Right-wing populism on the rise? Lessons learned from the simulation game in Skopje 2015

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We are proud to announce the opening of our first soup kitchen. There we will provide food for the poor. You only have to present your ID at the entry – as simple as that!

~ Gniw Dextro (Head of Movement for Vulcania’s Rebirth)

Does this sound familiar to you? Well, it should. This is what extreme-right Greek party Golden Dawn has done in 2012. They established soup kitchens, claiming to help the poor but showed at the same time their fascist nature by denying non-Greeks being served.

This time, action has only taken place in a simulation game dealing with right-wing populism. What it is about shall be clarified in the following paragraphs.

Right-wing populism (RWP) is on the rise in whole Europe. No matter where you look at – be it France, the Netherlands or Hungary – right-wing parties gain more and more influence and votes. Reason enough to focus on the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. Therefore, fourteen participants from Italy, Greece, Macedonia and Germany met last week in Skopje, capital of Macedonia, for the first of all in all three workshops dealing with this topic.

Planned and organized by four NGOs, including the Berlin-based NGO Crisis Simulation for Peace (CRISP) and Macedonian CIVIL. The workshop in Skopje has been the kick-off for two other seminars, one in Budapest, one in Lviv. The overall aim is to understand the dynamics leading to the increase of votes for RWP we witness nowadays.

At the start we were looking for a common definition or at least features of RWP we could all agree on and these points are the result:

  • an exclusionary “Us vs. Them”-logic

  • the construction and emphasizing of identity (one nation, one ethnicity, one religion…)

  • the claim to talk for the “silent mass”

  • simple answers to complicated questions

  • rhetoric and actions against minorities, “the establishment” and the EU

  • an emotional approach by creating fears and breaking societal taboos

After defining what RWP actually is, the next goal had been to understand how it is working. Therefore, a simulation game had been designed which I’ll explain roughly in the following. First of all, it was a fictional one but close to reality. As setting Vulkania had been chosen, a post-Soviet country with around 4 million inhabitants. These four millions consist out of three ethnic groups – the Vulkanians which account for 70% of the total population. Then, you have the Bethians with around 25% of the population and last (and according to their situation in society also least) the Rehans with only 5%. To complicate things further there are also two religions, which split the Vulkanians and the Bethians.

In terms of politics the situation seems quite stable because the so-called Conservative Party (CP) has an absolute majority of 52 out of 97 seats in the parliament. The opposition consists out of three parties: the Democratic Party (DP, 21 seats), the Bethian Political Party (BPP, 14 seats) and the right-wing party Movement for Vulkania’s Rebirth (MVR, 10 seats).

From an economic point of view Vulkania is suffering a serious decline and facing some greater issues which leads to a rise of unemployment rates, especially among the minorities.

To sum up, one can state a pretty complicated and explosive situation. So – what actually happened within the game? To make it short: the right-wing party gained massively votes and rose from a little more than 10% to almost a quarter in the end, plus made its way into the government by forming a coalition with ruling CP.

How could this happen? And why? And what does this teach us for reality?

I don’t want to annoy you with site-long re-narrations of what happened, so I just mention some key and turning points. First thing would be the above mentioned soup kitchen. The MVR opened it and created some very powerful images. It used at the same time common strategies to deviate from the racist politics of granting access just to those with a Vulkanian passport by emphasizing that Vulkanians are by far the biggest group of society and that it is not AGAINST the minorities but FOR the Vulkanians. The consequence was a first significant rise in polls because party leader Gniw Dextro could present himself as a person who acts instead of mere talking.

The second main event can be seen in a staged refugee crisis. It doesn’t matter how this was arranged because the conclusions one could make are extremely close to reality. We had a typical mixture of an actually quite small number of refugees crossing the border with no police in charge any more and the media who delivered the “right” pictures.

The other participants, including the government, easily bought the pictures without further questioning it – a striking example how media works and what influence it can have.

On the other hand Dextro and MVR presented themselves in quite a moderate way, maybe best comparable to Danish Kristian Thulesen Dahl, leader of right-wing Dansk Folkeparti. Due to this tactic he could present MVR as a real alternative to the established parties. The other way around it turned out almost impossible for the democratic parties to present MVR as that what it was – a bunch of fascists.

Furthermore, Dextro showed the ability to fit into the role of “last man standing” in times of turmoil. In the end he managed it to convince the ruling CP to make an agreement with the perspective to form a coalition after the next elections (CP dropped to around 40%, MVR rose to almost 25%).

But why have DP, BPP and the two NGOs also represented in the game failed to tackle those attempts?

Most important seemed to be the lack of unity within the opposition parties. All of them were more concerned with trying to implement their concerns of the heart. By only negotiating they missed a little to head for direct action which actually helps the people AND creates images that transport the right message.

To conclude, one could say that there were three mosaics leading to the success of right-wing populism: the lacking attention and unity of the democratic party, the ability of MVR to present themselves as carer and centre of stability in chaotic times and the moderate way of acting, making it “possible” for ordinary citizens to vote for MVR without loosing their face.

What does this teach us for reality? How can we tackle right-wing populism and extremism?

In the seminar we came up with a huge list of possible measures against the rise of RWP. The actions are divided into three levels – personal, community and national/international.

Personal level

Community level

National/international level

  • Stand up against hate-speech (in real life and online)

  • discuss with people around you

  • go to demonstrations

  • volunteer in organizations which help minorities

  • keep yourself informed from different sources

  • lead by example

  • talk (or write) about your actions to spread the word

  • communicate with your political representative

  • critical thinking as a state of mind

  • Organize counter-rallies everywhere RWP appears

  • innovative multicultural events to bring people together

  • solidarity protection for refugee shelters etc.

  • boycott businesses which are connected to the Right

  • set up helping centres and soup kitchens

  • occupy/be present in public spaces

  • be present and vocal at any time

  • connect with other organizations which share your goal

  • connect with trade unions etc./organize strikes/put social issues on the agenda

  • Internal pressure: monitoring and democratic control

  • questions from opposition in parliament

  • formation of independent commissions

  • political pressure:

  • blaming and shaming” through international human rights instruments

  • economic pressure:

  • conditions are often set by EU/EC

  • conditions imposed in bilateral/multilateral negotiations

What is left to say? Maybe just that we should learn from those lessons when it comes to reality. Of course, all those actions I mentioned are stressful and tiring. It may frustrate you if things won’t work out although you put so much effort into it. Of course, democracy is slow and complicated. It often produces bad solutions and costs a lot of effort. Nevertheless, we must not fall victim to apparent easy solutions right populists all over Europe are suggesting. Democracy is, despite all its downsides, by far the best method to secure minority rights and the well-being of society as a whole.

It is worth fighting for it!


The participating organizations (self-description):

Crisis Simulation for Peace (Germany):

CRISP is based in Berlin. Since 2007 we have been working in the fields of civic education and civil conflict management. Through our projects we aim to promote a critical transnational democratic culture, in which different groups can engage in constructive dialogue to solve conflicts.

http://www.crisp-berlin.org/

CIVIL (Macedonia):

Founded in 1999 CIVIL is a Macedonian NGO which promotes human rights and civil freedoms in Macedonia by researching abuses of power by the government and other stakeholders, influencing the public opinion by public awareness, education, lobbying and advocacy activities and tries to promote the rule of law.

http://civil.org.mk/

CSDC (Italy):

The Civilian Defence Research Center (CDSC) was founded in 1988 and has since then contributed to the development of social research on peace and security issues in Italy. Since the year 2001, CSDC is an association for social promotion, recognised under the Italian law as “associazione di promozione sociale”.
CSDC mission is the spreading of constructive conflict management tools to overcome intra and inter state tensions. CSDC operates in the fields of research and training to promote collaborations at a national and international level. Principal aims of the CSDC are:
– to promote non armed civilian defence (or nonviolent popular defence);
– to analyse the transition from armed to non armed defence;
– to promote the research concerning nonviolent conflict management;
– to develop historical researches on non armed cases of Resistance.

http://www.pacedifesa.org/canale.asp


USB (Greece):

“United Societies of Balkans” is a Non Governmental Organization, founded in Thessaloniki in 2008 by a team of active young people, socially sensitized, and with rich experience around voluntary programs. Their vision was the promotion of youth mobility, youth involvement in volunteering and their further sensitizing around social issues.

Balkans and Eastern Europe are geographical regions with many cultural features which offer a broad spectrum of actions and youth involvement initiatives. The organization was created as a respond to the pressure of constant changes in the Balkan and Eastern European region and under the need for the creation of a better social environment. Key areas of the organization’s activities concern the defense of human rights, the organization of youth exchanges and training courses, which will bring young people from Balkans and Europe together, the organization of local educational seminars and multimedia production.

http://www.usbngo.gr/en

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