Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Digested Read

The Populist Surge and Democracy in Today’s Europe

Giorgos Katsambekis


Jakob Braun

| 11 mins read

If we believe top European officials like Herman van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as mainstream media, populism is now ‘the greatest danger’ for our democracies. Indeed, during the years of crisis and austerity there has been a significant rise of populist parties in Europe, with some of them winning elections and disturbing previously established hegemonies. In this sense, the populist challenge has a ‘real,’ concrete base, as populists of various orientations are gaining ground.

Interestingly, this ‘populist surge’ has brought renewed intensity to the debate around the crisis of democracy itself and the capacity of existing institutions to express and empower citizens. If people are turning to populist challengers, who seem overly radical, or even ‘extremist,’ then something must be wrong with our democratic-representational systems. This, at least, seems to be a common suggestion on the lips of politicians, pundits and academics.

To be sure, populists are identified on both sides of the political spectrum. Starting from the right, the Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen poses as a viable contender of power in France, the Finns Party in Finland are participating in a coalition government, holding significant cabinet posts, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was only narrowly defeated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, while Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s hegemony in Hungary seems unchallenged.

At the same time we have witnessed a new surge, characterised by the emergence of populist parties that belong to the Left. The austerity-hit European South has been at the forefront of this new trend. Political parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain rode the waves of massive grassroots anti-austerity movements and significantly expanded their electoral support, with the former being already in power for two years and the latter consolidated as a major player in Spain’s political scene.

But is this trend something good or bad for democracy? And what are the prospects of populism from now on? To deal with such questions we have to start from defining populism. Drawing on the emerging consensus among academics that use discursive or ‘ideational’ approaches, we can sketch the main characteristics of the phenomenon.

First, populism entails the discursive construction of ‘the people’ as a collective subject. ‘The people’ are called upon as the only ones that can legitimise democratic decision making; as the key-subject of social change and radical subversion. The second characteristic of populism is its sharp antagonistic worldview: the representation of society as ultimately divided between ‘the people’ and the ‘establishment.’ Populists are placed on the side of ‘the people,’ pledging to serve the popular will and reinforce popular sovereignty, accountability and participation, against power holders and ‘oligarchs.’

This formal understanding of populism gives us a precise illustration of its political logic, but it does not tell us much regarding the content of populist politics. Indeed, populism’s contents may vary, depending on the ideology to which it is attached, as well as the socio-economic environment in which it develops. This explains the fact that we have historically witnessed many different forms of populist articulation: populisms that favoured statist economic programmes and others that were free-market oriented; populisms that emerged from the grassroots and populisms that were concentrated on charismatic leaders and top-down hierarchies; populisms that put forth demands for democratic expansion and social inclusion and populisms that defended authoritarian logics and social/ethnic exclusion.

Accordingly, the way in which populists speak about ‘the people,’ can vary significantly, as some consider the people to be a mono-ethnic community bound by relations of common culture, language or blood, while others see it as a political community, plural and heterogeneous, bound only by a sense of common fate and a shared set of values. Moreover, the way in which the antagonism with the ‘enemy’ is signified can also acquire different content: in some cases, an unresponsive ‘elite’ can be blamed for its economic injustices and corruption, or it can be castigated for opening the borders and allowing invading ‘others’ to ‘take over’ the country.

In this context, taking into account the vast heterogeneity of the phenomenon, I believe that it is wrong to denounce populism per se as a pathological and anti-democratic form of politics. In fact, it might be better to understand it as one way, among many others, to appeal to groups of people in order to mobilise them against named opponents, while offering some kind of incorporation.

Now, what we may call ‘populist incorporation’ can be exclusive and identitarian (‘you’re one of us, as long as we share the same ethnic origins’), or it can be inclusive and pluralist (‘you’re one of us regardless ethnicity, religion, etc., as long as we stand together against an oppressive elite’). Admittedly, this is a simplified version of possible articulations, based on the two broader trends that seem to crystallise in Europe. In any case, this function tells us something crucial regarding the conditions of emergence and probable success of populist projects.

And it is here that the notion of ‘crisis’ enters our discussion. Kenneth Roberts, for example, has linked populist ruptures to certain crises of representation. One of the scenarios that he describes is the situation where a political system is characterised by lack of responsiveness or accountability. In this case, while democratic institutions formally work, the rule of law is respected, liberties are secured and parties can freely compete in elections, citizens are left with a feeling of lacking alternatives or of not being heard; they thus do not feel included, incorporated.

This is due to the fact that mainstream parties that dominate the political scene have converged to such an extent that it does not really make a difference to vote for one or the other. And this seems to be the case today in many European countries. Moreover, citizens in Europe have often witnessed the imposition of policies sharply opposed to their mandate, due to external pressures and constraints.

Take for example the Greek referendum of July 2015, where, despite the people’s clear decision to reject a new bailout deal premised on further austerity, such a deal was imposed on the Greek government under the threat of a complete economic collapse and international isolation.

In such a context, where citizen feel misrepresented or not represented at all, where there are serious doubts about the moral integrity of the political elite and the policies being implemented have little to do with the popular vote, populists can claim to better understand and express the frustrated people, against a political system that has become self-serving and alienated.

Hence, instead of trying to account for populism as a ‘threat,’ there might be a much more important lesson to draw from the success of populist parties and movements, and this has to do with the quality of representation itself; with the responsiveness of political actors and institutions.

This is particularly important in today’s Europe, where mainstream political forces seem to have lost their links with civil society, becoming increasingly attached to the administrational workings of the state; what Peter Mair has described as the ‘cartelisation’ of political parties, which has spread to the EU itself, making it a ‘protected sphere,’ unaware of people’s needs and grievances. In one way or another, populists are gaining ground against such ‘cartel’ systems around Europe, and they are doing so not only in cases where economic hardship has been severe, but also in cases where the economy has performed well and institutions are stable and efficient.

In the South, the populist Left has found a favourable environment to put forth demands against austerity, rising inequality and impoverishment, in favour of re-including the marginalised people. In the North, the populist Right has managed to attract voters that were frustrated with mainstream parties, channelling social anxieties through identity issues, stressing the need to return to strong nation-states that provide protection to ‘their own.’ It would be impossible for such parties to succeed, if a ‘gap of representation’ wasn’t there for them to fill.

To sum up, any discussion regarding populism in Europe cannot be productive if we don’t take into account the inherent ambiguity of the phenomenon: both threat and corrective, both fulfilling a democratising promise and susceptible to authoritarian turns. The a priori demonization of populism that ignores its specific content and message, is doomed to backfire, since along with dismissing the populist ‘devils,’ one risks dismissing ‘the people’ themselves, their worries, frustrations and grievances.

In this sense, mainstream parties ought to take seriously the demands of populists on the issues which they raise, from participatory democracy to transparency, and from wealth distribution and social protection to popular accountability. And they do not just have to take them into account, but they ought to respond to them with concrete policy proposals and with discourses that can aspire positive passions of hope among citizens that struggle in conditions of stagnation and impasse.

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