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The year 2023 has been full of violence. The ongoing killing and injury of tens of thousands of non-combatants and especially of children in Gaza, at the hands of the Israeli military, defies imagination. Russia's war on Ukraine continues unabated. The impact of the Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians will be felt for generations. It took a day for Azerbaijan to seize Nagorno-Karabakh and displace thousands of Armenians, while at the same time the humanitarian crisis in Sudan continues to deteriorate under the radar. And these are only a few examples.

Violence does not only come in the form of war though. 

And as the year comes to an end and I try to reflect on the months passed, I sometimes wonder if, as I am constantly steeped in research on authoritarian populism, my perspective is too clouded by the negatives. Yet no matter where I look, whether it’s in international news, progressive spaces, or far-right forums, the pervasive sensation I observe is usually a combination of anxiety, fear, and anger. But again, is this new or worse? When has the world been fair? When have we inhabited a planet where all belong?

Yet some dare to dream outrageous dreams and their dreams come true. In November, far-right leader Geert Wilders’ electoral victory in the Netherlands and Javier Milei’s in Argentina caught many by surprise. Wilders is a politician with more than 20 years of political experience who only a few years ago was convicted for hate speech and continues to run an explicitly Islamophobic campaign (for more on the plethora of Dutch populist parties see here).  Javier Milei is a political newcomer who runs on an anarchocapitalist platform and applauds the Argentinian dictatorship, idolizes guns, and challenges women’s rights. 

Wilders and Milei are not the only authoritarian populists who recently came to power through free and fair elections. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is the most notorious of the bunch and, if I am not mistaken she was the first female authoritarian populist to become prime minister ever (she was elected in late 2022). In Slovakia, far-right politician Robert Fico returned to power by centering anti-Ukrainian sentiment, after having resigned in 2018 during his second term following the murder of Ján Kuciak, an investigative reporter, and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová. Still, despite how his last term ended, he now intends to restrict media freedom

All of them and many others believed that their big bets could yield results. And they did.

Dreaming big, however, takes courage. And while authoritarian populists such as Wilders and Milei, Meloni, and Fico seem to have courage aplenty, the lesson that mainstream politicians are drawing is that the only way to combat the surge of authoritarian populism is to adopt their frames. The President of the European People’s Party at the EU Parliament (the EPP is the center-right, pro-European political party which gathers over 83 parties from 44 countries), Manfred Weber, recently made this evident during some of his first remarks on the back of Geert Wilders’ victory by concluding that adopting the far-rights’ postures on immigration is the only way to prevent the rise of the far right. There’s no alternative vision, no inclusive dream. 

The constant whitewashing of Meloni’s image by EU leaders and the media also reflects how as long as authoritarian populist leaders keep in line with economics and foreign policy, the rest of Europe can turn a blind eye to whatever happens in “internal politics.” 

To me, this mostly demonstrates one of the biggest threats to democracy and human rights in Europe—the collusion, the blending, the normalization, and the incorporation of authoritarian populist ideas and actors into the mainstream. The branding of those ideas as the only solution to complex challenges. The alternative to rejecting authoritarian populism frames is not to say that there are no problems, that migration is not a relevant issue, that people aren't struggling, that fear is unreasonable. Or to delegitimize voters who vote for far-right candidates. But presenting the far-rights’ solutions as the only reasonable options shows at best a failure of imagination and at worst a cynical lack of commitment to justice and human rights.


The year 2024 will be a definitive year on many fronts. 

We are less than three months away from Super Tuesday in the United States of America, when Donald Trump will likely win the nomination as the Republican candidate. The November 2024 US general elections could very well yield a victory for Trump, and historical examples show us that a second term by an authoritarian populist is far more dangerous, as they come equipped with lessons from their first term and can double down on their authoritarian practices. Some, like historian Robert Kagan, have been keen to emphasize that a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. In the meantime, across the US, Republican governors continue to (ab)use preemptive laws to circumscribe what cities and counties can do, targeting abortion, and LGBTQ and voting rights, often in majority-minority localities. 

European Parliament elections are scheduled for June 2024. Turnout at EU elections across the continent is notoriously low, yet historically they are the elections where the far right have had some success while failing nationally. Albeit in the past they didn’t have enough representation to wield significant power, their presence at the EU Parliament provided a platform for far-right leaders like British Nigel Farage to deliver attention-grabbing performances. While their national results are clearly shifting, far-right candidates are also projected to have record-high results in the upcoming EU election. The largest group is still projected to be the European People’s Party, which in the past generally adopted a cordon sanitaire approach to far-right parties (a joint agreement to refuse to cooperate with the far right), but now is increasingly coalescing with it. 

For the first time, the possibility of a far-right-dominated European Union seems very real. 

This would have severe implications for European citizens, as several big reforms will be underway during the new year. While the green transition continues, authoritarian populists and center-right populists are increasingly challenging green policies. Elected officials across Europe aim to conclude a migration pact in 2024, and unfortunately it seems we can only expect further securitization and outsourcing of state violence and border management to third party states that are often authoritarian. And I am also keeping an eye on a new EU Defence of Democracy package. The draft proposal has been advanced with the goal of trumping foreign influence of lobbying groups, but includes provisions affecting civil society organizations as well. According to Transparency International, the “demand for civil society organisations to disclose foreign funding risks designating them as foreign agents, which could expose civil society to unwarranted and perilous stigmatisation.” We have seen in Russia, India, Hungary, and Italy how the targeting of NGOs and attempts to limit their international funding is amongst the first authoritarian practices of elected far-right leadersEven though the results are predictable, the coming year will also see presidential elections in Russia, where around 110 million will be able to vote, including, for the first time, parts of Ukraine under the control of Russian forces (it seems like a good time to bring back to memory the statements of the Kremlin’s spokesperson: “Our presidential election is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy [...] Mr. Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90 percent of the vote.”)

India is also expected to celebrate general elections in 2024 and Prime Minister Narendra Modhi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to reign supreme, and thus expected to continue its persecution of journalists and Muslims while cracking down on civil liberties

That being said, while the playing field is extremely uneven in Russia, in India, PM Modi seems to boast unprecedented levels of approval for prime ministers who are officially elected, raising the question of how – as people committed both to belonging and democracy – we confront the authoritarian lurch of democratically elected and widely supported authoritarian populists leaders, a question that is likely to become more and more important. 


Nonetheless, I also have hopes for 2024. 

This year will be the year of a new government in Poland. After a long road, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government was sworn in on December 13. Tusk will be able to govern thanks to a coalition that includes moderate center-right politicians as well as progressives, and has stated that “his government would focus on restoring the rule of law and respect for the constitution.”

I am also hoping that the authoritarian populist victories we have seen in 2023 will be a more definitive wakeup call, and that we will cease to see the far-right surge with surprise. As scholar Aurelien Mondon writes, “What is less obvious and yet just as damaging is the hyped coverage of the threat. Milei and Wilders are not ‘shocks’. The resurgence of reactionary politics is entirely predictable and has been traced for a long time. Yet every victory or rise is analysed as new and unexpected rather than part of a longer, wider process in which we are all implicated.”

In that sense, as a researcher and writer, I also hope that in 2024 as much attention as is given to white working-class communities will be given to wealthy privileged people who bankroll, support, and develop the financial and intellectual infrastructure that underpins authoritarian populist leaders and movements. Every time an authoritarian populist leader wins, much of the attention seems to be directed at working-class people or urban-rural divides. And while deprivation may make some fear the other in a way that makes immigration an exploitable phenomenon, low-income people are not usually the ones who have the resources to build and sustain the structures that maintain inequality, for minorities or not. 

Blaming the “left behind” may be convenient, but to cite a few examples, let’s remember that it was amongst wealthy Americans that higher proportions of people voted for Trump, as the Washington Post put it in 2017, “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” Or as explained in this fascinating interview on India’s illiberalism: 

“Large sections of India’s elites in particular — right, those who are most powerfully placed to resist this, I think their ideological conversion to this project is actually quite significant. [...] Often, the owners of media might fear reprisals. But what you are seeing in the Indian media is actually something much more than simply complying with the state. It is actually creating and disseminating structures of hate, fully funded by the most powerful echelons of Indian capital.[...] One of the most disappointing things has been the near abdication of the Supreme Court in protecting basic civil liberties. The extent of it is so mind boggling that you’ve got to think that deep down, there is some kind of allegiance to this project that is actually surfacing. It’s not simply held together by fear of reprisal.”

From an analytical perspective, I also hope that we continue to complexify and add to the left-right lens, which while necessary, falls short to explain the rise of authoritarian populism. While much of the recent coverage focuses on “the rise of the right” and seems to present left–right foibles in civilizational terms, if we scratch beyond the surface, we see that ideological consistency does not explain current phenomena. We need to review what’s happening from a different perspective. For example, as much as Geert Wilders has campaigned against immigration and Islam, part of his success is also built on criticism of the hollowing out of public services through austerity. As best explained by scholar Catherine De Vries:

“An overlooked aspect of the Dutch election illustrates this. A newly established party, New Social Contract, was also a big winner, gaining 20 seats. Its leader, Pieter Omzigt, condemned Wilders’ rhetoric and called many of his proposals unconstitutional. What Omzigt and Wilders have in common is a relentless focus on the failure of the previous governments of Mark Rutte to protect ‘bestaanszekerheid’, loosely meaning ‘livelihood security’.

Under Rutte’s premiership, policies that erected barriers to social benefits and reduced access to public services raised concerns among many parts of the Dutch population about what they are getting in return for the taxes they pay. In this context, it is important to remember that opposition to cuts is a key theme of Wilders, next to immigration. In 2012, for example, Wilders withdrew his support for the first government of Rutte, a minority coalition between Rutte’s liberal party and the Christian Democrats, over reductions in public expenditure.”

This is consistent with other research that suggests that perception of subjective well-being is related to voting for populist parties. 

And even if anti-immigration stances are fueling actors whose strategy is anchored in othering, maybe there’s some room for hope. According to the latest research on the relationship between the electoral success of populist radical right parties and attitudes towards migration, it seems authoritarian populists’ success may lead in turn to a “reverse backlash effect” and a desire to reemphasize antiprejudice norms.

So perhaps there will be a backlash to the backlash?


A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of being invited to speak in the Basque country, a well-known region of Spain for its culinary prowess, distinct language, and traditions, and for its convoluted history of political violence.

As I walked around Bilbao, I was captivated by the architecture and the history that I was learning. 

About 25 years ago, Bilbao was a deindustrializing city, clouded by polluted air caused by the steel factories and shipyards in the city center, with a dirty estuary, and without proper sewage. It was a city in decay. 

Yet the public authorities decided to dream and envision a renewed city, at the center of which was a mega-project to overhaul Bilbao which required agreements amongst a range of actors. 

A big bet and efforts towards a vision of a thriving city transformed the place into a flourishing urban center known for its services, tourism, and culture, best embodied by the investment in the Guggenheim Museum that has become an emblem of the city. 

But it is not just Basque cities like Bilbao that have changed. Since the terrorist organization ETA disbanded in 2011, in only a few years society has transformed, social cohesion and trust have shifted, and I am in awe at the depth of some of the bridging efforts by humans who believed that something better is possible. I am excited to learn about the restorative encounters in the coming months, encounters rooted in complexity and respect of restorative principles that for a few years have brought together in dialogue both victims and perpetrators. True, deep, and meaningful bridging.

I found Bilbao inspiring, and in a moment of major distress, it gave me hope for the future. 

Turning on to you, I would love to learn, what gives you hope? 


In other news…

I am curating a podcasts playlist, if you have any suggestions please do reach out! I am looking for podcasts that are thoughtful and related to authoritarian populism, justice, and perhaps wellbeing? They don’t need to be recent. Thanks! I will share the list in January.

The British government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have failed repeatedly before the courts on human rights grounds. The British Prime Minister however keeps insisting, and now a bill to overcome the judicial ruling has passed second reading in the UK House of Commons and will go to committee stage in the new year. 

In parallel, the deal that the Italian government struck to process, detain and process asylum-seeker applications in Albania has also been suspended by the courts. 

The Italian and British prime ministers make no secret of their mutual admiration and efforts on migration matters. And this past weekend, they’ve spent time together at the Italian Atreju political festival, attended by far-right figures from across the world, or in the words of British PM Rishi Sunak, “pre-Christmas political festival” and “we are the only center-right leaders in the G7 so we have been drawn to each other.” Thankfully (please sense the irony), Elon Musk was also there to remind us that Italy must keep its cultural identity and that we should all have more babies. oh! and the Spanish far-right leader used the opportunity to clarify his statements that Spaniards might want to hang Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez by the feet, akin to the fate of Mussolini. 

Via the Or Foundation… fast fashion brands are getting a visit from a textile waste zombie

And for the soul… 

A visual journey of feminist artivism against gender based violence

Delicious conversations about food with a chef, a critic, and a culinary writer: Ruth Reichl (if you need a heartwarming book for the break, highly recommend her memoirs!), Laurie Ochoa, and Nancy Silverton.

Have you ever heard of the golden mole? Scientists believed it was extinct but after 86 years it has been rediscovered in South Africa. It’s cute!

Connecting the Dots: Musings on Bridging and Belonging is a monthly column by Míriam Juan-Torres. In it, Míriam reflects on current events, connecting the trends and considering the specificities across countries, applying a bridging and belonging lens and translating concepts from academia for a wider audience. In Connecting the Dots, Míriam carefully curates readings and resources to further expand our understanding and shed light on the complexities of our time. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest of the Democracy & Belonging Forum's curated analysis from Miriam and more.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the authors.