Populist support for right-wing political movements – particularly those with authoritarian tendencies and ethno-nationalist orientations – has become a pervasive feature of democratic (and quasi-democratic) politics across the globe. These movements have facilitated the rise of charismatic leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump, as well as the strong electoral performance of right-wing political parties in national and local elections in Europe and other parts of the world. Among the puzzling features of these political developments are the fairly novel spatial dynamics and political geographies they have entailed. This newest Spotlight On, along with an exciting set of new articles in the September issue, addresses these puzzles directly and examines the political geographies of populist support for contemporary right-wing movements.

Until recently, populist authoritarian movements have tended to conform to a familiar geographic split, in which their strongest supporters were found in rural areas, and both their discursive political enemies and most virulent political opposition have been located in cities. As these movements have promoted the twin messages of ethno-nationalism and economic populism, the countryside – with its fairly homogenous populations and connections to a romanticized pastoral or resource-rich past – has served as their idealized setting. Cities, on the other hand, as the home of immigrants, liberal elites, and cosmopolitanism, have served as useful political foils: the antithesis of the “real America” (or “real India” or “real Germany”) at the center of their political ideologies. But both the location of populist support and of the heroes and villains singled out by these new right-wing leaders appear to be deviating from this traditional geographic pattern. In countries such as the Philippines, Brazil, and Turkey, right-wing authoritarian movements have been drawing much of their populist support from the very urban elites that once served as their political foils. Drawing on rich insights and extensive research in these locations, as well as Western Europe and India, the authors in this collection examine these emergent political geographies and consider the possibilities for resistance and anti-authoritarian counter-movements.

Election propaganda posters of the far-right Alternative for Germany party top and bottom, in the middle a propaganda poster of the satirical (but real) “The Party” party. From top to bottom “Secure borders, stop asylum chaos,” “A Nazi could be hanging here,” “Strengthen the police, protect citizens”, Leipzig. Photo: Nitzan Shohan, 2019.

In the first piece in the collection, Nitzan Shoshan uses the case of Germany’s far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to outline the classic regional model, in which populist support resides primarily in lower density, ethnically homogenous rural areas. Noting that the current populist support for Germany’s far right parties does not align with the novel geographic patterns found in the Philippines, Brazil, or Turkey, Shoshan argues that German cities have maintained a political culture that supports tolerance and social integration. But even in Germany’s most liberal cities and most diverse and progressive neighborhoods, “fear zones” have emerged in which nationalistic and xenophobic violence has targeted migrants and racialized minorities, but also homeless people, visibly non-heterosexual persons, punks, or people who appear to support the political left.

The pieces on the Philippines and Brazil directly address the puzzle of urban support for right-wing authoritarianism. For Marco Garrido, the extreme segregation that shaped the experience of Filipino cities, has fueled middle-class and elite fears of crime and disorder. Living their lives in private spaces, from residential enclaves to office parks to exclusive shopping malls, has led them to view the public city as “a wilderness in need of being brought to heel.” Such perceptions made this population receptive to the law-and-order message of Duterte and his aggressive, anti-democratic war on drugs. Similarly, Benjamin Bradlow addresses the somewhat unexpected support in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for Bolsonaro’s dualistic view of the “good citizen” and the “bandit” and appeal to restore order – not only in elite areas, but also in these cities’ poorer neighborhoods. Across class lines, Bradlow argues that Bolsonaro’s popularity arises in part from a political backlash against longstanding movements from “the peripheries” and an effort to re-peripherialize areas of high crime and urban insecurity.

Mona Mehta’s piece on the rise of right-wing populism in India further complicates the political geographies of these contemporary movements. Contrasting with what we typically understand to be the classical geographic schism – or what she explains as more typically a “Western populist derision” of urban elites due to their support for immigrants and multiculturalism – Mehta argues that the anti-elite discourse in India is more nuanced. Her analysis reveals that the more urbanized of these elites, represented popularly as the English-speaking, Western-educated elite is perceived to be less of a threat to India’s right-wing leaders than the more dangerous liberal elite: the ‘regional liberals,’ who “are every bit as professionally accomplished elites as the ‘English liberals,’ but far more connected with the people.” After highlighting several prominent examples, who have been targeted by contemporary Hindutva leaders, she notes that Mahatma Gandhi was the most prominent regional liberal, because he was able to build a mass following that cut across the urban and rural. The geographic imaginaries of India’s right wing populists, she demonstrates, do not conform to the classical regional divides that have shaped dominant understandings of right wing populism.

And in closing, the piece by Berna Turam adds further nuance and depth of understanding to the emergent political geographies at play in contemporary Turkey, and allows us to conclude on a more optimistic note. With Erdoğan’s initial electoral victories in Istanbul, his rise and political consolidation appeared to mirror aspects of the dynamics in Brazil and the Philippines. However, the most recent election in March of this year, suggest that Istanbul may be fighting back. It may be too soon to know how sustainable the gains will be for the opposition Republican People’s Party and its leader Ekrem Imamoğlu, but Istanbul appears to be returning to its earlier position a shield against right wing authoritarianism and a site of populist counter-movement.

Liza Weinstein
Interventions Editor
August 2019

Related IJURR articles on Political Geographies of Right Wing Populism

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