitly white nationalist or Neo-Nazi groups, and there's also amplified by other studies on this one from Catherine Tebaldi on granola Nazis. And that looks at the Wellness and kind of communities that are very, very gendered. So that's the women's kind of health communities that focus on natural health, natural medicine and organic food. But there's a strong overlap with anti-vaccine content. And then can in some cases send you down this kind of pipeline to Nazi groups in the US, what we might think of as just kind of nice aesthetics on social media can become really quite dangerous.

00:28:20 Licia Cianetti

Yeah, that's very interesting because also, you know, in historical, traditional fascist you have this cult of the body and of nature. And so there can be kind of this kind of how the Wellness industry or me kind of you know feeding my sourdough can be then harnessed so you kind of create these paths then that doesn't mean that everybody follows the path. But as Brian was saying that many people might like the instruments to understand that they are going into that path and you know that might it can normalise and certain times of content or like just kind of be consumed as part of you know, one's diet of information about the world. So my final question for both of you as we're coming to the end of the recording is how do we solve this? So I know that content moderation was thought as the solution, viable solution. We haven't seen many results from there, and if not, why not? But also we've already talked about this is part of the business model, right? So social media platforms thrive from extreme content because that drives clicks, which drives engagement, which means that the more we engage, the more data about us is made available about our preferences, our what makes us angry, what makes us tick, what makes us emotional, and then that data can be sold on. So if we're living in this age of what Zubov called surveillance capitalism. How do we deal with the negative externalities of these businesses?

00:30:02 Licia Cianetti

So if it's not a bug, it's a feature. Is there a way out of this, or is this the way social media is structured and our online public square is actually private and is driven by, say, priorities that are not the priorities of democracy?

00:30:22 Verena Brändle

I think, so depending on the time of the day you ask me this question, I have a different answer. I think I'm going to out myself as a pessimist. I don't think there's a solution to this. I think dealing with it as you mentioned, dealing with it is better and I think in a way, a nuance, maybe more nuanced answer, and then I have a super polemic answer, and I'm going to start with the nuanced answer and then I'll do the polemic answer. And then Charlotte takes over and rectifies in a way, if we think about all the stuff that's out there, the the abundance of information, the amount of data that's out there and the amount of data that is being monetized is speaking about sort of surveillance capitalism concept. If you think about so what then?

00:31:19 Verena Brändle

It's a slippery slope to say we need government to regulate this or that intermediary social media companies themselves need to be responsible for dealing with that content, both in terms of social media companies again have their own interest they thrive on data. They thrive on discourse, on imagery, on content, user generated content and governments are too slow to regulate this.

00:31:52 Verena Brändle

And again, I'm a pessimist when it comes to this. There need to be more laws when it comes to content, moderation or hate speech, and actually understanding that online violence is violence offline as well, so that in that sense there has to be a reckoning. Because when we start taking this much more seriously Again, I'm not a law expert. I'm not an expert in criminal law at all, but in terms of, you know, there's studies that look at how protected are people, they're hardly protected online. What do they do when they become the victims of abuse of blackmail?

00:32:29 Verena Brändle

The police is not really able to do anything, so one measure could be to say, OK, governments provide more measures to control what's going on online, but then we are in a kind of dangerous direction that governments start controlling social media. So I don't think there's away out. I think this is a new reality that we have to deal with and that we have to kind of protect ourselves and each other with and that in kind of like finding a new way and talking about freedom versus security, because this is I, I find that very difficult to grasp and I think the polemic one is basically that right now we don't even agree on what the problem is so with that, I mean, do we want more security? Do we want more freedom, freedom of speech? A lot, especially in American context. We still don't agree on what the actual problem is. So I find it super hard to come up with solutions because society as a whole needs to come up with that and potentially even transnationally there need to be some some kind of solution and also, beyond the EU alone.

00:33:45 Licia Cianetti

Charlotte. Are you a pessimist as well, or you close with optimistic note on this?

00:33:50 Charlotte Galpin

I don't think I have any optimistic things to say I'm afraid. I think the problem is capitalism, and I think what kind of frustrates me a little bit with a lot of the discussions around this is the focus is almost exclusively on social media companies, and I think that's important and and that they you know there needs to be better regulation of social media companies. I think it will be really interesting to see what the EU Digital Services Act does, which has now come into force, but we're yet to really see the effects and how well it kind of manages to regulate the, particularly the the big social media companies.

00:34:38 Charlotte Galpin

But if we start from a position that you actually social media is deeply intertwined with all aspects of our lives, and that we cannot really separate the online and the offline and the legacy media from the new media, then you can't just focus on social media platforms. You have to look at kind of regulating how all companies kind of engage with social media and bringing in guidelines for how governments engage with social media. So one thing that I've been working on and particularly in the UK, context is around media regulation where you have better regulation of the press that also incorporates or acknowledges that the new context in which the media is working and around how journalists and editors use social media.

00:35:36 Charlotte Galpin

I think is also about how yeah, how politicians and how governments use social media. Because we do have instances of governments. And I mean, Donald Trump is a prime example of kind of how he's he used social media to stoke hatred, to spread misinformation and so that's part of the problem. And then and I think then there's the wider issue when it comes to online abuse, I don't think content moderation can really work, because that's just a kind of sticking plaster and that we need to address the kind of broader context of misogyny and racism in society, and that's like a much more difficult fix than just requiring Facebook to delete some comments.

00:36:28 Verena Brändle

I mean content moderation as such is also is another issue that who who are the content moderators? Often they are outsourced somewhere, they're not being paid well they have to deal with really that they have to see and read through the darkest these dark places on social media, and then to kind of like, make democracy work. That's already another business model that I find really, really dangerous or critical because we're just basically redoing everything that is kind of the problem. Charlotte mentioned capitalism is a problem yet content moderation is also based on that. And then yeah, you could say, well, why don't we use AI to find content moderation? And yeah, that would be super great if AI would work this way, but unfortunately it's built by people who have, you know, bias and everything. So I mean, that's a whole other podcast episode, I guess, but content moderation as such is...

00:37:36 Charlotte Galpin

Yeah, I would. Yeah. This is not the solution.

00:37:40 Verena Brändle


00:37:41 Licia Cianetti

So I am afraid we come to the end of this. So we leave the AI conversation to the next podcast recording.

00:37:49 Licia Cianetti

Thanks a lot for what I think was an illuminating conversation. I want to thank you both Charlotte and Verena, for joining the people Power, Politics, Podcast and for talking to us about social media and democracy, or social media in democracy, with democracy,

00:38:05 Outro jingle

I am Licia Cianetti, Deputy Director of CEDAR and the host of this People, Power, Politics podcast episode. I have been talking to Charlotte Galpin, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, and Verena Brändle, Assistant Professor, also at the University of Birmingham. Thank you. Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our Centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

Party People: Candidates and Party Evolution. A discussion with Allan Sikk and Philipp Köker

Listen to the podcast


00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:13 Tim Haughton

Hi, my name is Tim Haughton. I am professor of Comparative and European politics here at the University of Birmingham, and I'm going to be your host for this particular episode. It is my great pleasure to welcome to this podcast and indeed to my office in Birmingham, two wonderful speakers and great scholars, Allan Sikk from University College London and Philipp Köker from the Leibnitz University in Hanover great to have you here, guys. Thank you so much for coming and for doing this podcast with us.

00:00:42 Tim Haughton

So Allan Sikk, he is associate professor in comparative politics at the School of Slavonic and European Studies at the University College of London. His research focuses on European electoral and party politics, research methods and political and social transformation in Central and Eastern Europe.

00:00:57 Tim Haughton

And Philipp is Lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Political Science at Leibniz University in Hanover, his research focuses on presidential politics, political parties, elections and comparative constitutional law. So today we are here to talk about Allan and Philipp's new book, entitled Party People: Candidates and Party Evolution, which was published by Oxford University Press just a few months ago in their Comparative Politics Series. So firstly congratulations, gentlemen, on publishing a very interesting book and I'm very much looking forward to talking about the book. Now, rather than me give a very long introduction about what the book is about. You're here, so I would just like to start off by asking you what was the main motivation for writing the book?

00:01:43 Allan Sikk

Well, thank you, Tim, for inviting us to your office and and to the podcast. We have been for many years now studying new political parties and party system change, with a particular focus on Central Eastern Europe. And when you look around the region and the party systems, then you will see that there are most of the party systems in the region are incredibly unstable, and what is particularly exciting about the sort of changing landscape of party politics in Eastern Europe is that most of the countries that are the recent EU Member States or relatively recent EU Member States have had one or two elections that have been won by parties that were formed just less than a year before the election. I could mention, you know, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia. I guess the list goes on if you consider very, very popular new political parties, so it it's a sort of running theme, but also the change in party systems is not exclusively an East European disease. Similar things have happened, for example, France, least of all, Emmanuel Macron storming the Elysee Palace few years ago.

00:02:49 Allan Sikk

Also in Italy, you know, starting from the populist oddball Beppe Grillo taking the Five Star Movement to the government and not to mention, of course, Forza Italia and the late Silvio Berlusconi, who is the godfather of new party politics in Europe, if you like. But so far, you know, new parties have not assumed executive responsibility in Western, in other Wester European countries, even though party change and innovation is rife.

00:03:15 Philipp Köker

You have for example, just in my native Germany, we're currently witnessing the birth of a well, a young party, the the alliance of Sahra Wagenknecht, which isn't really new because she of course was a a co-leader of the left party and she's taken half of the MP's with her and this is something we see in quite a lot of countries. We've seen this also in Denmark, where we've had this great splinters almost that in the end were larger than the original party. But one problem that we find in party research is really that quite often we need to classify parties as either old or new, whereas in reality they're somewhere in between, they're partially new. And so to get borrow words from or phrase from one of your books with Kevin Deegan Krause, we're really entering a a soggy world in terms of party politics, and this is really, yeah, probably one of the key motivations as well in how can we deal with this soggy world of new old, partially new parties, parties that look old but are not, parties that look new but actually old. And while political science has really dealt a lot with party change, it really hasn't fully considered how parties as a whole change.

00:04:28 Philipp Köker

They've really only looked at how parties change in very small different parts, but actually when we look at political parties, we see that they change all the time. And this then really goes into the theme of evolution that we're looking at. We're looking not at as party change as an instantaneous phenomenon, but something that happens all the time is continuous. It doesn't go towards a particular aim, but parties do change and hands we sort of must find new ways in looking at these changing parties.

00:04:59 Tim Haughton

It's really interesting and so thinking about this desire to capture and understand change, party change, not just in Central/Eastern Europe, but more broadly, what would you say is the key kind of take away message from the book?

00:05:10 Allan Sikk

I think one key message really is that again returning to Macron and his En March. This is when you look at the party more closely, then this is actually a partially new party par excellence, and if we accept the fact that some parties are partially new, then obviously you kind of open up the full spectrum. There are some parties that are newer than others, some parties sort of are more stable than others. So we are dealing with a continuum of party change and the book essentially suggests ways in which we could look at the party change, the ways in which we could measure the party change. We are looking at various aspects of party change, obviously candidates being the first, or party people more broadly, being the first also captured by the title already.

00:05:53 Allan Sikk

But we're also looking at party leadership change. We are also looking at party policy change. We're also looking at party organizational change. Party splitting up or merging. Also electoral coalitions forming and also breaking apart, and so on. And... and in many ways the book isn't really only a book about political parties or organizational change, because it is more broadly actually a book about evolution. When we were writing the book, we were inspired by evolutionary biology, where since 1970s there's been a sort of shift away from understanding evolution as evolution of, you know, bisons or jellyfish as sort of organisms and focusing much more on the molecular basis of evolution or the change in the genes. Nowadays, all all evolution is described as or analyzed actually in terms of you know sequencing of the genes and then seeing when the..the different species actually split.

00:06:51 Allan Sikk

So for us we are looking again inside these parties like, you know, evolutionary biologists are looking inside the organisms. We are looking at inside the party. So we are looking at candidates or party people more broadly. But candidates are in many ways a very useful sort of segment of of these people to look at and we conceptualize them as sort of party genes. And even though the selfish gene argument in evolutionary biology is a little bit controversial because obviously in contrast to organisms or people or individuals, the genes do not have an agency, genes do not want anything because obviously they they are just molecules.

00:07:27 Allan Sikk

But actually, when we sort of use the analogy in party politics or actually understanding any organisations, then it's actually quite fascinating to realise that the organisations themselves, they don't have any agency apart from the actual agency of the people inside. Because people want things rather than parties, and parties simply do the things. I mean it... it's a slightly theoretical, perhaps discussion, but it it's kind of a justification for actually looking at the people in trying to understand what is going on with the parties.

00:08:00 Tim Haughton

I think you've answered one question that I was going to ask you about why picking candidates. You've made a a kind of case for that, but I wonder if you can try and explain how you go about operationalising that. How do you say, OK, the the core of understanding parties and party change is to look look at the party people, the title of the book. How do you move or how did you move in the book from a nice idea to something that's actually operationalizable? Maybe Philip, I can ask you that question.

00:08:28 Philipp Köker

Yes, so we do that in thinking about how so-called electoral slates form, because we assume that parties change over time, we can't really assume that one party is the same in one election and in the next. And so we think of slates of candidates as being electoral unit that proposes candidates in a single election and we think about how these slates reform, if we think of traditional stable party, then of course we have an organisation around it and candidates who ran in the last election will now come together with those with whom they ran maybe recruit a few more, and then they run again in the same form. But we imagined a certain candidate or slate formation game where a candidate decides to run for office and is either approached by a proto slate of other running mates, or him or herself approaches these, and is then either rejected or joins their slate and then hopefully runs in the election. Or a candidate might not ever think about, or a person might not ever think about running for office, but is approached by other running mates and might join in and this really helps us to then put this approach of candidate centric view of party evolution into practice.

00:09:41 Tim Haughton

It's really interesting. So can I ask you, you you mentioned right at the beginning, this new new party in Germany, so I can imagine some people listening to this podcast who maybe don't follow Central/Eastern Europe will be thinking, OK, there's this new party, so maybe take us through the steps as to how you would evaluate the newness of this new political party. How can other political scientists take your method and apply it to this case that isn't in your book, but you have a method to explain it.

00:10:07 Philipp Köker

Yes, especially for the Sahra Wagenknecht alliance, we actually see that we have a politician who is very motivated to form her own party, and we can actually see very publicly that she approaches other politicians to join her slate and is quite particular about whom she wants to have run with her, and we can actually look at who these people are, whether they ran for another party before, whether these were very prominent politicians. And I've already said, well, she took some of the MP's of Die Linke of the left party with her, and we can really say that there's a big overlap between the left party and well, once the Sahra Wagenknecht party runs for office and we know which candidates there are, we can then see whether these formerly prominent candidates also get a prominent spot on her lists, or whether somebody from further down the electoral lists of Die Linke then also joins the Sahra Wagenknecht party.

00:11:04 Philipp Köker

We call this overlap congruence between parties, and this is also one of, I'd say, major contributions of changing our thinking about parties because quite often when we want to see how a party did over several elections or want to calculate an electoral volatility, we need to very neatly link one party in the last election to a party in the election right now and just one connection is possible, whereas with our approach, thinking about these congruences of one party to several parties, or allowing for also for new candidates to come in, we can be much more nuanced in, yeah, calculating our measures.

00:11:41 Allan Sikk

So essentially what we are doing it it's despite the fact we've probably left the impression that it's a very theoretical book, it is not. It's actually very empirical because it's based on this, all lists of candidates in in 60 elections from Eastern Europe. But I I think the ideas hopefully will also resonate with most other regions in the world. And I don't see any reason why the ideas shouldn't actually, or the methods shouldn't actually work out in other parts of the world. So we basically have the electoral lists for all candidates, and all parties oscillates as we call them, and then we're basically comparing them from one election to another, looking at which portion of candidates is from previously existing parties and which portion of the candidates is new.

00:12:24 Allan Sikk

But obviously we also acknowledge that not all candidates are equal. There are often, you know, party leaders and people close to the leadership or different leadership positions, so they get a higher weighting in our scores. And there's also in in all elections there are always even for the most popular parties, there are also runs who we weigh less heavily in our indices, so as to give the more weight to the people who are more prominent in inside these parties.

00:12:50 Allan Sikk

So, we are talking about weighted candidate novelty, but also dropout. Dropout is almost a mirror image of novelty, but not only and it's fascinating to see that dropout refers to candidates who went running in in the following election, and even though there are some genuinely new parties in Eastern Europe where more than 90% of the candidates are new, what doesn't happen as often at all is party disappearing completely. Even parties that as organizations sort of completely disbanded are nowhere to be seen again, they still leave often a typically sort of 25% of the candidates behind who run for different slates in the following election.

00:13:29 Allan Sikk

So it's not quite the mirror image there. It's and that's I thought it was quite fascinating. Also to see and to understand that people who already running for the Parliament, they have a motivation to stay in politics. And obviously if the party disappears or sometimes they decide to actually call it, stay for the organisation, they find other other ways in which they can be still involved.

00:13:49 Tim Haughton

So as you both know, I also follow the party politics, particularly in Central/Eastern Europe. I can say that it's sometimes quite a challenge to collect the data from which we make our kind of argument and I mean, one of the most impressive aspects of your book is, is the data collection. And I wondered actually if you could say something about how you managed to go about doing this in, in a way to collect robust data on candidate lists from all of these parties, many of which, you know, fly-by-nights. They're here today, gone tomorrow.

00:14:21 Tim Haughton

Maybe you know, there's there's very little trace of them a decade or so afterwards. So. So how did you go about doing that? And maybe I could bolt onto that some... a broader question about the challenges of writing a data-driven book like this one about party politics, not just in Central/Eastern Europe but rooted in that region?

00:14:40 Philipp Köker

Yeah, actually, collecting all these candidates lists was probably one of the biggest challenges in the beginning. There were projects before that, tried to collect data on candidates, but then stored them in a format that sort of cut off half the names and wasn't quite usable for our purposes or data was only available for parties that were elected. So, what we did was first online going through all the websites of the electoral commissions, going through the archived websites requesting PDFs and turning them into spreadsheets, there was a quite a lot of manual labor involved in making sure that all these lists were correct and what I think we shouldn’t underestimate is the amount of qualitative knowledge needed to actually work with candidate data.

00:15:26 Philipp Köker

For example, we found out that something that we first classified as a spelling error in the name of a Hungarian candidate was rather a suffix that indicated that this was the wife of somebody, but it was simply one of the many ways in which Hungarian women can change their name after marriage, and I think this qualitative knowledge is also what really drives our more illustrative examples in the book. We went through so many news articles, so many academic publications in, well, the whole range of languages of the countries covered in our book to find out who party leaders were in the early 90s or how they changed whether they were active before or not, to see whether we may be missed a prominent candidates who suddenly appeared at the top of the party list.

00:16:12 Philipp Köker

And really, even though it seems it's a very data quantitative book, in many ways, it's also a very qualitative book because you need a lot of qualitative insights into these countries into the party systems and the politics to really make the analysis work.

00:16:27 Allan Sikk

In many ways, yes. We we did have to dig really deep with some of the some of the names and then some of the the parties. But the part of the ambition of the book or the whole approach is actually to devise a method for understanding party development that can rely on something as simple as just lists of candidates that are much more easier to get hold of. Many other sort of full overviews of what's happened to these parties, like in in Lithuania over the years you've had four or five, if not more parties called something Labour or Social Democratic and most people, unless you are an expert on Social Democratic and Labour parties in in Lithuania you would have very little idea what actually went on there.

00:17:11 Allan Sikk

Are they related to each other? It's it looks like the names are very similar, but you know often the similar names hide quite different beasts. So, what this approach is actually suggesting is that you just need the candidate names, and now we've checked that the system or the method works, or the algorithm that we outlined works, we can actually draw, and and there are examples of these evolutionary trees of of political parties in in the nine East European countries that are automatically extracted from just the lists of names. And it's not perfect, but we can go back to to many, many years and it will still, if we we have the candidate lists, we don't really need to know very much about the individual parties or what happened. Was there a splinter? Was there a merger? Who left the... we will get some sort of understanding of the dynamics in party systems just having these lists.

00:18:07 Allan Sikk

And it can be used in in any, any country of the world, any period from which we can find, you know, maybe in the archives the candidate list. So that's that's part of the attractiveness of the index, at least for us, is that it can be extended well beyond the region.

00:18:24 Tim Haughton

I would like to come back to the wider points later on, but maybe let's also step back and and look at your measure and how it's used to generate volatility scores, because I think in some respects quite a lot of political scientists will find that is the one of the most important parts of of the book. So I just wonder, make a make a pitch to listeners to, I mean, there's been a lot of work on volatility in recent times. We've seen people looking at extra and intra system volatility, why do you think that this this particular approach that you bring focused on candidates captures what electoral volatility needs to capture? Make the pitch to the readers that they should follow a Sikk and Köker’s approach rather than somebody else’s.

00:19:09 Allan Sikk

Two things. First of all, you refer to, I mean obviously I I can draw it in your whiteboards, all the explanations, but obviously the listeners can't see it, so I I need to find another way to explain it. But basically yes, electoral volatility or the vote changes or party fortune changes between elections is a workhorse in the party system studies and you correctly refer to the important distinction between intra and extra system volatility where intra system means that some parties that existed already before lose votes to other previously existing parties and extra party volatility means that they are losing votes to new parties.

00:19:46 Allan Sikk

It's it's a little bit more complicated than that, but that's the that's the gist of it. But obviously according to our approach, there are no new and old parties. Some parties are newer and others are older. There's no, strictly speaking, no extra system and intra system volatility, even though we do have a sort of way to actually also reflect on that but basically what what we are doing is is we are looking at because we we know which part of the part is running in elections is new, meaning new candidates and how many candidates they won over or took away from from previously existing parties. And then we can sort of split the vote in the previous election according to the share of these candidates. I I think it it's really important to acknowledge these continuities, even if the party labels disappear because sometimes the disappearance of party labels, it's kind of superficial and if you introduce these discontinuities simply because the party labels are disappearing, you end up with very high levels of volatility where there's actually little change, and that's the in in pretty much all including the volatility scores I have previously calculated myself. So I'm also attacking my own previous work there.

00:21:02 Allan Sikk

You see that there are issues because of volatility index so far has required one-to-one correspondence between parties in in, in, in a pair of elections. And I think it's it's about time to sort of allow for more complexity, allow for more sogginess in the indices that we use and it was really fascinating to see that once we analysed the determinants of the volatility scores calculated based on our approach, we saw that economic development affects level of party system change as measured by electoral volatility in Eastern Europe.

00:21:42 Allan Sikk

It's been shown to be the case in all parts of the world, except for Eastern Europe, where the effect has been elusive so far. It's been a a puzzle in in our corners of of political science, one interpretation has always been that politics in Eastern Europe, you know, it's this sort of Orientalist argument that, ohh, this is the Wild East and things are simply different. The economy doesn't matter for the weird East European voters, I’m exaggerating the point a little bit, but maybe it's not the case.

00:22:11 Allan Sikk

Maybe it's just that that our measures have not so far caught up with with the complexity and so we we may need to tweak the measures, maybe it's been simply because we haven't been able to capture the effect using our existing tools, but it's always been there.

00:22:25 Tim Haughton

Yeah. I mean, one of the things, I mean you you mentioned your work, I would also say my own work, I mean one of the things reading your book made me reflect on something that I've thought about a little bit in recent times is, yeah, how useful actually even a category of new party is that you wrote a number of years ago about kind of genuinely new parties and and drawing a categorisation, quite a high bar for what would be a new party, but in a sense one of the things that your book really brings home to me is that this is a sliding scale and maybe yeah, getting away from binaries of new and old and maybe we need to be talking more generally about kind of novelty of some description rather than necessarily getting obsessed with new parties and old parties, and I'm saying this as someone who wrote a book about new parties, but I think it's good in academia to... to critique oneself.

00:23:12 Tim Haughton

But do you think it's perhaps more helpful to talk about novelty than about new parties now?

00:23:18 Allan Sikk

I would say so, yes. At least it's a useful different perspective. I'm not dismissing completely the idea of new parties, because when we, when we look at our data set, some of the parties are so obviously genuinely new that I I wouldn't bury the old concept, but there are so many parties where you can't really tell whether they are new or old. I mean, Philipp mentioned Sarah Wagenknecht Alliance I mentioned Emmanuel Macron and En March. They don't really fit neatly into either of the categories. There's a degree of novelty in both of them, but also you can see this sort of continuation there.

00:23:56 Tim Haughton

Just following on from a couple of important themes that you've you've touched on, Allan, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about this idea of understanding what many people call splits and mergers, but you use the the language of fusions and and and fissions which I I prefer, I think it's a much, much better label. That for scholars of Central Eastern Europe has been often one of the big challenges to understand party reconfigurations, and I wondered by using your measure what's... what have we learned more about fissions and fusions in Central and Eastern Europe?

00:24:30 Allan Sikk

Yes, it's wonderful to follow the candidates behind the fissions and fusions. Fissions, we can easily distinguish between. Let's talk about party splits in the sort of more conventional language, perhaps. We can differentiate between splits into two equal parts and splits where a tiny potentially insignificant even I, if I may say so, splinter splits away from a from a big party. So these are actually two quite different phenomena, even though technically speaking they both qualify as splits. Likewise with mergers we find a few cases of equal mergers, and then we also find some mergers between elephants and mice that really doesn't change the party system that much. We can really see that very vividly by following the candidates or measuring candidate congruence as we call it. Also, we capture something that is when we analyse parties as organisations or the units of analysis, something that we fail to capture there at all, is collective defections where there's no change in parties, but a group of significant politicians moves from one party to another. It can be also individual, highly prominent politicians moving, but often it's also groups of politicians moving from one to another without forming anything in between.

00:25:51 Allan Sikk

So at this sort of superficial level, it looks like nothing changed, but actually the change is often more significant than changes in, you know, electoral fortunes, all the changes in in terms of fission and fusion or splits or merchants.

00:26:03 Tim Haughton

And I think in the book you used an example from Estonia to illustrate that.

00:26:07 Allan Sikk

Yes, but also more recently, if the listeners want to catch up with the more recent developments. Just last year, the Estonian Centre Party chose a new leader and after that they lost more than half of the party group in the parliament. And that's an excellent example of first of all, you know, how leadership change is actually related to candidate change because this movement will be reflected in the candidate lists come next election. But also it's fascinating to see that the people leaving the Centre party, they didn't set up new groupings. Instead they went into three different political parties and we are not talking about, you know, rank and file of the MPs. We had the former Prime Minister and the former leader of the Centre Party leaving for Pro Patria Conservative Party and some other former ministers moving to other parties. So this is incredibly important in terms of party system change, but if we just focus ourselves too much on the party labels, it looks like not particularly important.

00:27:05 Tim Haughton

Thanks. So I want to finish by broadening out a little bit because a couple of the things that I really like about the book is that you're not, you know, political science, academia in general tends to get focused more and more on sub sub sub sub disciplines, and we tend to read more and more stuff, which is just within our particular fields. But I think one of the the things that really comes through in your book is firstly that this region of Central and Eastern Europe is one that all scholars of party politics should study, because we can learn an awful lot from that region, which we can apply more broadly. You've mentioned about trends in in Western Europe, but I think also a broader point which is very interesting in the book is the way that you draw on other disciplines, particularly from evolutionary biology.

00:27:49 Tim Haughton

So I wondered if you could maybe say Philipp, if you can say a little bit more about the wider lessons of the book in terms of not just those who study Central and Eastern Europe, but also more broadly for scholars about the benefits of reading beyond ones, not just one sub discipline but one's discipline.

00:28:06 Philipp Köker

Yeah, in our book now, evolution features quite prominently. It's part of the title, but it's really not what we started out with because we looked at the paradigm that was dominant in party research or and still is of what we call an organizational paradigm. We look at parties as a specific type of organization. But then we realised that didn't quite fit what we were looking at, and I think sort of discovering evolutionary biology and new ways of looking at parties from that angle was really a breakthrough in the book and how we could present our own ideas. Also discovering that even in evolutionary biology, there are analogies to political science, talking about the democratisation of the cell, realising that all different parts play a role, and not just the nucleus. So I think that this book can really be, yeah, an example for how much value you can get out of looking into other disciplines and how they conceptualise things on a more abstract level and try to tell a story that is broadly comprehensible to a lot of people and making new sense of data. I mean, we look at Central and Eastern Europe, which definitely is treasure trove of data because we have so many different parties.

00:29:13 Philipp Köker

We have so many different variations of fissions and fusions, of collective defections of parties, renaming themselves disappearing and reappearing. Yeah, maybe we have a whole universe of possible changes that could still happen in other parts of the world, and maybe they are and our laboratory to say in terms of genetic... evolutionary genetics is central Eastern Europe, but it's much more. It shows us what we might find somewhere else when we look below the surface, especially thinking of fairly stable political parties in Western Europe that may have recently lost support but are still sort of big players where we might miss a lot of change because we see them as these monoliths and don't look below the surface, and maybe it's just much closer to it in Central and Eastern Europe.

00:30:04 Tim Haughton

Absolutely, I was thinking as I was on the train this morning coming into the office just thinking about the forthcoming election in the UK and the candidate lists for the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. And I think it would be quite an interesting exercise, there's a lot of talk about the number of conservatives who are not gonna run again. It'll be interesting to see who they get replaced with. And equally this discussion in terms of the Labour Party, talking about change that Keir Starmer wants to emphasise, it would be very interesting to apply your measures and look at the Labour Party's candidate list when it finally gets published for for the forthcoming election and looking back to 2019 and to see the extent of change. So I think absolutely the the measures that you provide, I think will be very, very useful and very helpful to scholars of Western Europe and indeed scholars more broadly. So you know, as my frequent co-author, Kevin Deegan Krause often says the future lies East. So they should be, they should be looking... scholars should be looking at Central and Eastern Europe and looking at great scholarship like yours in order to get insights into developments in party politics in their specific parts of the globe. I fear our time is up, I would love to keep talking with you. It's been fascinating to chat to you about the book, so I would like to thank Philipp and thank Allan very much for joining the People, Power, Politics podcast and talking about their new book, a reminder the book is called Party People: Candidates and party evolution, published by Oxford University Press. So run out to your bookstores or get online and order a copy of the book and start applying the candidate measure of party change to your part of the globe.

00:31:38 Tim Haughton

So I'm Tim Haughton, professor of comparative and European politics at the University of Birmingham, it's been my pleasure to host this particular session. Thank you very much.

00:31:49 Allan Sikk

Thank you.

00:31:49 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.


Authoritarian practices go well beyond authoritarian regimes

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Licia Cianetti

Hi everyone and thanks for joining us. I am Licia Cianetti, deputy director of Cedar and I'm going to be your host for this episode. Today I am delighted to welcome Marlies Glasius, who is Professor of International relations at the University of Amsterdam and author of a new book on authoritarian practices in a global age. Welcome to the podcast Marlies.

00:00:33 Marlies Glasius

Thank you.

00:00:34 Licia Cianetti

So, Marlise, your book was published by Oxford University Press in 2023. And it's a brilliant book, which opens up a new way of thinking about authoritarianism, through the lenses of practice. So, the way I read the book and what I find really interesting about your work in general is that it challenges our usual way of thinking about regimes as coherent entities. So, we are either in a democracy or in an autocracy, and democracies behave in a certain way. Autocracies behave in a certain different way. So instead, you show how authoritarian practices are not the sole remit of authoritarian regimes that can take place within democracies and can be done by actors other than states. So, you have these five very rich empirical chapters, and I suggest the listeners go and read your book and you discuss cases as varied as people with migrant background living in democratic countries but facing political repression from their country of origin, the practice of extraordinary rendition, by this year (yay!), the decision making around who gets listed or delisted from the Security Council terrorist sanction list. The activities of multinational mining corporations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the way the Catholic Church dealt with evidence of sexual abuse of minors. So, to get us started, what do these things have in common? What is an authoritarian practice and how do we know one when we see it?

00:01:53 Marlies Glasius

OK, so I'll give you my definition as I've developed it. Of authoritarian practices, as you said, the reason I wanted to do that because I think in a transnational world, it is useful and also in a de-democratizing world to get away from this classification of, you know, you're either an authoritarian regime or a democratic country, sometimes there's the middle category. So, what I found that far too static at practice, and I've taken this from practice theory is quite simply pattern of action, some sort of routine behavior that occurs again and again within an organized context, though it's not a single person doing that, and authoritarian practice is a little bit more complicated. I've kind of redefined authoritarianism because when we do it at the level of states, we tend to think of authoritarianism as no free and fair elections and no civil political rights and that doesn't work when you take it to other site through practices. I thought, well, what are our elections? There are mechanisms for accountability and authoritarianism, for me, authoritarian practices are kind of actively sabotaging accountability. So, if accountability is explaining and justifying policies and actions to people over whom you have some sort of formal power and allowing them to have criticism, past judgements and sabotaging accountabilities, instead of explaining and justifying you, being secretive and lying, and instead of allowing critiques and judgments, you're actually silencing people. You're disabling voice. So that, to me, are authoritarian practices. I must say a lot of people who quote either the book or the article that came before in 2018, kind of take hold of their notion of authoritarian practices to get away from regimes. But then there is a lot looser than I am about what constitutes authoritarian practice, and I guess that's OK. I don't have ownership over what this concept means, but I do worry that kind of plays academically is open to the accusation of you just call anything you don't and like authoritarian. That's why I do kind of altruistic definition.

00:04:14 Licia Cianetti

You make a distinction between authoritarian practices and illiberal practices, and maybe it is there where some of their misuses, let's say, of your concept, come from. So why would we need to distinguish between the two and what are liberal practices? Are they relevant to your work, or do you define them just to say, OK, this is not what I'm looking at?

00:04:34 Marlies Glasius

So yeah, authoritarian versus liberal is something I think people are really struggling with at the moment as we're trying to understand imperfect democracy is democratization, and so on. And people use it in different ways. And I think part of the problem with illiberal is that liberal is such an incredibly broad concept that then illiberal becomes everything that isn't liberal. The way I’ve defined it is illiberal practices for me are infringements on the kind of dignity and rights of the individual, whereas authoritarian practices are as I said about accountability. So, the one for me happens more at the macro level. Whereas the other is really micro and it's to me very similar to defining violations of human rights. The difference is that liberal practices can also be engaged in by not formally the state by other power halls, so that's my particular distinction. I've chosen to focus on authoritarian practices because these illiberal practices, if they are something very similar to violations of human rights, I think we already understand quite well what that means. And even there's already a lot of literature on non-state actors actually abusing human Rights.

00:05:55 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. And I think you make a very convincing case to look at accountability as also a way to understand contemporary politics better, so at the beginning of your book you say that, and I'm quoting the the struggles over accountability have become central to contemporary politics, and therefore it raises that question. So, are accountability struggles new or have they intensified so? And if so, if they have intensified? Why so? In other words, our authoritarian practice is increasing, and that's why we should be looking at them. Or have they always been there? But we were not paying attention. We didn't have the framework to understand them as authoritarian.

00:06:31 Marlies Glasius

Well, I think in a way it's somewhere in between. I think the the vocabulary and the implicit understandings of what power relations should or should not be, can or cannot be, do change over the ages. So, I think you always have conversation of powerfulness but. In early modern times, that could be kind of in a very polite way, as a request to the sovereign, or it could be the opposite. It might. Be quite bloody. Then I think from the 19th century, more revolutionary vocabulary comes with such requests, with such contestation, with Marxist communist anarchist vocabulary behind it. And I think in the late 20th century, as democratic norms have really sunk into even nondemocratic societies, I think there is much more of understanding of the notion that power holders of any kinds should be explaining and justifying their behavior to us. So, in our sense, I think accountability demands in that sense. With that vocabulary, you need to explain and justify that that, I think is new and that has really taken flight. Maybe since the 1970s. In the 1990s, it's difficult to pinpoint it. Very precisely.

00:07:53 Licia Cianetti

So, I think that your focus on practice poses a particular challenge. And yet, regime studies in general, but particularly to those of us who study democratic regimes who might be less used to thinking in terms of authoritarianism in a way. Because once you are looking for authoritarian practices, they're everywhere. Even if you define them as accountability, sabotage. So, you don't kind of blur them into anything we don't like. Right. So, it's not only governments. But also, non-state institutions, private institutions that shape many citizens, lives our workplaces, private corporations, pretty much all power holders in any. Aspect of our social life are liable to at least try to evade or sometimes actively suppress accountability. And so, thinking about this in a context in which we are worrying about the decline of democracy as a regime, how should we understand the proliferation of authoritarian practices? Are they a prelude to open attacks on democratic institutions? Or should we see them more as an alternative way in which democracy is perverted or eroded, even without visible institutional change?

00:09:00 Marlies Glasius

I think the notion of reloads or perverted these terms you still kind of imply. That first we have a perfect democracy and then you know, these possessions creep into it. Whereas I think we should recognize that even in our own societies, there has never been. Perfect democracy at the societal level of our institutions. And I don't even want to say democratized because I think that's even a concept that kind of completely internalizing the notion of accountability, certainly if I think of my own university context in the 1960s, seventies, there's a real protest culture and students had an enormous amount of power. And since then, that's been clawed back and there's kind of less accountability. At our level. So, I Prefer to talk of currents or strands of authoritarianism rather than this notion of first we have democracy.

00:10:01 Licia Cianetti

So, you don't see your work speaking to the autocraticisation literature? Or do you think that the organization literature in general makes the mistake of not understanding what the starting point is and then maybe overstates the extent of democratic regression?

00:10:17 Marlies Glasius

Yeah, I think it would be the latter. I mean, there is democratization there. There are, I think, more threats to democracy now than there were 20 or 30 years ago. But. On the other hand, maybe other elements in society have gone kind of in the opposite direction, and I'm thinking, for instance, now of corporate accountability, which I think is much more of a societal norm. So, I don't think democratization is a myth. It's there. But it's starting point as a version of purity. I think is a little bit problematic, so we need to somehow develop. Measures of, you know, is it getting worse? And I think the literature on democratization tends to focus very much on the state and state institutions. Part of what my practices approach can do is take a more sociological approach and say, you know, the degree to which our institutions or democratic is something to do with democratic culture or culture.

00:11:20 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. And so like, just to push you on this last time, so how many authoritarian practices are too many if we still accept that there are democracies and there are autocracies, but that you have all these authoritarian practices actually permeating the way in which even democratic institutions work and actors playing within democratic fields work, at what point authoritarian practices accumulate so much that accountability becomes a sham and we should talk about the democratic regime as something else.

00:11:49 Marlies Glasius

Yes. So, I don't think we can say 27 is too many. I don't think that's the sort of answer you were looking for either. I think it is one of the things that help us measure. This is the extent to which something appears relatively isolated and shocking, and so then that secrecy and disinformation are part of my definition. And then if and when such a thing comes out, it becomes a scandal. There's maybe a parliamentary inquiry or something. There's some sort of self-rectifying mechanism, if that is still in place, then maybe you don't need to be so worried at the point that it kind of becomes. Tolerated by the population, this is the way it is. If there's some kind of permanence and acceptability to it, that's the direction where it becomes too much, as it were. But I still think that can sometimes be the case in some areas and not in others. So, to give just one example, I think the extent to which not just private corporations, but also the state invades our privacy at a digital level the extent to which you know secret services who were up our data to find out whether some of us might be terrorists. I think that's another aspect where most Western democracies are beyond the line of what I think is democratic and accountable practice. But it doesn't turn them into authoritarian regimes.

00:13:14 Licia Cianetti

So, you've mentioned already more than one corporate actor, so I wanted to ask something about the fact that you have recently published an article in which you take this authority and practices lens to a transnational corporation. It's entitled 100 years of authoritarian practices. United fruit and its banana plantation workers, and we can be linked to the article in our episode now and again. It's another kind of brilliant piece of work, and in the article, you show how multinational corporations not only do deals with authoritarian regimes and may help them survive, which is something that's been more thoroughly, let's say, investigated, but they themselves can be the ones that directly engage in authoritarian practices. They can be the drivers of authoritarianism, and in fact, interestingly, the term Banana Republic, which is now often used very loosely to mean a country with an incompetent government or useless government, originally meant a country whose economy was so dependent on banana plantations that the politics was pretty much controlled by the corporations that owned those plantations. So, in a way, kind of in the original use of the term, the agency of corporations was very much present then it's been lost in the usage. But now if we take the potential transactional corporations to be authoritarian agents, their power over our economic lives and political in many places and then add to it to the unprecedented capital accumulation that we are witnessing globally, that puts certain companies and certain individuals outside of the reach of the state and of democratic institutions. What does this mean for the prospects of building and maintaining democratic accountability? Like are we doomed?

00:14:50 Marlies Glasius

Well, I think the first thing to say is that the extent to which corporations, including multinational corporations, aren't going to be engaging in authoritarian practices is very variable. And that depends, I think, largely on the incentives. Wanting in some way to engage authoritarian practices and they've kind of listed a bunch of very likely incentives. If your business model depends on cheap, dirty, dangerous labour, that could be an incentive. If you're in the extractive industries and your kind of very dependent on very specific land and you just need to get your hands on that, you're likely to need to be doing business in authoritarian regimes so that there's a bunch of scope conditions that that are going to make that more likely. I also think the scope conditions that are going to make it less likely so if you depend for instance on very highly educated and motivated professionals for your business, that might make it less likely, or for some reason you have a long standing company culture of transparency, you're going to be less likely to engage in authoritarian practices so that, I think, is the first thing to say. Then secondly, I think capital accumulation kind of, we know it correlates negatively with and then I go back to regime level levels of democracy that we don't understand the mechanisms for that very well, yet. So, whether it is the bigger. And the company the last year, for instance, or whether it's levels of income inequality that are the driver there for the democratization, we don't really know very well what is going on there. And I think we just need a lot, a lot more research.

00:16:43 Licia Cianetti

What strikes me is that multinational corporations operate at a global level by definition, but they would encounter different contexts. And so, what you say in the article that they have, that you show how United Fruit have adapted the ways in which they operated and the kind of authoritarian practices that they use in different contexts over time also applies over geography, and so the same multinational corporation might have very different practices in different places. So does that mean that the regime intended as the kind of state bound unit makes a difference in that sense that multinational corporations would operate in specific ways in democracies and in different ways in autocracies, or they're added dimensions that make a difference. So, there be some portions of the population there will be at the kind of receiving end of authoritarian practices. Also, within democracies, more than other portions of the population.

00:17:37 Marlies Glasius

Yeah. So, I think there's a lot more to it. So yeah, autocracy democracy does make some difference. But precisely in that united through Article I looked at a plantation that was kind of spread across the border between Costa Rica and Panama. And for most of the period, Costa Rica was a form of democracy and Panama was not, and it didn't seem to make that much difference to the practices. And another thing that's going to make a lot of difference is whether the product in question is close to consumers, has a lot of value to consumers, at some point we got a demand for bananas that should be more ecologically produced, but also workers' rights should be better protected. You've got premium bananas that met those specifications supply and demands, but it didn't work so well for bananas because it turns out people still want, most people want their bananas, to be relatively cheap. When it comes to diamonds, it seems to have a kind of much stronger mechanism because it's such a high value-added product there. There's a lot more going on than in which country they operate.

00:18:47 Licia Cianetti

Yeah. So, this to put it crudely, about capitalism, we don't use the word a lot, but there is a big literature about the relationship between capitalism and democracy and potential conflicts between the two. Is this about how capitalism has developed and is changing and what effects it has on accountability and possibilities? Or new actors or growing actors, corporations, to frustrate accountability for profit motives? Or is it not such a systemic? Problem.

00:19:18 Marlies Glasius

I think some authors treat it in that manner. I take a slightly different approach. I'm interested in the corporation as an organizational environment, so that's why it is in the same book with the Catholic Church and secret services to kind of get more of the empirical operationalization of this notion of authoritarian practices in an organized context, what does that context mean? How do employees?Imbibe certain cultures and ideas about appropriate behavior, so I'm less interested in the cooperation of standing for capitalism with a capital B. Of course, corporations are different because they have a profit motive, but there's also lots of literature that's corporations are more than just profit maximizers, and I personally find them most interesting in their organizational capacity.

00:20:14 Licia Cianetti

Yeah, I think that works very, very well to make these comparisons there at first sight seem wild. But it, but then they bring home how different kinds of actors they operate in different, very different kinds of also territorial contexts and territorial articulations can pervert accountability. And just to close it like you to give an example of silencing secrecy. And subterfuge, which are three authoritarian practices that you discuss but within mind, the idea that people might want to know how to recognize them and how to fight against them. So, what are silencing secrets in subterfuge? And how should we respond to them? And how should we try and recognize them? And push back.

00:21:01 Marlies Glasius

Let me give you an example from my own country, the Netherlands. One of the kinds of big state institutions here that has been through a major scandal in recent years is actually the tax office. As is often the case with authoritarian practices, IT begins with a behaviour that is illegal, or at least. And upon and here, the tax office in in relation to a particular tax break in benefits, child benefits, or rather benefits rebates for childcare. They were looking for fraud and they were really engaging in ethnic profiling as they were doing so, or, you know, people with exotic surnames, or who were born outside the country were really kind of monitored and treated very harshly. That in itself could be an illiberal practice. But then on top of that, when it became uncovered, they are losing documents, destroying documents and the Ministry of Finance lies about this in Parliament and there's also silencing. So, some of the whistleblowers who brought this out in the open were actually suspended by the tax office. So that combination, there's a lot more secrecy than there was. And this information was silencing. But it was also silencing that would be kind of a very concrete example of oh if you see that combination, but that's still at the level of national state institutions. It might also be that your child attends a boarding school. We know because boarding schools are quite closed organizations, there can be abusive practices. There might be bullying, and if you see that a complaint is then being treated by evasion by lice, but also by somehow silencing the people who are first bringing it up. That's when alarm bells should start to ring.

00:22:49 Licia Cianetti

Yeah, that's very interesting. There is a book by Sarah Ahmed where she discussed the complaints, and she says the complaints are ways of knowing institutions. Once you lodge a complaint, you become the problem, and you see how the institution operates. So in a way, you know, she's not talking about authoritarianism, but kind of points to the same kinds of ways in which institutions work. And that to me also points are the important of looking at institutions and organizations as institutions and organizations. So where will your study of authoritarian practice take you next? So are you looking at different kinds of authoritarian practices now and by different actors, or what you're working on now that uses this framework.

00:23:29 Marlies Glasius

I'm actually kind of switching topics a little bit and engaging in some new research that is not directly about the authoritarian practices, although I'm certainly expecting to find them. As I already mentioned, it seems to be the case. Not just that there's a virtuous cycle between democratization and economic. Equality, but also between democratization and increasing within country inequality. So, I've become very interested in inequality and specifically the kind of very top of the wealth distribution, the Super rich. So, I am beginning to do some research on the tax politics of the Super rich, which is not just whether they pay their taxes, it's about whether they pay money to lobbying organizations, whether they themselves. Engage in anti-rhetoric. Whether they move to Monaco and so on and so forth there that that is my new research which is still something to do with accountability issues. But it's also taking me in a new direction.

00:24:34 Licia Cianetti

That's very fascinating. And, to me kind of brings again this transnational, the importance of the transnational dimension, right, because you have this transnational infrastructure for wealth management, as it's called, there probably comes into the picture there and there's got also to do with evading accountability. Would you say so?

00:24:53 Marlies Glasius

Yeah. Sadly, yeah, but I think there's a lot more secrecy and disinformation than there is silencing. There's less of the kind of overt repression in new research.

00:25:03 Licia Cianetti

So, thank you. We come to the end of our podcast, and I really want to thank you Marlies for joining the people Power Politics podcast and for talking to us about authority and practices and about your new exciting work. So hopefully, we'll have you again in a few months or a year to, you know, more about how that's going. I really want to. Encourage the listeners to read your work, which I think fundamentally challenges the way we tend to think of political regime. As self-contained coherent units and the most important units to think about political reality, and instead brings in all these contradictions, non-state actors, transnational dimensions are really, really, important to shaping contemporary political life. So, thank you very much. I am Licia Cianetti, deputy director of Cedar and the host of this people Power Politics podcast. Episode I've been talking to Marly's classes professor of international relations at the University of Amsterdam. Thank you.

00:25:55 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description. 


Airports, Buses, Internet Cables, and the Local and National Politics in the Philippines. A conversation with John Sidel

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Petra Alderman

Hi, my name is Petra Alderman, and I am a research fellow at CEDAR. It is my great pleasure to be your host for this episode. Our guest today is Professor John Sidel. John is Sir Patrick Gillam Chair in International and Comparative politics and Director of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asian Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a specialist in Southeast Asia and has conducted extensive research in Indonesia and the Philippines on a range of topics, including local power, subnational authoritarianism, the political role of Islam, reform advocacy campaigns and coalitions. Welcome to the podcast, John.

00:00:50 John Sidel

Many thanks, Petra. Pleasure to be here.

00:00:52 Petra Alderman

John, I know that obviously we talked about all these many different and exciting research topics and things that you've been working on over the years, but I know that more recently you've started also working on the political economy of transport, telecommunications and infrastructure, particularly in the context of the Philippines. So what’s taken you into this research direction? What was the maybe originally impetus that got you really interested in these topics and themes?

00:01:19 John Sidel

Yeah, I mean there there may be and I could talk about this later, there may be routes back in the late 80s and early 90s when I was studying the Philippines looking at local politics in the country at that time. But really my interest in the politics and the political economy of transport and infrastructure and telecommunications began in around 2012, when I started doing work for the Asia Foundation. I started returning to the Philippines twice a year, except during the pandemic and every year I would, I would go to the Philippines. I'm still doing this twice a year.

00:01:53 John Sidel

And observe and involve myself as a kind of strategic advisor and analyst on this program in which they support a range of reform, advocacy campaigns and early on they were involved in supporting an effort to improve participatory elements, the transparency, the accountability but also really the participatory elements of provincial road planning. And so I, I spent some time in provinces where that was an ongoing activity and that was interesting, but I think it was more around 2016/2017 when I was asked to take a look at the transport reforms that they were beginning to get involved in in Greater Metro Manila that I really got excited and I should mention, cause you're a a Leeds graduate, that when I was in Manila and around 2016/2017, I met all of these young people who were part of this generation of transport experts.

00:02:52 John Sidel

Or, as they sometimes call themselves transport geeks and, you know, a really knowledgeable about all sorts of things like parking and bus rapid transit systems and things like that. And I was never as a kid, you know, very interested in transport. I didn't play with trains, anything like that, or planes. I never, you know, as a young man was interested in fast cars or anything like that.

00:03:16 John Sidel

So this it didn't resonate with me, but I could see that there was all this excitement and expertise among this cohort of young people who had a variety of ideas about how to improve the transport system when clearly transportation was a major issue, a major political issue that, you know arguably may have decided the 2016 presidential elections in some ways. And so, people I knew were involved in pushing for government investment in the Clark International Airport in Pampanga as a supplement to the existing NAIA airport and then these transport sort of geeks, transport reform advocacy experts and and campaigners, they had a an incredible agenda of, you know, they they knew what needed to be done. You needed a bus rapid transit system. You needed to transform road transport in particular, you needed to push forward on rail links within and beyond Metro Manila.

00:04:12 John Sidel

But also they were pushing for bike lanes and thanks to the the pandemic or due to the pandemic, this became possible given the conditions of the pandemic. So I was really drawn into this through activists whom I was studying and working with, you know, and analyzing what they're doing on a range of issues like motorcycle taxis, different kinds of bus schemes, and all sorts of things like that. And then similarly through the Asia Foundation, I came to know people who were similarly interested in promoting reforms in telecommunications, most notably by opening up the the market to and and deregulating telecommunications to allow Internet service provision through satellite technology. So it's really been the activism and the achievements of these reform advocacy campaigners that sparked my interest.

00:05:05 Petra Alderman

That sounds brilliant and before we delve a bit deeper into these questions and we start talking a bit more about the politics and how this how the reform actually can materialize and happen. I was wondering, could you maybe give us a bit of a flavour of how bad when we let’s say talk about the transportation issue, how bad it really is in the Philippines? You know, somebody who's done research in parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, you know you have the kind of typical metropolitan issues in cities like Bangkok, where the traffic can get really insane. There could be like 3-hour long queues during rush hour, so completely gridlocked city. So is this a similar experience that you have from Manila and you know what's difference maybe between these metropolitan issues and you mentioned before that you went to the provinces, I mean the issues are slightly different between the two.

00:05:53 John Sidel

Yeah. So in terms of Metro Manila, like Bangkok and and other major metropolis in in Southeast Asia, for domestic reasons, but we could also talk about the broader, you know, global and geopolitical reasons, the transport systems have been automobile centric systems. And so with rapid sustained economic growth, let's say in the Philippines for more than a decade, you've seen GDP growth per annum of 6%. So that's meant a process of what transport experts call automotivization. So, with every passing year, there are three hundred, four hundred thousand new vehicles, new cars on the roads, and in the Philippines people have belatedly moved into motorcycle purchasing and and riding as well, more popular in in Bangkok previously.

00:06:40 John Sidel

But that just means that a transport system that's so heavily based on the automobile, it's just inefficient. It's unfair to people who can't afford the automobile, but because it crowds out other forms of transport. But it means these governments across Southeast Asia haven't really invested in mass transit systems in a public transportation infrastructure.

00:07:00 John Sidel

And so by default, private provision has prevailed and and the automobile has has been king. And that's only worsened with prosperity, with rising incomes and, of course, there’re schemes to purchase a car and then become, you know, if not an Uber driver, then a local equivalent of an Uber driver and become addicted to, you know, your car by spending all of your time paying off the mortgage, as it were on your automobile. So, so, that's the, that's the really the root of it as well as there being, you know, certain forms of oligopoly in the transport sector as there are in, in, in many contexts. But of course in the Philippines with it's very oligarchical form of democracy and heavily cartelized form of, you know domestic economic structure, whether it's inter-island shipping or buses in Manila or otherwise, that there is that kind of problem. And of course there there are forms of corruption in terms of franchising which don't help but, but I think that helps to explain the urban metropolitan you know gridlock that you experience, and which is very costly economically, socially, every which way. Environmentally, it's terrible, of course.

00:08:07 John Sidel

In the provinces, what I think is notable is in terms of infrastructure, which I haven't said much about yet, there's a long and familiar history as in some other countries, of politics being intertwined with construction, road construction and construction companies being owned by or otherwise linked to local politicians, something you'd be familiar with from Thailand, of course, you know, as as has been well studied and there's that dimension to it. There also has been a a pattern of, you know, sort of provincial bus companies, inter-island shipping as well. And provincial bus comes was something I was very interested in when I was looking at local politics in the in the late 80s and early 90s, it seemed like some of the politicians I was studying, they had bus companies. In one case it was a a bus company that was notorious for reckless driving, very fast driving and in fact killing people on the roads. And if they didn't kill them, they allegedly would, if they wounded them, they'd back up and make sure they finished the job so they wouldn't have to pay the the hospital bills for the the victims.

00:09:08 John Sidel

But interestingly, these sorts of very local in some cases just, you know, one town bus monopoly really over time, over the past few decades seemed to have been superseded by a process of kind of agglomeration and economies of scale. So, you have some massive bus companies that really dominate the Visayas and Mindanao. One in particular, that's just, in a sense, transcended the realm of local politics. So that's kind of interesting to me, and I haven't properly studied that, but I think it's, it's interesting. But, you know, in terms of construction, I... I remember I... I was in a a small town in, I think it was Bohol, an island province in the Visayas. And was, you know, investigating how the determination of where road upgrading projects should be allocated, and you know, lo and behold, big surprise, the Mayor's chicken farm, you know, gets the best road paved all the way up to his chicken farm. Who would have imagined that? So those sorts of things are are very much there, somewhat predictably.

00:10:08 Petra Alderman

And I think it's very fascinating. I'm glad that you sort of brought up the connection to local politics and also as as an electoral issues, these things actually do matter for people on the ground locally. And it was a a really bizarre experience, but during the past election in Thailand, we went to one of the sort of villages in the provinces, and there's been a long term kind of battle between one of the local politicians who was trying to win a seat in this constituency, and it was a party that dominated this constituency for many, many decades and he's been trying over time to actually, you know, win this seat. But the bizarre thing was that you could actually see this battle play out in the real world in a sense that before the village, a road, a normal road stopped and after that there was just nothing going in there, so you could see a real kind of tangible politics play out in a space and I find it extremely fascinating. And I wonder, I mean, you've already started outlining some of the key political issues that are there and you mentioned the the local bosses and the oligarchic structure, but what are the kind of key defining dynamics? I mean, do they have shared dynamics, all these different spaces or does each have something quite unique when you look at the telecommunications, the transport and maybe the construction?

00:11:26 John Sidel

Yeah, good. Very good question, but hard to answer. The clear commonality that you see from the local level on upwards at at at a very general level is the the possibility and the prevalence of one or another form of monopoly or oligopoly. It's arguably the case that in any political system there are natural tendencies towards monopoly or oligopoly in certain sectors of the economy, most you know, notably here, transport, but you know, we can see today across the world that you know, you think you have a a free market and  it'll... it'll result in endlessly free competition. But look at Google, you know, as an example of how that... that it doesn't go out that way, or indeed you know who makes aircrafts. There are basically two companies. Shipbuilding is another thing. But in any event it's quite clear that in different spheres of transport infrastructure and telecommunications, there are, you know, small numbers of players. So for example if you look at the major toll roads coming out of Metro Manila and and expanding across Luzon, there are three or four major companies with some subcontracting and partnerships that dominate that, you know, likewise with the public utilities.

00:12:39 John Sidel

With telecommunications, there's been a duopoly for many years now, two companies that control telecommunications and have, you know, very little interest historically in expanding to areas of the country they don't think would be profitable for their networks and you know, happy to maintain a duopoly in ways that involve state capture. So, you know that there's there's the element of the market and of control of a market, a dominant share, but there's also, you know, a degree of penetration and control over the agencies of the state that are supposed to be regulating that sector that you would see on a local level with the mayor, who has, let's say, the mayor owns the one Cock Fighting Arena has has a dominant position in construction and in agricultural processing, or you know, whatever the Mayor's family, it is up to the local state agencies that might regulate those industries, those sectors, are going to be, you know, in the hands of allies and minions and flunkies of of the mayor, the mayor's family.

00:13:39 John Sidel

So the the regulation will be weak, and at the national level, you know, the National Telecommunications Commission, for example, is, you know, notoriously captured by the the telecommunications duopoly. You know, there are all sorts of stories about all the birthday parties and the buffet lunches and the cars in the parking lot and and so forth. And... and just more more simply, if you look at recent secretaries and undersecretaries and commissioners, who are they? Former lawyers for one of the two telecommunications companies or indeed the Executive secretary of former President Duterte was, you know, a former lawyer for one of the telecommunications companies. Things like that, that that are are really familiar from the local level as well.

00:14:21 John Sidel

So I think there's that kind of dimension and it and it also goes sort of up and down the food chain in different ways. So, to give you an example, if you want to look at buses in Metro Manila, you could say, well, it's kind of obscure exactly how this bus cartel operates, and people really don't know, and it partly it's the function of this government agency, the LTFRB, which is the land transport and franchising regulatory body, which doesn't do any regulating but offers franchises but in terms of who really owns these bus franchises and how they really operate, that's anyone's guess in terms of how it really operates. And they're even among the experts, very different accounts of this. So you know there there's a bus monopoly or not monopoly as a sort of has been a kind of cartel like set of arrangements or problematic in terms of restrictions on its competition.

00:15:14 John Sidel

The owners, they own these lines, but they then pass on the risk to their bus drivers in what's known as the the boundary system. They will get, you know, a sort of fixed fee and they they will, they will not pay wages to their bus drivers. They will then tell the bus drivers well, you you will only get to keep any money you earn on top of this amount. So it's as if they're renting out the bus to the bus driver and the bus driver then has to pay them a fixed amount and then the bus driver has to work hard to linger on the curbside to to get more and more customers. So that's that's another familiar element of passing on the risk downwards and the responsibility and how you treat your your labor force.

00:15:55 John Sidel

But if you look all the way down the food chain, like to give you an example, several years ago the government decided there should be major bus terminals, two major bus terminals for entry points into the city, and they forced all the buses to go to these bus terminals and leave their passengers, who then ideally would be available for intermodal transport to get on a a light transit line or to to get in a Jeep and so forth. But who owns these terminals? It's a big real estate play because there's lots of retail and their fees collected from, you know, the buses and the Jeeps coming into these terminals. And then if you don't want to bring your bus, these terminals cause, at least for starters, they weren't convenient. You wanna leave passengers somewhere else, you know you pay somebody off.

00:16:40 John Sidel

You pay a policeman, you pay a local official. And I remember I... I interviewed a guy who owned a something halfway between a Jeep and a bus, what's called a UV express route, and and he detailed like, 10 or 12 different people, he was paying off every day. And so that they're just so sort of from top to bottom. You have a layering of different kinds of what economists or political economists call, you know, rents that are being paid off, either extortion payments extracted by different regulatory bodies, the police and local authorities, and so forth, or the kinds of rents that those who have a monopoly enjoy above a market price because they're not really subject to market, subjected to market pressures.

00:17:21 John Sidel

So it's a whole sector where it's not quite a market that's operating and there's lots of politics and it's very complicated and intricate, kind of interesting in in a, in a kind of geeky kind of way.

00:17:33 Petra Alderman

No, but it really does sound very fascinating, and I think it's part of like trying to as you as you explain, the sort of the complex web of interlinking power relations that you try to somehow untangle to really figure out what is happening and why is it happening in in particular way. But I'd like to go back a little bit. We were talking about the national level and the local level and how you know at the local level and national level, you have these groups and ol... oligopolies, but you also mentioned that at the local level it started off maybe from more localized groups, but these have merged together into something bigger and I was wondering, I mean, is it something that's being driven from the bottom up? So let's say these individual groups or like local fiefdoms in the in in these areas of transport or infrastructure joining hands together or is that something that's coming from the outside? Or from the sort of higher levels like the national or international level, like where is the incentive coming?

00:18:32 John Sidel

I mean, I think there, there are a variety of different drivers of change in transport. One is the pressures of automotivization. The... the more cars on the road, the more pressure there is on the government to do something to offer alternatives. So belatedly, the government in a country that never had a serious, you know, sort of railroad network to get going on that within beyond Metro Manila and even a subway, so there's that, you know, in recognition of the gross inefficiencies, the all the costs that come with the the traffic gridlock, there's also, you know from the market there. There are new kinds of opportunity. You know, thanks to the miracle of the Internet you have, you know the equivalent of you know, Uber, Uber taxis and the sort of platform based, what are they called TMV's, these sorts of network-based operations, kind of like Uber, you know, Grab and so forth, Ankas and and it’s the new competitors.

00:19:27 John Sidel

So I think there's technology and opportunity that that then pushes the the boundaries. And you know government has been investing in rail and then you have you know for example these new major projects for new airports, the just real limitations and problems with the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, NAIA as it's known, have nudged different kinds of investors to explore other airport options so you have Clark International Airport in Pampanga. And again there's politics there because people in Pampanga like former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is a big supporter of Duterte in his election campaign in 2016, she's based in Pampanga and all people linked to her and in that province we're keen to have governments pump priming and, you know, pushing for use of that airport in in a variety of ways. There's been a big kind of long going debate about what to do with NAIA, the established airport.

00:20:25 John Sidel

There is a plan for an airport in Cavite, South of Metro Manila and that's still in the works, but it's not clear, you know, there's been interesting changes in involvement in that in terms of the investors, and then the San Miguel Corporation just on its own steam decided to buy a huge amount of land in the province of Bulacan, North but also West of Pampanga, North... North of Metro Manila and to just unilaterally decide on its own team, its own team to build an airport there and to get permission for all sorts of road links and so forth. And and that's one of the the sort of handful of major corporations that's heavily involved in major infrastructure projects. So they have the capital to do that.

00:21:00 John Sidel

So you know there's it's coming from the private sector seeing opportunity at different levels of the food chain and new technology that comes in. But it's also the government. It's one of the most important things that Southeast Asian governments have to manage. With prosperity comes transport issues and problems and how you manage those is in some ways a determinant of how the public perceives you and you know your electoral survival and success.

00:21:24 Petra Alderman

Exactly. And as you mentioned before, a lot of these things can play a major role in the decisions of the electorate, especially in those urban spaces, if you are commuting and you're stuck every day in like 3-hour long traffic jam, it's gonna be a big issue that you want your your government to address. So it is definitely really important. But then when we sort of map, these spaces are so extremely complex and dominated, maybe by extremely small number of really powerful groups, then where does this space for reform, or you know, for these enthusiastic and... and transport geeks, as you sort of mentioned at the beginnings as the motivation that brought you into this research, you know, is there really a space for them? How does a positive change happen in these spaces where you have so many powerful players that with you know, links to private sector, the government, you know, local power networks? How does this even happen?

00:22:16 John Sidel

In transport and maybe this is true for some other sectors, you know you can see that with economic growth and urbanization that by the the end of the twenty teens, these transport geeks are thick on the count these graduates of the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds, there are dozens and dozens of them, because anyone who's engaged in any kind of private sector, you know, real estate development scheme and any... any city government across Metro Manila needs people who know what they're doing. And so, you know, you have these people thick on the ground and they knew before the pandemic what needed to be done, you know.

00:22:58 John Sidel

We really need bike lanes. Maybe more importantly, we need a bus rapid transit system and we need, you know, simultaneously the the rationalization of the bus system. And we simultaneously need the rail system to to be pushing forward. So they they know these things. But politically, as you say, like what is it that that gives them the chance to move forward? And I think there are different things. One is the conjuncture of the pandemic which you know in terms of bike lanes meant that well, it was a a safe way to get to work for doctors and nurses and other key workers or essential workers at the time. So in the short term that, you know, it was an obvious imperative and there was also just a a sort of bigger plan in terms of the, in rationalizing the buses given that traffic just stopped and there was like no traffic on the roads. So the possibility of doing something different emerged and the necessity of doing something different also emerged because you you needed to have sort of socially distanced public transport run by the government, subsidized by the government, and regularized in a way that would prevent public transport from becoming a a super spreader of the virus.

00:24:06 John Sidel

So there was timing, but I think more generally what you find in terms of these kinds of economic reforms that are are basically about, you know, deregulation and liberalization in some measure, but also that some measure of of government investment. I think you you do have the reality that all of these major business interests that are so concentrated and diversified as these conglomerates have interests across a range of sectors, they're heavily invested in economic growth. They're heavily invested in, you know, more Filipinos eating more ice cream, drinking more beer, you know, buying more cars, going to their shopping malls consuming more electricity and water and all the things that these oligopolists are selling to them at, you know, not quite market prices.

00:24:54 John Sidel

So they want prosperity, they want more consumers, they want more and more and more. And to that extent they can recognize that the Philippines needs to remain competitive as a site for a range of different kinds of economic activities and employment possibilities, they they're invested in the prosperity of their Filipinos and and the same to go back to your earlier interesting question about the, you know, local and national government, it used to be that you could imagine a, a, a sort of forested municipality where you don't care about the people, you just want to log the trees or let's say a sugar plantation zone, where you just wanna get the sugar out the sugar cane out, get it processed, and make your money and you don't care about the people who work for you, but what begins to happen if the major source of export revenue and livelihood and profit is BPOs, call centers, business processing, outsourcing, you know, sort of outlets, then you need to make sure that your locality doesn't just have roads, but the the roads that your construction companies built actually work, that the schools are producing graduates who speak good enough English that people want to hire them for these call centers and so forth.

00:26:05 John Sidel

And that otherwise that your town is a an attractive investment for, I don't know, residential subdivisions, for schools, for private investment. And so there is a kind of addiction that these companies have to growth and that's you know there is some trickle down in that regard. And so for example amidst the pandemic and its early aftermath of economic uncertainty and a downturn in investment, the Philippine Congress passed, and the president signed, a law which dramatically revised and reduced restrictions on foreign investment in key sectors, and it did so in a way that previously had been deemed to be impossible because the telecommunications duopoly the inter-island shipping cartel, the fill in the blank, all of these different local oligarchs, as some would call them, have been nervous about opening the floodgates to foreign investment that would then perhaps reduce their lock hold on market shares in one way or another through one or another form of of shift in... in... in these markets in these sectors.

00:27:06 Petra Alderman

I'm glad you mentioned that because that was going to be my next question because you already hinted at some kind of this geopolitical dimension to the issue previously and obviously you know China would be the obvious country to talk about in, in some sense because of the Belt and Road initiative, and it's been, you know, trying to invest into a lot of infrastructural projects within Southeast Asia with various levels of success.

00:27:29 Petra Alderman

But I'm kind of wondering, you know, what is currently the involvement of the China and maybe some other foreign actors and what kind of impact does that have on the established, maybe political structures? I mean you mentioned that that there was potentially some kind of lobbying against this opening up from these oligarchs or oligopolies within these systems, but is that influencing some of these power relations? Or is it just kind of feeding into or spotting nicely into these existing structures?

00:27:56 John Sidel

And that's a a great question and I think there's a lot that's really interesting that's happening at that level that isn't getting too much attention, and that merits, you know, closer investigation and, you know, analysis. And here it's worth, you know, providing a little bit of historical backdrop and noting that although the Philippines was an American colony and there was, you know, an early interest in investment in American cars, and a kind of American style orientation towards the automobile, it really from at least if not the 60s and the 70s onwards, the Philippines, like much of Southeast Asia has really been dominated by Japan in terms of its transport infrastructure system.

00:28:48 John Sidel

And you know, this was something that the United States self-consciously, deliberately encouraged. If you go back to George Cannon's strategic documents about, you know, fighting communism and spreading the American way across the Asia Pacific region, you know, there was the idea that Japan should be reconnected to its greater Green East Asian co-prosperity sphere with China closed after 1949. This meant Southeast Asia. And so you see these war reparation agreements from the 1950s reestablishing Japanese businesses in Southeast Asia. And in terms of transport, you know it evolved in the Philippines as elsewhere, that overwhelmingly the cars and the motorcycles that people buy year on year, hundreds of thousands of them every year are Japanese. And it's also the case, perhaps not, you know, not coincidentally, that the major kind of source of advice, consulting, oversight and financing for the transport systems of Southeast Asia and the Philippines, at least Japanese, JICA. So you know the whole transport system in Metro Manila and the the provinces around it, the so-called color bar zone that was schemed up in already in the late 80s, early 90s came from JICA.

00:30:00 John Sidel

So there's a there's a heavy Japanese footprint on the transport system and that extends to rail links. So when belatedly, it's acknowledged that, well, oh, we're two automobile centric where we are in effect buying too many Japanese cars, and you know too too heavily invested in that. Then you know, we should build some some rail links within the city within Metro Manila and beyond. Lo and behold, who is it that lends the money and does a lot of the building of these train links? And who actually supplies the the actual train carriages? But Japan, Japanese companies. So Japan, you know, is is is a major player and a major winner from the Philippines transport infrastructure system.

00:30:47 John Sidel

And I think this is true across so much of Southeast Asia. So I think that's an important backdrop. And here in the UK, I think it's just amazing to me how nobody in this country seems to be interested in Japan aware of Japan's significance. It's as if people in this country have some kind of deep-seated insecurity that in all the the uncomfortable similarities between Japan and the United Kingdom make them look away from anything about the significance of Japan and the world. Japan is important to, you know, keep in mind.

00:31:12 John Sidel

And As for China, if you look back in the the period of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidency from 2001 to 2010, you can see two major efforts on the part of China, two major initiatives on the part of China or two major deals between the Philippine government and Chinese state owned and state linked companies that really portended potentially dramatic shift in this regard. One was a N rail project connecting Metro Manila to northern provinces and the other was the National Broadband Network with what's it called ZT E or ZTE, the one of the two, alongside Huawei, Major Chinese owned telecommunications companies that has close links to the state.

00:32:02 John Sidel

And in both cases, the corruption that was revealed in the awarding of these contracts and the, you know, the problems with their implementation and so forth led to their termination at great cost. The Philippine government in the case of the North Rail project. So in both cases, this sort of ended of brief flirtation experimentation with, you know, incorporation into this broader, if not Belt and Road initiative then a sort of expanding Chinese transport, telecommunications infrastructure network. And and so that kind of ground to a halt after Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidency, and she's then succeeded by Benigno Aquino junior, who's much more, you know, suspicious of China.

00:32:44 John Sidel

Perhaps there's a partisan political dimension to that as well, and and he famously, you know, is much more tough minded when it comes to the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea dispute, but it but it it plays out, you know, in the sense that you know the review of contracts over the supply of certain train carriages and things like that. So that really nips in the bud a kind of movement towards Chinese involvement in, in, in the Philippines at scale. On the other hand, what does persist, and it it is worth noting, although I'm not sure given my limited technical expertise, how much one should genuinely be alarmed or impressed by this, but Huawei is still, you know, a dominant provider of the the kind of software for Philippine, the the telecoms, telecommunications duopoly. You know, if you actually look at what they're they're providing their actual infrastructure, they have the licenses, they have the franchise, they control this because they... you need to go to Congress to get a new franchise. They've got the duopoly. But in terms of what they're actually selling, how they're how their systems actually work, it's heavily reliant on Huawei.

00:33:53 John Sidel

Whatever that might mean. And so if you think of what happens under Duterte and then under now, under Marcos, I think under Duterte, despite the the reputation that he developed as, you know, a close ally of China or as someone trying to push for a shift from close relations with the US to closer relations on China. The record is much more mixed than that. So in in terms of transport infrastructure, whatever flirtations there were with China in terms of transport deals, infrastructure deals, the only things that have not even been signed but have been sort of put out there as as projects that are being studied rather than you know actually implemented are pretty unimportant in all likelihood unprofitable.

00:34:45 John Sidel

Whereas Japan has continued to be the dominant source of financing in in part through the Manila based Asian Development Bank, the ADB, which upped its lending to the Philippines dramatically under Duterte. So there's a lot of Japanese investment that persists and expands under Duterte in transport. The one thing that happened under Duterte that does open the door further to Chinese investment is in telecommunications, because Duterte came in and talked to a sort of tough game about the telecommunications duopoly and said, you know, enough having these two companies dominate, we need a third major player and when in 2018, late 2018, they opened up to a third major player, lo and behold, who who won the government's franchise to be the third major telecommunications provider but a joint venture between a businessman from Davao City, closely associated with... with Duterte, and China Telecom and the rumors were that Duterte had promised Li Keqiang, the Chinese Prime Minister at the time, that he would make this possible. So there is now more of a, you know, footprint, more of a presence of Chinese investment in different forms in telecommunications.

00:36:01 John Sidel

But then what interestingly happened over the past few years is much more, and what's ongoing now is actually of an opening towards the United States in telecommunication, and much more restrictive of further Chinese investment. So you see the passage of a new law that amends what used to be called the the Public Service Act, it’s still there, but it's it's an old act dating back from the 1930s, and that opens certain sectors to foreign investment far beyond what previously had been allowed, but built into that is a very interesting and important restriction, which is, you know, foreign companies can invest to this or that extent across these different sectors, but not if it's critical infrastructure and if these foreign companies are state owned or have, you know, close ties to the state.

00:36:53 John Sidel

So it, it's just, you know, red flashing lights, saying not, you know, these can't be Chinese companies. And so that opening to foreign investment in these key infrastructural strategic sectors has been in, in a sense sort of blocked off to Chinese companies. You know, you see this, for example, there was a the the project in Cavite for a new airport. There were initially Chinese investors with a consortium of of Major Filipino in some cases Filipino Chinese tycoons and that didn't get the permission. There was a, you know, South Korean shipping yard in Subic Bay that went bankrupt, a South Korean firm. And you know, Chinese shipbuilding firms. Ohh, we'll take that over. Nope, not allowed. So those sorts of things not happening, and then meanwhile, American companies are coming in. There was a an executive order that loosened up previous restrictions that that made it hard for, you know, a satellite-based Internet provision to move in because you need a franchise. And since that time, you've seen Elon Musk's Starlink come in.

00:37:52 John Sidel

And other companies. But Starlink is very closely aligned with the US government, with NASA in particular. So you know that and these undersea submarine cables linking the West Coast of the United States, the Philippines, in terms of the Internet, you know, really continue to hold the Philippines within an American dominated global information order, including the Internet.

00:38:14 Petra Alderman

This is absolutely fascinating now, and I wish we had more time to to talk more about these things, but I'm very happy that we've managed to at least sort of sketch out some of these complexities and some of these really important and interesting questions in relations to political power, not just national, but also local and international and how it plays out in the areas of telecommunications, infrastructure and transport. I mean, it's something that we are dealing with every day ourselves, but we rarely, as you said, think about it in such a great depth. So thank you, John. This has been absolutely fascinating talk and I hope we'll get an opportunity to do maybe another podcast in the future and see how your research evolves.

00:38:54 John Sidel

My pleasure.

00:38:55 Petra Alderman

Thank you, John, for joining the People, Power, Politics podcast and for talking to us about these fascinating macro and micro level political developments in the Philippines in the context of these three spaces, so the infrastructure, telecommunications and construction. I'm Petra Alderman research fellow at CEDAR and the host of this People, Power, Politics podcast episode. I have been talking today to Professor John Sidel, Sir Patrick Gillam Chair in International and Comparative Politics, and Director of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asian Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

00:39:30 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.


How to Stage a Coup and Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft. A conversation with Rory Cormac

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Petra Alderman

Hi, my name is Petra Alderman, and I am a research fellow at CEDAR. I'm going to be your host for this episode of the People, Power, Politics podcast. I am very excited to welcome Rory Cormac as our guest for this episode. Welcome to the podcast, Rory.

00:00:28 Rory Cormac

Thanks very much.

00:00:30 Petra Alderman

Rory Cormac is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He specialises in secret intelligence and covert action. Now, in this episode we are going to talk about Rory's recent book called How to Stage a Coup and Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft, eh, what an amazing title, by the way, eh, the book was published in 2022 by Atlantic Books and is written in a very accessible format with plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes from the world of covert action and secret statecraft, but before we delve deep into the actual content of the book, I am very interested to know, Rory, what inspired you to write this book and how can one go about studying the world of covert action and secret statecraft? Are not most of these activities and operations actually based on obfuscation and secrecy?

00:01:20 Rory Cormac

They are, but that's half the fun. It's a great, it's a great challenge. This whole world is just so fascinating and so mythologized and widely misunderstood. But it's also a core part of international relations. You know, we have lots of people studying war. We have lots of people studying peace and we have fewer people studying the grey area in between. Even though states have been engaging in these types of activities for as long as states have existed. The UK has been doing it since before UK even existed. Queen Elizabeth I was, was subverting the low countries and Philip of Spain, 500 years ago.

00:02:00 Rory Cormac

And so this is this is an important part of international relations, and I wrote the book now because for something supposedly secret, it's been in the news a lot over the last decade. I mean, think back to the Russian “little green men” as they were called during the annexation of Crimea back in 2014. Two years later, 2016 presidential election in the United States and all of the talk around Russian electoral interference and it's been so on and so forth, assassination attempts of of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. There have been lots of examples on the European continent as well of allegations of again Russia being involved in electoral interference, covertly funding political parties. The Chinese been accused of this in Australia, New Zealand, Canada have just opened their own inquiry into foreign interference.

00:02:46 Rory Cormac

So for something secret, this is very widely discussed and I wanted to try as best as I could as an outsider to, to get to the bottom of it. What are states doing? Why are doing it? How does it work? Does it work? Is it successful? It is difficult to find some of this stuff out for obvious reasons, but there's much more out there than I think people realise.

00:03:05 Rory Cormac

When I talk to former practitioners and I tell them something I've read in the archives, they look at me aghast that's been released. And I say yes, it it has. And a lot of covert action these days is increasingly weirdly, almost open, like the deniability is is, is what we call implausible for for various reasons get onto it later if you like, but it means that the states don't admit it. They deny it, but it's kind of obvious and the examples of the election interference and fake news and disinformation just, you know, some recent recent example. So it is there. It's there here, you're willing to look for it. And and I would argue there's certainly more than enough out there to make some robust conclusions.

00:03:43 Petra Alderman

That's great. And I think what, what is quite interesting as well you are coming to this topic as somebody working in the sphere of international relations. But as you talk, I mean this is so very relevant to domestic politics as well and people studying politics and also our core themes in CEDAR are related to elections, democracy, accountability and representation, and very much seems that what you've just been talking about is so intrinsically linked with all these four core themes that we, we cannot probably talk about domestic politics without actually talking about this kind of meddling or interference of foreign states in what is happening in our countries and at home. But when we talk about secret statecraft and covert action, I think many people's expectations, including my own, have been greatly influenced by the James Bond movies and you mentioned that in your own book, there is this popular cult that's been built up around this and I wonder how different it is actually this popular culture imagery from the real world of covert action and secret statecraft?

00:04:46 Rory Cormac

The short answer is, unsurprisingly, very different from the the Hollywood James Bond version of all this kind of thing. It's there's a lot more lawyers I think is the first thing to say. Where democracy thinks about engaging in some of these things, you know the the amount of of layers of bureaucracy and and legal hopes to to jump through, which are obviously not represented in James Bond because they are mundane and probably a bit boring. But they are also crucially important for when democracies want to engage in stuff that is secret and, and not transparent, but there are occasional times when when when fact and fiction start to intertwine. There was one lovely example when that was 1960s, when the head of the CIA had just read the most recent James Bond book and he went to his, his staff and he was started reading off all these ridiculous gadgets that James Bond had, and he said make them for me, I want this, I want this. And you occasionally see Bond pop up in the British history archives as well, the Labour Foreign Secretary again mid 1960s, he was saying we can't do this James Bond scheme. It it it it, it pops up every, every, every now and again. But they're obviously very different. There's no oversights in James Bond either. There's no parliamentary committees making sure that that things aren't going going awry, which again it’s not particularly visually exciting, I think on a on a screen.

00:06:10 Rory Cormac

But that that said, I think that there are some of the stories in real life can actually end up being far more bizarre and ridiculous than the, the craziest stuff that script writers will probably, you know, leave on the cutting room floor because it's so stupid. I'll give you one quick example, my favorite one, which is just nuts, is 1961, I think, the CIA came up with this plan to get rid of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and the plan was called “illumination by elimination” and what they wanted to do was stage-fake, the second coming of Jesus Christ. And they thought that if they did this, it would inspire Cubans to rise up against the godless Communists and they were gonna set off flares to be like shooting stars and all sorts of stuff. Unsurprisingly, this this did not get put into into action. But I mean, if a James Bond writer came up with that, it’d probably be laughed off the set. So there are plenty of real life bizarre escapades.

00:07:10 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and I should mention that obviously your book is full of these kind of anecdotes that sometimes really makes you wonder, you know, how could actually people come up with these things and how could they even be considered, but I think this leads me to a question of, you know, when do actually stages resort to cover action and how do they choose which action to use and when? Because it it very much seems that you know there are so many other options to use. You've mentioned that before peaceful mechanisms like you know diplomacy, soft power and all these other things, then maybe more overt aggressive reactions, such as waging wars or some kind of open military aggression, or even funding of aggressors abroad. So when do states feel like covert action is the way to go?

00:07:54 Rory Cormac

They often use it in conjunction with other tools of state, perhaps. I mean, we often think of covert action as it's something called the the Third Force, but I think it's a a misnomer because a states when they're engaging in this kind of activity, wouldn't stop doing, I don't know, economic sanctions and turn to covert regime change as an either or, you know they they'll squeeze, publicly, then in diplomacy, they're squeezing sanctions and then they might also do the covert stuff.

00:08:20 Rory Cormac

And they do it because they wanted to be a force multiplier. They wanted to make the the overt tools of statecraft work that that bit harder. So in diplomacy, for example, if you're if you are negotiating nuclear power with the Iranians, which is an open dialogue, but the diplomacy is stalling slightly, then somebody may allegedly think it's a good idea to launch a cyber attack against the nuclear program and sabotage this kind of thing. And because it would create pressure on, as the attack would go, it would create pressure on the Iranian regime and may help the negotiations a little bit. So it's about, yeah, it's about bolstering things .

00:08:59 Rory Cormac

And there are various costs to going too overly. So, for example, if going to war is very expensive, covert action is cheaper. There might be political costs involved. If you are going to be accused of near Imperial meddling in the domestic affairs of the Middle East and African global South country, then you might wanna do it covertly instead. The main reason when it fails though, is because prime ministers and presidents see it as a silver bullet, and they do it because they think it's an easy option. That's the main problem when if a Prime Minister or President thinks I've got this big problem, I can't do it openly, I can't just go and bomb somebody, so I'm going to covertly, you know, use use special forces, use intelligence to to fix it. That normally ends in tears.

00:09:48 Petra Alderman

From reading your book you you sort of identify 11 different types of covert action and these range from things like assassinations and propaganda and influence operations, you just mentioned cyber attacks, meddling in foreign elections was something that you picked at the beginning, even staging military coups and I'm thinking many of these do not sound entirely new. They've been used for decades, even centuries, in one form and another. But yet many times with the problems and issues that we are dealing today, they kind of feel like they're slightly different than what they used to be 10-20 years ago, even you know, 50-100 years ago. So, is this covert action and what is happening these days, is it somehow different qualitatively or substantively than what it used to be few years and decades ago?

00:10:37 Rory Cormac

The fundamental principles have not changed in centuries. We'll take propaganda, for example, the fundamental principles of propaganda, are to find an issue which resonates with the domestic audience to find cleavages in society and to polarise them to help, not create, because propaganda doesn't create these issues, but it finds them, and it accentuates them.

00:11:02 Rory Cormac

And states have been doing that for so long, you know people talk about now about hostile states, for example, Russia, China spreading as we call it now, fake news in Western democracies and causing Brexit or causing Trump or whatever, whatever it might be, these underlying tensions already exist in our society. So findings these things and and amplifying them is is what propaganda has always, always done.

00:11:27 Rory Cormac

But it used to be quite slow, used to, it used to be an art from. It was, it's it's quite impressive, actually, when you look at forgeries from 50 years ago and what they were doing was they were literally tracked down the paper used in that particular target country, so it would survive the analysis. They would literally find the right staple. What brand of staples do the East Germans use or whomever, and then we'll have to get it and use it to to kind of forge East German documents in order to be in order to be credible. And these things could take six, nine months. It's very, very painstaking. So the principle has stayed the same, but the big change is we see the speed and the scale and the scope.

00:12:09 Rory Cormac

So this this art form, it's arcane forgeries. Now it's just troll farms and spamming and just seeing what sticks. And there's a few reasons for that. One of them is obviously the technological advancements, in the Internet, probably the main one but it has also led to fragmentation of the media. So in the old days you could buy a news agency or covertly establish your own news agency in a target country, and then you've kind of got control of a lot of newspapers. If they're all getting the articles from the same place. If you bribed radio station chiefs to take your articles, which states did in the Cold War, you've got the almost the entire population as a captive listener. Now, fast forward now and everyone's getting their news from a million different sources, and it's so much more difficult to construct a narrative.

00:12:56 Rory Cormac

And then get it to gain traction amongst your target again amongst target audience. So that's why I think we see just lots of spamming and stuff kind of all sides. And the the consequence of this is I think it's less about states trying to build up a narrative being great, positive narratives, Russia are the good guys, China the good guys whatever, and it's more about spreading confusion and cynicism. And just if we can't build up our own narrative in the target country, we will say, we are not being me or it's the UK or anyone, but we will try to erode trust.

00:13:33 Rory Cormac

We will try to induce cynicism and make people think ohh, everyone's lying and we'll put out a million different lines. They're completely contradictory and we don't expect any way to believe all of them because you can't, because they are contradictory, but what we can do is for people to be confused and confusion breeds cynicism. And cynicism breeds lack of trust in institutions you know, as, as you and your listeners know, much more than I do and that then starts to lead to democratic decay and all these kind of problems.

00:13:58 Rory Cormac

And that I think is is one of the main challenges of of 21st century cover action. This this scope, the scale, the speed of all this stuff, just gradually chipping away at authority and trust in democratic institutions, the sanctity of elections, or the the so-called mainstream media that people usually arise in a derisory manner and the other thing I'm gonna say was we think of covert action and obviously the technology is is new, but a lot of this stuff again uses the same fundamental principles, so a lot of cyber attacks, they are sabotage by by other means, and states have been sabotaging their opponents since ancient Greece, ancient Rome and it's the same, you know, same principle, different technology.

00:14:44 Petra Alderman

And what you were talking about the the implications for democracy, obviously that's a big topic that we are interested in here at CEDAR, but I was kind of wondering, especially if we maybe zoom in a little bit on the effects this might have, let's say in regard to elections cause that’s been something, that's been discussed quite extensively, especially following the 2016 US election and from what you were saying I got a sense or a feeling that the use of this covert action, although it is now done in a much larger scale, is still something that’s only gradual, so you can't in some ways expect that things would happen overnight. Again, probably with the US presidential elections, you can't really say what was already there in terms of the genuine support for Trump that was already there before any kind of interference from, let's say, Russia. But you know, I kind of wonder how much of a threat, a realistic threat, you know, how big this is a problem for contemporary democracies? And how much is this just may be a contributing factor to the larger trends that are already there and happening domestically, as you said, in terms of polarization and maybe some kind of dissatisfaction with some of the basic tenets of democracy and how it's, it hasn't maybe delivered what people were expecting or hoping for.

00:16:01 Rory Cormac

That's why it's so hard to counter because it is it's nebulous. It's a concept, it's it's quite elusive in so far as it exists by nudging along existing forces, so it's really hard to isolate it and say this bit was caused by Putin or whoever. But I think that it is a contributing factor.

00:16:22 Rory Cormac

We we can't blame all of our ills on hostile states’ covert actions, or we can't blame all of our problems and the lack of trust and disillusionment that Western people seem to have in democracy at the moment, we can't blame that on on covert action being done by the hostile states or authoritarian states. It's often, you know, we people see it's an easy answer. I mean, people think ohh, you know, let's blame Putin for Donald Trump because it's easier to say it was those bad guys than say actually, there are some long standing problems and divisions and discontentment that people have.

00:16:53 Rory Cormac

It's easier to blame someone else than look at our own problems and and failings. And the same goes for for Brexit. You know, there are lots of people argue that Russia was behind it and obviously I'm not privy to any classified information, I would be would be very surprised if Russia did not engage in attempts to shape opinion around around the Brexit referendum.

00:17:15 Rory Cormac

But it didn't cause it. These feelings, these, this, these discontents, these divisions are long standing. So what we see is a successful covert action doesn't create this stuff and they can't. It's too big. It's too big an ask. A successful covert action prays of the existing divisions in society, the existing disillusionment within society, and it's so hard to defend because then we counter the covert action and not the internal divisions. And I think it does create a a serious problem for democracy because we think about covert action often in terms of regime change. We think about the big bangs, we think about electoral interference, coups, and we think about assassinations and secret wars because they're easy to go our heads around and they are big and visible and quite easy to write journalistic pieces about them. But 99% of covert action actually isn’t that.

00:18:05 Rory Cormac

It's the slow steady drip drip drip of subversion. It's covert political influence in our institutions. It's, you know, and it borders the line between legitimate and illegitimate, between bribery and lobbying. And there are new poles and they they exploit legal loopholes. They exploit internal divisions. And that is where the problem lies. But it's, it's insidious and it's so difficult to to get to grips with it. It's slow, it's steady.

00:18:33 Rory Cormac

And that's that's the threat to democracy. It's not going to come from, you know, Russia, whoever's sponsoring a coup against the UK. It's not gonna come from somebody overturning one of our elections. It's this gradual thing within existing parameters of our political system, and and, you know, shaping the debate, but also making us lose a bit of trust in in democracy and think ohh, they're all as bad as each other. That's the goal and it's tough.

00:18:57 Petra Alderman

Yeah, this actually reminds me of some of the reports that I've they've been reported on not that long ago, and it was about the British politicians as well and certain political parties being funded by Russian money. And I think you're right. It does make you feel or, you know, at the level of population, it does make you wonder and you feel like, mm-hmm, okay, this sounds a bit shady, this doesn't really sound very good. And then you start feeling like, has there been a level of interference, what has happened, you start as you said, losing a bit of trust in these key players within the democratic systems, but even worse so probably than by proxy, you start losing trust in the system itself and that I think as you said it is, is the the problem that maybe you don't need a direct attack on the system, you just need to undermine trust in some of the key institutions or players within that system and it slowly bit by bit, start undermining the entire system.

00:19:50 Petra Alderman

I mean so far, we have talked about mostly covert action in this world of secret statecraft in response to threat to democracy that comes from, let's say, more authoritarian states. But I think it's important to also acknowledge that, as you mentioned, you know the the Western countries and the democratic countries as well themselves use covert action to influence what's happening in other parts of the world, and oftentimes, and I think you do mention this as one of the arguments in the book, that these democracies typically use is like there is some kind of imminent threat, or there's some kind of danger to democracy or to the country or national interests. But oftentimes these don't necessarily seem like very solid reasons or arguments. And I feel like oftentimes we do come across some reports where economic interest comes to the fore, and there's that question, well, is it really for democracy or is it more so for let's say oil or keeping, you know, access to particular geographical areas because of let's say natural riches or some kind of you know, geopolitical importance. How perhaps this covert action on part of these Western countries can also maybe contribute to the undermining of democracy in terms of its moral, moral values and moral standing vis-a-vis the the more authoritarian regimes? Cause I I feel with some of these authoritarian regimes, you know, they do not necessarily try to put any kind of moral value on these things. You know, we can stage and say, yeah, we've done it or, you know, no, we haven't done it, but, you know, they don't try to sugarcoat it as much. It's a lot more clear cut in those cases, but how about democracies meddling in other countries affairs and trying to instigate sometimes even regime change?

00:21:32 Rory Cormac

Lots of countries, you're right, do engage in this across, you know, across the spectrum. And it's important to, I think it's important to acknowledge that it's not, it's not something that only Russia and China does, America, famously, the CIA is famously associated with. Britain has a very long history. The French were doing loads of it particularly in Francophone Africa in the latter half of the 20th century. So you, you're completely right, states democratic states doing do engage in it.

00:22:00 Rory Cormac

An important point is to say that covert action, I don't think is inherently good or bad. I think it's a tool of statecraft, and it can be used for good, and it can be used for bad or it can be used well and it can be used badly, but it is ultimately a tool. So I don't want to go down that route of moral relativism where anyone who uses it is they're all as bad as each other type thing cause I I I genuinely don't think that it's the case, but it does open up this challenge of hypocrisy around Western states when they do engage in this. I think my argument might be slightly unpopular, but I think the covert action can be compatible with liberal democracy if the the capabilities are acknowledged and avowed.

00:22:47 Rory Cormac

Not the operations, but we need to know that our democracy has the capability to do XY or Z and then we as the public can have that debate. Goodness me, we should not have that capability. I think that the policy, which it is being used to promote, needs to be avowed and debated publicly. The vast majority of covert actions, whether democratically used or used by authoritarian states, they don't promote secret foreign policy. They are a way to, as you mentioned earlier, support and develop openly declared policy. And if the public are aware and support democratically that of our policy, and this is just another tool to to do it, that I think it can be compatible with with liberal democracy.

00:23:30 Rory Cormac

Does it erode democracy more widely around the world? Once it comes out, and these things always end up coming out or they can be exaggerated and and hyped up and get into the world of your plots and conspiracies, and Brits and Americans behind everything, and that can lead to a loss of trust in people who go around preaching the importance of democracy, I think when it turns out that that the the democratic states have undermined democracy covertly around the world which they have, it’s a matter of historical record, then that can erode trust also erodes democracy, of course as well. On another level it bleeds plots and paranoia and conspiracies, and there's a lot of real conspiracies.

00:24:12 Rory Cormac

But the knowledge that states have done this leads to more possible paranoia, more, more, more conspiracy theories, which it again erodes, erodes trust. The the the Russians and the Chinese can then say, you know, America is just as bad as everyone else. You people will will go along with that. It's not just democracy. It's eroding of trust and the kind of the the liberal order ideal. So I think, yeah, it's it's almost all of the perception of covert action and the the management of the narratives around it are actually almost as important, if not more important, than what has actually happened. But you're right. I mean, as a matter of fact, there are occasions when democracy was was stymied. Although some of those ones, they they get, they do get exaggerated a little bit and there's most famous one is 1953 coup in Iran when US and UK covertly over through got rid of the nationalist Prime Minister Mossadeq for oil reasons, essentially. Critics are not going to this operation obviously, but critics say he was a democratically elected Prime Minister and it messed up Iranian democracy. They probably did mess up with them at the end of democracy, but he wasn't democratically elected as a Prime Minister, he was appointed by the Shah.

00:25:17 Rory Cormac

There's a quite a big difference there. So again, it's a, it's a narrative of how we how we talk about these things, but that, you know, they, they, they they linger on for decades and decades and decades. And they do risk having corrosive implications for democracy.

00:25:33 Petra Alderman

As you were talking, I was also thinking about and we can see these narratives gaining traction as well, and I think maybe there is a connection with what you've just been talking about about democracies obviously going about this covert action and when it actually comes into the light, eventually it causes and feeds into a lot of paranoia and and can be used maybe also as a convenient tool in some countries, by maybe more autocratic using figures where they try to discredit certain pro-democracy movement is being sponsored by the US, are being sponsored by the UK and try to divest the kind of homegrown desires and interests for promotion of democracy as something that's foreign and that's been kind of instigated by this hidden hand, as you so often describe in your book. So I I feel like in in many ways there are probably ways of how this can be misused. Then again, democracy per say and and I think in this day and age, when we are often concerned about the state of global democracy, perhaps things like this and not very helpful if they do happen because, as you said, these narratives are very powerful and they can really feed into this paranoia or be used to, to discredit genuine democratic actors in countries around the world.

00:26:44 Petra Alderman

Now I know that you’ve sort of said earlier during our discussion that it is quite difficult to defend against some of this covert action, but do you see any possible ways of how we could try to defend democracy against some of these negative effects that are really linked with with covert action, whether the actual action itself or some of the narratives that can be associated with it or can be built around it and then used to discredit people and actors in democratic or even democratising settings?

00:27:22 Rory Cormac

Yeah, we need to build resilience in our society against this stuff. And as we've been discussing, the vast majority of covert action, particularly successful covert action exploits the existing problems, division, disillusion. So what we need to do, and it's not a very politically sexy answer, is to look at ourselves and to try and manage some of those internal cleavage. And obviously, we don't live in a utopia where where there's gonna be no disagreement would even be a utopia. We need to have disagreement, but we we can reduce the toxicity around which we're having these political disagreements that that that's on us, that's on our that's on our media. We don't have to have front pages saying enemies of the people talking about High Court judges or whatever it was, that's on us and that stuff feeds into polarization.

00:28:12 Rory Cormac

It feeds into toxicity and it is that toxicity which is exploited by hostile states. So the best way to defend against them and we we can do other cleverer things like doing disruption operations against the servers of hostile states that are spreading disinformation, and we can do that, think they said they're doing that and frankly, we should be doing that. But these things are, you know, short term fixes like like whack-a-mole, take down one server and another will pop up the long term thing is to reduce the toxicity of our own political climate, is to increase media literacy amongst everybody, particularly young people at school coming coming through for the next generations, is to, you know stop banging on about Mickey Mouse degrees at universities where the media studies is the is the one who always bring out our media studies is the Mickey Mouse degree. No, pur our democracy is gonna rise and fall based on the quality of people's ability to understand where their sources are coming from. So frankly it's an incredibly important degree.

00:29:16 Rory Cormac

So I think it's about building civil society increasing, increasing resilience and just trying to look at our own divisions and our own problems because all of these things are exploited by hostile actors, so we need to take on the hostile actors in a proportionate manner. We also most fundamentally, need to get our own house in order.

00:29:32 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and I think that's a very good and and very important point in terms of actually focusing rather than shifting always the blame on to the extent others you mentioned before to try and really look inside and and try and see where the problems originate from and provide some kind of solutions cause what we discussed before in terms of Brexit referendum or the election of of Trump as the US President, these things could have happened and would have happened even without any kind of interference, because, as you said, the polarization, the toxicity was already there. So, I really like that assessment and I think that that's a very powerful message. And even though we are talking about something that, you know, maybe something that's happening between states in terms of international relations, I think the solutions really need to be looked at internally. So in the realm of domestic politics.

00:30:23 Petra Alderman

Thanks. Thank you very much Rory for joining the People, Power, Politics podcast and for talking to us about your book and the exciting world of covert action and secret statecraft together with the not so nice implications for the global state of democracy. But I'm glad that we managed to finish on a little bit of a more positive note in terms of, at least offering some kind of solutions to these problems. Now, if you would like to learn more about Rory's book, follow the links in this episode description that will take you to the page where you can find more details on the book. This is it from us for now. Thank you.

00:30:57 Rory Cormac

Thanks very much.

00:30:58 Petra Alderman

I’m Petra Alderman, research fellow at CEDAR and the host of this People, Power, Politics podcast episode. I have been talking to Rory Cormac, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

00:31:19 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham to learn more about our center and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

Why are there more women in parliament than ever before, and does it matter? A conversation with Aili Mari Tripp

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Nic Cheeseman

Hi everyone and thanks for listening. I'm delighted to be joined today by Aili Marie Tripp, the Vilas Research Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And I know Aili that many people will have joined us today because, like me, they will have been inspired and informed by your brilliant and path-breaking work on women's movements, gender quotas, women's political representatives and over the last 20-30 years. One of the things that I've been wondering about recently is, you know, we've gone into this kind of era of democratic decline. Has that had a sort of significant impact on things like women's representation?

00:00:50 Nic Cheeseman

And because I know that you track these things quite closely, could you give us a sense of what the latest data tells us about the key trends? Are we seeing, you know, greater representation of women than in the past? Has there been any kind of big movement over the last few years? I think that would be a great baseline to start the conversation?

00:01:06 Aili Mari Tripp

Yeah. So from what I can tell, you know, there was this kind of a big upward trend in terms of democratisation in the early 1990s going on into perhaps around 2005, and then it kind of levelled off overall in Africa. And so some countries got became more democratic, but a lot also reversed. And So what I see it is a kind of a levelling off, but at the same time you still have, you know, large majority of countries in Africa are either fully authoritarian or some form of a hybrid semi authoritarian. semi democratic, but at the same time we've seen the...

00:01:40 Aili Mari Tripp

there's about three times more women in Parliament today than in 1995, and this includes the authoritarian countries. So that really the face of African parliaments has changed quite dramatically, and this is due to the adoption of gender quotas of various kinds. You know, if you go back to 1995, only seven countries in Africa had gender quotas.

00:02:01 Aili Mari Tripp

Today it's about 73% of countries that have some kind of a quota. Also, we have women speakers of the House in 1/3 of African parliaments and that exceeds the world average of 20%. And this again increased after 2000. We have three times more women ministers than in 1995 and in some countries like Rwanda, it's 54%.

00:02:24 Aili Mari Tripp

Guinea Bissau it's over 50% and a large number of countries have over 40%, like South Africa, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola, and so on. And so in Africa, we have proportionately more women ministers than globally. So and then we have more women running for President, more women heading political parties and so on. So we're talking about a landscape that's changed pretty dramatically.

00:02:46 Nic Cheeseman

And it's fascinating, isn't it? Cause my sense is that if we actually play this to quite a lot of people, for example in Africa, they might be surprised to know that they have more in each of those categories you just identified than actually other parts of the world. And this is one of the things I always try and bring home to people that you know, some of the worst representations of women are not, you know, in places like Africa or necessarily in authoritarian countries, they're often in established democracies, which don't always do well themselves, so that that sort of brings us, I think, to another question which... which I often get, you know when I talk about these issues, which is why we see such high proportions of women in some countries that are highly authoritarian and why, you know, gender quotas, which I know you've worked on a lot, were introduced in some of those places?

00:03:30 Nic Cheeseman

And why also, perhaps, you know, democracies don't do more or are more successful at being able to respond in the same way in all cases. How do you kind of explain that that trend of authoritarian women's representation?

00:03:42 Aili Mari Tripp

So there's kind of a confluence of trends that happened around the same time, again starting around the 19, nine late 1990s, 2000s, you had a large number of countries that came out of a major conflict in Africa. And so the biggest jumps that we see, you know, really dramatic jumps took place in these post conflict countries and especially the ones that had left liberation movements.

00:04:03 Aili Mari Tripp

The end of conflict kind of opened up what we would call in political science opportunity structures that it, you know, you had peace accords being drafted, you had new constitutions being written, new electoral laws, and all of these allowed for women's movements to push for changes in in, for example, quota laws or... And so that was one aspect of this confluence. But then there was also the democratisation that I referred to this shift from one party to multi-party systems and that also put new pressures. Ruling parties that had been the only show in town all of a sudden, they had to deal with these other parties and so they had to figure out how to continue maintaining vote share in a new situation. And so then you saw among the authoritarian countries, the adoption of reserved seats, which are seats that are allocated and just set aside that only women can run for from any party, it could be independents as well, and these were seats that ruling party could control much more easily than the other...

00:04:57 Aili Mari Tripp

There... there are other kinds of quotas, like legislative quotas that require that individual parties themselves decide how they want to allocate their seats. And then there's also voluntary party quotas, which again the ruling party couldn't control for individual parties. So you you only find the reserved seats in authoritarian countries, you don't find them in democracies. And so that became a mechanism to maintain vote share. Then a third factor was the the international pressure, but also in Africa, you had regional pressures from African Union from Southern African Development Community, SADEC, that set targets and and pressured countries to increase women's representation and of course, the United Nations had the fourth Women's World Conference in 1995 in Beijing, where they adopted a platform of action that required all Member States to take some action to increase women's representation.

00:05:49 Aili Mari Tripp

And so this trend of adopting quotas was not just an Africa thing, it was, you know, global. And that's when you began to see the increase in quotas after around 1995. And then you also had donors and many contacts putting pressure as well. You know, there was all these different things, but they were kind of happening at the same time. And so this I think in large measure accounts for what what happened in Africa.

00:06:10 Nic Cheeseman

So I guess that leads to another question which is often raised. You know, when I when I teach on this of students has cetera, which is if you get women in Parliament in a situation where it's partly because as an authoritarian regime, there's pressure from donors, perhaps as an idea that, you know, strengthening women's representation humanises the regime makes it look better internationally. It becomes a world leader, which, as you noted before, Rwanda is now in terms of women's representation, yet you know has very close elections, very high levels of authoritarian control. Do women in that context actually, are they able to exert a significant impact on policy? Do we actually see, you know, we could all agree that that's symbolic gain is a good thing in and of itself, but I think a lot of people are interested in when it actually then translates into, you know, concrete kind of improvements in politics around issues that perhaps particularly impact on women. Do you think that those cases actually see significant change or do you think that, you know, we see high levels of women but not necessarily more empowered women?

00:07:10 Aili Mari Tripp

It all depends on what you look at. So you you will see quite a few changes, not just you know, the the most dramatic changes are really in political leadership, but you will see also among the the top ranked countries when it comes to education or health you will see many authoritarian countries up there. And in general, I would say that I'm not making a claim that authoritarian countries do better than than democracies, even when it comes to women's political leadership, it's about it's roughly the same depending on which point in time you look at it, and even then it's it's all the time, it's very, very close. So when it comes to women's representation in Parliament, women's representation in in cabinets when women's representation and local government and in sub national level, it's pretty much the same in Africa. There's not not much difference but there are some other differences in the outcomes.

00:07:59 Aili Mari Tripp

In terms of what makes a difference. First of all, one has to look at what causes changes in, say, legislation. Well, it's not women alone. Usually it's political parties that have, you know, the the large say in in what gets taken up and what kinds of laws get passed. And so women are subject to party discipline as are men. And so they just don't go off on their own and do their own thing, usually. I mean they can have an influence and they certainly have had and one sees that in countries like Uganda. And and the other, the other point I think I would make is that they're just the studies just are not there yet. We just don't have very much evidence yet. There are a few people who worked on this, like Pär Zetterberg and Amanda Clayton have showed that there's been more funding put towards health in countries that have women's representation. But I think that even then it really depends on what you're looking at. So, for example, you might see changes in some areas like maternal mortality rates going down and so on.

00:08:52 Aili Mari Tripp

But then you'll see when it comes to inheritance rights, you know no change, LGBTQ rights, even going backward in a country like Uganda, when it comes to, you know, a lot of resistance to marital rape laws, abortion laws is there's a lot of pushback. But then again, you have other countries that are actually relaxing some of the restrictive colonial era laws around abortion.

00:09:13 Aili Mari Tripp

So you know it's it's really a mixed bag and it's not. It really depends on what you what you look at so and and and again just to keep in mind that women you know don't have the final say in in all of these matters and that the responsibility really rests with not just with women but with political parties in terms of getting laws changed and getting them implemented.

00:09:33 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. Yeah, some of the research that we've done led by Susan Dodsworth and inspired by some of your work to kind of backs up that you know that it's complicated and it it's a, it's a sort of very long-term process. One of the things that we found which I'm sure you know, you've also reported on in your work is that you know there are certain ministries and certain issues on which women are more likely to be put in legislative committees, so they're much more likely to go on legislative committees when it comes to education and healthcare than they are in security and finance.

00:10:02 Nic Cheeseman

And it seems to be the case to us that by forming effective alliances, obviously with male MP's working across party but also using those roles in those committees where they can be up to 1/3 or half of the committee, even in places where they're actually a very small proportion of Parliament, it is possible for women to actually exert a positive influence, but doing so as you indicate, requires a lot of strategy, a lot of team building, bringing other MPs to their side, effective collaboration with civil society.

00:10:29 Nic Cheeseman

And of course you know, this is in a sense as you say, not surprising because that's kind of how all legislation works. It's a long process of negotiation and most progressive legislation, whether we're talking about trade unions or women's issues, you know, it takes that long, long process. But I think as you say, one of the things that strikes me is that there is a growing amount of evidence now that you know, at the very least, having women in Parliament in higher numbers is having some impact in some areas and therefore kind of people often who dismiss that on the basis that, well, it's a quota, these women won't actually be able to change anything. My sense is that the evidence is growing that, you know, that's too simplistic. That's far too negative, and far too simplistic. Now, I know that you know, one of the things that your research is increasingly focused on is the role of women, women's movements, women's representation in authoritarian context.

00:11:19 Nic Cheeseman

You published a great book recently on that in North Africa, you're now looking at those issues again in sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe you could tell us a little bit, you know about your new book, the title of what you're working on right now and what sort of drew you to that question of women under authoritarian in systems?

00:11:34 Aili Mari Tripp

I don't have a final title, but it it's on the topic of why autocracies in Africa promote women leaders. I guess you know, part of what drew me to this was just that people were generalising about authoritarianism like it's it's just all negative for women. And you know, there's nothing happening. There's nothing to look at and, you know, this is an area where women's movements have been pushing for a long time in Africa. They've been advocating for women's leadership and they've they've been making gains.

00:12:00 Aili Mari Tripp

It's a very complex picture and there there's not like one story here to tell. And what makes it complicated, I think especially and this is the other thing that I wanted to try to unravel was this  some of the ambiguities because on the one hand, you do have women's movements pushing for these changes and yet at the same time, authoritarian leaders are using women, instrumentalizing them in many cases, for the purpose of staying in power to to gain legitimacy to both internationally, to soften their image, perhaps globally, after war or after jihadist activity or after coup d’états, or in the case of you know, Tunisia, the President came in and got rid of the Parliament, got rid of the Constitution, got rid of the Prime Minister, and then put a woman Prime Minister in power.

00:12:48 Aili Mari Tripp

And, and so in in Uganda, we saw a case where after the you know very brutal elections in ‘21 President Museveni turned around and appointed Woman Vice President, Woman Prime Minister, Woman Deputy Prime Minister, Speaker of the House, Party whip already about half the supreme court were women. But anyway, even though the women's movement took credit for that, and we're very happy with that, on the one hand, the others in the movement also said, you know, wait a minute, this is we don't even know who these people are. Some of them, they're just coming out of nowhere. They're being used. So there is an ambiguity here. And and our conundrum is how is how I call it in the book that perhaps that is the, the nature of of authoritarianism is that it it poses all these kinds of authoritarian dilemmas, where on the one hand, women are making gains and it's opening up our opportunities for them. But at the same time they're they may be being used for other purposes. So that's the that's kind of what got me into looking at the regime issue.

00:13:44 Nic Cheeseman

I think the Uganda case that you mentioned there perhaps is a good segue to the next question I was going to ask, which kind of asked the question of, you know, why perhaps some democracies haven't done as well as we would hope. You know, you might imagine that in countries where women are often a slight majority of the electorate, there would be an impulse or pressure, of course, these are often countries that are explicitly, you know, committed through their constitutions or their legislation to various forms of equality, and yet we often see both in Africa, places like Botswana, but also globally, you know, placed countries like the US historically have been very poor on women's representation.

00:14:20 Nic Cheeseman

And I remember one of the things that I was told by a female MP in Uganda was that actually in some way she felt the women's movement had had more freedom when Uganda was a no party system then after multi partyism have been reintroduced because once multi partyism was reintroduced, she said, the party whips told you what to do whereas you had a bit more freedom in a no party model and she almost saw the return of multi partyism as actually constraining the women's movement and dividing it up on a partisan basis. So I'm intrigued just to, yeah, why don't we see democracies actually performing a bit better on this? And does the Ugandan case, you know, give us some, you know, reasons to think about, you know, the challenges that multiparty politics might actually generate to you know, more successful and effective women's movements?

00:15:05 Aili Mari Tripp

Well, several things. And and Botswana is a good case to look at because it is, you know it, it has this very low level, I think 11% of the parliamentary seats are held by women, but actually they don't do so bad when it comes to representation in the cabinet and at the local level. And they are actually the top performer in many areas in in Africa around when it comes to the gender gap in education and health. They're the top performers and also globally in terms of economic empowerment. They have the most women and CEO's and women and that own companies anywhere in the world. So it depends, again, it depends on what you're looking at and and it's just really in Botswana, it's really just the legislature and the women's representation and that where they don't do well everywhere else, they actually do quite well.

00:15:51 Aili Mari Tripp

But what happened in Botswana, as in Namibia, was that after some years back, it wasn't, it was around, I I don't remember the exact year, but it was in the 2000s, 2006 I believe they got upgraded from being a least developed country to middle-income country, and that meant the donors who had been funding the women's organisations pulled out and their aid got cut and, on the one hand you know they, yes, they got a different ranking. But on the other hand some of the support for the women's movement they've been pushing and had made some substantial gains in that late 1990s, early 2000s, things then changed for them, and so the pressure wasn't there, but the movement still there, it's just taken different form.

00:16:29 Aili Mari Tripp

It's a younger movement, but they continue to to make legislative changes and a lot of the changes that they've made, as in autocracies, has come through the courts themselves. So, for example, they just few years ago, they decriminalised same-sex relations. This came through the decision of the courts. Then, and the other thing, the other thing I just want to flag is that there really isn't a big difference between in general, between the democracies and autocracies when it comes to women's leadership and or women's rights more generally. But one thing that they share in common is, first of all just that the modal party system in Africa is in both democracies and autocracies, is where you have a kind of hegemonic executive rule, and then you have, it's surrounded by these little parties that are kind of unstable and keep changing. And in both democracies and autocracies, where the ruling party, the dominant party, is entrenched, and I call it entrenchment. So they've been there for more than three electoral cycles, they've stayed in power.

00:17:25 Aili Mari Tripp

Those are the parties that do the best for women. And so and that's both in countries like Namibia, like SWAPO, and and or Botswana, but also in RPF in Rwanda, Chama cha Mapinduzi in Tanzania, national resistance movement, NRM, in Uganda and so on. So those parties do the best and part of it has to do with the fact that they often have instrumentalized not always, but they've often instrumentalized women in certain ways, but part of it's also that they if you're, if you're a newcomer to politics, like a lot of women are, who are you going to run with, you're gonna run with the party that's gonna, that you know is going to win, that's been there forever that’s got the most financial support and so on.

00:18:06 Aili Mari Tripp

And that's... and so women themselves choose often to go with the ruling party. In autocracies, it plays out a slightly different way than democracies. And that is because if you look at countries like Rwanda or Uganda, the ruling parties really go after the opposition. And both opposition men and women, but women really get sometimes often targeted more than more than the men do. And I mean it, it depends, but there... but in a different, slightly different way.

00:18:32 Aili Mari Tripp

And so, so Zimbabwe, for example, passes all these laws around gender, against gender based violence. But on the other hand, they have no problem arresting women and charging them with treason and brutalising them and in very in very specific ways and and then same thing in Rwanda. Rwanda has again, like we said, the highest rate of representation of women in the world, 61% in the legislature. But if you want to run for President as part of the opposition and you're a woman, you could forget about it because they've imprisoned them. There's been several two women in particular who tried to run, who were imprisoned, and they carried out a smear campaign against them. Spread photographs of, you know, one of them was nude photos and so on. Again, we don't know who did all of that, but clearly this was a way to signal to others, like, don't, don't bother, don't try. It really had a chilling effect on other presidential aspirants. These are the kind of multiple sides of autocracy that we see and it's not like I said, there's not just one story here.

00:19:29 Nic Cheeseman

Now I think you know that that's a great message, right? That actually, you know, the world is complicated and generally attempts to make big simplifications usually fail and don't do justice to the reality that we see. I think one of the things maybe, you know, be great to touch on before we wrap up is, is the question of what remains as the most significant barriers to women's representation. My experience from you know, talking to women in Malawi, is that most women sort of suggest two or three factors, and I wonder which you think you know is more significant or whether perhaps they, they're meshed together in a way that means they can't be separated. One is they often feel that it's harder for them to access money and funding for campaigns and elections are expensive if you're running especially in first past the post systems, and they often feel that you know for historical reasons, they're not as well networked into sort of big man or clientelistic networks. So they don't have the cash.

00:20:21 Nic Cheeseman

The second is that they feel that often, you know, they don't get the support sometimes of their own families or their extended networks, perhaps because of social norms or because being seen late at night, in public venues or out in conversations with men in bars is something that can be used against them in terms of identifying them as a certain kind of woman and that means they can't do what a lot of men do, and then some have actually said that the biggest challenge is actually their own parties. So opposition or ruling party people. I’ve heard many stories about, you know, parties shifting the day of the party primary or fixing the party primary so that a female candidate doesn't actually win even though she might be the most popular candidate within the area because she's not accepted within... within the party, so that those are a few that I kind of hear when I... I go around and do interviews, I just wonder you know, where do you think is the kind of biggest challenge now and you know how do you think that then impacts on you know the prospects that we might see for improved women's representation over the next 20 years?

00:21:18 Aili Mari Tripp

I think that all of these are very important. It's it's hard to pick one of them as being more challenging than another because it would depend on the circumstances, but even in there's some countries where women are do get support from their families and in other places they don't. But all of these can be huge obstacles. And it's not just ruling parties that can be difficult for women. It's also the opposition parties can do the same, can also be very reluctant to support women.

00:21:45 Aili Mari Tripp

I think all of these factors funding, family support, the support from political parties. All of these things I think are really critical. I think these are the main, would be some of the main issues. Also, there's some other difficulties that we see that we find more in Africa than elsewhere. One is it's not always clear which constituency you can run in. So this is a problem that women would face that men don't. If you run in your husband's constituency, they'll tell you in some countries, you came here to marry, not to rule. But then if you go to your birth, your natal constituency, they say but you're married, you don't come here, you've you've left us. And so that that can become a real dilemma. It's kind of a catch 22. You can't go to either place, so you can't even get out the gates if you don't have a place to run. So those can all be challenges.

00:22:31 Aili Mari Tripp

Another issue in some countries where women are very new to politics is just not having the skills, not needing more kind of leadership training and knowing how to navigate the political terrain. Also increasingly, and I alluded to political violence, but that's an issue like in countries like Kenya where there there's violence to begin with. Men face that in in politics. And then you have newcomers coming in, like women who don't have the connections and so on. And then all of a sudden they're getting accosted in the marketplace and so on, just because they’re running for office. One woman, she told me, she had, you know, she her hair was pulled and she had to...  she ended up actually hospitalised and at which point, her husband said, I don't think you should be running. And she's like, no, no, I'm gonna run. So she went back and she's now, she did run and she's she's now in the parliament. But still, I mean it, those are real obstacles to, who wants to run when you know that you're gonna get beaten up by 20 young men who are going to come after you.

00:23:22 Nic Cheeseman

And that you know that that's a really important point that we should flag, right, because we know that in most countries in the world, it's women who get more threats of violence than men. This is also true of the UK. I think the Labour Party MP Diane Abbott is one of the women in the world who gets the most, you know, hate messages online and far more than male equivalents. And so there is obviously a gendered aspect to this, particularly perhaps in some of the online violence. And while, as you say, men are often targets of political violence too, this seems to be particularly nasty, particularly prevalent and perhaps also in terms of, you know, established social norms even more damaging in some ways for women, and I think in some ways it's quite impressive and interesting how much progress has been made in Africa. When we think about those initial figures that you were giving us about that jump given the extent of some of the barriers.

00:24:13 Nic Cheeseman

The very final question I wanted to ask, which is partly my own kind of personal interest is, is about quotas and I know that you've done a lot of work on quotas and the introduction of quotas and one of the things that you know I think is interesting for countries that are now thinking about quotas, is what's the best way to do it, to actually make sure that you empower women's voices and you actually enable women you know, to have an effective say. It sounds like from what you were suggesting, you know, the kind of top up of of women that's basically controlled by the president is less likely to do that. I guess those women are more likely to be loyalists of the President and perhaps know that they depend for their positions on the President. And for not speaking out against the President, on the other hand, the creation of new constituencies for first past the post elections can be controversial. I was in Malawi, when this was being debated and there was a little pushback on the idea that new constituencies would be created to enable more women to be directly elected to Parliament.

00:25:09 Nic Cheeseman

So just wondered what you thought about, you know, from all of your experience, if you're designing A quota, not so much from kind of ease of implementation, but actually to make sure that women can have a voice. What's the best kind of quota to introduce, because of course they're they're not all the same?

00:25:29 Aili Mari Tripp

And it also it depends on what kind of like you said, what kind of electoral system you have, if it's a first pass the post or if it's a party list system. The best kind usually is is the legislative quotas where where legislation is passed that requires all parties to take measures to put, for example, women either alternate them on the party list or put them at the top of the party list if you have a party list system or put so many percentage of of your candidates have to be women. Those are the kinds of systems that are the easiest to somehow guarantee that the outcome is what you want, but it has to have some teeth. So sometimes they'll say that you can't be seated in Parliament unless you implement a quota with your candidates or you, there's a fine or some other kind of a or you won't be on the ballot. There's all kinds of mechanisms that you can use to require that all parties adhere to that. Of course, voluntary party quotas are great if you if they stick to them, I mean, and they've done a really good job in, in, in Namibia.

00:26:26 Aili Mari Tripp

And Also, the opposition parties have adopted them as well and they don't have any kind of a legislative quota, but that requires that the party itself is committed to that and that's can be very iffy. In in Botswana, they I think at one point all the parties had some kind of quota, but they never implemented it at all. It it never got put into effect anywhere for any party. So it all depends on the party and that's why it's it's it's less reliable. But you know when it works, it works. If the party is committed and then finally the reserved seats they are, they can become a ceiling instead of a floor. So then they say, OK, well, you've got your, women have got your seats run for those seats, don't run for the open seats. So you often don't see the level of representation going much beyond the the reserved quota.

00:27:03 Nic Cheeseman

Well, thanks so much. It's been a brilliant discussion and I love that we've had kind of practical elements as well as more theoretical and comparative ones. I know you're coming towards the end of the next book, so we'll, we'll be looking out for that on our bookshelves soon. But that also gives me an opportunity just to ask whether you've had any thoughts about, you know, what you might be thinking about next and what other issues you see as being really interesting for us to study in this area over the next few years?

00:27:28 Aili Mari Tripp

Well, I'm, I'm 3 chapters into one another book which I hope to then work on when I'm finished with this one and that's a global study and I really want to situate Africa more globally. And as I move forward, taking insights that I learned from Africa, in particular the relationship between conflict and women's political leadership and political citizenship and have expanded it globally to look starting with the case of Finland. Finland was the first country in the world that seated women in the Parliament and it was the first country in Europe where women got the right to vote.

00:28:06 Aili Mari Tripp

And this was at a time when Finland was under Russian control and it was after the Russo Japanese War. And so I looked at at World War One, the impacts after World War One. At the end of Empire, after World War 2, at the end of the Portuguese Empire and bringing it up to the present day. So I've got the Finnish case. I've got the Ottoman Empire. I've got Tunisia, Mozambique.

00:28:27 Aili Mari Tripp

And then I have Switzerland, which was a country that didn't, where women didn't get the right to vote until 1971. And in one Canton, it wasn't until 1990. And so there was a case of they just, they were neutral and every opportunity to get to, to increase women's representation or to give women's political citizenship, they missed the boat on all of them. But they all the conditions were there, but there's one factor that was not there and they didn't, they were spared being involved in World War One in World War 2. And as a consequence, I'm not saying this is a good thing, but as a consequence, there was no change in the political elite that would have encouraged them to incorporate women as as citizens. So that's that's kind of where I, where I see things going. I think that we need to think about Africa also, not just within Africa, but really think of it more globally and and what lessons we can learn from the African experience.

00:29:09 Nic Cheeseman

That's that's well, I think that's absolutely right and certainly something you know that you've been really good at, I think so far. And I'm sure that this new book is going to be another exciting piece of scholarship. I'm amazed you managing to finish one while having three chapters written of the next. That's something I've never achieved. So thanks so much. Thanks for all of the great scholarship on this issue that has done so much to illuminate it and I think inspire others to work on the same area and we look forward to the next book.

00:29:35 Aili Mari Tripp

OK, thank you so much. Take care.

00:29:38 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work that we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_ Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

Democracy, Great Powers, and the Russia-Ukraine War. A discussion with Stefan Wolff

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Petra Alderman

Hi, my name is Petra Alderman. I am a research fellow at CEDAR and your host for this episode. It is my great pleasure to welcome Professor Stefan Wolff as our guest. Stefan is a Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, and he is well known for his research on the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts and civil wars. He is also an expert on post conflict State Building in deeply divided and war-torn societies, and has written extensively on the geopolitics and geoeconomics in Eurasia, including great power competition between Russia, China and the West. Stefan has written many books and academic articles on these topics, including his recent book written with Tetyana Malyarenko called the ‘Dynamics of Emerging De- Facto States: Eastern Ukraine in the Post-Soviet Space.’

00:01:04 Petra Alderman

He's also a regular contributor to The Conversation outlet, and he is a co-founder of the Navigating the Vortex. So, it's absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast, Stefan, welcome.

00:01:16 Stefan Wolff

Thank you very much. I'm really delighted to be here.

00:01:18 Petra Alderman

So far on this podcast series, we have been talking mostly about democracy in the context of domestic politics. But much of what has been happening around the world since the start of the millennium has been framed as this global struggle between democracy on the one hand, and authoritarianism on the other. Now this binary has been given more credit in recent years, by obviously Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has brought war back onto the European soil. But Stefan, how helpful is the binary in getting us to understand the different conflicts happening around the world right now? Are we really seeing this big great battle between democracy and authoritarianism?

00:01:57 Stefan Wolff

I think this is definitely one very useful lens to look at things, and as you already mentioned, I mean obviously Russia's invasion of Ukraine is clearly, in my view, linked to this struggle between different great powers and the way in which they organize themselves domestically, but also the broader international order. Obviously we also see it with China, but we also see it with a number of rising powers if you want. If you look at the role of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, for example, are playing, the role of Turkey comes in here, but also the interesting developments, if you want that we have seen in South Africa and in Brazil and most recently the election of what I would say is a neo-populist candidate in Argentina. I think all of this very much plays into this idea that maybe we were a little over optimistic in 1990 when the end of history was proclaimed and there was only one way forward and that would be democracy.

00:03:00 Stefan Wolff

So, I think there's definitely something to that. But on the other hand, I also think what we are seeing right now is very much a traditional great power behavior that has been going on for, well, arguably centuries depending on how far one wants to date back history. And that happened between states that were very similar in their domestic makeup. So, if you think of 19th century Europe, for example, these were all not exactly beacons of democracy that we were fighting with and against each other.

00:03:33 Stefan Wolff

And still we had very similar geopolitical configurations at the time as we have today.

00:03:38 Petra Alderman

That's very interesting. And I like that you brought this up. This is really about competing regimes, are we really looking at this big fight between the future of the world, whether it is going to be more democratic or more authoritarian, or as you just pointed or hinted at, that the situation might be a little bit more complex because we do have a history of conflict between countries of similar domestic organization and regime tupes... kind of wonder how useful it is to really create this binary of democracy versus authoritarianism.

00:04:07 Stefan Wolff

I think the binary is useful in the sense if you look at it from the perspective of human rights, for example. There is no question that country like Russia for example, has very, very little regard for even basic human rights, political and civil liberties. I think it's similar in China and in China, I would say it's certainly gotten worse over the past couple of years with President Xi now really consolidating his own power. From that perspective, there clearly is a very binary distinction between what happens in democracy and what happens in non-democracies, and on a personal note, I mean I have white individual experience with that having grown up for, well, the first two decades of my life on the, if you want, the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, so I really can personally appreciate all the opportunities that I now have living in a democratic country as opposed to the opportunities that I did not have living in East Germany until 1989. So, I think in in that sense, the binary really is useful. I think that in another level it's probably less useful because I think what partly drives some of the current competition is sort of a general level...

00:05:20 Stefan Wolff

of distrust between different states, between different governments, and the fear that in some cases you could go as far as saying a paranoia, that somebody else is out there trying to get you, trying to undermine your own power. And so, so I think in, in, in that sense there is something more to that. We've seen it with election interference in the United States in 2016, most likely again in 2024 as well, but we also see sort of some of the concerns raised by other countries that complain about similar practices by the European Union, by the United States in terms of democracy, promotion or support for democratic forces.

00:06:04 Stefan Wolff

So, I think it in in that sense it again, it cuts both ways.

00:06:07 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and I'm glad you raised that as well because I think it's very important to bring up those kind of things that the paranoia is mutually shared. So, it's not just these authoritarian regimes these days being extremely worried that the West and the United States is going to try to topple their rule and, you know, get them out of power and impose a democratic system onto them, or more democratic system onto them, but it's actually the other way around as well, where we have the Western countries increasingly being worried about electoral interference. What is also quite interesting is to see that homegrown trend where you have also the more, as you mentioned before for example with the recent elections in Argentina, you've got more of these populist/more authoritarian figures rising within what we thought were established democracies, obviously the US, Argentina, the UK itself, it's a very interesting trend that we are seeing.

00:06:56 Petra Alderman

I know that you have written a lot and you have talked a lot about the situation in Ukraine. So, who can maybe zoom onto that one for a moment. The war in Ukraine will soon be entering its third year, and obviously the conflict has changed since the very beginning, since Russia invaded Ukraine on the 22nd of February 2021. So, if you were to look at it, how do you think the conflict has changed since those early days? And what would you perceive to be the biggest challenge in Ukraine right now?

00:07:29 Stefan Wolff

That's a big question. The key change that we have seen, in particular, over the last six or so months I think has to do with the fact that it's effectively a stalemate on the ground.

00:07:40 Stefan Wolff

The Ukrainian counter offensive last year was very successful, Ukraine regained quite a lot of territory. The counter offensive this year, which started in June, has gained Ukraine very, very little and what it has gained has come at a huge cost. So, I think from that perspective we are now in a situation where I think neither side really has a clear path to military victory. Now, what is of course important is that this may well change again and at the moment I think I have more worries that it will change in the advantage of Russia.

00:08:17 Stefan Wolff

There's a lot of uncertainty now about Western support for Ukraine, it's not entirely clear how this will play out during the upcoming presidential elections in the United States. If we have a Trump Presidency, what will that mean, not only for aid to Ukraine, but also for the US commitment to NATO, for example. To what extent will the European Union or other European countries be able to step up to the plate here and basically cover this potential shortfall, both in terms of US contributions to Ukraine, but also potentially taking care of their own security. So, I think in that sense we are really at a very critical situation now in this war. And of course, all of this, we also mustn't forget is played out on the back of the civilian population in Ukraine.

00:09:10 Stefan Wolff

I mean, they are now basically in the middle of the next winter, still suffering a lot from the damage that Russia did to critical national infrastructure last year, the Russian campaign has gained new momentum, again targeting by the electricity grid and so on. So again, I mean there is a real danger here now that this really is becoming an unwinnable war for either side, and I think that I mean from our own personal perspective is a is a terrible situation to be in.

00:09:42 Petra Alderman

Indeed, and I mean obviously as we were talking before about this, you know, struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, in a way, this war is very important in terms of what's going to happen next in terms of global politics and... and potentially conflict for the years to come. So, if we look at the sort of the democratic side and the West and the support of the West, how would you assess their commitment up to this point? I mean you said that you're worried that, you know, that commitment might lessen, but do you think the West has done enough to defend democracy when it has been assaulted?

00:10:13 Stefan Wolff

So far, but what the west has clearly done enough was to make sure that Putin doesn't win outright in Ukraine. But preventing Putin from winning or Ukraine from losing is very different from, you know, making sure that Ukraine wins, that the democracy wins, that it becomes very clear that dictators like Putin, do not have a leg to stand on and I really don't think that we are there yet. And I'm not entirely sure that we will actually get there in the foreseeable future. In a broader historical perspective, I mean reminded again of the of the situation in Germany, for example, after the Second World War - yes, all analogies are deeply flawed... From that perspective, we could make an argument potentially to say, well, maybe it is better to consolidate democracy and help with recovery in those territories that the Ukrainian Government controls rather than having an endless prolongation of an unwinnable war.

00:11:14 Stefan Wolff

And I think that just to some extent, again in very different circumstances, was a decision that the Western allies made in the late 1940s with Germany. And my family and I, at least half of the family and I, we lived on the wrong side of that and, I mean, we suffered in a way the consequences of living under what was then Soviet occupation, basically. But 40 years on from that, you had a clearly very successful - economically, politically, democratically - West Germany that could manage the reintegration of East Germany reasonably well.

00:11:50 Stefan Wolff

So again, I mean this is a very long timeframe and it's a very big ask, but I think it's also important to consider what's actually the alternatives are to continuing to fight and that's obviously a decision that in the end, Ukrainians have to make for themselves, but I think it's also a decision that needs to be supported and supported of by Europe and by the United States.

00:12:18 Petra Alderman

That's a very good point and I think the analogy that you brought up as well is a valid one in many ways, because it does show how you could potentially maybe get out of conflict and, you know, the the story of Germany itself shows that there is a way for the country then to come back from that, maybe not initially, but it might take a good few years, but obviously Germany has reunified eventually. Now, going back to maybe Russia, because this... so far we've been talking a little bit more about the Ukraine... the Ukraine side, but obviously there was the Prigozhin mutiny back in summer 2023, and I remember, you know, around the time there was a lot of speculation, analysis, in the media and everywhere to what extent this is basically showing some kind of weakness of Kremlin and weakness of Putin. Obviously, a few months have passed since then, so how do you view these events now, you know, have they really changed the course of the conflict in any way? And are they really showing this kind of weaker side of authoritarianism, as it was said back then, back in the summer 2023?

00:13:19 Stefan Wolff

Well, I think it certainly shows a degree of vulnerability, even of leaders like Putin. But I also think that what Putin has demonstrated since is an absolutely ruthless demonstration of his will and ability to survive. I mean, Prigozhin was very quickly first neutralized – in a way, he did not have the support that he, I think, had imagined he would have. He didn't face the resistance that maybe Putin would have liked him to face on his ultimately abortive march towards Moscow.

00:13:55 Stefan Wolff

He and some of his key allies in the military were very quickly sidelined, and then I mean Prigozhin himself found a very untimely end, which I think is very hard to see how this would have been just an accident, so I think in that sense, Putin is now probably in a strong position and as we have seen with his, well, arguably stage choreographed announcement that he will run again for reelection in March in the in the presidential elections in Russia, I think that demonstrates that he himself still views himself as the basically the undisputed ruler of Russia, but also that he has an inner circle around himself that is willing to back him up on this.

00:14:46 Stefan Wolff

And I think that's very similar to what we see in other non-democratic or authoritarian settings, so that's the hereditary monarchies in the Middle East, whether that's China but, and I think that's an important caveat to be in mind, all of those regimes always look stable until they don't. In 1989, I mean, living in East Germany, the collapse was not foreseeable. It really just happened, and the system was no longer able to to survive. That is always a possibility, but it's not necessarily something for which you can make plans.

00:15:24 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and it is true, I mean, obviously the the actual mutiny came as a shock in many ways that I don't think anybody sort of expected that to happen. As you say, you know, these kind of things just come out of nowhere and then you really see how, how stable the the regime is or isn't, and if the fact that Putin has survived, then the mutiny and maybe emerged in a stronger position as you have just said, doesn't necessarily mean that somewhere down the line there couldn't be a more successful challenge, and in some ways I think that's the kind of conundrum these authoritarian leaders have to live with because they do not ever know who will be the next person who will try to challenge their power and their grip on power within their own context. So, I think the paranoia that we were talking about at the beginning, in many ways, on their part is justified.

00:16:09 Petra Alderman

But you've been mentioning China on a few occasions, and I think you know since the early days of of the Russian war in Ukraine, many eyes were on China as well, sort of watching very closely what Xi Jinping was going to do, you know, his moves, his reactions, because often Russia and China and the kind of geopolitical struggle are shown as the two great authoritarian powers that are trying to somehow undercut the list and change the shape of the international order. So, how do you think has this rule affected the kind of great power rivalry between the United States and China in particular? And, you know, what kind of implications they did have for the relationship between China and Russia as well?

00:16:49 Stefan Wolff

I think it's a truly sort of multi-dimensional game of chess and whatever else you can potentially play in these circumstances. So, I think the war against Ukraine by Russia, I don't think that was something that China really wanted or desired. It does have some advantages for China, so I mean it clearly has driven Russia much closer to China, has made Russia much more dependent on China, but there's also, of course, the danger that that will eventually mean that the Russian dependency on China will become a millstone around China, if they have to make sure that, you know, Russia survives.

00:17:31 Stefan Wolff

So I think in in, in that sense there's...there's a fine line that Xi Jinping has to has to walk here in terms of making sure that Russia doesn't lose and that it remains dependent on China, but it doesn't become a greater burden to China. And that of course, is really important because I mean a lot of people always talk about we are like in a new Cold War, even if it is a new Cold War that emerges between China and the US, it is a very different situation already, if you look at the extent to which the economies of China and the US, China and Europe really are very closely interconnected, de-risking decoupling and similar efforts aside, and I don't think that is necessarily going to change much.

00:18:21 Stefan Wolff

I also don't think that China really is out at the moment for full scale conflict with the US, I think some of the recent moves that we have seen in terms of not exactly a reproachment but at least some restabilization of the US-China relationship, I think that's very important because in the end I don't think either side really has much appetite for full scale confrontation. But I also don't think that we should kid ourselves that the China-US relationship is not one of rivalry and intense competition and potentially one that has significant potential for escalation.

00:19:09 Petra Alderman

One of the points that you you raised, and I think I'd like to emphasise that, is that I think China is often seen in many ways as this revisionist power that is trying to promote this kind of authoritarian model of development around the world. But I think what you said before and we’ve had this on this podcast before in the context of Africa, China is not necessarily interested in installing authoritarian regimes. China first and foremost wants to see stability regardless of which shape and form this stability comes in, whether it's a democratic regime or authoritarian regime, China doesn't seem to care as much as long as there is a level of stability and they are able to do business, they are able to pursue that kind of economic interests in those kind of countries and targets. So, I think that's a very important point that you raised and it's worth emphasising in that sense and also the interconnectedness between the United States and China at the level of economy, and I feel like that often maybe gets brushed under the carpet when we when we talk about this sort of great power rivalry, especially when you focus on the binary of democracy versus authoritarianism because there's a lot more that ties these two great powers together, then divides them in many ways.

00:20:20 Petra Alderman

Now, looking at this and we've discussed already various different aspects of the the conflict and the issues at hand, is democracy likely to lose out from this conflict? I mean, in the case of, let's say, Ukraine may be going for some kind of compromise, keeping part of its territory intact and then ceding part of the territory to Russia in the name of ceasefire or some kind of peace. Do you think that democracy, and let's talk about the kind of the global level of democracy, is likely to lose out? And are these heightening tensions between the three great powers, United States, Russia and China, are they going to mean more disruption in the long term? Are we going to see more reversal of democracy in the long term. What do you think?

00:21:08 Stefan Wolff

I think that's entirely possible. I mean, I think in terms of the global scale of sort of the balance sheet between democracy and autocracy, I think it will be really important to watch the outcome of the presidential elections in the United States. The second Trump presidency would not necessarily suggests that we all have a lot of democracy going on there, there are important elections coming up as well, Germany, for example, 2025.

00:21:40 Stefan Wolff

The current rise of, well, questionably democratic forces like the so-called Alternative for Germany, that does not fill me with a lot of optimism, if you want. We still have Victor Orban in in Hungary. Again, not exactly beacon stalwart of democracy. But then on the other hand, we have had the election in Poland, they have also demonstrated that it's really not game over for democracy and after about a decade of not exactly democratic rule and rule of law in Poland, I mean, we have had the comeback of Donald Tusk and the Civic Platform there. So, I think from from that perspective this is going to be a really long, long game ahead. And I mean if you look back at the well, let's say the last hundred years or something like that, I mean, there has been a constant up and down in terms of of the global balance sheet between democracies and autocracies.

00:22:44 Stefan Wolff

Of course, the last 100 or so years also have seen two world wars and numerous regional conflicts. And again, I think that in in a way brings us back to the to the starting point of this conversation, where it is at one level a binary between democracy and autocracy, but it goes beyond that, and just having one kind does not necessarily mean that the world will necessarily be more peaceful, more humane, if you want.

00:23:15 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and that's a really good point. And also I think what you just said before about Poland and the Polish elections in some ways, the thing that demonstrates that there is still appetite for democracy at the popular level. I think obviously as we, as we said, the binary isn't as simple as we talking about democracy and authoritarianism, there are lots of different dynamics in each of these countries and some of the democratic countries have had maybe more authoritarian practices brought in as a result of particular leaders or political parties pushing on particular agendas and, and you know, treating these democracies as kind of dispensable forms, and becoming more authoritarian.

00:23:52 Petra Alderman

But then at the same time, it doesn't necessarily always seem to be the case that at a popular level people will be done with democracy or fed up with democracy. And I think that's a very good point that you raised there. And I think especially in countries, as you said, from your own experience in Eastern Germany or in this post-Soviet space like in Poland or in Slovakia, Czech Republic, lot of these countries have gone through periods of oppression and living under authoritarian rule, and I think people still somewhere do remember that that wasn't all great either. And as you said, like you know, there were very few opportunities and I think people can still reflect back and realise that although democracy in its current state might not be perfect, I mean, nowhere really it is perfect, but it still offers more than living under a full blown authoritarian regime.

00:24:43 Petra Alderman

So I would, I would say that hopefully that would be enough to keep us going, right?

00:24:47 Stefan Wolff

Absolutely! I still very strongly believe that if people are given a genuine choice, they are more likely to vote, if you want, for an open society rather than a closed one.

00:25:00 Petra Alderman

Definitely. And I think also this is where that kind of binary that we started off the conversation with of looking at, you know, democracy versus authoritarianism might not be always as as useful when we start digging and looking deeper and become messy, nitty gritty of politics. And I think we've also demonstrated that that when it comes to even the great power competition, it's not always as simple to say, well, this is the democratic world promoting democracy and the authoritarian world, trying to promote some kind of level of autocratic governance.

00:25:31 Petra Alderman

Thank you very much Stefan for joining the People, Power, Politics podcast. Unfortunately, we are out of time, but I very much hope that we will get another opportunity to talk more about these... these fascinating developments. Hopefully, we will be able to keep some level of positive thread going through the conversations, but I'm glad that we finished on a more positive note and didn't paint the world in an extremely bleak way. So, it's been great having you here. Thank you so much for, for joining us today.

00:25:58 Stefan Wolff

Thank you for the opportunity.

00:26:00 Petra Alderman

I'm Petra, Alderman, research fellow at Cedar and the host of this People, Power, Politics podcast episode. I have been talking to Professor Stefan Wolff, who is a Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham. Thanks very much for listening.

00:26:15 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @Cedar_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description. 

Have we entered a new era of African politics and international relations? A conversation with Mwita Chacha and Obert Hodzi

Listen to the podcast


00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Nic Cheeseman

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted today to be joined by Mwita Chacha, an associate professor in international relations at the University of Birmingham and Obert Hodzi, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool, to discuss the changing nature of politics and international relations in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last few years, we have seen a significant rise in coups and that perhaps suggests a new era both domestically and internationally. Domestically, there seems to be a shift in which citizens are starting to lose faith that democracy can deliver and are perhaps starting to look for alternatives, although of course, we have to be careful that in some cases citizens have celebrated coups because they see them as a way of actually restoring a better quality of democracy internationally. Having all of these new junta regimes in particularly West Africa and to some extent Central Africa, means there's a new international landscape, both for international community and also for regional bodies. So, there's a big question here of what this domestic scene now means and what this new international scene now means and how other governments in the region and beyond might respond.

00:01:20 Nic Cheeseman

Starting off with you, Obert, how did we get here? How did we arrive at this scenario where not only were coups possible, but it now looks like it might actually be feasible to sustain them for at least a significant period of time?

00:01:34 Obert Hodzi

I think it is something that has happened over a long period of time, people getting frustrated with the promise that democracy is going to lead to development to increase their standards of living and over time people have realised that democracy is not producing what it was intended to produce. That's to some extent in countries where there has been changes in government or changes in leaders, the new leaders were not as bad as the old leaders, and so the frustration then grows that democracy is not bringing the change, transport power is not bringing the change. We are all producing the same leaders. And so in this military, who, when these military people come in, they come in on the promise that, look the politicians have not done it and they haven't done it for a lot of years. This is our time to make things right.

00:02:20 Obert Hodzi

And we’ll make things right and hand over to someone will be able to do it and as someone who comes from Zimbabwe in 2017, we kind of like celebrated, many people were celebrating and the hope was that Robert Mugabe is leaving, he has been there for years, and change is gonna come. But it produced the same people. People are frustrated again, and they are hoping that there's gonna be another coup to remove these leaders who are very difficult to remove. And sometimes it it's left to their brave man with a gun to remove them.

00:02:50 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. I think that's a really good reminder that we we focused a lot the last five years on countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Gabon, where we've had these quite explicit coups, but also we've seen countries like Zimbabwe, where we had #notacoup, there was a military takeover that was very carefully curated to try and make it look like it wasn't a coup. Mugabe was even allowed to go out and about during the transition as a way of trying to make it look like a sort of internal civilian matter. But of course it wasn’t, and it was at the barrel of a gun. And that's a good reminder that this has been going on for longer than just the last two years, that was back in 217, but also that these processes can often be more subtle. We've had the situation in Chad, which is a little bit closer

00:03:29 Nic Cheeseman

to the situation in Zimbabwe in terms of an internal palace arrangement rather than something that looks like a coup and the question of which international actors are going to call it a coup and who's going to not call it a coup, then becomes one of the big issues that we have to talk about. So I think that's Zimbabwe example is a really instructive one. Now Mwita just quickly, before we talked about what this means for how countries around the world have to respond. We've talked a little bit there, you know about about the domestic context and how that's changed over the last few years. People starting to become really frustrated with the fact that democracy hasn't delivered enough for them.

00:04:03 Nic Cheeseman

Has there also been an international change in the sense that Western governments have stopped placing as much emphasis on democracy promotion, that maybe it looks like you can get away with a coup now more than you could before. Is there also may be more of a difference now in terms of the role that countries like China and Russia are playing in Africa? Is that meant that there's an international context that's facilitated these coups?

00:04:24 Mwita Chacha

I mean to some degree we could say that the international context that it's influencing the coup outcomes that you're observing, but I wouldn’t place a lot of emphasis on that. What is also happening is coup plotters are observing how regional organisations are responding or have responded to coups and they're learning that they can get away with some of these actions.

00:04:45 Mwita Chacha

It could be the case that the United States could impose sanctions. It could be the case that the US could say suspend military assistance to some of these countries as a result, of coups. But I think what may be influencing plotters along with we were Obert is mentioning that local context matters, that local politics matter is how these regional organisations have been responding and they may be sending the message in the case of Zimbabwe that some of these events are not coups, they are, you know, domestic power changes and you can let those fly.

00:05:14 Mwita Chacha

Or in the case of Egypt, when Morsi was overthrown a few years ago, African Union ended up accepting those that had trotted that coup as the legitimate leaders of Egypt. So these signals, I would say, are influencing the kinds of actions you're observing today, where plotters believe they can somehow get away with it.

00:05:32 Nic Cheeseman

Now maybe come back to you, Mwita, before we go back to Obert, one of the things that's interesting is of course, we have different regional bodies in Africa. We've got the Southern African Development Community, SADAC. We've got the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, historically we've, you know, we've talked about them as having different approaches. Right, SADAC perhaps, as you say, tolerated the not a coup hashtag in Zimbabwe.

00:05:52 Nic Cheeseman

ECOWAS has been seen as being more forceful and anti-coup in West Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about why ECOWAS maybe has played a sort of stronger anti coup role, and also what have we seen from ECOWAS recently is that anti-coup position starting to slip or are they still trying to hold on to that quite strong anti-coup strategy of previous years?

00:06:11 Mwita Chacha

One of the reasons why we see a stronger response from the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, has to do with the frequency of coups in West Africa over time. If you look at the map of Africa and you categorise countries based on how many coup attempts or successful coups they've had, you'll see that West African countries stand out, and that could be a reason why ECOWAS has a, you could say more forceful anti-coup policy that has in many ways it has actually developed and become very stringent when it comes to these kind of events.

00:06:40 Mwita Chacha

I would say that what you're observing right now is that the extent of ECOWAS's responses may not be going far enough, meaning that ECOWAS and, say the African Union are organisations that respond to coups, but they miss the triggers of coups. So, all the coups we've seen in West Africa recently have to do with leaders who may have been elected following previous coup attempts, trying to find ways to remain in power after their terms have ended. Leaders who are undermining human rights and the ECOWAS and the African Union do not in in many ways they don't respond to those actions forcefully. And I would say that as a result of that, we are seeing that by responding to coups later on or by responding to these outcomes of human rights violations or term limit violations, and we're seeing that the anti-coup policy is not that strong.

00:07:25 Nic Cheeseman

I think that's a great point. You know, we could almost say that it's not so much that democracy failed these countries, but that leaders failed democracy, right? Leaders who were elected in civilian elections that were supposed to replace military rule, then created a situation in which actually they undermined their own democratic legitimacy, which made it easier for these coups to take over. But coming back to you then, where does that leave us in terms of what these regional organisations and offers the United States, the European Union, others who care about these issues, have historically been pro democracy. Where does that leave them in terms of of how to respond? We've seen a lot of the standard things right where we typically see things like big statements against coups, immediate suspension of the budget, support aid if it's being provided, shifting funding modalities to civil society, these kinds of things. And yet that doesn't seem to have made that much difference in these cases. In fact, in some cases like Mali, the strong position taken by those actors enabled coup plotters to rally support against them playing the sovereignty card and maybe it even backfired. So where does that leave us? In what should be the response, both regionally and internationally?

00:08:27 Obert Hodzi

I think it's important to understand the local context. Some of the coups in Mali, in Niger, we saw people waving flags of Russia, waving flags and saying we don't want France to intervene, in Zimbabwe it was we don't even want SADAC to intervene. Why are people doing that? It's because over a long period of time, these regional organisations have been kind of like big boys’ clubs. They support each other, they cover each other's back we see that with the revolutionary movements in southern Africa, we pretty much support each other in some way and cushion each other and make sure that they remain in power, and ECOWAS was a little bit different and that there was a bit of a strong stance, but again the weakness of ECOWAS in the sense that you need consensus of all the countries in order to take action and if that consensus is not forthcoming, then that becomes a problem. But even in cases where there is consensus that we need to take action against this military coup, what we have seen is in most of the communiqués, they do not have the financial means to support whatever struggle is going to come after that.

00:09:29 Obert Hodzi

And what they end up doing is to say for the EU, as for EU, for funding to undertake this operation, what it means for local people, for people who would have taken over power by military means, is an understanding that these regional organisations do not have capacity to carry through what they say they're going to do, and that stretches even to the African Union. What really can an African Union do to Niger, to Mali, to Burkina Faso or any military that decides to take over power? There's very little that they can do.

00:10:00 Obert Hodzi

Because there's nothing really that is tangible, that they are giving to those countries in exchange for membership. So there's nothing to take back. The only thing they can say is we're suspending you. But what a suspension mean from the African Union? It simply means that now you don't need to pay any membership fees, which many countries are not paying anyway.

00:10:20 Obert Hodzi

The regional organisations, the African Union, they don't have any leverage over these military leaders who take over power and over a long period they come to understand that these regional organisations are not able to do anything. Now the challenge with the West, which has been to some extent, I say West more broadly, is that they have been to some extent bank rolling democracy in many African countries. So when the money stops coming, the struggle for democracy stops there. You can see that in many African countries, where civil society organisations have never been able to raise financing from their own citizens, instead they continuously get the money from the West. If Britain cuts the budget, then that affects the push for democracy. So demand for democracy is not homegrown. So it's very easy for people to then come back and say, ohh, this democracy thing is not working because look at this civil society guys, they've been chopping money from the European Union and we're not getting anything, so we're better off supporting these military leaders, perhaps we will get something. So it becomes politics of the stomach.

The other challenges is what can France, the UK do, if the military has taken out a leader who is not popular, it seems, then they'll come and say, OK, against the will of the people, we need to reinstate this leader. Gabon comes to mind. So you stand the risk of going against the popular will and these military leaders understand that.

00:11:50 Obert Hodzi

As long as they psyche people and they create the external threat and say we are in the situation that we are in because our leaders are corrupt and they are corrupt because France is supporting them, the UK supporting them, the EU is taking our resources, then the EU, France, US and everyone else becomes the other that people are fighting against, so that then becomes a a huge challenge and China comes in, in, in the picture.

00:12:16 Nic Cheeseman

Just before we get to China. There's one thing I wanted to ask you about just then, and and then I will come to China and and to Russia. And it's because, of course, you've done great work on that. But one of the things I think is really interesting is what you just said, and I think we want to emphasise it, which is the classic model would be: OK, there's a coup that's taken out of civilian government. You go in and you try and reimpose that civilian government. The problem in a country like Niger is it's fairly clear that whether or not you think that the coup should have happened, whether or not you think the government was doing a good job on security and there's some evidence it wasn't doing as bad a job on security as some other governments in West Africa, it's fairly clear that the president wasn't very popular.

00:12:51 Nic Cheeseman

And so as you say, the problem is if you go in and you reimpose that President, are you saving democracy, or are you imposing a president that actually a lot of people have lost confidence in and that's where I think there is a really big challenge for the international community, which is what's the middle option and I don't think we've really thought that through. Is the middle option to say we're going to come in, but we recognise that things have got to such a state that we actually think there needs to be new elections in which this President can stand, but we don't think it would make sense to simply assert this person as the President. For example, imagine there had been some kind of intervention in in Niger that could overnight click the fingers just magical sort of hypothesis. All of a sudden you can reinstate the president. The problem is, a coup has undermined the confidence in the president. The President has somehow now been associated with the international community because it would be the international community that would be intervening to put him back in power. So he's weaker than he was before in terms of his kind of legitimacy and his standing. And you've got a situation where you know that the military has launched a coup that was only reversed by the interference of people outside the country. There seems to me that that's a condition under which the president's far more vulnerable a week after the coup than he was before, the chances of that president surviving instability, surviving, seem limited. The international community also need to think about what's another option that we could try and push for democracy to come back, but not necessarily for someone who's unpopular. I just wanted to really bring that out because I thought that point you made was a really excellent one now to come to the China, Russia part of the story, I guess where they come in here is partly that we’re in a situation, as you say, where a lot of this is being driven by who's going to be able to provide resources and if the US and the UK and the EU do cut

00:14:21 Nic Cheeseman

the money, a big question is how many choices do African governments have about where they might be able to get that support and a lot of people think Russia and China are big players as a result of increasing those choices, partly also because, as you said, we see people flying Russian flags.

00:14:35 Nic Cheeseman

So I've got a couple of questions that maybe we'll go to Mwita first and then come back to you on the China side of this as well. The 1st is how big a game changer do we think China and Russia have been to this? Mwita, you already suggested that, you know, we shouldn't overplay perhaps their importance. But in terms of the ability to sustain the coup, but also, I'm intrigued, you know, where do those Russian flags come from? Who produces those Russian flags? Do we really think millions of people have become massively pro-Russia, across West Africa? Or is that almost itself part of a disinformation campaign and the political strategy of juntas to advertising this and trying to get their supporters behind it? I asked that as a genuine question because the idea of people waving Russian flags in protest is something we haven't really seen before. And I'm sort of unsure about how much it's a genuine, homegrown love of Russia, and how much it's more of a strategy being used by leaders? So over to you, Mwita.

00:15:24 Mwita Chacha

So I think we need to distinguish what China may be interested in and what Russia is interested in, especially in this context of Russia's deteriorating relationship with the West. So for me, I mean my my own thoughts are that I don't think China is driving in any way coup activity in Africa. China values stability in many ways because China is interested in a stable environment to do business. You know, get natural resources, expand its international economic network. And so, I wouldn't say that they're in favour of some of these activities that somehow in many ways result in instability that can undermine China's interests. But Russia is a different case. I think Russia, especially since the increasing you could say activities of the Wagner group and this increasing tension between Russia and the West has in a way try to benefit from some of these situations and the benefit here comes from, you know, undermining the West's position in these countries, undermining whether it’s France or whether it’s United States, undermining the whole idea of liberal democracy and pointing out that look at what is happening in  Niger, look at what's happening in Burkina Faso where you have these leaders who claim to be democracy, supported by the West, and they fail the people, we have an alternative. But the Wagner group comes into play because it's providing an alternative security guarantee for some of these regimes, whether it is during the time or following the coup itself, so the immediate period following the coup where they come and stand in as potential arms suppliers or security suppliers to these countries or later on and here you could say that there's an involvement of the Russian Government where they are presenting themselves as the alternative to EU support, European Union support or Francis's influence in these countries.

00:16:52 Mwita Chacha

This is where it's I think we see these these Russian flags being presented to the public and the public thinking of them as though they are the alternative to decades of French influence in their country and seeing it as perhaps an alternative to pursue compared to these decades of French influence in their countries.

00:17:10 Nic Cheeseman

And it is interesting to me that you know hunters that have prided themselves in part on sovereignty have been so quick to have the Russian flag flown in their capital cities, which which is slightly perplexing, perhaps, or paradoxical, but I want, I want you to come in here and reflect on this. But I also want to throw another question and maybe to move us to the next part of the conversation, which is how sustainable is this now going to be?

00:17:30 Nic Cheeseman

So it's one thing to overthrow an unpopular leader. It's another thing to play on anti-French sentiment etcetera and to whip up pro-Russian sentiment. It's another thing completely to actually deal with what a lot of these governments are facing, which is radical insurgencies, high levels of insecurity high levels of crime, low state capacity and also a lot of domestic anticipation now that people have been promised things are gonna get better. I'm interested in two sides of this. I mean, one, do you think these governments can deliver in any way over the next few years and also connecting back to our kind of theme of the international relations, does Russia actually have the resources to be able to provide what these countries need over the next four or five years? Because my sense is that Russia maybe can deal with one or two countries in Africa at a time if it starts to end up heavily involved or the Wagner group, whatever manifestation that is now in is heavily involved in four or five theatres at the same time, which is kind of what would be required for it to actually operate across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, etcetera. If that's where we're heading.

00:18:27 Nic Cheeseman

I'm not entirely convinced they actually have the capacity to deliver in terms of their promises in a way that would actually replace the sort of financial support you would get from the European Union plus the United States and so on. So where are we in terms of how likely this is to be stable and successful in terms of these governments themselves? And also where are we in the actual capacity of some of these international partners to deliver on the promises that are kind of being made to citizens?

00:18:53 Obert Hodzi

You you are very right. The capacity for Russia is very limited. I think if you look at what Russia has been eating investments in African countries, if you look at financial aid to African countries is very, very limited. You can't even compare it with the major countries. So there's very limited support, much of its support came probably from Wagner group and to some extent, depending on how we think about the Wagner group, but I would think of it as reflecting the weakness of the Russian state in the sense that you have this military group, private-public in some way, but this is a private military group that has become so powerful, but at some point, some people would say maybe Russia manufactured kind of crisis would want to challenge the Russian state, and if it genuinely try to challenge the Russian state, it reflects the weakness of the Russian state and its lack of capacity to be able to meet the challenges that African countries have.

00:19:47 Obert Hodzi

Russia, I don't see it providing any meaningful assistance to these leaders.

00:19:53 Obert Hodzi

The waving of the Russian flags, it's maybe a reincarnation of the Cold War times where a leader would say if you don't provide me support, I'm going to get that support from the Soviet Union and go to the Soviet Union and say I'm going to get the support from the United States. So one way of doing it without necessarily perhaps you don't have the audience of Putin or Biden is to spread these flags, give them to the people and let people wave them around. And that to some extent draws the attention of Russia. Russia say: ohh, we actually are popular in Africa, and maybe we should do something with this guy. So it's a clever way of trying to grab the attention of these big powers. But Russia plays a quite an important role, particularly at the moment in the sense that for many people and they see Russia as standing up to the US, particularly on Ukraine right, and it didn't help that there were many racial tensions when they, you know, when the crisis in Ukraine began and to some extent it pushed many African publics to start thinking: ohh well, it's the European war. Let the Russians deal with them and the Russia is challenging the US for us and there were rumours I and I think, are some US senators who tried to propose a law that would punish African governments for siding with Russia or trying to engage Russia in some way, forcing them to take a side.

00:21:20 Obert Hodzi

All those things building to this sentiment that Africa has been a punching bag in some way of Western countries and anyone who stands up to the West becomes an ally in some sense, so these military leaders can capitalise on that to their benefit and to some extent it has benefited them in some way and that they get their attention. They get the US to reconsider how they look at them and say, oh my God, we're losing these people. We're losing influence to to China, we're losing influence to Russia now. I agree with Mwita that China would prefer that countries are stable so that they can continue doing business.

00:21:55 Obert Hodzi

And these military coups placed China in a very tricky situation. How do they respond? How do they support the previous leader? How do they support these new leaders? And their approach is kind of like a standard approach or we edge the parties to deal with this problem in an amicable way or something like that. And they will judge and see what the regional organisations are going to say about it.

00:22:17 Obert Hodzi

If the regional organisations are quiet, then they quietly continue with whichever government comes into power. So China in that sense free rides, waits for regional organisations to see what goes on and then follow it, but I think the biggest challenge that China presents for many African countries that are struggling and trying to bring about democracy and development at the same time is that China is pushing this idea that you don't need democracy and good governance for you to achieve development, that you can get development without democracy, or if you are so fond of this word, democracy and human rights, you can define it based on your own context. So democracy becomes what we want it to be and in most cases it becomes what the ruling elites want it to be. It becomes much more challenging and much more difficult to for us to think how well can we deal with these problems because it sees this being a Niger problem, this is being a Chad problem, this is being a Zimbabwean problem, it becomes an international problem of democracy and human rights being challenged on that scale.

00:23:26 Nic Cheeseman

That's a really good point. Thank you. And I think one of the things that I'm intrigued by now is is how does that play out because of course for a while, you know, maybe democracy, there was the bad guy. People were worried about democracy not delivering America and France being constructed as the bad guys because they've been heavily involved for so long. And therefore they're tainted by their association with those existing governments.

00:23:46 Nic Cheeseman

I'm intrigued as to now whether this happens to Russia right? Are we gonna see in 10 years' time, people on the streets protesting against Russia as they've been protesting against France recently, because Russia's been there for 10 years, after 10 years, it will be seen as the government propping up the bad dictator. It will be seen as the government propping out the corrupt guys who aren't delivering services and in a sense, we're now going to see a cycle where people who were getting fed up of democracy will start to see, well, actually the military maybe isn't delivering stability. It's not doing great on services.

00:24:15 Nic Cheeseman

It's got this relationship with Russia, so all of a sudden we get a resurgence of desire for democracy and desire for perhaps Western support and rejection of Russia. Is that the cycle that we're now in or do you have more hope for the ability of these governments of some of these international players to stabilise the system? I mean, and here Mwita maybe you want to talk a little bit about some of the challenges that these governments actually face, which are some of the most profound challenges, right, that any governments really face globally in terms of the vast territories, the problems of insecurity and so on. But Mwita over to you, what do you think actually happens from here over the next few years?

00:24:49 Mwita Chacha

I think I mean assuming that these regimes are able to withstand African Union sanctions, international condemnation, U.S. sanctions, whatever that looks like, or European Union sanctions, assuming they survive all that, the next task becomes how do you demonstrate to the public that what you're offering is a better alternative to what was there under the the civilian administration, the democratic administration and what we are seeing, you know, it's too soon to tell. So for instance, Burkina Faso it's been about 2-3 years and the insurgency that the armed forces used as a reason for staging the coup is still going on. It hasn't been resolved. Their contacts with the Wagner group haven't really resulted in any meaningful progress in terms of improving the security situation of that country.

00:25:29 Mwita Chacha

I mean for me, I think that over time, assuming that the last, say 10 years, I think the public would be dissatisfied with that kind of situation and it may be the case that they protest against whatever regime these military folks are presented to them, whether it's some kind of authoritarian democracy, whatever they want to call it. I think there'll be some kind of reaction against that, which may result in, say, a call for a more representative form of government.

00:25:51 Mwita Chacha

And one thing that I should also highlight here is that if you look at the Afrobarometer surveys that have asked this question about Russia's popularity in Africa, Russia is not popular in Africa. I mean, the public doesn't, either they don't know about its influence in Africa, or they are just not that blown away by Russia's influence in Africa. But, you know, France is popular, the US remains popular, democracy remains popular in Africa, so how did it say that these events are demonstrating to us that either the public is for the armed forces ruling them or the public is in a great extent anti-Western.

00:26:24 Mwita Chacha

But I would say that assuming these military men remain in power for the next 10 years and they fail to deliver on their promise of security, they failed to deliver on their promise of political stability, economic growth, then the consequence will be that the public will go against them. That's bound to happen.

00:26:40 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks. Now final question and I'll throw it over to you, Obert, and then to Mwita as we wrap up. So to continue on that theme, but feel free to chip in on that, but I'm also interested in how stable these systems actually are going to be internally. We’ve already seen, you know, allegations or claims that there were attempted coups in some countries. Of course, we've already seen multiple coups in some of these countries in places like Mali, Sudan, etc. We've kind of seen coups in response to coups. Sometimes the military trying to reassert its control, having, you know, transferred authority to some sort of civilian transitional administration.

00:27:12 Nic Cheeseman

Sometimes, we see coups of 1 faction of the military trying take over from another, so Obert as you answer this, I'm also interested in how stable are these militaries need to be in themselves or are we actually likely to see more sort of factional tensions and and how do we expect it to play out. One of the things Mwita that you might be interested in touching on before we wrap up is the form these governments take because, of course, officially, most of these juntas actually transfer power to some sort of civilian force as part of the deal, they negotiate in order to normalise relations with other powers, and that's supposed to lead in a few years, hopefully less to elections. But we see a lot of slow progress towards that.

00:27:49 Nic Cheeseman

We see civilian leaders who might seem to be more likely to be puppets than real leaders. They're kind of being controlled by military powers. They don't really have their own agency. They can't really make their own decisions. So, Obert, it'd be really interesting to hear more about the stability angle and Mwita, maybe a little bit more about what form of these governments actually going to take and are they actually going to be civilian sort of regimes with military backing or will the military actually dispense with that civilian wrapping paper and just rule themselves?

00:28:18 Obert Hodzi

I think what we may end up seeing is like you have rightly argued in in another research that you have done, it could be we get another coup simply because these coups unlike a democratic system, and no matter how imperfect it is, a democratic system allows people to develop leadership skills and to rethink institutions, revise them, try to strengthen them. It may take a long time, but it's a process that allows that to happen. These coups, where they basically do, is to short circuit that process, and you have leaders who are accidental leaders, in some cases brave people, and they have a gun, so how good it may end up being is if you end up with a good Prince with power, with military force, but then it's doing good. If you end up with a bad Prince, you are going to be in serious trouble because you try to maintain power as much as possible, and this is probably what we we will see or try to get power. They'll try to get as much as they can in terms of wealth and then hand over power to their puppet, someone they will be able to control and the changes in government become who is the strongest at that time. And I think that's the biggest challenge with these military coups that we're seeing in that people lose confidence in civilian politics.

00:29:39 Obert Hodzi

And they start thinking I need to get as much power as I can or to get people with power on my side, and then I can grab that power going forward. And then if you couple that with the elections that are imperfect, you are likely going to see that happen even more, that you have elections of some sort, but then soon after those elections, military takes over again. I'm not very hopeful. I don't see good coming out of this. I think we are in for a very rough ride.

00:30:07 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks for that sobering analysis, and Mwita over to you. You know, both be interested to get your perspective on on these kind of systems and the civilian versus military, and is there any kind of silver lining to this cloud or is it just a cloud?

00:30:21 Mwita Chacha

I think first of all, we need to observe, we need to understand the track record of the armed forces that find a way to stay in power. If you look at Zimbabwe, right, it's a case in point where the armed forces somehow found a way to take the military fatigues off, put on plain clothes ran for elections and the international community was fine with that and I think this is a template that we may observe in the recent coups in in West Africa where at least I mean currently we're in a transition period for many of these countries. But what we seem to be attempting is to prolong the transition to come across as though they are moving towards a restoration of civilian rule.

00:30:57 Mwita Chacha

But really, they're not doing that and. What we may observe moving forward is perhaps how these majors, captains, colonels, etcetera. We'll find a way to be able to contest elections aimed at restoring civilian rule and then they'll go to the public and, you know, say that. OK, we're now we retired from the army. We're now civilians we're going to contest elections and we see a repeat of the authoritarianism that has been happening in some of these countries in the past, right, whether it's Burkina Faso, whether it's Niger, the armed forces, general, for instance, somehow is now a civilian but you know, the authoritarianism is not going to disappear. Whether they change their their military fatigues or not. So whether this is the silver lining going forward, I think it's hard to tell. Observing how many of these armed forces have learned from how the international community responds or fails to respond, I think they will find a way to remain in power and that means for many of these countries that this situation may not improve in the next few years.

00:31:53 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks so much. I sadly share your sort of concerned analysis and I think the 1 silver lining that might be there is that if this comes to pass, you know the prediction of kind of instability coupled with not particularly well performing military regimes, the one silver lining there is that will reinforce the sense of public desire for more accountable representative government and the kind of sense that authoritarian government isn't actually going to deliver and be the saviour, which, as you say, the kind of rise of China, the success of Rwanda has kind of created that idea, perhaps one positive that comes out of this is the idea that actually, you know, really having representative governments and civil liberties is a thing that actually keeps you safest and is most likely to develop your economy in the longer term. Maybe we'll see. It does remind me, you know, interestingly what you were just saying that kind of cycle that you and Obert just brought up actually reminds me a little bit of, you know, a classic book on on Nigeria military will in Nigeria transition without end. Perhaps we're in for a period of of instability in cycling. And I think that chimes with something I've been thinking recently, which is just as perhaps we assumed that democracies were consolidated when they really weren't, and now I'm thinking as much about the United States as anywhere in Africa. You know, it's important not to think that these authoritarian systems are consolidated. Actually, what we might be seeing is a much more unstable period of flux. So thank you so much for this fabulous and far-reaching discussion. I think we've covered an incredible amount of ground, but also gone into, you know, quite a lot of great depth. And I think we've provided our listeners with a really good understanding of the new era that we're potentially moving into and why it might be, you know, a significant one.

00:33:24 Nic Cheeseman

So, thank you so much for making the time today. Mwita Chacha, the associate professor in international relations at the University of Birmingham. Obert Hodzi, Senior lecture in politics at the University of Liverpool. We look forward to talking to you again soon.

00:33:36 Obert Hodzi

Thank you very much.

00:33:37 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the people Power Politics Podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work that we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description. 

Political Polarisation: Have we got it wrong? A conversation with Andreas Schedler

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:15 Petra Alderman

Hi, my name is Petra Alderman, and I'm a research fellow at CEDAR and I'm going to be your host for this episode. It is my great pleasure to welcome Andreas Schedler, who is going to be our guest for this episode. Welcome to the podcast, Andreas.

00:00:30 Andreas Schedler

Yeah. Many thanks, Petra.

00:00:32 Petra Alderman

Andreas is senior research fellow at the Democracy Institute of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and he is well known for his work on authoritarian elections, democratic consolidation and transition, anti-political establishment parties, political accountability and organised violence. Currently, though, under studies, processes of democratic subversion, basic democratic trust, and political polarisation, it is political polarisation that we are going to talk about in this podcast episode. I don't think that I need to introduce the topic of political polarisation at all. After all, it has become one of the hottest debates in contemporary politics, especially with the Donald Trump presidency in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. Andreas political polarisation is such a ubiquitous concept and unlike many other concepts that we political scientists use, this one seems almost self-explanatory. But have we been getting this concept wrong?

00:01:37 Andreas Schedler

Yes, I think so. You're right. The concept is everywhere. It's everybody's mind. It's well at the centre of contemporary debate and democratic backsliding. The global crisis of democracy, et cetera and yes, we do tend to use it as if it were self-explanatory, as if we would have a basic consensus of how to use it, but I do think that many things we are getting wrong and probably the most important thing I think we're getting wrong is basic distinction we have in political science is the one between benign polarisation and pernicious polarisation. There are many versions of this division or these adjectives, but the basic idea is that there's one polarisation which is kind of nice and fine and OK for democracy and another one which is a danger, subversive and we should be worried about.

00:02:29 Andreas Schedler

And I think that really gets it wrong because it suggests that any kind of conflict, we have any kind of distinction we have in in democracy may be called polarisation. If we have a little conflict, then we have a little polarisation. If you have harsher conflicts and more passionate confrontations, then we have more polarisation, and at some point, we might be getting worried and I think that's misguided. I think that came out of the debate on the US. In the US, people started worrying about polarisation kind of over the past decades, rediscovering the concept in the 90s, when basically that's the standard story we're telling each other and the Republicans and the Greenwich started demonising, republicans started adopting a very harsh and we would say intolerant tone in democratic politics started treating their adversaries as enemies, many would say.

00:03:27 Andreas Schedler

And so in a context where really the heat of ideological debate, the heat of political debate got really higher and higher, political scientists got started interested in the topic, studying the topic. But they didn't study it in the sphere and at the level of political conflict, public discourse, political rhetoric but in public attitudes in public opinion. We have the instruments, we know how to do public opinion surveys. So that's what we did. So, people started studying the differences in policy attitudes between Republicans and Democrats, basically. What they found was that the members, the activists, the voters of both parties, we're getting more and more distinctive. So if previously we had two parties where we were complaining that they were kind of a problematic mess, they were all over the place.

00:04:18 Andreas Schedler

It wasn't quite clear who was who, and there were liberals and the Republican parties and conservatives and religious people that the democratic side. So now survey researchers were seeing, hey, the picture is getting clearer now and we are getting towards a picture of programmatic distinctiveness and clarity as we are used to it in a let's say European context and researchers were talking about intra group homogeneity, how close are people within each party, and intergroup heterogeneity, how different they are getting, and they were calling this process polarisation.

00:04:52 Andreas Schedler

And in this tradition, in this context, polarisation didn't need anything else that parties and party voters were getting a little distinct, not even that much distinct, really. On many issues, there were still quite some proximity, I would say, not that much distance, but within the context where we have that usage of polarisation when comparative political scholars who studied politics at other parts of the world were stepping into the debate. They were trying to be respectful to the US debate and instead of saying this isn't quite polarisation you're talking about. This is normal democratic politics, they said. OK, what you are talking about, that's kind of the benign form of polarisation. That's what we wish for. That's a positive form of polarisation. We want to have programmatically meaningful parties. That's nice. But then there are other forms of polarisation where we should be worried about and I think that's not the right way of putting it.

00:05:45 Petra Alderman

Yeah. Let me pick up on this, what you were talking about because you mentioned obviously this form of conflict in democracy and we know that democracy is basically an institutionalisation of some kind of political and societal conflict, so all democracies, in an essence, have some kind of conflict that's being managed. But when we look at that, where do we draw a line? And you were talking that the distinction between good polarisation and bad polarisation isn't really a very helpful distinction for us to think about because there is this normal democratic conflict. But what is political polarisation, and how different form of a conflict it is, when we compare it with what is normally happening in democratic societies?

00:06:26 Andreas Schedler

I think Petra, that's really the central question in this conceptual debate. We really need to start with acknowledging, as you say, that conflict is an essential, defining, constitutive part of liberal democracy. So really, the question is at which point should we talk about something that gets worrisome, that turns into a danger to democracy? By drawing this line we need to anchor ourselves in democratic theory. We need to think about, OK, what? What does democracy require and what kind of things endanger democracy? And I think what democracy requires is something I call basic democratic trust, which is the basic confidence among political actors among adversaries, between actors and public officials, that others are really playing the game by the rules that they really obeying the fundamental rules of democracy. So they are not trying to reach power through violent rebellion. They're not supporting violence, not condoning violence. They are respecting free and fair elections. They're not bribing or intimidating churches. They're not buying votes. They're not sending killers to each other's houses, et cetera. So really very basic stuff.

00:07:35 Andreas Schedler

And I think polarisation begins when this kind of basic trust begins to fracture. When actors think of others that they are kind of cancelling the democratic contract that they are beginning to overstep basic democratic rules that they're leaving the democratic consensus. This, I think is something very fundamental and this is something that I think we all understand, that this is a motif for concern for democrats. I think it's important to formulate this on the level of, let's say, perceptions. What actors think about each other or discourse is what they say about each other, because very often this is controversial.

00:08:14 Andreas Schedler

And we should be recognising this, but in my mind this would be really the borderline, the thing that divides conflicts that are still within the bounds of democracy and conflicts we might call polarising, because they cross the bounds of democracy.

00:08:30 Petra Alderman

That it's very interesting and I can definitely see the merit in in making that distinction and drawing a bit of a line between where the normal democratic conflict ends and where this more worrisome type of conflict that we might call political polarisation begins. When we reflect on this way of distinguishing political polarisation from the normal democratic conflict, what would you say what is the key problem in the ways that we have been talking, and political polarisation, as I mentioned before, has been widely discussed by the media, and not just in academic literature, and has been thrown around quite a lot. So do you see any problems in this freer use of this term of polarisation? Do you think that our use of it might also be detrimental?

00:09:16 Andreas Schedler

I think our use has been a bit unthinking and simplifying it has pulled us towards the idea that any kind of intense conflict is dangerous to democracy, and I think we should be getting away from that and we should be getting away from this tight association. Polarisation is dangerous for democracy and current processes of democratic backsliding subversion are driven by polarisation. First, we need to recognise that the polarisation it's a dynamic self feeding process, so it's likely to be cause and effect at the same time. And if he accepts that at the heart of polarisation, there's something like the destruction of basic democratic trust. Then I think we need to think about two very different scenarios. One scenarios where we have bad actors, illiberal governments, authoritarian candidates, non-democratic actors who start destroying democracy, dismantling cheques and balances, suffocating basic rights, et cetera. So if that happens, what would we ask democratic actors to do we would ask them to call authoritarians out and to denounce these anti-democratic norm transgressions and what would do we get as a consequence? Polarisation.

00:10:30 Andreas Schedler

So if people start transgressing democratic norms and if others respond and criticise that that's one way in into democratic polarisation, and it's one way which is really desirable, it's better to have transgressions and denouncing them than to have transgressions and keeping the silence and not saying anything. And the second way into polarisation and democratic crisis is when things run in a decent manner and democracy is intact and people start destroying democratic trust in a frivolous manner in bad faith, and that is, I think what we have been witnessing in the US. Donald Trump during his whole presidency, and especially in the 2020 elections with his claim of being robbed of his electoral victory. I think that's really a a textbook example of someone destroying democratic trust, polarising politics in a frivolous manner. This is really a way into polarisation, and which is very different from the other trajectory, or that that starts from real abuses of power.

00:11:33 Petra Alderman

You've already started touching upon who could be the polarising actors and you've mentioned leaders, but I wonder, and this is often what you mentioned at the beginning, that political parties often get highlighted as the polarising actors that push this type of a more worrisome conflict onto the electorate and you know, are the ones that feed into these existing or try to exploit existing cleavages in the electorate. So, when we look at the level of the actors, who do you think are key actors? Are we supposed to be talking more about individual leaders or could we also talk about the level of organisations, political parties or even institutions? So, who are these actors?

00:12:13 Andreas Schedler

The most precise answer would be it varies, but I do think we have seen a tendency towards personalization of polarisation, the kind of emergence of polarising entrepreneurs, individuals who are in that job of polarisation. If you think back in the 70s, we had a classic text and a classic author, Giovanni Sartori, Italian political scientists, who talked about polarised pluralism as a type of party system. He was thinking really about configurations of party competition and he thought polarised party systems were just one type of interaction between parties, basically between extremist parties on the flanks, competing against centre parties occupying the political centre. Today I do think the the scenario is quite different.

00:13:01 Andreas Schedler

We do have situations again, like the US where we have a mixture between strong individuals like Donald Trump at its centre, but also very highly institutionalised party competition, really two dominant parties that structure the political space. But that's just one situation, we have situations like in Brazil under Bolsonaro, Mexico and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, which are very much centred on one figure and the polarising dynamics is very much they and their followers against the rest. And they may have their personal party as well, very much a personalised vehicle.

00:13:38 Andreas Schedler

And they may confront, really, a camp of fragmented actors who are just unified by their common opposition to the polarising actors. So that's more common today than it was decades ago. And this really speaks of a personalising trend in situations of polarisation.

00:13:56 Petra Alderman

When you were talking before about the different way how political parties maybe look today to what they looked before, there was a centre and there was, there were some extremist parties on the the sides and you mentioned that today this is quite different. I wonder what is happening to the centre because oftentimes when we have these discussions of political polarisation the centre seems to disappear.

00:14:18 Andres Schedler

Yeah, that's one of the most worrisome trends today still in Giovanni Sartori's World and in a way what he did was what we sometimes do. We polarise from single cases and his strong case, and he didn't just look interval cases of polarised European democracies that ended up breaking down, like Weimar Germany, he very much looked at the Italian Post war politics and there you had the Christian Democratic Party occupying the centre and everybody knew there is no possibility of removing it from there. It will be part of any government. It will dominate any government, there will be noise on the extremes, but not much more. So the system in itself was not really in danger.

00:15:01 Andreas Schedler

And today what we see is that we do have not two poles competing against the centre, but two poles competing against each other. And the centre really, as you say, disappears. At least it weakens. It is becoming terribly difficult to, for political actors, let's say, for conciliatory positions to situate themselves in the centre because there is the centrifugal drive is so strong and everybody would just try to to kick out those who try to avoid the polarising dynamics. So really in the end we have a confrontation between two camps who are really veering, competing for power. And that really raises the stakes of politics. If before the question was: OK, with whom will the Italian Christian Democrats gathered a bit to the right, a bit to the left. So the stakes were relatively modest back then, at least in the Italian context. And today the stakes are huge. Will we win, or will the other sides prevail? So that's really very different and very much more explosive than them.

00:16:03 Petra Alderman

Yeah. And I I like what you just said there because it really feels like politics has become such a zero-sum game in recent years in many countries that you really see that very strong competition between these parties to the point that there is really no reasonable middle ground or finding some kind of reasonable compromise in one way or another.

00:16:24 Petra Alderman

We have talked already about who the polarising actors are, but I wonder when we talk about polarisation, what are the drivers of political polarisation that you would identify? And I think once again, I'd like to come back to what we were talking about in terms of polarisation being not a normal democratic conflict, but something that has gone beyond that and something that really challenges democracy. So, if we talk about the drivers of polarisation, can we really talk about the normal cleavages that exist in a society, or do we need to look for something more special or something more sinister behind it?

00:16:58 Andreas Schedler

The literature has been, or at least part of the literature has been looking at cleavages at what you mentioned. Long standing, structural conflicts which citizens themselves, actors in society, would recognise as deep conflict and would probably identify with one side or the other. There's no doubt that such conflicts do exist and that they do feed or do at least eight or encourage such processes, so no doubt that some of these polarising situations are fed by class conflict or religious cleavages, or cultural divisions. But I do think, as they were alluding to, that such cleavages by themselves, they may very well be processed through normal democratic needs. They're supposed to provide the food for normal conflict. They provide the structure for democratic conflict. So in and by themselves, they do not constitute a, at least not a sufficient motive for politics getting out of hand and escalating towards polarisation.

00:17:56 Andreas Schedler

When politics really turns not just ugly, but veers into undemocratic terrain, into terrain where actors violate democratic rules, or suspects that others so. So that's really the work of actors. So really think there is no way to keep this responsibility off the shoulders of participating actors, they're really those who feed that conflict, even if once you are in the conflict, it's often fed by the democratic logic of reciprocity. Democracy is supposed, supposed to be a game where everybody complies with the rules. Rule compliance is not absolute. You're not supposed to renounce violence. The others oppress us with violence and exploit us with violence. It's reciprocal. It's mutual.

00:18:39 Andreas Schedler

So if one side is breaking this contract of reciprocity or is suspected in doing so, this has consequences for both sides. So, the other side is begins to ask itself. OK, so if they are playing foul, how should I respond? So it's very easy to get into not just spirals of mutual recriminations, but also spirals of foul play, spirals of transgressions which each side conceives as defensive, so I need to do this because if I don't, the others will infringe on my rights or will restore the playing field or take away our liberties, et cetera. So, it's very easy to get in the game where we are close to the dynamics we know from crawling children pointing with fingers at each other, at the end you have a dynamics which is tinges on actors and what they do and they're conflictive dynamics, but no one kind of takes responsibility. Everybody thinks it's not me, it's the others.

00:19:34 Petra Alderman

It really seems like this vicious cycle of just laying blame on one another as you just said, nobody wants to take the responsibility and just blames the other, and I think that goes back to what you were saying right at the beginning when we were talking about what political polarisation is and that breakdown the basic democratic trust, where people no longer trust each other to uphold these democratic rules, and the systems and almost take a preventative action of what you've just been saying of trying to defend themselves, but in ways they're actually undermined the whole system at the end of the day. Now, so far we have been talking about political polarisations in countries where maybe the starting point is democracy or some form of democracy. But political polarisation has often been discussed in authoritarian countries in context as well. And I wonder is there any particular difference that you can see between political polarisation in democracies and political polarisation in autocracies? Or could we actually even talk about political polarisation in authoritarian?

00:20:34 Andreas Schedler

I think we shouldn't good reasons why we have been focusing our debates on democracies at the beginning, I said there are many things we may be getting wrong when we talk about polarisation, talking about polarisation in dictatorships that's one way of getting it wrong. If polarisation, if we conceive it as a kind of conflict that is problematic for democracy, in democracy, because it involves A violation of basic democratic norms, then it basically doesn't make any sense in dictatorship.

00:21:05 Andreas Schedler

There we have the regime, we have the dictator that is defined by ignoring violating democratic rules in such a context, the language, the vocabulary of polarisation doesn't contribute anything. We already have a language to describe opposition actors of opposition parties, opposing autocracies, trying to democratise such regimes, and I think we should keep talking about democratising actors, democratic actors, struggles for democracy. I think there's really no analytic gain, no conceptual necessity to say that someone is a polarising actor because they oppose Putin, or Lukashenko, or anybody.

00:21:46 Petra Alderman

Just to push you on that a little bit more because you do have in some countries and I think that's true that you have these figures that could really split the society? So in that sense, what would you maybe offer as an alternative analytical lens as or as an alternative explanatory term if we don't talk about polarisation?

00:22:05 Andreas Schedler

I would say if the split is between, let's say the dictator and the rest, then there may be other reasons than democracy that caused that split dictators often, they also have policy positions, they have ideologies, they may be part of the conflict. They often use their ideological positions to divide the opposition and to avoid common brunt against them on democratic grounds.

00:22:29 Andreas Schedler

I understand when people tell me and they're good reasons to do so, when people tell me shouldn't we be more attentive to substantive sources of polarisation in democracy, policy conflicts, value conflicts which are not peripherally or marginally about democracy? That I understand. That I understand that people may really have passionate debates about in the US, gun control and abortion and cultural divisions.

00:22:57 Andreas Schedler

And even if I think that these debates often veer into mutual perceptions that the others are not just threatening our value system and our way of life and basic existential values, but also kind of democracy, I do think that that's kind of a substantive policy dimension of polarisation we need to take into account but again my point would be these conflicts are really polarising from the moment onwards, when actors treat each other in an intolerant way in a way that makes them treat others as enemies who are not legitimate contenders in the political arena, but should be really kicked out, should not be listened to, do not have equal rights in the common political community.

00:23:43 Petra Alderman

That makes sense. My final question is, we've been talking about this dire state of the world's politics, especially in democracies, rising levels of political polarisation, even if we probably adopt the definition that you propose that really focuses on the nature of the extraordinary conflict, not the normal democratic conflict, do you see any potential effective ways of overcoming polarisation once it starts, and I think this is the big, you know, $1 million question. So if you don't have an answer to that, that's fine. But can you from thinking deeply about polarisation and what it is, who drives it, what kind of things can be used to polarise people, could you potentially see way out of this political quagmire?

00:24:26 Andreas Schedler

Well, the bad thing I think is not that I myself don't have a good answer, but I think that we as a discipline and probably we as societies we don't have good answers for that. One thing that polarisation does is that it destroys our communicative abilities, our willingness and our capacity to talk to each other in a way we require for democratic dialogue, so there are many initiatives that try to restore the social tissue, build bridges among the camps, et cetera. I think that's really laudable, but I can't imagine that any genuine solution will come from that.

00:25:00 Andreas Schedler

We may put some hope on the personalised nature of these processes. Sometimes the more they hinge on certain persons, the more they benefit from the disappearance of these persons. So, for example, with Bolsonaro fading into the background in Brazil, politics continues to be quite polarised but not that much anymore. It has toned down a bit. In Mexico when Lopez Obrador will be withdrawing in two years, the poison will not disappear, but it will be lessened. That's the hope. So sometimes if it's really polarising entrepreneurs, if they are out of the political arena, that helps a lot. Otherwise, it's really, really difficult. If you look back in history, it's really a bit frightening actually if you look into war experiences, how did you get out of polarisation through the collapse of democracy?

00:25:50 Andreas Schedler

Catastrophe, representatives of the two enemy camps found each other in prison cells, and the disturbed that probably it hadn't been a good idea fighting each other. Also, kind of given the difficulty of constructing, reviving the middle ground, the centre conciliatory proposals. It's really, really hard to get out of polarising dynamics.

00:26:12 Petra Alderman

I was hoping we could finish on a more positive note, but I think it is also valuable to have a realistic assessment of the situation and of the challenges that political polarisation presents, and I think perhaps maybe a lesson that we can take from what you've been talking about is to try and not get to the point where polarisation really takes place, to try maybe prevent the polarisation from happening early on, rather than try remedies once it is entrenched.

00:26:40 Petra Alderman

Well, thank you Andreas, for joining the people Power Politics podcast and for talking to us about political polarisation. It's been absolutely wonderful to have you on the podcast. And I would just like to encourage our listeners that if they would like to learn more about this topic to, to read your thought provoking article called Rethinking Political Polarisation that was published in June 2023 in Political Science Quarterly, which is one of the leading political science journals.  Thank you very much, Andreas. It's been an absolute pleasure and I hope we will get a chance to revisit this conversation at a later point again.

00:27:16 Andreas Schedler

Many thanks, Petra. It was a real pleasure being with you.

00:27:20 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by Cedar, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

Making Sense of the 2023 Spanish Election

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics podcast, brought to you by Cedar, the Center for Elections, Democracy, accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:14 Manoel Gehrke

Hi my name is Manoel Gehrke. I'm a research fellow at CEDAR and I'm going to be your host for this episode. It is my great pleasure to welcome Patricia Correa. Patricia Correa is a senior lecturer of politics at Aston University and an expert on political parties and Spanish politics. We are going to discuss her insights concerning the recent elections in Spain. Thank you very much for joining us, Patricia.

00:00:37 Patricia Correa

Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be talking to you about the Spanish politics today.

00:00:43 Manoel Gehrke

The last decade has been a challenging period for the left and center left in Europe. Most countries are currently governed by parties from the center right and far-right. Spain, where Pedro Sánchez from the Socialist Party has been the Prime Minister since 2018, is one of the most important exceptions. Unlike most predictions and despite resounding victory of the right in the regional and local elections in May of this year, Pedro Sánchez’s big gamble to call for snap elections appears to have paid off. Patricia, what factors contributed to Pedro Sánchez's political resilience?

00:01:19 Patricia Correa

Well, I think it's important to point out first that this was the first Spanish coalition government at the national level since the Republic times. This was already a completely different period of time in terms of politics of what we are used to in Spanish politics. But I'll say that things have changed, but not so much as we might think at first glance. So, something for instance that is interesting to point out is the fact that the level of turnout hasn't changed that much, and that what we are observing is that the changes are happening within political blocs and not so much between blocs. So that definitely helps Pedro Sánchez. The fact that whatever is happening is happening within the left and that's what he needs to worry the most. When we observe the results of the last elections. So first of all, everyone was surprised about the snap election. Nobody saw it coming. We knew that we were going to have national elections this year, but we didn't expect that they were going to be that soon. But what we observe here now, comparing the regional elections, is the fact that even though everything pointed out that the Socialist Party was going to perform quite poorly or much worse than in the past, they managed to get around 28% of the votes, which was a similar percentage of what they got in 2019 when they managed to form the national government.

00:02:45 Patricia Correa

So that already points to the fact that even though, the Socialist Party has decreased support and this is nothing of what they managed to get in the 8 days, right? But it's still it is quite resilient, so they have managed to keep some electoral base quite stable, not what they probably want to, so not as much as they would like, but at least something that is what is stable and in these new elections. Maybe because there was this climate of fear about the access of Vox to the institutions, they not only managed to keep that base mobilized, but also to improve a couple of percentage points. So, they did quite well. But everyone thought because their reading of the regional elections was that the Socialists were losing the control of a lot of relevant regions and regions that have been paramount to explain the success or the survival of Pedro Sánchez, but nonetheless the electoral base was there and we don't observe that much changes. So that is something that could explain first Pedro Sánchez decision to call for a snap election before things went wrongly or became worse.

00:03:48 Patricia Correa

And second the fact that they have done much better than expected, the other part of the question I would say is to look at what's going on in the right wing of the spectrum in Spain. So you have by calling for them to snap election. They didn't allow PP to enjoy this momentum when they were just winning. They have managed to gain control of a lot of regions. They have increased the regional power and their electoral support, but by calling so fast for a snap election, they didn't allow them to enjoy this moment and they had to go into campaign mode again and we see that the right side is growing, but not as much as they need to. They had very high expectations about how well they were going to do in these elections.

00:04:32 Patricia Correa

And in the end, the results are not that good for them, and Vox managed to keep their 3 million voters, so they managed to keep their position, which is quite good for them. But it also shows that maybe that's as much as they can grow. There was this fear that they were going to get as good results as they had in the in 2019, but they have lost, I think it's around ten seats.

00:04:55 Patricia Correa

So it also shows you limitations about how much the right wing can expand. So we are observing that the right side of the spectrum has grown but is not expanding that much. And what is going on is that the left wing is shrinking a little bit, but not enough to not be in a position as we are right now, in which maybe there could be a repetition of the government. And then we also have Sumar this new formation that came up from Podemos and United left and then a lot of other regional parties or regional branches of formations because there is a little bit of everything within the Sumar platform that they have managed to carve the decline of Podemos, they have managed to keep these 3 million voters because in the regional elections were not that positive for this group of political parties or these formations. But then with the new name, with the new Sumar platform, they have managed to at least hold 3,000,000 and stop this declining trend that Podemos was observing.

00:05:59 Manoel Gehrke

That's fascinating. So, the left-wing coalition by strategically calling for snap elections, catching others off guard and focusing on regaining or maintaining their vote base successfully prevented a complete shift to the right. What was the impact of the electoral campaign, and how did the two main candidates, incumbent Sánchez and the challenger Feijóo, perform?

00:06:21 Patricia Correa

I think something that I found quite interesting from the campaign was, for instance, that the socialist did quite well. So Pedro Sánchez was very good in the campaign. They he had like several appearance in the media, mainstream media from both sides, well, others that will be more sympathetic towards the left, but also those that were more sympathetic towards the right. And he did quite well. I think that the first debate was not very good, but if you keep that away the rest of the campaign was quite positive. He got the support of Zapatero, the former President of Spain, who was really active in the election and that hadn't been the case in other elections. So that was also an interesting and positive surprise for the candidate and maybe the expectations about what Feijóo could do for the PP, the Spanish People's Party, were too high, I think, because both parties have been in there a lot of turmoil. There were a lot of expectations about what Feijóo meant and they were expecting going back to the old times and to the former success of PP. And I think he just didn't meet the expectations. His performance during the campaign, I mean was not as good as maybe he would have needed to be to managed to attract those voters than went to box a few years ago and haven't come back. I will say that all in all, that helps to understand the resilience of Pedro Sánchez. He ended up competing in an environment in which several factors maybe and indirectly help him to keep this position.

00:07:58 Manoel Gehrke

That's very interesting. So if we talk about also like in terms of performance in government, in what domains would you say that the government led by Pedro Sánchez managed to deliver and it why what domains did it fail to achieve its promises?

00:08:10 Patricia Correa

I think the the big success of this government is that they managed to last four years because nobody thought that was going to happen. It was the first coalition government at the national level. We didn't have experience on that. So there are a lot of coalitions at the regional level, but we don't have the experience for it at the national level. I remember when in 2019, when we had the elections and then when they for the government and from 2020 nobody thought this was going to last, they thought the level of confrontation between pesos and Podemos was going to be so high that at some point it was just going to implode.

00:08:49 Patricia Correa

That that hasn't happened. So I think that's the big success of this government is that, first of all, it lasted and then they had, they had some winnings when it comes to some of the policies that they have managed to approve, at least during this government. I had a look yesterday out of curiosity because something that the Spanish Government has been doing as a way of transparency is just to keep a record of all the agreements that they have passed so that they have translated into policies during their government and this is in the official website of Moncloa of the government and by December 22, which is the last time that they uploaded documents, they had already managed to implement 70% of the agreements of the coalition between Podemos and the Socialists, so that's already a lot, right? And that probably also helps explaining why the coalition has lasted that because to some extent they were doing what they agreed to do at the beginning.

00:09:49 Patricia Correa

And they had, some interesting successes are the labor reforms that they managed to get the agreement between the business associations and the trade unions and they agree to change the pensions. They also got an agreement in terms of all these casual works to reduce the these temporary contracts, which are quite common in Spain or were quite common and they also manage to increase the minimum salary. So they had some reforms that were quite successful in labor and that they brought together the business associations which often are more supported of right-wing parties, but they managed to get an agreement with trade unions under the umbrella of the left wing collision that was positive, the management of the COVID pandemic crisis has been quite successful, and especially when it comes to the economic side effects of the pandemic and now the Ukrainian war, the government implemented a lot of like economic packages to support companies, small middle companies, they have also in terms of the energy prices and and that's an interesting comparison with what we have been living here in the UK. So they managed to get this kind of like the Liberian exception and that was in agreement with the European Union to a point that they established a cap of how expensive electricity bills could get. So they they put a cap on the electricity prices.

00:11:17 Patricia Correa

They have also subsidized part of the petrol cost, so when you need petrol for your car, one part was paid by the government. The other part was paid by the consumer. So they have introduced several measures, economic measures that have helped palliate or mitigate the effects of the pandemic and the Ukrainian war, so those were clear successes, I will say from the government. And then I wouldn't say failures but measures that created a lot of noise and problems were, for instance, the agreements to deal with the Catalan conflict and to change secession laws that created a lot of noise at the moment, and it still comes back from time to time, especially in some regions of Spain they might use this as part of the discourse against the left wing coalition. But to be fair, in the past couple of years I'll say it hasn't been an issue. So for some time we stopped talking, when it came to national politics, about the Catalan independence, the Catalan independence has controlled the discourse of public opinion, for I don't know how many times, but they were always there. After the secession of, after all of the independent leaders went out of prison after some point, the debate was silenced or not as noisy as it was before. So someone might say that was a success. Others still considered it a failure because the legislation changed, right. And then another policy that created a lot of issues and problems and also some issues within the coalition between Podemos and PSOE was they they the lack, which is like the law. Yes, it's yes, that has to do with women violence and against harassment or abuse against women. Right.

00:13:08 Patricia Correa

So that created a lot of issues because one of the aspects within the law was that they were going to remove the harassment, so they were going to remove that part and and name it differently to convert it in kind of like that was a sexual aggression. So then I think the abuse or harassment word, I don't remember exactly the terms. It was not going to be included in the law anymore and that had, as a side effect, that some of the sentence of people that were already in prison had to be changed and some went out of prison earlier that expected. So it was more about the implementation of that law that generated some backlash.

00:13:48 Patricia Correa

And that has been one of the core issues accomplished within the coalition that could have damaged the government and that created a lot of rejection within the right-wing parties, or even within some feminist groups. The same was about the trans law and the euthanasia law that they created noise. But these last two I'm not sure to what point they can be considered as a failure or that they that we could use them to explain. Maybe the government not performing as well as one might think, but those be the the ones that come to my mind as the ones that have defined to some extent what has happened in the coalition government.

00:14:30 Manoel Gehrke

Something else that caused attention while looking at the recent elections in Spain is that in contrast to trends in other countries where challenging parties have gained prominence, such as the victory of Fratelli D’Italia in Italy last year in Spain, the elections witnessed the reinforcement of two established parties, especially when comparing them to the two preceding national elections. How did the traditional parties adapt their strategies to react to challengers both on the right and the left of the political spectrum as well as those coming from regional parties?

00:15:04 Patricia Correa

So it is true that things have changed a lot in Spain. We we had our party system in which the two main parties, socialist and the Spanish Peoples Party, were dominating the situation to this multi-party system in which now we need coalitions. So the whole set of rules of the game have changed, and that also forces parties to adapt to survive. The rules are not the same anymore, so you cannot keep acting as you were 10-15 years ago, because otherwise you risk disappearing. So I think both traditional parties have been forced to change the way that they operate and to adapt to these new challenges, both on the left and in the right, I will say that some of the key changes that we can observe are linked to leadership. So we have new leaders in both main political parties.

00:15:57 Patricia Correa

We have also changes in the discourse and organizational changes, so when it comes to the Socialists, they went into a lot of internal turmoil. We might not remember it right now, but Pedro Sánchez leadership has been questioned a lot within the Spanish Socialist Party. I would say there are still some sections, some members of the party that are not really sympathetic to Sánchez, but his resilience has been proven, so I'm not sure he's going anyway anytime soon.

00:16:29 Patricia Correa

And Sánchez faced a lot of resistance within the party, but he managed to succeed. He managed to win the members board and become the general Secretary and the lead the party leader. So we observe thought and that was in response to some extent to new parties on the left, I don't think we could expect a leader such as Pedro Sánchez without the existence of new parties, new challenges parties such as Podemos.

00:17:01 Patricia Correa

And then on the side of the PP, when it comes to the party leader. So they had Pablo Casado that was forced to resign. And now they have Feijóo who has won the elections, but one probably governed at the national level to some extent has failed. And we'll see what happens now because the regional leader in Madrid, Ayuso, is quite strong and getting more and more popularity. So the people it's still adapting when it comes to leadership and also when it comes to the discourse to these new challenges, I think that the Socialists have managed to succeed in Co opting some of the issues that Podemos brought to the debate. So when it comes to equality, they have been really adamant in trying to improve equality and women representation, the government coalition had parity in terms of male and female members, and that was part of the agenda. So women rights were part of the agenda for Podemos, so now you cannot distinguish who is doing that anymore. When you think about it, you think about left wing and you think about the coalition, not necessarily one of the parties.

00:18:11 Patricia Correa

And everything that has to do with welfare, state social rights, they have already been quite active in trying to co-opt this issue, so they have adapted the discourse to focus more in this kind of like new politics issues and maybe leave aside more traditional economic issues of the left.

00:18:33 Patricia Correa

And when it comes to the PP, this to the Spanish People's Party, they have also adapted their discourse. They have made more dominant this and this anti-Sánchez rhetoric and everything that has to do with the left coalition, but also they are talking more and more about national identity. And that's part of the rhetoric part of the discourse that comes from Vox and that they are trying to capitalize, for instance, something that I didn't expect. It was that ETA, the former terrorist group, was going to be one of the topics in the electoral campaign. That is something that I thought as a society we had moved on, but apparently not, so you can see a change in the discourses trying to attract and mobilize the voters from those new parties. And then in terms of organization, there has been a lot of changes within the parties and I'm actually working on that, that I find very interesting because you see how parties on the left are becoming more similar organizationally and parties on the right are becoming more similar organizationally. So it seems that they are copying each other. So, the parties on the left have tried to increase the level of influence of party members. So ,at the beginning Podemos was an example of the maximum level of member influence and then the Socialists started to change some of the procedures, or incorporating more procedures, but up to certain point, because obviously when you have institutionalized, you want to give voice to the Members, but you also know how problematic that can be at some points. So, Podemos has reduced the level of influence members used to help a little bit, so they are organizations are becoming more similar and something is happening also in the right.

00:20:18 Patricia Correa

So, PP has changed, I've been talking a lot about Vox, but PP has also changed. Thinking about things than us. It's funny how fast we forget about some of the parties, but something that PP copied or was influenced, or maybe had incentives to change was that they have included a sort of primary system to you to give more voice to the members. And that is in response of these new parties criticizing the old way of doing politics in traditional parties. So this contagion in terms of discourse and in terms of organization, and I think that's what has helped mainstream parties to adapt to these new challenges and especially as you mentioned to retain the relevance because in comparison to other European countries, mainstream parties are still dominating or are the ones getting the highest levels of support, and there is an important difference in terms of votes between the mainstream parties and what other new challenger parties are getting.

00:21:20 Manoel Gehrke

This is really fascinating. How they're changing their strategies. So do you think that the threat of helping Vox a far right party in government also helped to keep the coalition of the Left together and also thinking about like how they actually during the election seem to be forming a kind of an electoral alliance against the right. Do you think that might have helped, especially in the last year where they had a lot of incentives to compete for votes among themselves, right, between the parties on the left. Do you think that terms of institutional challenges that Vox posed?

00:21:56 Patricia Correa

If we think about parties and I'm thinking about what left wing parties were able to afford or what they can afford because they need to join forces to repeat the collision, that also explain why the collision lasted because nobody can afford on the left to be the one that allow Vox to get into the institutions because how can you build on it later on? How can you go on an electoral campaign saying because we didn't support the socialist or because we didn't agree to form a coalition with Sumar or Podemos, Vox and PP are now governing at the national level. So, the fear of books accessing national government has played a role in how the campaign went. It was in the second debate because the first electoral debate was only between Pedro Sánchez and Feijoo, the candidates of the main two parties.

00:22:50 Patricia Correa

But the second debate was between Pedro Sánchez, Yolanda Diaz, the candidate for Sumar, and Santiago Pascal, the candidate of Vox. Feijoo didn’t agree on participating. So he was not present on that one and it was curious to see the dynamics and how sympathetic and friendly Yolanda Diaz and Pedro Sánchez were and they were trying to say to the voters that we're going to do this again and we are one side and Vox is another. And if the PP decides to go with Vox, then they are part of the other side and I think it's also very early to break that fear because even though the PP and Vox have agreed on coalitions at the regional level in several regions, that has just happened, right? So we know they are there.

00:23:36 Patricia Correa

But we haven't yet seen what they can do once they are in the institutions and and that also poses two risks. Because one is that OK, maybe they manage to get the institutions, they get the government responsibilities at the regional level, but if they don't do any that much or what maybe left voters might consider as damage, that will normalize the presence of Vox so that fear can no longer work. It all depends. How do they perform, and for that PP will be key, and how much they allow them to do or not. So I think it's important how this fear of the presence of Vox played and more thinking about the voters. And this is just anecdotical evidence because we I don't have the data, but just thinking about my friends and I have some friends that are left wing and I have also friends that will be a bit more conservative.

00:24:26 Patricia Correa

All of them were a bit worried about what could be in in the institutions or being at the national level could mean. So that's still playing a role both at party level will say, but also at the meso level, but also at the individual level. But it's still early to tell. I think Vox voters are more ideological, so I imagine that also if Vox doesn't perform as they expected, things could change in the future so yes, I think it played a role, but I think it's still early to tell how that is going to play in the long term.

00:24:58 Manoel Gehrke

Are there other novelties and things that are happening in Spanish politics and society that the world should be paying attention to?

00:25:06 Patricia Correa

Well, I think first of all, if you are a fan of elections, Spain is the country to look at because we just keep having and having elections. But I think it depends on the topic and I'll talk about the ones that I work on because those are the ones that I know a bit more or I'm a bit more passionate about, but I think when it comes to party activism, we observe this trends in Europe in which the level of activism in political parties was decreasing. Most parties were losing members and also losing activists. But Spain is one of the few countries that didn't experience the same trend.

00:25:41 Patricia Correa

It's interesting. So in an article that I have with my colleagues Juan Rodriguez from the University of Valencia, Oscar Barbara from the University of Valencia too. We observe that during the Great Recession that helped Spanish parties to recruit more activists. And maybe that was because of the the emergence of Podemos and all the new parties that they managed to attract new members but they stopped this declining trend of people not wanting to be active in political parties and that is also interesting if we think about youth and the younger population. We think about young members because we keep listening and I'm particularly worried about the fact that young individuals don't seem to be interested in formal ways of political participation and especially in enrolling in political parties and being active, because well, I still think that parties are key actors in our democracies and we need them and and they are at risk if they don't manage to get new members especially, and for that you need to attract the youngest, right. But both for Podemos and Vox have managed to attract young members. It may be worth checking what are these political parties doing to attract young Members and make them more inclined to be active with them. It will be interesting to see what their party youth wings are doing.

00:27:00 Patricia Correa

If they have any sort of mechanism that might make them more attractive or so, and that will be useful to other European parties that might be struggling in attracting young voters. And then another aspect that maybe Spain doesn't advertise that well is the fact that they have been pioneering when it comes to some of the women representation laws, for instance, and I think the the Catalan case is the one that it might be worth checking if it is something you might be interested in because they have approved several laws to protect women from harassment in different sides of societies. So, but especially laws are the public administration on the... even in I think the Catalan law even included some aspects about political parties, regulating also how harassments will be take into account regulated or even how it will be punished. So I think it's it's interesting the efforts that they are making to try to improve women representation.

00:28:00 Patricia Correa

One of them goes through the fact that an aspect to fight is the level of harassment that woman in the public sphere experience, because there has been legislation about the private sphere is a lot about women violence. But I think what happens on the public sphere, it's now becoming more of an issue or more visible and more countries are starting to catch up, right.

00:28:22 Patricia Correa

Because there are some studies that point out that one of the reasons of why women might decide not to pursue a political career is the level of harassment they suffer when in office or when running for elections. So, I think Spain started with Catalonia, but also now there is a law at the national level about protection. There is a law on parity, but it's also law about how do we define violence.

00:28:48 Manoel Gehrke

Fantastic. Thank you very much for this insightful panorama of Spanish politics. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

00:28:54 Patricia Correa

Thank you so much for inviting me.

00:28:57 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, accountability and representation at University of Birmingham. To learn more about our center and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description. 

Coups and the threat of “feel good” militarism in Africa

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00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast brought to you by Cedar, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:13 Nic Cheeseman

Hi everyone and thanks for joining us today. I'm delighted to say that we'll be talking to Rita Abrahamsen, who is the professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is well known for important book Disciplining Democracy: Development, Discourses and Good Governance in Africa. Welcome Rita.

00:00:31 Rita Abrahamson

Thank you, nick. It's wonderful to be here.

00:00:33 Nic Cheeseman

Now, today we're talking about a rather different topic from that influential book. We're talking about your work on the military and explicitly what you call militarism. I think series of really prescient publications. You over the last few years have talked about what in some places you describe as a kind of feel good militarism that has come about because of a fusion of things like security and development and is really quite different from the kinds of militaries we might have seen in the past.

00:00:58 Nic Cheeseman

And I think this is a really timely moment to revisit those insights because of course we've just had a coup in Niger that's followed on from coups in a number of other countries - Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Sudan and a real debate, I think within Africa and also beyond about the appropriate role of the military in politics. And one of the things that's really struck me as someone who spent much of my life working on Democracy in Africa is the number of people either, you know, on the ground, waving flags and apparently celebrating the coup or in the wider international community who seem to be much more willing to think that coups and military rule might be a good thing, whereas previously 5-10 years ago I think we would have generally had a consensus that it was a bad thing. So, I think it's a great time to revisit those articles which I think in some ways anticipated this recent spate of events. But to start with, I think it would be really useful for us all just to start with that concept. So, what do you mean when you say militarism?

00:01:50 Rita Abrahamsen

I think when most people hear the concept militarism, they just think about hardware. They think about weapons, tanks, all the kind of materials - kinds of of a military presence in a society, and that's a crucial part of it. But there's much more to the concept of militarism than just military hardware. So, one brief definition would be that it has to do with the preparation for war and the normalization and legitimation of the preparation for war. But there is this crucial ideation or ideological element to it – there's a - a sort of almost glorification of the military and military value. And this idea and acceptance that military solutions to civilian problems is acceptable. Or if we were to give an example from a non-African settings - I'm a distance runner and since I moved to Canada one of the runs I've taken part in almost every year is a military run half marathon.

00:02:49 Rita Abrahamsen

And when you finish that, you get a medal, that is like the military tag, right, completely innocent. But one of the things it does is to put military values and the presence of military into our everyday lives of distance running and say, hey, militaries are part of our societies. And I think that is a much more subtle way of thinking about militarism that when we come to thinking and talking about what's happening presently in Africa, we need to take with us. It's this normalization and acceptance of it.

00:03:18 Nic Cheeseman

So, it's a kind of softening in a way of the image of the military and the military isn't this scary thing with the guns, it's a nice thing that everyone can participate in. I think that's a really interesting insight. One other thing that I've noticed a little bit is the idea that the military might be more efficient is coming back. And I think that's combined with this in a certain way at the minute. So perhaps we had this in African countries, maybe in the 70s where you have a period of unstable civilian rule. Then there's an idea that, well, maybe the military isn't so bad because they'll be the best organized trade union. They'll overcome the ethnic tensions in a country, they'll be organized, disciplined, hierarchical and efficient. They'll get stuff done, so they'll reduce corruption, but they'll also deliver more.

00:04:00 Nic Cheeseman

And what we learned in the 70s and 80s is that this is actually not true. That the military becomes riven with all the same issues - corruption, ethnicity, patronage as the wider state, that it doesn't necessarily deliver, it doesn't perform very well economically. But what you do get is more human rights violations. So I think what's really interesting for me, having studied that period, the 80s and 90s and the overflow of military rule and the rise of multi-party democracy in Africa, is your work as a reminder that somehow the image of militaries is being rehabilitated? So, it'd be really interesting to talk through how has that happened over the last sort of 10, 20 years. What have been the drivers that have led to us reimagining the military from the way we might have done 20 years ago?

00:04:36 Rita Abrahamsen

I think obviously, there’re very many different reasons why the military has been rehabilitated. But one important aspect of this, I think is the focus within development policies and external actors after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We could go further back, but there is a crucial change that takes place after 9/11. When international actors and African actors become increasingly more preoccupied with international security. And what happens at this point is that there is both a kind of focus on retraining militaries, making them more respectful of human rights, turning them into the very and rational actors that will support state building.

00:05:16 Rita Abrahamsen

But there is also a focus on training them to be more effective, more efficient in combating terror and, of course, this coincides with the period in time where Western actors do not want to sacrifice their own soldiers in these conflict, right? So we then have to - ‘we’ being western donors and actors have to train efficient militaries to do this for us. To maintain international stability, African actors have an active interest also in providing security, and this is the crucial point. If we are just training militaries to become more effective, more efficient and shoot in a straight line but not being equally successful in instilling respect for human rights, civilian oversight, and so forth, we end up in a situation potentially where militaries become strong actors and stronger actors vis–a- vis civilian actors, vis–a-vis elected representatives and so forth. And the entry of reentry into politics can then be facilitated by this relationship.

00:06:20 Nic Cheeseman

That's clearly something that we need to worry about, and one of the things that's been pointed out in recent years is that some of those who have led coups, not all of them, but some of them have been in the kind of training programs that you're talking about, which raises really serious questions about whether or not it's feasible to really train people, especially in relatively short periods of time to have things like respect for civilian law and to be clean, to respect good governance principles and so on. Do you think that a lot of those training programs are to an extent trying to achieve the impossible? Is there something there about almost conning ourselves into the extent to which you contain military actors by passing on norms and giving education sessions when people are in the middle of a political crisis or as in recent cases where their own military interests have perhaps been challenged by a government that might be looking to rotate military leaders in the heat of that moment, their interests are always going to win out over those border principles. Or do you think that we do see some evidence that training can be success?

00:07:21 Rita Abrahamsen

I think it can potentially be successful, but there's no doubt that this kind of training is resisted. Nobody, the military included, state leaders, don't really want that kind of interference in what they regard as their sovereign domain. So, it's much easier to train people and train soldiers to fight to shoot, to do military operations - that is much, much easier. Those technical forms of training is much easier than much more long-term difficult job of changing mentalities, changing the way we think. And what has happened with the forms of security assistance over the years is that in the beginning there was much more emphasis on human rights, good governance, respect for civilians and that side of training has receded to the background and the technical aspects, and their hardware aspects have come to the forefront. So, my argument, and I I would be careful, I mean what the current situation in Niger and so forth, what it it really raises serious questions about the success of external military training

00:08:27 Rita Abrahamsen

and what we can say for sure is that an awful lot of military training does not equal better democracy and better human rights. We've seen an increase in terrorist attacks across the Sahel despite this immense amount of resources going into stop it. But that doesn't mean, in my opinion, that we can draw a direct causal link to say that this is what causes the military coups. There are many more intervening variable there, but it does and it should absolutely lead us to ask very careful questions about how this type of assistance can be done and should be done.

00:09:07 Nic Cheeseman

Now one of the things that you talked a lot about in your own work is the role of development in this. And we haven't talked too much about development. In fact, one of your articles, the title is ‘Defensive development, combative contradictions.’ So what role as development and the idea that the military can be an important actor in development played in shaping the processes that we've started to talk about?

00:09:26 Rita Abrahamsen

That's very interesting. One of the people who's written a lot about - this Andrew Basavich, calls it a kind of “feel good” militarism where what we've seen is that in the past the people and the agencies and actors that promoted militarism were military actors, departments of defence. And what we've seen in more recent years, all these do–gooders, development actors, humanitarian actors that have the biggest cheerleaders for military intervention, for military solutions and what has happened within development discourse and development policies is that we have had a kind of reinterpretation of the values within development that we have this slogan that everyone knows there can be no security without development and no development without security, and that rehabilitates military solutions, and we can then provide development assistance to military and security actors in the name of humanitarianism, development, democracy.

00:10:26 Rita Abrahamsen

And I think that has been incredibly important in getting to the situation where we are now where democracy is - as you've written as a lot about, Nic - democracy is this concept that legitimizes any political action because it's inevitably a good thing, right? So if it's democratic, it's got to be good. So.If we can have security intervention support for security actors in the name of peace and democracy then who are we to oppose? It so it kind of legitimates it.

00:10:58 Nic Cheeseman

Now one of the things that we both worked on a lot over the last 20 years is is African politics. In fact, we first came to know each other, editing the journal African Affairs a few years ago. Erm, so what would be interesting maybe to think about is, is how is this different in Africa too elsewhere, you know? Some of the things you talked about are very general global trends post 9/11, shifts in how we've thought about the military, they need to be able to train and how militaries operates that aren't necessarily Western militaries and therefore almost proxy kind of militaries doing work in other countries. A lot of those are global, of course some of these factors are also perhaps particularly present and more significant in what you know historically have been called underdeveloped countries in terms of the desire to rapidly develop and perhaps a sense that somehow the military might be able to play a role there. Is there anything distinctively African about the narrative you for example described in your papers? I asked that, of course, because the vast majority of coups since 1990 have been in Africa. A lot of the coups that we've talked about recently, we named a lot of the countries at the top of the show, but in just the last five years, you would say Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Niger, in some of those countries, not just one coup, but two. Is there anything distinctive about these trends in the way that they play out in the African context?

00:12:11 Rita Abrahamsen

I think it's slightly different. So one of my arguments has been that a coup or a military situation will always be specific to each country, but I think we can't get away from talking about the legacy of the colonial period at the way in which militaries in most African countries, if not all African countries, were were institutions that were set up originally to descend the colonial power and the colonial regime. So, they were focused on resume security, not citizen security and the continuing sort of effort post – independence to turn militaries towards institutions that support broad based democratic development has been a continual struggle, right. So, so you see military is continuing to be externally oriented, sometimes elite driven or externally separated from the rest of society.

00:13:06 Rita Abrahamsen

So I think one of the crucial historical and sociological elements of this would be in each of the countries where we've seen a rise in militarism and a return of the military coup is to go back and look at how militaries have colonial origins, how they've struggled, and there's been a struggle between the states to control military force from a militaristic perspective. What is the relationship between the state and its military force? And that, I think, is profoundly conditioned by a colonial past.

00:13:40 Nic Cheeseman

One of the things that might be interesting to move on to now is to think a little bit about what this recent, perhaps spate of coups means, and one of the things that we've seen is an interesting intersection between another aspect of your work and something that you're interested in, and the rise of the coups, which is, of course that a lot of these leaders have responded to taking power or used as a justification to take power as explicitly anti French position and in some cases seem to have explicitly then moved towards a pro-Russian position shifting it might seem at least you know, rhetorically the geopolitical balance within parts of West and Central Africa and that of course has now sent Western actors into a spin, perhaps particularly those who don't know much about Africa.

00:14:22 Nic Cheeseman

And don't really understand the extent to which this is a broader trend or a localized trend. What do you think really explains the confluence of coups and this kind of geopolitical switch? Because it is noticeable, how many of them have followed it. Is it a little bit of political theatre, the anti-France thing is something that's genuinely felt by many citizens, so it's easy for military leaders to play this card to whip up support behind what many might see as a legitimate power grab. Or is this really something more deep-seated, in a sense, within the military regimes that there's something here about Russia and about the role of France, that they have been upset about for a long period of time, and this is actually a genuine grievance on behalf of the military itself.

00:15:02 Rita Abrahamsen

I think it's both of those things. If I were a military person and I was confronted with the failure to tackle a rise in violence, I would look for somebody else to blame but myself. So, who would I blame? I would blame the French because you know it's going to find the fertile ground. You know that people gonna say yes, let's blame the French for anything we can. I think that's a convenient scapegoat. Not saying that the French have done a brilliant job in the Sahel. But nevertheless, it is a convenient scapegoat. So, I think that's definitely part of the explanation. I think the other thing is, for military leaders, it could be quite tempting to turn to Russia and to Wagner because they don't ask any questions. They don't say please be nice and they respect human rights. Please be nice and listen to your democratically elected leaders. They are happy to provide military hardware.

00:15:53 Rita Abrahamsen

They're happy to support them, regardless. So that couldn't well be a tempting direction for, for, for many of these military leaders. And I think I've been toying with the idea of thinking about this in terms of a kind of competitive militarism. You have Western actors that are happy to train militaries, and now we have other actors, most recently Wagner and Russia, that are also happy to do that. So, we kind of get almost a competitive situation of competitive militarism and if you are a military leader, you can turn either way, play both of them and strengthen yourself, right? Strengthen your own power and what really concerns me is that the people who lose out here are ordinary people that live in these countries, the populations and civilian democratically elected and democratically inclined politicians.

00:16:44 Nic Cheeseman

I think one of the other things that's really interesting is that of course, if Wagner are willing to send you mercenaries again, it takes us back to that point you made earlier that it's quite attractive to the military to have someone else come and do their fighting, because of course it's someone else coming and doing the dying and taking on the risk. And therefore, if you are struggling in a conflict and Wagner was willing to send mercenaries your way, there are other people you can put on the frontline. It doesn't have to be you. So, I I can see that attraction as well. I think one of the things I wonder moving forwards is that at least for my not particularly well informed, you know, viewpoint, it doesn't seem to me that Russia or Wagner has anywhere near the capacity to do the job these militaries acquire.

00:17:22 Nic Cheeseman

You know, if we zoom out a minute and I'll ask you, you know, to reflect on this in just a second, one of the things we know is that the backdrop to a lot of these coups has been rising insecurity in the countries concerned. You talked about this earlier. We have insurgent groups. We have rising criminality. We have cross-border networks of criminality and violence that the states that we're talking about by and large, have really struggled to control. Ironically, of course, Niger is said to be one of the countries that's done slightly better on this front. But in general, these are governments that have really struggled.

00:17:51 Nic Cheeseman

And militaries have often used their insecurity as a legitimating device in terms of explaining why they've taken over power. But if you've got a Russian government that doesn't have much money to spend. It’s struggling to assert itself in Ukraine in its own immediate theater, and you've got Wagner, which, you know, it doesn't have that many troops, and you've got to deal with an area the size of the Sahel. This is not going to be a long-term solution to security. And so, one of the things that I wonder whether we'll see going forwards is relatively quickly what appears to be in some countries high levels of public support for aspects of the junta, aspects of you know the relationship to Russia, eroding fairly rapidly and leading to people being more frustrated and more upset and more angry than they were before, and deterioration in the security situation. And that then putting real pressure on military leaders in terms of whether or not they're gonna hold on to power. And of course, one of the critical backdrops to that is that we know that in most countries in Africa, people want elected governments. So there's a sort of default in most countries that, well, we might be willing to tolerate the military now, because the last government was so bad, but in principle we want to return to elected government. And I remember, you know, a nice moment in the BBC interview with someone on the streets in Mali who was celebrating the coup and the BBC said to him something like how are you out here as well? This is a victory for the Malian people. This is the terrible government. It's great to have them remove. This is a real opportunity for progress and then they said, so you're, you're looking forward to the military rule. And the president said, Oh no, the military cannot govern. They need to go quickly. It's just they’re there as a correction for us to get another government and we can do a better job as a democracy.

00:19:20 Nic Cheeseman

And so I guess my question to you is, first of all, how do you see security having played in here? And do you see any option for these coups to improvement in security in the region, and if not, what's the actual situation going to be like facing these military leaders in two or three years' time? It seems that the minute that they don't really want to hand over power to civilians most of the time we've seen hunters try and delay that process and yet might be quite challenging for them to retain power.

00:19:48 Nic Cheeseman

The idea that they're the military, so it will be easier for them historically prove to be false in Africa, so perhaps this doesn't even solve the challenge of political instability.

00:19:56 Rita Abrahamsen

I think you're absolutely right. I think they’ll not have any more chance of solving the security problem than what came before. In fact, I think they will have less. They may do it more brutally with the help of Wagner and without external assistance, but I don't think they're going to have any more chance of solving the immense security problems in the region and you know what we might be looking at is, as you say, more instability. It's quite common for one military ruler to be overturned by another, so we might be looking at the succession of coups, as we've seen already in Mali and it's quite depressing and disturbing because it's hard to point to, whenever I do interviews like this, I would try to find something positive and optimistic to say, but looking at this situation it's very hard to see much of a light at the end of the tunnel or a positive solution to it.

00:20:51 Rita Abrahamsen

At the moment, all of us are kind of hoping that ECOWAS can put some more pressure on the juntas and get them to change their mind, but they seem to be all digging down, wanting to stay on and so far it's been difficult for anyone to get them to say what normally coup leaders say after a while is that yes, you know we are just here as caretakers, we will hand over in period of time to democratically elected leaders, because they know, as you said, that most populations may not be willing to live for a very long time under military rule, but at the moment we don't see much sign of that across the Sahel in these countries.

00:21:32 Nic Cheeseman

I think, yeah, I think it's very interesting and I think we you have these kind of moments of rhetorical kind of compromise where they might hint at this or in order to get sanctions lifted, they might pledge something. But then you very quickly see them digging their heels in, not making any progress towards, you know, the sorts of things you would want to see in terms of transition, you, maybe a new constitution, strengthening the Electoral Commission, all of those kinds of things don't happen, and instead you see censorship, oppression of the opposition, and so on, all of which of course, are the things you wouldn't expect to see if you were genuinely leading up to, to free and fair multiparty elections. And it reminds me of the really good work of Sebastian Elisher on this, who has done some nice work on what happens when you know the military take power and say that they're going to to transfer it into a civilian regime and he finds that, you know, in over 50% of cases the military tries to subvert the transition, so they maintain control. In other words, they either try and rig the elections or they try and stand their own candidate to prevent the transfer of power away from them. And of course, that's something that people have noted in recent years in relation to these coups. Alex Thurston has a nice piece on Niger in which he notes that one of the motivations for the coup was the worry of military leaders, that they would be removed from positions of patronage. And of course, if that's one of the main reasons you have a coup, which is you don't want to lose your job and the perks and the money that it generates. Why would you agree to transfer power to the hands of civilians?

00:22:51 Nic Cheeseman

Because the first thing they're probably going to do is remove you from your position because you were a coup leader when you're a threat to them and then you are going to be on your own without the money and the income and the resources you've enjoyed previously. So, I think that question of how you returned the military to barracks and how you persuade them to allow civilian rule to be reestablished is unfortunately going to be one of the dominant questions the next 10 years in these parts of West Africa. And I think that's, it's a real shame that we've ended up back there, right, because that was the key question in the late 1980s in many of these countries as well, but I think you know, final question people might be interested to hear you talk a little bit about what role then does the international community play? We saw for example, a suggestion that France might play a role in supporting ECOWAS troops in terms of invading militarily Niger. ECOWAS is, of course, the Economic Community of West African States, the regional economic and military body in West Africa. Some people have seen the idea of a military intervention, as you know, potentially disastrous. Not only does it involve ECOWAS in a military expedition in a country where the significant risk that the military and the people would seek to resist that intervention and would see that as an imperial intervention.

00:24:00 Nic Cheeseman

But of course, if it were supported by France, that would play into the narratives the military junta are saying, which is that France is trying to undermine their sovereignty. And so it would potentially strengthen them rather than weaken them. So if the idea of a kind of military intervention from ECOWAS backed by France isn't a good option, are there any good options for how international community can gauge with the juntas in terms of persuading them to move back towards civilian rule.

00:24:23 Rita Abrahamsen

Just before I answer that question, I just wanted to add something to what you were saying earlier as well because we've spoken a lot about the coups, but one important part of talking about militarism is also the ways in which military actors can acquire positions of power without conducting a coup, and you hinted at some of the work earlier that has been done by others, which is really important in this regard.

00:24:45 Rita Abrahamsen

And when I wrote the article called ‘Return of the Generals’ in 2018. I was a bit worried that I was being too pessimistic, so I put a question mark return of the generals question mark, but one of the things I'm saying and trying to show there is that it may not be necessary in these conditions of militarism, to have the military coup. Instead, you can exert power through alliances, through pressure by virtue of becoming a military institution that is a broker between the national and the international. So, it's not only the coup and also post coup you will possibly see that military and other security actors occupy all these positions that previously were civilian positions, so we've seen in in a lot of African countries, for example, generals, military generals, becoming chief of police, right, a kind of militarization of the police. So militarism works not only or not even primarily through the military coup, which we've talked a lot about because it's so prescient at the moment, but also through these other mechanisms, and we could look at countries like Uganda, for example, as a very good example of precisely that.

00:26:00 Rita Abrahamsen

To your question about solutions and what international actors can do at the moment, I think not a great deal. I think supporting ECOWAS, but we also know, as you said, military intervention with ECOWAS at this moment in time is probably not a good idea. Probably also at the moment doesn't look like it's going to happen. So forms of diplomacy, forms of pressure, forms of sanctions, I think it is a really tricky situation and I don't really see very many good options other than for international actors to liaise and align themselves behind organizations and actors on the African continent that could exercise pressure from within. So, ECOWAS, the African Union, I think at the moment, in order not to further allow actors in these countries to drum up anti-westernism, so it's not only anti-French sentiments at the moment, but they're also an increase in some kind of anti-western sentiments where we hear leaders saying that these are forms of neocolonialism, forms of neoimperialism, which I don't totally disagree with, but they become populist discourses, right. They become those populist discourses that allow domestic leaders off the hook. And I think it is a tricky time for both France and other Western countries like the US, Britain, because putting too much pressure on overtly, putting ourselves up as wonderful, virtuous democracies which these countries are not themselves risks just feeding further populist resentment and as we know, Russia and Russian leaders are very quick these days to jump on those kinds of discourses and narrative to further increase the geopolitical struggle. The worst place for Africa to be, in my opinion, is caught

00:28:05 Rita Abrahamsen

between actors in that superpower rivalry that echoes the Cold War, but there are many times in the last few months when I felt we are back there and, and this is not a good place for African countries to find themselves. And I think everyone has to tread very carefully in the careful balancing act, which is why I come back to the need to try to the extent that we can external actors to support African actors, continental actors that put the force on on democracy and and return to civilian rule.

00:28:43 Nic Cheeseman

Absolutely, and I wonder, you know, whether in a few years' time will reflect back and we'll see that the governments played the international community, you know, most effectively in terms of getting what they need are the ones who didn't pick a side, you know, who who kept relations of both East and West, who dealt with Russia and China but sustained relations with France, UK and America, and therefore we're able to, you know, basically secure a wide range of support and assistance, the ones who really burn their bridges at one side in favour of the other are likely to find that that only results in less resources, less access and less influence and actually isn't the way really to play the game. You know, strikes me that countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, are playing the game much more effectively in terms of resisting those international pressures whilst getting what they can out of the international community than a junta that basically tears up its relationship with a number of countries in favour of alliance on perhaps one country that's pretty unstable and pretty unreliable in Russia. And whether or not you know a lot of people are celebrating that as a reassertion of sovereignty, reassertion of anti-imperialism and you that, as you said, that's understandable given the history of colonialism and the extent of French continued involvement, and some would say meddling

00:29:51 Nic Cheeseman

in its colonies ever since, but nonetheless, what's most effective is working collectively with a number of actors simultaneously, and that can be done in the way that doesn't exclude anyone, and I think that you know, will be quite interesting to see in a few years' time who's been able to get the most benefits of the international community and it will probably not be these military regimes. Final thought, you know, Rita, in terms of, you know, moving forward, how does this change the way that we think about the militaries for people like us back home in, in the UK and Canada, in the United States? Are we seeing a significant rebranding and reshaping of them in the people's minds? Is this significant in any way in terms of, you know the way that the military plays out in our own countries in terms of things like military budgets, the kinds of roles that we expect the military to be able to play and has that shifted in the last, you know, 10-20 years as well is, is that something that's happening in, you know, the countries of many of the people who be listening to us today?

00:30:45 Rita Abrahamsen

I think absolutely militarism has increased in almost all parts of the world, it's definitely increased in our parts of the world. I mean, I'm based in Canada at the moment. If we look at North America, Canada and the US, but also Europe, militarism is on the rise, both in terms of hardware and military spending, but also in terms of our attitudes to the military and you know, what we spoke a little bit about earlier, the way in which military actors and other security actors, I've I've worked on on private security in the past, right, private security actors, military actors become development actors, they become do-gooders right?

00:31:23 Rita Abrahamsen

And they have become that in many peoples’ eyes. So I think it has very big consequences, and, and poses very serious questions about how we think about the role of militaries and the role of military force in our own countries and in our own foreign policy. And oftentimes I think these are questions that citizens don't think about, but we probably should spend a lot more time interrogating policies of our own countries alongside those of of others, or the recipients of of military assistance.

00:31:54 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks so much., Rita. I think we've had a great discussion today. We've talked about, you know, what is militarism, the rise of a different form of militarism, “feel good militarism”, the danger potentially of that of giving militaries a greater seat at the table, the impact of that, as you've explained, both through coup, but perhaps also more surreptitiously, subtly through militarization of other forms of government without coups and the potential implications of that, you know, for security development, not just in places like Niger, but also in our own country. So I think we've provided people with an awful lot of food for thought and thank you so much for giving us your time today.

00:32:28 Rita Abrahamsen

Thank you for having me.

00:32:31 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the people Power Politics Podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Center for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our Centre and the exciting work that we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_ Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

Is democracy in trouble?

Listen to the podcast


00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People, Power, Politics Podcast, brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:13 Petra Alderman

My name is Petra Alderman. I am a research fellow at CEDAR and one of the hosts on this exciting new podcast series. With me here is my colleague and founding director of CEDAR, Nic Cheeseman. Nic is Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham, and together with the rest of our CEDAR team that includes Tim Haughton, Licia Cianetti and Manoel Gehrke, Nic is also one of the hosts on this podcast. Nic, it's great to have you here with me to talk about CEDAR and some of the themes that had motivated its establishment.

00:00:47 Nic Cheeseman

It's fabulous to be here.

00:00:48 Petra Alderman

Let me start with what might seem like an odd question. CEDAR stands for the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation, but a lot of the work that we do at CEDAR is also about the rising tide of authoritarianism. So how much do we need to worry about this. Is democracy really, in so much trouble as it might seem these days.

00:01:11 Nic Cheeseman

I think we do need to worry about it for two different reasons. One, we should be concerned about how people live their lives and whether or not people have the opportunity to speak their minds to live freely, to make the decisions that they want to lead what they consider to be meaningful lives. And I think the rising tide of authoritarianism has been eroding that in different parts of the world. But I also think those of us who live in established democracies have almost a self-interest here, because actually the rising tide of authoritarianism threatens our way of life. We know, for example, that authoritarian regimes are more likely to do things like create civil conflict, create violence in nearby states, invade nearby states, create flows of people, create problems when it comes to, for example, international financial flows, criminal networks, and so many of the things that we hold dear, political stability, economic progress, are challenged by living in a world in which an increasing proportion of the countries in the globe are authoritarian rather than democratic.


00:02:17 Nic Cheeseman

And just to put a a fine point on that, for listeners who might be wondering about where we are, we're in a situation now where in a few years' time, if current trends continue, we're probably going to be seeing something like only 5% of the world's population living in full high-quality democracies, just 5%. I think that brings home quite how stark the change has been over the last two decades and quite how dangerous this situation we are in not just for democracy, but, as I've said, also for ourselves, over the next few years.

00:02:50 Petra Alderman

Yes, when you put it that way, that's a very scary prospect indeed. But in what you've just been talking about there are at least two processes that we can talk about.

00:02:59 Petra Alderman

And I know that we have talked about it quite extensively during our CEDAR reading groups, during the recent workshops that we organised at CEDAR, and this is that we have this process where we have a decline in the quality of democracies, maybe those that have been established democracies, and at the same time we have the increase in the autocratisation trends, and these might be either authoritarian countries becoming more authoritarian, but also countries that have liberalised and have made certain level of progress on the transition towards democracy are kind of going back and the progress is being undermined and they are backsliding for the want of a better word. What explains these different trends?

00:03:37 Nic Cheeseman

Well, I think there's there's two things that we should perhaps separate out here. The first is that we need to be really careful about what kinds of authoritarianism we're seeing, and what kinds of democratic weakness or reversals we're seeing. There was a recently a paper published by Andrew Little and Ann Meng which they called subjective and objective measures of democratic backsliding.

00:04:00 Nic Cheeseman

And that was a very controversial paper, but one of the things they argue in the paper is that some of the core indicators of democracy being under threat, like, for example, governments losing power and so on haven't seen as much change as we might have thought, given the narrative that we see about democracy failing and authoritarianism rising.

00:04:17 Nic Cheeseman

And so I think one thing that's really important in light of their paper, whether or not you agree with how they've measured democracy and there are some criticisms that they've measured it very narrowly using very specific indicators, but whether or not you agree with that I think a fundamental point that they're making is important to take on board, which is that there are countries in the world that are not suffering from this decline.


00:04:38 Nic Cheeseman

There are parts of the world and regions of the world that are not suffering from it as much as others, and not everything is getting more authoritarian every year in any kind of simple, straightforward, consistent way. So the first thing we really need to do is take on board that point and recognise that this process is uneven and really pay attention to where it's happening, more where it's happening less, at basic geographical distribution of that. The second thing then I think that we need to really do is be much more careful about what's actually going on.

00:05:06 Nic Cheeseman

So one of the things we'll see, I think if we actually pay much more attention is that backsliding has been much more significant in some parts of the world than others. Other parts of the world have seen processes of actual democratic rupture and big shifts to authoritarian regimes. Other parts of the world have seen something that we might think of as being more authoritarian consolidation, which essentially countries are already authoritarian, have essentially become more authoritarian and in some of those cases, these were not countries that were ever really democracies. So it's not really the case that democracy has collapsed.

00:05:37 Nic Cheeseman

It's simply the case that countries that hadn't made much progress have moved even further away. So thinking about how do we bring that into a common language in a framework that would make sense, for example, for people who might be listening now, I think what we really need to start separating out is those countries that have at some point achieved a high quality democracy and then we've seen that process eroded by, for example, presidents or ruling parties removing term limits trying to stay in office forever becoming increasingly corrupt, manipulate elections. In those countries, we have seen what we might call a gradual democratic erosion. In another set of countries that were always a bit more fragile, always had lower levels of political stability, we've seen much bigger democratic ruptures.

00:06:20 Nic Cheeseman

It's been much quicker, but there has been a significant process of political change. So for example, the countries that have had coups over the last few years, including places like Mali and Burkina Faso, that was a really significant change from maybe a poor quality elected government. But an elected government to being run by a military junta. And then, of course, there's another set of countries around the world, those countries that never really became democratic at all. They were always fairly authoritarian. For example, Chad, Cameroon, Uganda, et cetera, which never really made it to be democratic. They hold elections, but not with the trappings of democracy, with most of the machinery of authoritarian rule still in place.

00:06:58 Nic Cheeseman

And in those countries, we've seen generally higher levels of government repression, greater extension of government control becoming even more difficult for opposition parties to mobilise and so on. But they never were democratic in the first place and that's where I think makes more sense to speak of of autocratic strengthening and the importance of this, I think is that if we don't separate out these processes and understand that they're different, we totally misunderstand what's happening, and so we misunderstand how we can deal with it. And so it's really important to separate out these different processes and not do what we talk about in in some of our work, which is to commit the temporal fallacy.

00:07:35 Nic Cheeseman

The temporal fallacy is to think that because all these things are happening at the same time, they're all driven by the same factors, and when we break it down and we look at different regions and different countries, we realise these are not being driven by the same factors at all. The factors are different, and so the solutions are also going to be different.

00:07:52 Petra Alderman

Exactly. And this is an extremely complex picture and these processes are not happening in the same way all over the world. And I think it's very easy to view this problem through a singular lens and looking through it through the examples of maybe some of the big cases, like Trump's America Bolsonaro's, Brazil or Modi's India. But then as you said there are other cases that wouldn't fit these patterns when you have let's say strong man figures rising and then dividing the electorate on the back of the right wing populist agenda. We have to be definitely a lot more careful about how we understand and also how we offer solutions to this problem. If I was to ask you, we know that this is a very complex issue and we know that the solutions are not simple, where does CEDAR come into all this, why was CEDAR established and what can CEDAR do to help us better understand these processes and maybe help us offer some viable solutions?

00:08:50 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, Petra, I think you just summarised it really well when you gave that explanation and talked a little bit about America, India, Brazil because one of the things we've seen a lot of over the last few years is kind of the assumption that what happens in some of the dominant countries that we pay most attention to in the news, and America is probably the obvious one, are basically a good prism through which to understand the rest of the world.

00:09:12 Nic Cheeseman

So America has a problem with Trump, with political polarisation, with decreasing tolerance and then with right wing nationalism and conspiracy theories and with disinformation, and that's then read as a kind of challenge to democracy into other countries and other regions where it may be much less applicable as a model so you know, for example, some of that story is said to be about Trump's ability to play on concerns about immigration, about national identity. Some of it's said to be related to people perhaps becoming apathetic with democracy after having it for long period of time, perhaps being unsure about how valuable democracy is, but also often, we get concepts like globalisation and the idea that populations being vulnerable to international economic trends and governments struggling to protect their populations, is one of the things that's driving, you know, a kind of discontent with democracy in established Western states. Now that may be, or it may not be a a good explanation of what's happening in somewhere like America or somewhere like Brazil, but that's really not what's happening.

00:10:12 Nic Cheeseman

For example in somewhere like sub-Saharan Africa where again we don't have that many established democracies. And therefore what's happening is not being driven by democratic apathy, having achieved democracy for a long period of time, and we also don't have really the rise of right wing populist leaders. Democracy is much more likely to be threatened in the African context by an established leader who's trying to gain greater control rather than by the emergence of the right-wing rabble rouser from opposition who takes power and then subverts and changes the state.

00:10:41 Nic Cheeseman

I think what we really see there is the need to not try and take one lens and apply it around the world in a simplistic way and to break away from models that are simply based on what's happening in established democracies, or in what we might kind of call for one of a better term, the West, and that's where CEDAR comes in, in bringing people together who really have great in-depth knowledge on different parts of the world and are interested also in having a comparative conversation. People who can speak about Brazil, India, Hungary, Benin, Senegal, Zimbabwe. But all of those countries from an actual recognition of their individual experiences and circumstances, and so we start being able to put together a map of what's happening around the world when it comes to democracy that pays really careful attention and does justice to the complexities of those cases.

00:11:31 Nic Cheeseman

But then we can start to build back from that towards general patterns. So perhaps what we're seeing is not just one pattern, but four or five patterns and we might be able to start identifying that some countries in Africa don't look that different to some countries in Asia and Latin America when it comes to their trajectories over the last four or five years.

00:11:50 Nic Cheeseman

What CEDAR really offers is bringing together people who have great expertise on what's happening to democracy in specific countries, understanding them properly, and then putting the jigsaw puzzle back together so that we get a much more nuanced understanding, but still one that has real analytical power about what's happening globally and the ways in which we could perhaps try and more effectively protect things like political rights and civil liberties.

00:12:15 Petra Alderman

There are four key themes that CEDAR represents, so that's the elections, democracy or the lack of as we've just discussed, then accountability and representation. When we talk about these different themes, I mean in some context, some of these things might be more prominent in the processes that drive the democratisation, but why these 4 themes?


00:12:35 Petra Alderman

There is a lot of other potential issues that CEDAR could be focusing on: one of the big ones, for example is disinformation, you mentioned conspiracy theories. Why did you, Tim and Licia focus particularly on these 4 broad themes?

00:12:48 Nic Cheeseman

That's a great question. And and remind me to come back to disinformation in a moment. I think one answer is that some of these themes are not simply related to democracy. And although CEDAR is about, you know, understanding democracy, it's also about understanding how people engage in politics all around the world and my sense, having studied many different communities in many different countries in many different regions, is that whether or not people express a demand in terms of their desire for democracy, they do want some kind of accountability of the people who rule over them and they want some kind of representation of their voice and their position within the decision making process. Now that might not look like a modern western democracy. It might not look like liberal democracy, but a desire for some kind of accountability, when things go wrong and some kind of ability to be represented and have your voice heard for me are two of the things that I really see as almost universal values.

00:13:40 Nic Cheeseman

I've never met a community that's not wanted to have those two things, or an individual who's not wanted to have those two things. So for me, these go beyond the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism, between different societies, they're kind of things that we as human beings aspire to and often get very frustrated if we don't have them. They're also, I think, things that if we don't have them mean that whether or not we officially call our political system a democracy or not are actually in some ways more important. If you have multi party elections and you have what you call a democratic system, but you don't have representation and you don't have accountability, then your democracy is hollow, right? It's a sham democracy. It's a counterfeit democracy. It's not really offering people what they really value about a democratic political system. And so I think accountability and representation are really key because they're in some ways what bring to life our democratic political system, but they're also what I think people sometimes even look for within authoritarian political systems. There are lots of examples of people within authoritarian states demanding better quality representation, demanding better quality accountability. On the accountability strand, it's important to say that this opens up a really exciting and interesting set of research that many people in CEDAR are interested in, around corruption, around how we make sure that actually public services are delivered effectively, about how we make sure that people who've committed abuses from human rights abuses all the way to financial abuses are held accountable. That's a really important strand of research within the University of Birmingham and CEDAR, on the one hand. 

00:15:10 Nic Cheeseman

On the side of representation, I think that's really important because it also brings in a broad range of issues, so we could think here about, for example, the representation of women in Parliament all the way through to what happens to gay communities, to minority communities, to people living with disabilities, what happens to them in political systems where their rights aren't fully respected and they're not able to fully participate in politics. So accountability and representation really bring in, you know, a rich set of issues which are fundamental, I think, to many of the issues that we're talking about today.

00:15:43 Nic Cheeseman

Now to come back very quickly to disinformation, I think it's true that we didn't pack disinformation into the name but I think in a sense, we do have a great interest in this and it comes in, of course, through accountability and representation because disinformation threatens democracy by basically threatening to undermine accountability and representation by distorting the reality by undermining citizens ability to actually understand what their governments have done and therefore to be able to hold them accountable, but also on the representation side, disinformation and often other kinds of problems like malinformation. We talk about disinformation as if the only issue online is fake news, but actually hate speech and other forms of social media kind of problems and bads are just as significant as fake news, and often that information isn't necessarily fake in an obvious way. It's just hostile, but it's not actually made-up. That is, you know, absolutely fundamental to some of the challenges that we're seeing. And we do study that within CEDAR. But as I said, I think it comes in through these alternative lenses of accountability and representation.

00:16:46 Petra Alderman

Yes. And I know that you've focused mostly on the latter part of the CEDAR name, the accountability and representation, but this is also relevant to the topic of elections. And we've seen a lot of rise of disinformation during the pre-election campaigns, post-election campaigns as well. And although this is now widely accepted fact that democracy does not equal elections, but you cannot have democracy without it. So elections are very important for all democracies and the quality of them is the deciding factor, and disinformation, malinformation and lack of representation, lack of accountability, all feeds to these broader issues and problems.

So, it is really great to see the work that CEDAR has been doing. It is absolutely great to be part of CEDAR and I'm very excited that we are also launching this People, Power, Politics podcast as part of CEDAR activities and that we will be able to share the exciting research that we do as part of CEDAR, but also that is done by our partners and other institutions with broader audiences. Thank you very much, Nic, it's been great talking to you. And thank you to our listeners for joining us for this opening episode of the People, Power, Politics podcast. Stay tuned for more from us very soon.

00:17:57 Nic Cheeseman

Thanks, Petra. Great talking to you today.

00:18:00 Outro jingle

Thank you for listening to the People, Power, Politics Podcast brought to you by CEDAR, the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. To learn more about our centre and the exciting work we do on these issues around the world, please follow us on Twitter at @CEDAR_Bham and visit our website using the link in the podcast description.

What can we learn from Indonesian democracy?

Listen to the podcast


00:00:01 Intro jingle

Welcome to the People Power Politics Podcast, brought to you by Cedar, the Center for Elections, Democracy, accountability and representation at the University of Birmingham.

00:00:13 Petra Alderman

My name is Petra Alderman. I'm a research fellow at CEDAR, and I'm going to be your host for this episode. It is my great pleasure to welcome our first guest of the series, Professor Dan Slater. Welcome to the podcast, Dan.

00:00:26 Dan Slater

Thanks for having me, Petra.

00:00:28 Petra Alderman

Dan is James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He specialises in the politics and history of dictatorship and democracy, with the regional focus on Southeast Asia. I am very excited that we get to kick off this podcast series with Dan talking about Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is often overlooked in political science scholarship, but there is plenty we can learn from the countries in this region, and one of the countries that is worth talking about is Indonesia.

00:00:57 Petra Alderman

Earlier this year, that has published a great article in Indonesia and the Journal of Democracy that is called ‘What Indonesian democracy can teach the world.’ So, Dan, tell us what makes Indonesia an interesting case for the study of democracy, and why should we look East for examples of democratic survival in this age of democratic decline and increasing rates of autocratisation.

00:01:20 Dan Slater

Well, as you say, the fact that we're seeing these rising rates of autocratisation around the world really says we should be looking in every direction we possibly can. And when we have examples that are north, south, east, west, we should look wherever we can. So the argument I'm making the article is that I don't try to make the case that Indonesia is a model, but I do think Indonesia is an example. And Indonesia is an example of several really important things.

00:01:44 Dan Slater

One thing that it shows is that a very large Muslim majority, you know the largest Muslim country in the world, a country with really very violent, brutal, colonial and authoritarian legacies, long history of military involvement in politics, not an ally of the United States or any other western power, which often gets used as a way of kind of writing off some of these cases of democracy in in Asia, in particular, and lower middle income, lots of separatist conflicts historically, so all kinds of ways in which Indonesia is a very unlikely democracy.

00:02:17 Dan Slater

It did face major challenges to become a democracy, but really, for 25 years now it has been, obviously far from perfect, but it has been a relatively stable, what we usually call a consolidated democracy, 25 years, that has I think shown that it can manage the worst ethno-religious tensions it can, you know, maintain economic growth. Actually, the World Bank just a few days ago upgraded it to a upper middle-income country, although it was certainly lower middle income when it transitioned in the late 1990s.

00:02:47 Dan Slater

And I think Indonesia is also sort of interesting in telling because, as an example, because what it shows is that democracy doesn't mean the end of the road for old authoritarian elites necessarily, and I think one of the reasons there's so much resistance to democracy is because authoritarian rulers and the people who support the authoritarian regime think that democracy will be the death knell for them and Indonesia, like other cases in East Asia, I would argue, really show that kind of the leaders of authoritarian regime can guide the democratization process in which they remain very prominent players under democracy, and therefore the costs and the risks of democratization aren't nearly as high as people often suspect.

00:03:29 Petra Alderman

If I was to tell you let's go back to the transition point in Indonesian history and that would take us back to the 1990s and perhaps at the beginning of that decade, Indonesia wouldn't have been seen as the place for democratization back then, at least if we look regionally at Southeast Asia. It was Thailand that was considered more of a beacon of democracy. So how did Indonesia break with its authoritarian past? What were the catalysts there?

00:03:56 Dan Slater

Yeah, it's a great question and it's well put because I do think that as of the late 1990s, you know, Thailand was probably seen as the most likely to be a vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia. I think, you know, Turkey was seen as being the most you know likely to be a vibrant democracy in the Muslim world, Indonesia has certainly, I think, outperformed Thailand and Turkey in those respects as well as many other, you know, possible analogues.

00:04:17 Dan Slater

That's another point I make in the article is that you know, for all its problems, Indonesia has really outperformed expectations and places we would compare it to. So how did this happen? Well, the main catalyst for democratic transition was the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and the Indonesian economy was really, really hammered. And in large measure, because it was ruled by a very personalistic dictator, Suharto, a military man who had ruled for over 30 years, and his, you know, increasingly unpredictable management of the Indonesian economy, the worsening cronyism had sort of led to a collapse of confidence in, you know, Indonesia's capacity to survive the financial crisis.

00:04:58 Dan Slater

And so in the wake of the financial crisis, you had major student-led protests around the country and basically, what happened by May 1998 was the political elite in Indonesia essentially abandoned Suharto and stopped being willing to defend him. The military, his fellow elites within the ruling party, which is called Golkar, just basically nudged him from power and brought in his vice president. And so that didn't necessarily augur a democratic transition, but just the collapse of one very aging autocrat you think about places like Egypt and Sudan and, you know, where you see an autocrat removed, but then the military just takes over. So that easily could have happened in Indonesia.

00:05:38 Dan Slater

What happened next was that the Vice president, BJ Habibie, who became President, through this resignation, he basically started a process of top-down democratic reforms, opening up the political process, and they expedited democratic elections to June 1999 and that led to Habibie’s removal. And it led to the rise of two of the main opposition figures during the authoritarian period, rising to be president and vice president of the country.

00:06:06 Dan Slater

And so Donald Horowitz, the scholar of of Indonesia and Malaysia, has called it an inside job because especially the constitutional reform that followed that from 1999 to 2004 was very much handled by political elites themselves. And so, you certainly had a case where elites were managing it, but it was against the backdrop, and this is really quite vital, a backdrop of really major societal protests and a pretty strong civil society that takes a lot of ownership for the fate of the country.

00:06:36 Petra Alderman

Yeah, and I really like how you describe it in the article in relation to this point where you say that Indonesian democracy has a founding mother and founding father and the mother is the civil society that has really pressed the authoritarian elite to break with the autocratic past. But then the autocratic elite is the founding father that still, in large extent is in power to this date. So, what are the key ingredients that have kept Indonesian democracy going thus far? Because we can see in other context when you have this managed experience of democracy, that's been top-down as you have just described that sooner or later that could break down and we could see the sort of backsliding or we could see the reversal of the democratizing trend.

00:07:20 Dan Slater

Well, Indonesia definitely is backsliding for reasons we can discuss, but let's maybe think and talk a little bit about the sources of its strength before we get to that. One aspect in Indonesia that has supported democracy is the fact that Indonesia has a relatively strong state and you know that it was, although not sort of full-blown developmental state ala Taiwan or Korea or Singapore or the like, it certainly, you know, as in, you know, Taiwan, Korea, Japan has served as the basis for relative stability and governance, which makes democracy more likely to survive. That was built particularly during the New Order period. And so that state wasn't built for democratic purposes, but it has been useful for democratic purposes. So that's one aspect.

00:08:03 Dan Slater

Another is that the way that society is structured, so the way that the cleavages work, so the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, overwhelmingly Islamic. But the Islamic population is deeply divided between two different streams, what are often called traditionalist and modernist streams. And one thing that means is that there's not, I would say, as much anxiety as in some other places that Islam will be kind of, you know, swept aside as a source of political legitimacy. It's not a secular country, it's not like India, in India, there's this real sense that secularism and Hinduism are against each other. In Indonesia, it doesn't quite work that way and the position of Islam is relatively secure and what that means is that most Muslim voters can vote more on the basis of, well, who's the politician who will serve them the best.

00:08:53 Dan Slater

Who actually is interested in development, who's interested in governance, who won't talk down to them like they’re the children, so there's a way in which, although political Islam is certainly kind of the biggest identity-based issue in Indonesia, it's not quite as hot fuelled as it is in some other contexts. So in some ways, having a society with many cleavages and not just one defining, you know, 50/50 cleavage that polarized the country has given Indonesia some tools for managing polarization, that a lot of other similarly positioned countries lack.

00:09:26 Petra Alderman

But there's still the fact, as you say, that obviously there are lots of different cleavages, religion has become more of a dominating cleavage over the past few years and that was demonstrated especially by the infamous Ahok case in 2017. If you could maybe explain what the case was about and how it actually affected the state of Indonesian democracy. I mean, would you say it still has some kind of lasting effects?

00:09:49 Dan Slater

Sure, so basically what happened to give a little bit of context here, so after democratization occurred, there wasn't really a strong political opposition anymore. What basically happened was, you know, elections would be held and presidents would be elected, but they would basically share power with all major parties. And So what that meant was as politics was very much nonpolarized from really, the early 2000s till the, you know the mid 2010 and, you know, again, this is something where I think it's the Indonesian society. Indonesian society doesn't naturally just sort of polarize and tear apart unless political elites are trying to, you know, kind of push those buttons.

00:10:28 Dan Slater

And So what happened in 2016 was that the Governor of Jakarta, so Jakarta has a governor rather than a mayor, Ahok, as he's known, so ethnic Chinese minority and was, you know, kind of very popular governor in many respects, but it was very difficult for more conservative elements in Indonesian civil society to accept the fact that a non-Muslim was governor of the capital of the country. So he was accused of insulting the Quran and it led to a massive swell of protests demanding his resignation and what ended up happening is the courts are not terribly robust in Indonesia. The legal system is pretty weak. Basically, the courts wound up convicting Ahok and imprisoning him, and so he was no longer a governor of Jakarta, and so, this was kind of a a pretty frightening, polarizing moment. And this was on the both the heels of and the run up to the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, both of which saw one presidential candidate really trying to use the most kind of divisive nativistic populist, you know, verbiage and mobilization tactics to try to start polarizing Indonesian society for his own benefit. That happened in 2014/2019, and there's been some rollback from that polarization since then that we can discuss, as well.

00:11:48 Petra Alderman

When you were talking just before about the strength of the democracy and before that, you mentioned that we can see elements of backsliding in Indonesian democracy. What would you see are perhaps the most worrying trends of this backsliding? And what do you say that we have to be particularly careful about and we should be looking out for?

00:12:09 Dan Slater

I think the most worrisome trend in Indonesia is the same most worrisome trend that we see around the world, which is that elected leaders are simply not respecting rights. And what we're seeing is increasingly it's not so much that elections are faulty or that elections are stolen or elections are fraudulent or the like, but all over the world, what we're seeing is that elected leaders simply, they're not hesitant to use their powers to attack their opponents, to punish civil society, to try to intimidate the press, and criminalized protest.

00:12:42 Dan Slater

And the thing in Indonesia is that it's a very, very self-dealing political elite, in Indonesia. They're very, very cozy among each other. They're actually much less polarized than political elites in most places. So my biggest worry is under the current President Joko Widodo, who's known as Jokowi, there's been real moves to criminalize protests. And without that check, there's really nothing preventing the political elite from doing something kind of like what's happened in the Philippines since Duterte, which is you basically stop opposing a popular president and everybody just goes along with whatever a strong-armed leader wants to do. And that's kind of the scenario that we're staring at in Indonesia more than any other, I think.

00:13:23 Petra Alderman

But Jokowi is stepping down because it's been 2 terms that he's been Indonesian president for and there's going to be election in February next year. But when we were talking before about the ad hoc case particularly, and the polarization that it has brought, and you mentioned the 2014 and the 2019 election, the presidential candidate there who was challenging or opposing Jokowi back then was Prabowo Subianto, who is a former military general. And I was wondering, I mean, Prabowo is somebody who's running for the next presidential election. He's a controversial, somewhat polarizing figure and has really tried as what you said to use some of these cleavages to polarize Indonesian society. I mean, quite surprisingly then, in 2019, after Jokowi won the presidential election, he brought in then Prabowo as Minister of Defence, which goes to what you were saying about the elite being cozy and willing to share that power quite widely, which in itself it's odd as you said, you probably won't find as many countries where you would have power-sharing to such an extent. When we look at Jokowi now stepping down, and Indonesia perhaps facing a future under somebody like Prabowo, what could happen then?

00:14:38 Dan Slater

Yeah. So, I think that we do believe Jokowi will step down. He has flirted with the ideas of possibly extending his term, trying to get a third term, partly excused by the fact that COVID was seen as something that prevented him from getting his development policies pushed through. Jokowi is really kind of obsessed with developments, that's why he's not there for the democracy, he's there for the development part of it.

00:14:59 Dan Slater

In Jokowi's case and in terms of what follows, yeah, as you say, Jokowi basically rejuvenated if you will or kind of rehabilitated in some sense Prabowo after his defeat in 2019. So Prabowo Subianto has a terrible human rights record. He was Suharto’s son-in-law, during the dictatorship, his fingerprints were all over the the violence that attended Suharto's fall. He was almost certainly trying to position himself to take over power from his father-in-law. He briefly had to go into exile. He was disgraced for a time, he was almost the only disgraced figure from the New Order period, which was what the Suharto regime was called. But Prabowo has bounced back.

00:15:36 Dan Slater

And he was a vice presidential candidate 2009, presidential candidate 2014/2019 came perilously close to winning. He used incredibly irresponsible rhetoric, hateful nativistic rhetoric in both campaigns. A pluralistic society came together to defeat him both times, happily, both times he rejected the results of the elections.

00:15:58 Dan Slater

He insisted they were stolen from him by all, you know, rights, he should be disqualified from serving for office. But again, in the spirit of Indonesian politics, Jokowi brushed him off and put him on by his side after 2019. And Prabowo's image since then has really gotten cleaned up a lot and I think right now he's probably the most popular politician in the country, I would say.

00:16:19 Dan Slater

And quite likely the front runner to win next year and given his history and given what we see from other, you know, autocratising presidents around the world, I think anybody would be foolish to think that what's left of Indonesian democracy as it backslides, to the extent Indonesian democracy is still alive and kicking, if anyone thinks it would be safe in the hands of the Prabowo presidency, I would, I would really beg to disagree.

00:16:44 Petra Alderman

What is quite interesting is that I've seen recently that Prabowo actually enjoys quite a lot of popularity among young generations of Indonesians, and that is to some extent, maybe in contrast to some other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or even Myanmar where there has been the reenergizing of these younger generations against the military dictatorships, against the authoritarian power. So, what is happening in Indonesia and this respect?

00:17:14 Dan Slater

It's a very good point. That's a really interesting comparison, especially given what just happened in Thailand. I mean, the way you’re seeing this a real kind of youth revolution and moving against the old power structure and the, you know, the monarchy and the military and really pushing for something new. Partly, I think it's the fact that just Indonesia hasn't produced an opposition party that can kind of fill that gap. That's partly a legacy of violence. The military regime came to power in the mid 1960s by you know, massacring something close to 1,000,000 people. Completely destroying the left end of the political spectrum.

00:17:46 Dan Slater

You just don't have that whole side of society represented in party politics, and so that's sort of lacking. The military is certainly more popular in Indonesia than in a place like Thailand or certainly a place like Myanmar. The Indonesian military played a, you know, prominent role in the fight for independence against the Dutch. So, we don't have a political party that really opposes it. Probably the best candidate at anytime was the daughter of the founding father of Indonesia, who was Sukarno.

00:18:15 Dan Slater

So Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was the second Democratic president, 1st Vice President and 2nd President after democratization. One might think, OK, well, she could play an Aung San Suu Kyi-like role or, you know, be sort of anti-military. But she's very, very close with the military and has always been very, very close with the military, in part because the forces of pluralism in Indonesia see the military as their defender against political Islam.

00:18:39 Dan Slater

And so there it it's a little bit and we're removing increasingly toward, I think is almost a a Turkey analogy, not the Turkey of Erdogan, but the Turkey of military rule to the extent that protecting pluralism is a bigger issue than protecting democracy. And a bigger concern in protecting democracy that you'll see in rising role of military and politics even more than you already have, political parties that are in other ways very pluralistic, being very, very supportive of the military playing a big role in politics and a lot of danger lies in that.

00:19:10 Dan Slater

Back to your question about the election, I mean some people are more worried about Anies Baswedan, who became governor of Jakarta after Ahok and is seen as, you know, closest would-be Islamic side of Indonesian society and so the worry is of Islamization, if Anies wins and then there's the worry that authoritarianism will keep on the rise if Prabowo is elected. And I guess what I would say is that if Anies tries to Islamise Indonesia, he will receive a lot of pushback because there is a very, very strong and I say a majority of Indonesians see their country as pluralistic and not as just, you know, as an Islamic State. And we know there'll be push back.

00:19:51 Dan Slater

I'm not sure there will be effective pushback if Prabowo or anybody else for that matter simply just tries to keep rolling back democracy in the country. And this is why certainly students and civil society will oppose it, but they've really been kneecapped by these new omnibus laws criminalizing protest, making it harder to oppose these autocratising moves. So, my worry is that you know in the next the next five years, even if Jokowi does step aside, as I think he will, but under the next President, we're going to keep seeing this sort of creeping autocratisation and society is just not going to be strong enough to be able to push back.

00:20:26 Petra Alderman

And I think this is a very interesting point that you've just made and goes back to what you were saying before about also the 2019 election and maybe the fear of if it was Prabowo who had won back then that Indonesia would turn more Islamic and Jokowi won or was reelected. Perhaps a lot of Indonesians who have these democratic leanings, have voted for him, but Jokowi himself is often far too willing to compromise democracy in the name of economic development and trying to take down some of the barriers or the barriers that he sees as barriers towards him doing his job, making sure that Indonesia can develop the way he wants it. But I would like to go back to one of the things that you talked about that belief in pluralism, that is quite deep-rooted in Indonesian society, and in your article, you mentioned this founding philosophy, Pancasila. How strong is this Pancasila still in Indonesia today?

00:21:24 Petra Alderman

The concept or this founding philosophy goes back to Sukarno, who was the 1st President of Indonesia, so we're looking at the mid 40s. That's been a while, so how much of a strength does this funding philosophy still have in Indonesian society? And how much of a potential remedy this could be against some of these backsliding forces that you've been discussing?

00:21:47 Dan Slater

Well, it can be a remedy for backsliding, or it could be the source of backsliding. It could go either way, so Pancasila is, as a national philosophy, is basically an alternative to Islamism. But it's not secular, so Pancasila is, you know, it's 5 principles, and it's all kind of mealy mouthed, it's sort of, you know, very basic principles, but the first one is belief in a single God, so you cannot be an atheist in Indonesia.

00:22:13 Dan Slater

There is not religious freedom in that respect, and so this is sort of a compromise, in which, so, pancasila is consistent with being a good, pious Muslim, but it does mean that one doesn't have to be a pious Muslim specifically to be a good Indonesian. And so the ideas matter, but what matters even more is the way social forces array behind the ideas. So, a really vital point here is that the what I called earlier the traditionalist stream of political Islam, which is you're really based in East and Central Java very, very highly populous parts of the country, like huge vote banks, if you will, that basically Indonesia has this ongoing capacity for an alliance between the political party that is the main proponent of pancasila and of pluralism, which is the PDIP, which the current President comes from, and then the Nahdlatul Ulama, which is this massive, mostly rural organization in Eastern Central Java.

00:23:08 Dan Slater

And when those two team up as they have in the last two elections, they have defeated Prabowo and the more strict Islamic side of Indonesian civil society. So Pancasila is an electoral winner when it teams up with very pious Islamic civil society in Java and the prospect is there, it's all set up for that to happen again. The PDIP's next candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, who's the governor of Central Java, presumably he will again try to have a ticket with a member of the Nahdlatul Ulama, so again a very religious figure, very pious figure, and that should be a winning formula. In that respect, Pancasila really can be the defense against backsliding happening through nativism, Islamization, religious extremism, that kind of thing.

00:23:57 Dan Slater

But there's another way that democracy can die. And that's through what some of my colleagues have called counter polarization. And this is again, this Turkey military scenario, right? So the idea here is that, and it's more like the Suharto regime, the idea is that you know the military and other conservative elites have to hold all the power to make sure that Indonesia doesn't polarize and come unglued and and fall into chaos.

00:24:21 Dan Slater

Suharto loved Panchasila because for Suharto, Pancasila was the way to say no, always go talk about democracy, that's not Pancasila, all you're talking about is Islam, that's not Pancasila, human rights, no, no, Pancasila is where it's at, so it can really be an ideological weapon for authoritarianism as well. But in the current moment, because basically society is divided between Islamic and Pancasila-ists streams, at the simplest level, the strength of that Pancasila stream has definitely kept democracy alive over the past decade.

00:24:50 Petra Alderman

So if were to look at the Indonesian example, by using a broader lens, we discussed that the Indonesian democracy in many ways was a strategic gamble on the part of the authoritarian elite, and the gamble seemed to have worked because democracy has not displaced these elites like it happened in other countries in Southeast Asia or across the world. These elites are still very much in power, but then in essence that makes quite a fragile democracy because once you start feeling a threat, there is always the possibility of rollback. But if we were to maybe draw let's say three key lessons of the Indonesian democracy that we could learn from. What would they be?

00:25:30 Dan Slater

I think that the ways in which political elites can survive transition and thrive under democratic transition, particularly when they concede democratic reforms when they're relatively strong and still have the capacity to do well in elections. I think, most autocrats wait way too long to contemplate democratic reform, and by the time they become really too late to do it on their own terms. And so I think that's one of the big lessons not just of Indonesia, but of of East Asia more more broadly.

00:25:57 Dan Slater

That's one big lesson, I think that another big lesson is that democracy doesn't have to be a negative for economic growth or for political stability. Authoritarianism in Indonesia, I think, created more religious conflicts, anti-Chinese/anti-minority sentiments, I mean these things have have, all in all I'd say, gotten better under democracy than they were under authoritarianism.

00:26:18 Dan Slater

I think third lesson here is that a country doesn't have to be what some would call kind of a lackey of the West, or a running dog of the United States to be a vibrant democracy. Countries can become democracies on their own terms and for their own reasons. People often dismiss Asian democracy as a fraud because, well, Taiwan and South Korea and Japan, well these are just kind of American-built democracies. But they're not they’re democracies that have built themselves and have sustained themselves. And there's so much, you know, democratic backsliding in, you know, in Europe and in North America, you know, we can look at these cases in East Asia and say these are really important examples to look at where severe polarization has been dealt with, where strong man rule has been dealt with, where civil societies remained relatively strong, protesters remain in the press and so I think that, you know, Indonesia along with these other cases in Asia, show you how, especially when built on a foundation of sustained economic development, of a vibrant position in the world economy, it's not just the American empire that produces democracy around the world.

00:27:20 Dan Slater

Indonesia, I think, is a really good example. Indonesia has always been very non-aligned, very independent, very proud sovereign country. It's not gonna be anybody's running dog. I think for countries that look at democracy and say, well, we don't want to be another Taiwan or another Japan, which are just these American client states as people see it, Indonesia is a nice counterexample to that.

00:27:38 Petra Alderman

Unfortunately, we are out of time for any more questions this time around, but I'm glad that we finished it on a slightly positive note with these three broader lessons that we can take from the Indonesian example.

Thank you, Dan, for joining the People, Power, Politics podcast and for talking to us about the fascinating state of Indonesian democracy. It's been a great pleasure to talk to you about this really exciting topic and let's hope that the February 2024 election will go the right way.

00:28:06 Dan Slater

Yes, let's hope it's been a pleasure talking with you, Petra. Thanks for having me.

00:28:09 Petra Alderman

Thank you. I am Petra Alderman, research fellow at CEDAR and the host of this People, Power, Politics podcast episode. I have been talking to Professor Dan Slater, James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

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