3 – 2017 (vol.71)


Populism: between renewal and breakdown of democracy

Since the 1980s there has been a steady rise in support for ‘populist’ politicians, parties and movements. Today, populist parties are not only represented in the parliaments of most European countries, but have also moved to the centre of European and American politics. In Hungary, the prime minister and governing party, as well as the main opposition party, are populists. In Finland, Norway and Lithuania populist parties are part of the coalitions in government. And then there was the election of Donald Trump – a prototypical populist – to the presidency of the United States. At his inauguration, Trump claimed: “Today’s ceremony (…) has a very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” The day after the inauguration of Trump, populist politicians in Europe convened in Koblenz for the international launch of election campaigns in a number of European countries crucial to their success. They presented themselves as leaders of the new Europe.

In the year that followed, the international media framed the elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany as a battle between populist contenders and establishment parties, raising expectations of a populist surge in Europe. As far as the Netherlands was concerned, the overwhelming attention of the international media was partly based on a misunderstanding of the Dutch electoral system of proportional representation; more specifically on the incorrect assumption that a victory for the populist Geert Wilders would mean he would become prime minister. However, even before the elections, it was clear that in the extremely fragmented political landscape of the Netherlands, Wilders would obviously obtain far less than 76 of the seats needed for a majority in the 150 seats’ Dutch parliament. Since no other party would want to form a coalition government with him, the chances of Wilders governing the Netherlands were nil. Yet the fact that the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of Prime Minister Rutte ended up with 33 seats in parliament, whereas Wilders stagnated at 20, was framed as a clear defeat of populism and a victory for the mainstream parties. This concealed the fact that Wilders won five seats and moved his party into second position in the Netherlands.

A similar framing of the French elections in the international media as a defeat for the populist Front National of Marine Le Pen by Emanuel Macron’s La République en Marche deserves a closer look as well. In the first round of the presidential elections, which allows us to gauge the proportional strength of the different candidates, Macron obtained 24% of the votes and Le Pen ended a close second with 21.3%. In the second round Macron defeated Le Pen convincingly with 66.1% against 33.9%, presumably because many voters rejected Le Pen rather than positively preferring Macron. Yet even so, Marine Le Pen nearly doubled the votes for the Front National candidate compared to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who obtained 17.8% of the votes when he was standing in the second round of the presidential elections in 2002.

In the decisive second round of the legislative elections, 57% of the French electorate did not vote. Due to the electoral system, combined with this extremely high absenteeism, Macron’s party obtained a clear majority with the support of only 14% of the electorate. The carefully crafted framing of this as a decisive victory over the populists clearly worked to break the momentum they were gaining, but it is a framing, and is very likely to underestimate the real and enduring appeal of populist candidates to the electorate.

Against that background, for this first issue of the Clingendael Spectator we asked six authors from the United States, the European continent and Scandinavian countries to conceptualise the phenomenon of populism, explain its strong support, keep track of how populists fare after elections, and assess their effects on democracy.

As regards the nature of the phenomenon, several authors in this issue warn against equating populism with the extreme right. Extreme right parties are not necessarily populist and populist parties are not necessarily extreme right, as the success of the left-wing populist movement Podemos in Spain shows. Many authors follow the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde in defining populism as a ‘thin ideology’, meaning that it can be combined with different ideologies, both of the (extreme) left and the (extreme) right.

As Mark Elchardus states in this issue, there is, in the scientific literature, quite a strong consensus about the central propositions of populism:

“The political establishment does not take into account the problems and wishes of the (ordinary) people;

There is a stark difference between the straight-thinking ordinary people (their plain common sense) and the elite, which is out of touch with reality, even corrupt;

That is why the elite, the politicians and the experts should listen more carefully to the people; why there should be, in fact, government for and by the people;

Democracy as it exists today is not a real democracy; it is useless to go and vote because the established parties do not heed the preference of the people, not even of their own voters.”

Elchardus’s empirical research shows that support for these populist propositions goes well beyond the support for populist parties. Large sections of the electorates of all parties think in a populist manner now. Which brings us to the question: why?

Elchardus shows that populist success can be largely explained by declinism: “… the feeling, shared by many, that their society is in decline, that many of the valued things are being lost or are even wilfully destroyed”. Many people hold the ‘political establishment’ responsible for the supposed decline, and therefore become susceptible to populism. Both Frans Bieckmann and René Cuperus explain the populist revolt against ’the establishment’ by pointing out that there is less and less difference between the political programmes of the mainstream parties.

As the late Dutch sociologist Bart Tromp predicted: if you make the choice between left and right in politics obsolete, you open the door for a populist revolt. If people feel that it does not matter if you vote PSOE or PP, as in Spain, if social democratic parties each time end up in ‘purple’ governments together with conservative/liberal parties, as in the Netherlands, if There Is No Alternative for the path that is considered to lead to decline, then you give birth to a populist revolt.

Frank Ankersmit speaks of ‘the death of ideology’ in this context. Ideologies used to create an indissoluble tie between the voter and his representative. As Ankersmit states: “Thanks to political ideology the representative could be sure of having the reliable and faithful support of part of the electorate and the voter was convinced of having in his representative a people’s tribune doing for him in parliament all he could.” Now that this ideological tie between voter and representative has weakened, “… many people discovered the painful truth that representative democracy is not a democracy at all, but an elective aristocracy. In a representative democracy the people are sovereign in the proper sense of the word on election-day only”.

What happens, then, when populist parties rise to power? The common wisdom is that populist parties necessarily suffer from governmental responsibility, since the populist vote is considered a vote against the establishment. Ann-Cathrine Jungar argues, however, that populist successes are realised on the basis of specific issues as well, e.g. political narratives against immigration and against European integration. Her analysis in this volume shows that voters punish populist parties not for participating in government, but for breaking electoral promises on these crucial issues. “In this sense”, she states, “populist parties are much like all others.”

When it comes to the last question, i.e. whether populism means a renewal of or a threat to democracy, one should make the distinction between an authoritarian and a more direct democratic sub-type. In the authoritarian sub-type, the leader pictures him or herself as the incarnation of the people, as the one who “… says what the people feel and think and whose advent therefore effectively places the people in charge”, as Elchardus expresses it. Carlos de la Torre, in his analysis of the Trump presidency, signals how Trump antagonises media corporations critical of his administration along these lines, framing them as ‘the enemies of the American people’. He warns that Americans should learn from populism in other world areas, in that the fabric of democracy can be threatened from within: “In the name of returning power to the people, Erdogan, Orbán and Chávez undermined civil society’s independence and the democratic public sphere.” Even though the authoritarian species of populism seems to be the more frequent one, Elchardus states that the abovementioned core propositions of populism can be, and are, used as arguments for direct democracy and/or deliberative democracy as well. Bieckmann’s analysis of Podemos (or ‘We Can Do It’) is an illustrative case in point.

The authoritarian variety of populism leads to something one is tempted to express with a contradictio in terminis: authoritarian democracy. This clearly constitutes a threat to liberal, representative democracy. The broad appeal of the core populist propositions, on the other hand, could act as a wake-up call for parties of the middle, inciting them to revitalise representative democracy, listen to the people, and address head-on the causes of the populists’ success. The framing of recent elections as a victory over populism does, however, not bode well. It risks luring established parties into believing that business as usual is up to the current challenges democracy is facing.

Monika Sie Dhian Ho

Monika Sie Dhian HoMonika Sie Dhian Ho is the General Director of the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank and diplomatic academy which aims to enhance insight in international relations. She lectures at the Netherlands School of Public Administration and is vice president of the European Integration Committee of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV).

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