by Ben Crum and Alvaro Oleart

Following the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist parties throughout western democracies, many observers suggested that democracy was in serious trouble. In Hungary, the right-wing populist government led by Viktor Orbán has effectively suspended the democratic system. However, in most of Europe, democracies are proving remarkably resilient. While populist parties are here to stay, they have failed to gain majority support. Notably, in countries like Italy, Austria and Greece, populists that attained government power have been successfully, and peacefully, ousted again. In the case of the Spanish Podemos, a populist party has even turned into one of the most loyal defenders of the constitutional democratic order.

These experiences reveal the ambiguous character of many populist parties (see also our previous blog). Their emergence can be seen as an indicator of the vibrancy of democracy, as they raise new voices, challenge cartel practices, and reanimate the political debate. At the same time, these new parties become a threat to democracy once their aversion to the political establishment is turned into an aversion to the democratic system and its constitutional rules.

The critical empirical observation is that, departing from similarly ambiguous democratic messages, populist parties follow distinct paths. Which path they end up following is not just a matter of their internal dynamics, but as much – if not more – a function of the political context that they encounter. It follows that the question of whether populist parties can become democrats is not just about political parties, but also concerns the resilience of the democratic system at large.

To assess the resilience of European democracies and the conditions that are conducive to it, we explore the cases of nine populist parties in eight countries in a recent RECONNECT Working Paper (‘Democratic Systems and Populist Challenges in Europe’). The Working Paper offers a rich overview of the dynamics of populism across the European Union (EU) over the last twenty years. Methodologically, the case studies also provide an inventory of different analytical techniques to assess the democratic credentials of populist parties. We are still in the process of analysing the findings across the cases. However, for a start, we identify four overarching lessons.

1. The evolution of populist parties can only be understood in their distinctive national contexts

Populist parties come in many different shapes. Our Working Paper includes long-standing parties, like the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Front National in France, as well as rather young ones, like the Forum voor Democratie in the Netherlands, Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy and the ANO party of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. While the majority of these populist parties tends to be right-wing, we also analyse a left-wing populist party with the case of Podemos in Spain.

The diversity of populist parties is indicative of the nature of the political systems in which they emerge and often reflects long-standing national singularities. This is certainly the case when we look at populism and democratic challengers in Central and Eastern Europe, as Paul Blokker underlines in his chapter of the Working Paper. However, this also applies to the cases from Western Europe. For example, Vlaams Belang obviously mobilises through the peculiar national structure of Belgium, a country divided into two distinct social and linguistic communities; the Movimento 5 Stelle could only develop against the backdrop of the implosion of the Italian party system of the 1990s; Podemos emerges as a kind of second generation party that challenges the parties that took over Spain after the dissolution of the Francoist regime; the trajectory of the Alternative für Deutschland can only be understood in light of German reunification (and persisting differences between east and west); and the colonial legacy of France still resonates in the Front National.

2. Most European populist parties are more outspokenly anti-pluralistic in their positions towards specific minority groups than in their criticisms of constitutional institutions

Following Lisa Herman (2017), we use two main sets of indicators of parties’ democratic – or, more specifically, pluralist – inclinations: first, their political tolerance towards their opponents and societal minorities and, secondly, their respect for pluralist institutions like the constitutions, courts and pluralist media. Notably, we find that many populist parties are very outspoken in their lack of tolerance towards specific societal groups. In many cases, these are migrants, often of Muslim faith, at times combined with specific regions (Belgium’s Vlaams Belang) or the LGBTQI+ community (Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS)). Notably, in comparison with the venomous language often deployed against the ‘others’, most populist parties are much more restrained in directly attacking pluralist institutions. Especially in the case of parties like the Partij voor de Vrijheid and the Front National, the primary threat to democracy seems to concern the disenfranchisement of specific groups more so than the destruction of pluralist institutions.

3. Democratic systems in Europe are quite resilient, albeit in different ways

Probably the most important conclusion of this Working Paper is that European democracies prove resilient in multiple, different ways. On the one hand, the power that populist parties can attain remains generally contained and subject to checks and balances. On the other hand, populist parties themselves do – at times voluntarily and at other times by force of the prevailing conditions – continue to adhere to the democratic rules of the game.

However, there is no ‘golden bullet’ to prevent populist and anti-pluralist parties from undoing democracy. In different systems, different mixtures of mechanisms apply. An interesting case is the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, which ultimately faces the choice of committing to the democratic process or being criminalised. Populist parties in the Netherlands face a slightly different trade-off of either being incorporated among the establishment parties or facing severe competition from younger and more credible populist competitors. A similar dilemma would appear to apply to Vlaams Belang in Belgium, which in the short run has benefitted electorally from the cordon sanitaire imposed upon it by the other parties, but in the longer run finds it confirming its marginal status.

4. Populist parties are here to stay, they are bound to remain ambivalent in their allegiance to democratic pluralism, and hence it remains uncertain what they would do if they were to attain exclusive executive power

Our case studies suggest that populism will remain a political force in Europe. There is a support base for these parties and arguably they serve as a kind of ‘air vent’ for the establishment parties. Furthermore, although some longer-standing populist parties may come to be accommodated within democratic systems, in many of them – and especially new ones – the hint of reservation towards the democratic order is likely to remain entrenched in their strategy, positioning and, importantly, in their support base. As a consequence, it also remains uncertain what these parties would do if they were to come to power. There are the reassuring cases of Italy, Austria and Greece, where populists that attained government power have been successfully, and peacefully, ousted again. Obviously, in most of these cases, the populist party only served as a (junior) coalition partner in government, which may have prevented them from clamping down on democracy. Ultimately, the way that Fidesz has been steadily rolling back pluralism in Hungary serves as an important warning that countries within the EU tend to be democratically resilient but also remain vulnerable. Democracy is not a settled status; it needs permanent fostering and vigilance.

Explore further the cases of nine populist parties in eight countries in the RECONNECT Working PaperDemocratic Systems and Populist Challenges in Europe” (Deliverable 5.4), edited by Ben Crum and Alvaro Oleart (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). The Working Paper offers a rich overview of the dynamics of populism across the European Union (EU) over the last twenty years.

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