Europeans showed their disgruntlement with traditional party politics in 2019, swinging heavily towards ‘populist’ alternatives in European Parliament elections . Populist groups have also been gaining ground in national parliaments , often only a few years after launch.
Main populist parties in the EU, at the end of 2019
Sources: European Parliament and national election commissions .
A strong emphasis on job, family values and patriotism put Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party on course for re-election in October 2019. Power in Italy has swung to the Five Star Movement (M5S) and more recently to its former coalition partner the League, whose leader Matteo Salvini pulled out in August 2019 hoping to force an early election which opinion polls suggest he could now win. Some traditional ruling parties, such as Romania’s Social Democrats, have turned increasingly populist to preserve support.
Elsewhere, mainstream parties have beaten off the challenge only by forming uncomfortable coalitions among themselves, or by adopting some of the populists’ demands especially on slowing-down economic adjustment and restraining immigration. This has allowed the National Rally in France, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, rival Dutch populists Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, the UK’s Brexit Party and new conservative-nationalist groups in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to reshape the national agenda even when still in opposition.
While some populist parties (such as the Danish People’s Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Croatia’s Human Shield and Romania’s once-mainstream Social Democrats) have recently fallen away in the polls, others are still on the rise, looking to be kingmakers or coalition partners after their next election. Populists gained more than a quarter of votes cast nationally in Europe in 2018 .
What is populism?
We expect political parties to offer policies that people want. But ‘populism’ raises alarm because it opens the door to policies that:
- Impose simple, ‘common sense’ solutions that may ignore the complexities of the problem.
- Allow a majority interest to override those of vulnerable minorities.
- Are chosen just on popularity, with no underlying political principle.
Populists try extra hard to show that they are ‘on the side of the people’, defending the many whose interests have been submerged by those of excessively influential or privileged small groups. This enemy is often branded the Elite – an unholy alliance of those with most power and the “1%” who control the nation’s wealth . Traditional political leaders, even where elected, are accused of not representing the majority, instead promoting the interests (because they rely on the support) of big businesses, the ultra-rich, or malign foreign powers, and a civil-service bureaucracy that blocks radical change. Populists sometimes extend this target to other minority groups, even those who were once disadvantaged but may have shaped past policy to improve their situation. This can include particular ethnic groups or religious denominations, feminist movements, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or anyone else for whom the Elite seems to show a special concern.
Populists’ Us and Them story
By mixing nationalism and social activism, populists can capture votes simultaneously from the left (by promising higher living standards for ordinary working families) and from the right (defending the nation against external economic or cultural threats and ‘Big Government’ that yields too much to them). While appealing across traditional party lines, populists look especially to rally sections of the population that are small enough to have been overlooked by mainstream parties, but still large enough to wield significant votes. Their ascent is often helped by a charismatic leader, whose persuasive personality makes it easier to pick-and-mix among popular policies to attract key voter groups.
"Populist movements have risen before and then fallen away. For example Germany’s struggle in the 1990s with economic downturn and immigration after the fall of eastern ‘communism’ led to a surge of support for far-right nationalist parties."
Populist promises are always tempting when parties are scrambling for votes in a democracy, but ”authoritarian populism” also seems to be on the rise . The label has been attached to presidents including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. All rose to power through elections, but took steps that made them harder to vote out, especially by clamping down on opponents. And in pursuing the interests of ‘the people’ who are clearly a majority, they swept aside political protections previously given to smaller groups, ranging from ethnic and cultural minorities to business owners, trade unionists and non-governmental organisations.
Rising and falling, or here to stay?
Populist parties tend to gain support when things are going badly – during economic downturns, or when rising amounts of crime, disorder and scandal, make people angry with the ‘parties of power’ that let these happen. EU and Euro Area labour productivity growth has been among the world’s lowest since 2008 , severely limiting the scope for increased living standards. Prolonged ‘austerity’ has led many voters to abandon their traditional parties, and switch to populists who can identify a simple cause of these problems – globalization and free trade, openness to foreigners, rich bankers, and the elites that promoted these – and supply obvious solutions.
But populist movements have risen before and then fallen away. For example Germany’s struggle in the 1990s with economic downturn and immigration after the fall of eastern ‘communism’ led to a surge of support for far-right nationalist parties, including the Republikaner and the German People’s Union (DVU-L). AfD, now making its biggest gains in relatively deprived eastern states , is going down a track that’s been trodden before. The earlier populism went into retreat in the early 2000s, as re-elected older parties repaired the social rifts with the help of faster economic growth.
Mainstream parties may yet bounce back again, if employment and incomes recover or if populists who’ve now got into power can’t deliver on their promises. But to do so, they will need to tackle some uniquely difficult problems, ranging from climate change to digital job loss that may now extend into professional occupations. The answers are likely to be complicated, involving change that brings us pain before any gain. That leaves plenty of room for populists to keep winning votes with alternative solutions, or at least an easier target to blame the problems on.