The failure of European governments to learn from global democratic experiences is a major blind spot in EU democracy. Observers from various regions, like the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America, are puzzled by European naivety towards challenges posed by extreme-right parties. Absorbing international lessons could provide a broader political understanding and reduce institutional peculiarities. From Turkey’s perspective, EU democracy lacks attention to opposition coalition building, essential for resisting authoritarianism. India’s experience underscores the importance of federalism and opposition alliances in resisting autocratisation. Latin American strategies, including broad coalitions and mass mobilisation, offer insights for combating populism. European leaders must overcome their reluctance to learn from others and utilise the EU for democratic renewal.

The failure of European governments and political actors to absorb helpful lessons and advice from democratic reformers and activists elsewhere in the world is a major blind spot in European Union (EU) democracy. Observers from the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America are often puzzled by the naivety and complacency with which European societies and institutions have reacted to the challenges posed by populist extreme-right parties. If the EU had the ways and willingness to absorb helpful experiences from around the world, it might gain a broader and more rounded political understanding of its democratic shortcomings – and perhaps be less clouded by its own institutional peculiarities.

Senem Aydın-Düzgit

Containing autocratisation

The resilience of the opposition in Turkey in the face of two decades of polarising populist authoritarian rule provides multiple lessons for the EU. These suggest how democratic forces can and should act to survive, overcome polarisation, and challenge an autocratising government.

From a Turkish perspective, a major blind spot in EU democracy is that not enough attention is paid to building coalitions among opposition forces. Even though many European countries are experiencing polarisation that requires democratic opposition forces to unite, this is a rare occurrence. In Turkey, this has become the major element for pushing back against autocratisation. Since the country’s shift to hyper-centralised presidentialism in 2018, opposition forces have actively coordinated in two key elections: the 2019 local ones and the 2023 presidential one. In the first case, coalition building played a major role in the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing major metropolitan cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, opening new pockets of resistance for the opposition forces. However, the May 2023 presidential election demonstrated that opposition coordination is a necessary but not sufficient factor for defeating populist authoritarian leaders.

Viewed from Turkey, it seems clear that it will not be possible to improve democracy in the EU if opposition forces do not have better strategies for coordinating. While addressing this blind spot, democratic forces should be wary of three risks that the Turkish experience highlights. First, opposition in-fighting on the division of spoils can prevent effective coordination, as it did in Turkey in 2023, when it led to the postponement of critical decisions, such as the choice of a presidential candidate, which came only 10 weeks before the election. Second, policy cohesion is of key importance. Too many promises to the electorate from a variety of leaders in a fragmented opposition coalition raise doubts among citizens about its ability to govern. Third, opposition coordination can end in failure if the candidates chosen to run in elections are weak and do not enjoy mass appeal. For instance, in the 2019 local elections, in which the opposition had major successes, opposition parties generally agreed on candidates with strong local appeal, whereas the opposition’s presidential candidate in 2023 did not enjoy mass appeal.

Another blind spot from a Turkish perspective relates to the discourse of pro-democracy forces against polarising populist authoritarians. In Europe as elsewhere, identity debates fuelled by polarising actors are often met with responses that also entail identity politics and personal attacks. The Turkish experience shows that depolarising discourse is of key importance in defeating populist authoritarians like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who thrive on polarising rhetoric. During the campaign for the 2019 local elections in Istanbul, the government attempted to pull the opposition’s candidate into polarising debates on identity. However, he adopted inclusive language, refrained from engaging in personal attacks on Erdoğan, focused on bread-and-butter issues that affect citizens’ lives instead of getting entangled in identity discussions, and communicated his message in rallies in AKP strongholds. This strategy paid off and resulted in a landslide opposition victory.

A final blind spot as viewed from Turkey concerns local politics. Given the rising inequality that fuels anti-democratic forces in Europe as much as in the country, municipalities controlled by democratic forces should devise and implement large social programmes that reach the broad public. Opposition-controlled municipalities in Turkey have done so since the 2019 local elections. Such municipalities in Europe should establish partnerships with peers elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Turkey shows that partnerships like these are useful in finding alternative sources of funding and know-how, especially where anti-democratic actors control the national government.

Niranjan Sahoo

Countering sectarian and political polarisation

From an Indian perspective, it can often seem as though Europeans underplay the risks of democratic regression and do not make enough of an effort to address them through features like constitutionalism and multiparty federalism. In India, these features have in recent years been used to resist and check autocratisation.

Ever since it came to power in 2014, the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has wreaked havoc on India’s democracy and liberal ethos. This should resonate to some degree with Europeans. The government pressures key autonomous democratic institutions to do its bidding. It has tried to usurp the constitutional rights and autonomy of individual states, especially since the BJP’s second national victory in 2019, and weaken regional parties in India’s federal system. Even more concerning is the government’s aggressive push for the cultural and political homogenisation of a huge, deeply diverse, and pluralist country. The BJP’s One Nation, One India project, which confronts the idea of India as a pluralist and secular nation, has been relentlessly pushed by the party’s leadership and the state institutions under its rein.

The framers of India’s constitution envisioned a federal system with a strong centre, but they also gave considerable powers and rights to the states. Over decades, the decline of the once hegemonic Congress Party and a series of national coalition governments has enabled the states to assert these powers and rights, making federalism a centrepiece of democratisation. Opposition-ruled states and even some of the BJP’s coalition partners have made full use of this to fight back against the party’s centralising rule. This was visible during the nationwide opposition to the controversial Citizen Amendment Act in 2019, which was opposed by the BJP’s close allies in Bihar and Punjab. Calling the act discriminatory against Muslims, the legislatures in several opposition-ruled states passed resolutions against the new law. The open defiance by states, opposition from state-level allies, and protests from Muslims forced the government to freeze its notifications under the act indefinitely. Furthermore, the independent judiciary has also acted as a vanguard against the centralising federal government’s encroachment on state powers and rights through several ground-breaking judgements.

While the BJP has been dominant at the national level since 2014, it continues to face electoral challenges at the state level. It has won few state elections in recent years, and it lost the only southern state it controlled – Karnataka – in 2023. This has acted as a moderating force against the One Nation, One India project. The BJP’s coercive tactics to attack and weaken regional parties and target opposition-ruled states have triggered counter-mobilisation by its opponents. Twenty-six opposition parties, including the Congress Party, have joined forces to form a united bloc against the BJP in the 2024 parliamentary election.

From an Indian perspective, it is puzzling that there is not more of an effort from such sub-national powers to contain authoritarian tendencies. India’s experience in recent years should be a lesson to European democrats to make full use of the similar space they have. EU democracy can learn from the Indian experience of resilient constitutionalism, multiparty federalism, and the power of opposition parties building coalitions in pursuit of the common cause of fighting autocratisation.

Photograph of man smiling
Andreas E. Feldmann

Strategies to preserve democracy

The experiences of several Latin American countries that have faced the rise of populist parties and leaders with authoritarian tendencies and found ways to push back can be helpful for Europe. Their experience is in no way perfect, given that populist leaders from opposite extremes of the political spectrum have succeeded in moving El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela towards authoritarianism. But by contrast, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama have successfully resisted or even reversed autocratisation.

A bitter legacy of authoritarianism and instability has instilled in Latin American political systems and societies a dose of resilience and ingenuity that has proved critical to defending the democratic gains of the 1990s. Adroitness and creativity have contributed to fending off the dangers of populism, including political polarisation, the erosion of party systems, and massive social discontent that fuels violence and domestic disturbances.

While strategies to combat populism and authoritarianism have varied from country to country in Latin America, the formula for success revolves around some concrete axes: the formation of a broad coalition of diverse actors, such as political parties, civil society, trade unions, the media, officials, and institutionalists in the state apparatus; mass mobilisation to pressure incumbents and defeat extremist parties in elections; and the use of international leverage and pressure by allied states, regional bodies, investors, and transnational activists.

Democratic social and political forces that challenge populist forces in Latin America use a combination of institutional and extra-institutional means. The former include reliance on courts to challenge decisions and policies of the executive; parliamentary work, in particular tactics to delay or water down restrictive or anti-democratic legislation; the use of oversight agencies; and reliance on formal diplomatic mechanisms in regional and international bodies. The latter include protests, the enfranchisement of marginalised groups, engagement with moderate wings of populist forces, and the use of media and social networks.

In Colombia, attempts by former President Álvaro Uribe to politicise the courts, weaken legislative mechanisms, and extend his presidency beyond the constitutionally stipulated mandates were successfully countered by the opposition through a combination of litigation, lobbying, and delaying tactics in Congress to push back against executive overreach.

In Bolivia, the opposition relied on massive mobilisation and external pressure to counter former President Evo Morales’s autocratic tendencies, which included restrictive legislation, harassment of the opposition, and attempts to secure an unprecedented third term. The opposition created a broad movement to contest the result of the 2019 presidential election, which international observers had found marred by irregularities and in which Morales declared himself the winner. The mobilisation paralysed the country, and the opposition secured the support of the armed forces and polls. This opened the way for a caretaker government until a new president was chosen in free and fair elections.


The experiences of Turkey, India, and Latin America should inspire Europeans to overcome their blind spot about learning from other countries and regions, as doing so would enable Europeans to take bolder steps to confront democratic dangers. The enormous complexities related to the rise of populism notwithstanding, these cases show there are avenues to push back against the threat. The fact that mass mobilisation has worked in combating autocratisation in some other parts of the world should convince European leaders to change their position and promote such efforts rather than dampen them out of fear that mobilisation may embolden populists.

Importantly, from the perspectives of other countries and regions, European leaders have been too timid and reluctant to use the EU itself to spur democratic renewal. Similarly, mainstream European parties’ do not seem to have cast around systematically for international lessons on how to avoid giving more oxygen to refusal to engage in any kind of dialogue with moderate parts of the populist right has proved counterproductive by strengthening the most radical fringe actors and allowing them to argue their views are being silenced and marginalised. In light of all this, the EU sorely needs to reverse its gaze on democracy.


Senem Aydın-Düzgit is a Senior Scholar and the Research and Academic Affairs Coordinator at Istanbul Policy Center and a Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Sabancı University. She was previously a Jean Monnet Chair of EU Political and Administrative Studies in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. Her main research interests include European foreign policy, Turkish foreign policy, discourse studies and politics of identity. She holds a Ph.D. from Vrije Universiteit Brussels, an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a BA from Boğaziçi University. Her articles have been published in the Journal of Common Market Studies, West European Politics, Cooperation and Conflict, Politics, South European Society and Politics, Alternatives, International Relations, and Politique Europeenne. She is the author of (with Alper Kaliber) Is Turkey De-Europeanising? (Routledge, 2017), (with Nathalie Tocci) Turkey and the European Union (Palgrave, 2015) and Constructions of European Identity (Palgrave, 2012). She is a member of the ECFR Council, a board member of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a member of the Global Relations Forum (GIF) and a member of the Carnegie Rising Democracies Network. She also serves as the Associate Editor of South European Society and Politics. She was awarded the Young Scientist Award of Turkey’s Science Academy (BAGEP) in 2014 and has been admitted as a Fellow of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE) at the beginning of 2020.

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors studies and programmes on democracy, human rights, federalism, electoral reforms (particularly issues related to political funding), and cross-cutting issues of exclusion, insurgencies, affirmative action and inclusion. A recipient of the Asia Fellowship (2009) and a former Sir Ratan Tata Fellow, he currently serves as the South Asia member for the Carnegie Rising Democracies Network, where he debates and writes on democracy, foreign policy, human rights and other related issues. Niranjan has authored two books: “Politics of Power Sector Reforms in India” (Pentagon Press, 2007) and “Reservation Policy and its Implementation across Domains in India: An Analytical Review” (Academic Foundation, 2009). His third book “Exclusion and Insurgencies in India” is in the pipeline. His latest (co-authored) monograph “Funding India’s Democracy” will be published soon. He regularly contributes for academic and current affairs journals, newspapers, think thanks and blogs, and features on television programmes related to his areas of expertise.

Andreas E. Feldmann is Associate Professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and Department of Political Science and Principal Investigator of the Global Migration Cluster Initiative at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). He investigates topics at the intersection of Comparative Politics and International Relations, including terrorism, criminal politics, human rights, forced migration, and foreign policy. He is co-editor of the Routledge Handbook on the History of Latin American Migration (2022), New Migration Patterns in the Americas: Challenges for the 21st Century (Palgrave 2018) and co-author of Drug Trafficking and Criminal Governance in Contemporary Latin America: Fuzzy Interfaces and Botched Development for the Elements Series of Cambridge University Press (under contract). His work has been published in journals including The Annual Review of Sociology, Forced Migration Review, International Affairs, Latin American Politics and Society, Migración y Desarrollo, Politics and Society, Revista de Ciencia Política, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Third World Quarterly among others. Feldmann is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Repertoires of Terrorism in Civil War: Organizational Identity and the Production of Inhumanity in Colombia. He has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, and has worked as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (2000‒6), Estado de la Nación Costa Rica, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously worked at the Instituto de Ciencia Política of the Universidad Católica de Chile and the Human Rights Program of the University of Chicago. He earned a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Notre Dame.