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Populism • Europe • Politics

Ordinary agents of discontent

Stijn van Kessel - 12 August 2015

Populist parties across Europe are proving their durability, maintaining their popularity after spells in government or a change of leader

These days populism is a popular concept among political commentators. In the western European context, the term has predominantly been associated with the xenophobic politics of the far right. The recent rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain has induced commentators to also speak about a rise of ‘left-wing populism’. While the populist label is applied fairly consistently to a certain set of political parties – besides the two radical-left newcomers, this includes canonical cases such as the French National Front (FN) and the Austrian Freedom Party – it often remains unclear what populism precisely entails. What further characterises the concept is that ‘populism’ tends to be used in a normative way; more often than not pejoratively. Indeed, the ‘rise of populism’ is often considered a threat. However, while the appeals of certain populist parties may indeed be at odds with core liberal democratic values, these parties should not be treated as fundamentally different from their mainstream competitors. The success of populist parties is typically the outcome of party competition over salient social issues, with regard to which mainstream parties are considered unresponsive by dissatisfied voters.

Though some prefer to see populism as a style or political strategy, many scholars nowadays subscribe to Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as an “ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”. The core idea of populism thus relates primarily to the relationship between the people and the elites. In practice, populism ‘cohabits’ with elements of more comprehensive ideologies, and can therefore be an attribute of parties on the (anti-capitalist) left as well as the (culturally conservative and xenophobic) right – the latter remaining the more dominant category in Europe.

In western Europe populism is first and foremost expressed by parties at the radical ends of the political spectrum. In former communist countries in central and eastern Europe, on the other hand, populism is not exclusively an attribute of far-right or far-left political parties. In many countries, low levels of public trust and satisfaction with, often scandal-prone, political elites created a favourable environment for populism. Many newly formed, often personalistic, parties aimed to capitalise on this general anti-establishment mood. Also in recent years, self-proclaimed anti-corruption parties, such as the Czech ANO 2011, gained considerable public support soon after their foundation. Although these parties have a clear anti-establishment character, they do not necessarily share the radicalism of western European counterparts in terms of their broader ideological appeal – in fact, it is also not always obvious whether, besides their criticism of the political elites, they are strictly ‘populist’, since some do not explicitly support unmediated popular sovereignty.

As far as the electoral performance of populist parties is concerned, seemingly favourable conditions for populism do not guarantee success. For instance, while dire economic circumstances may have created fertile breeding grounds for leftwing populist parties in southern EU member states, we have not seen a surge of populist parties in hard-hit Portugal. At the same time, populist parties have done well in prosperous countries such as Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, where most citizens have been satisfied with the way democracy works, and where trust in parliament and political parties is generally high.

The rise of populist parties is thus not merely a reflection of political context or the prevailing public mood vis-à-vis the political establishment. Populist parties can also become successful by appealing to a dissatisfied segment of the electorate. Populist radical-right parties in western Europe, for instance, typically appeal to culturally conservative voters who are anxious about immigration, European integration and globalisation. Such voters constitute a sizeable part of European electorates, and also tend to be more distrustful and less satisfied with political elites. Established parties are vulnerable to a populist challenge in particular when they are perceived to be unresponsive to voters concerning salient social issues, such as immigration and multiculturalism in western Europe, or when the reputation of the political elites is tarnished by practices of cronyism and corruption, which has been the case in many post-communist countries.

The success of populist parties does not depend solely on the presence of political opportunities, however, but also on the ability of the populists to seize them and to present themselves as a credible alternative to the established parties. Populist parties need a capable and visible leadership in order to put their agenda across to the electorate. In case of populist radical-right parties in western Europe, this agenda should include a rejection of multiculturalism and an outline of the malign consequences of immigration and European integration, but no electorally out-of-favour fascist or racist appeals. Particularly after the electoral breakthrough, the importance of a stable party organisation becomes apparent. The long-term existence of populist parties is endangered when they fall victim to internal strife and splits.

Yet it is evident that a considerable number of populist parties managed to sustain their electoral appeal and have become durable forces within their party systems. What is more, the FN, Danish People’s party and Norwegian Progress party all underwent successful leadership transitions in the past decade, showing that populist parties are certainly not always 'flash-in-the-pan parties’, which rely solely on the appeal of a single ‘charismatic’ leader. A growing number of populist parties have also become more ‘coalitionable’, and participated in, or supported, governing coalitions. Although taking full government responsibility is challenging for populists, as it then becomes difficult to maintain a credible anti-establishment appeal, cases such as the Swiss People’s party, Italian Lega Nord and the Polish Law and Justice have illustrated that populist parties can survive a period in government, both electorally and organisationally. 

In other words, populist parties are here to stay and should be treated as fairly ordinary political actors. In many countries, populist radical-right parties have become the natural ‘owners’ of issues such as immigration and European integration. These are issues with regard to which mainstream parties typically fail to take clear positions. Surely, the discourse of xenophobic populist parties may be incompatible with the values at the heart of liberal democracy, such as respect for minority rights. It should be borne in mind, however, that this relates more to the far-right nature of these parties than their populist anti-establishment character as such. Furthermore, the elites’ unsophisticated portrayal of populism as a dangerous phenomenon is likely to prove counterproductive in electoral terms, and does not contribute to addressing the real concerns among a substantial share of the European electorates.

Stijn van Kessel is lecturer in politics at Loughborough University and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany. He is the author of the monograph Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent?

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Tags: Stijn van Kessel , Populism , Europe

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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