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Economy • Populism • Politics

It’s not just the economy, stupid

Takis Pappas - 12 August 2015

The correlation between economic hardship and rising populism is a weak one. The role of political and institutional crises should not be underestimated

Many people have come to believe that populism surges in times of grave economic crisis and in proportion to it: the worse the economy, they think, the stronger the populist outcome. In European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, edited by Hanspeter Kriesi and myself, we have assembled painstaking empirical research by some excellent scholars covering 25 populist parties in 17 European countries before and after the recent Great Recession and concluded otherwise.

We have arrived at three original findings. First, the correlation between economic hardship and rising populism is at least a tenuous one. So, while some states less affected by the economic crisis saw their populist parties grow, other countries, including some featuring socially disastrous economic downturns, did not develop any populist parties. Thus, in Sweden, for instance, the rate of growth suffered only a temporary setback in 2009 before making a full recovery soon thereafter, and yet populism soared from 2.9 percent in 2006 to 12.9 by 2014. In contrast, Ireland saw the emergence of no populist party despite its severe economic crisis. Nor is there any solid correlation between negative economic growth and rising populism within similarly conditioned country groups. Thus, ailing economies produced divergent populist outcomes (see, for instance, the cases of UK with a strong populist party, Ukip, and Ireland with none) and the same happened with relatively resilient economies (see, for instance, the cases of Norway, in which populism declined during the crisis years, and Sweden, where it surged).

Our second conclusion has been that political and institutional crises are as good a predictor for populism as economic crisis. We have assessed ‘political crisis’ for all countries in our sample using behavioral and attitudinal indicators, such as electoral volatility, trust in parliament and satisfaction with democracy. We find that populism has been particularly strong in the countries of southern and central-eastern Europe, as well as to some extent in Finland, and its ascendancy in those states is associated with the occurrence of important political crises. Robust evidence was also found about populism becoming more intense when economic and political crisis co-exist. As shown most prominently by the cases of Greece, Italy and Hungary, and to a lesser extent by those of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it is in places where there is a tandem of political and economic crisis that populism emerges the strongest. The most important example in this respect is, of course, the case of Greece, which displays the highest possible rates in each and all of our variables – populism, economic crisis and political tumult.

The third conclusion from this research project is that populism has developed across Europe’s major geographic regions in different forms and with different characteristics, both while in opposition and when they happen to win office. Specifically, populist parties in the Nordic countries have most typically behaved in moderate and sensible ways in an effort to appeal to the centrist voter; and when those parties have acceded to power or come near it, they have usually toned down their populist discourse and behaved responsibly. We witnessed quite similar behaviour in several western European countries – including Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland – in which populist parties took part in coalition governments and chose to behave responsibly for maintaining their electoral bases. The more recent attempts of Marine Le Pen to “de-demonize” her National Front point to a similar logic.

The outlook of populist forces in southern Europe, where we also found the strongest surge of populism during the Great Recession, was quite different. Indeed, partly because of the enormity of the still-ongoing crisis and partly because of pre-existing structural factors, newly emergent populist parties in Italy and especially Greece stepped up their polarising rhetoric and manifested strong anti-systemic attitudes even when, as happened in Greece, those parties won office. Central and eastern European populists also toned down their rhetoric after election campaigns and, occasionally, when they participated in coalition governments. The exception in this region has been Hungary, where the populist Fidesz did in fact step up its populist and polarising discourse once in power in 2010.

Finally, hard empirical evidence suggests populism surged rather modestly in Europe during the Great Recession. By aggregating the data from our selected cases, we found that populism in Europe increased during the Great Recession by a mere 4.1 per cent. Even so, however, as was also corroborated by the results of the 2014 elections for the European parliament, populist parties currently win the support of one-quarter of the European electorate and show no sign of retreat. On the contrary, as new populist actors emerge in several parts of the continent, such as the Podemos in Spain, and as old theoretical assumptions are challenged by fresh evidence – such as the thesis that populists in power turn into traditional parties, a notion which is currently undermined by the continuing radicalism of Greece’s populist coalition government – it is a matter of urgent importance that the comparative study of populism goes on with even greater intensity.

Takis Pappas is associate professor at the University of Macedonia, Greece. His most recent publication is Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece. Alongside Hanspeter Kriesi he is editor of European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession

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This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Takis Pappas , Populism , Economy , Economics , Politics

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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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