Does populism pose a threat to European democracies? Drawing on a new book, Ben Crum and Alvaro Oleart examine when populist parties turn anti-democratic and when they remain loyal to the democratic system.
Much of the appeal of the concept of populism and the rise of research on the topic can be explained by its potential threat to democracy. Notably, however, while there is plentiful research on the conditions conducive to the rise of populist parties, there is much less that directly studies their effect on democracy.
Indeed, authors such as Jan-Werner Müller, Nadia Urbinati and Stefan Rummens have suggested that populists are by definition inimical to democracy as populism is premised on a monistic understanding of the ‘pure people’ and, hence, does not allow for democratic pluralism. Such readings were amplified in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK, when many saw the rise of populism as heralding the possible ‘end’ of democracy.
In practice, however, populist parties often remain strikingly ambivalent on the question of democracy. They present themselves as promoters of a new kind of politics that is meant to reinvigorate democracy. They often include factions that seek radical democracy as well as others that seek to strike whole social groups from the ballot. They can move from fundamental opposition to the pluralist constitution to its most fervent defender.
For sure, in the European context, the example of the right-wing populist Fidesz-led government in Hungary demonstrates how populism can lead to the termination of democracy (at least for now). However, in countries such as Italy, Austria, and Greece, populist parties that attained government 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.
Populist parties, democracy and pluralism
In a new edited volume, Populist Parties and Democratic Resilience, we approach populist parties’ democratic inclinations as a variable; a variable that may change over time and in response to changing conditions. This approach requires us, first of all, to be very precise about where the threat to democracy lies. Building on the work of Lise Herman, we identify democracy to be threatened when core pluralist institutions (like courts and a public media system) are challenged and when social groups are disqualified for political participation.
Our contributors offer in-depth analyses of populist parties in eleven European Union countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Spain). We track the evolution of the anti-pluralist inclinations in the populist parties over time and we try to identify how this evolution has been affected by institutional arrangements and strategic responses from other political parties.
For sure, our analyses do not yield one bulletproof mechanism that can socialise populist parties into democratic pluralism. Still, our findings suggest that populist parties are certainly not destined for electoral success and that institutions and the strategies of mainstream parties can affect the incentives that populist parties experience.
One interesting finding in Central and Eastern Europe is that corruption, rather than liberal-democratic values per se, has become a key issue in the political landscape which competitors of populist parties can use to contain them. The political salience of the issue of corruption puts potentially anti-pluralist populist parties on the defensive. Even if mainstream powers do not succeed in removing populists from power, as happened to ANO in the Czech Republic in 2021, it does create a check on them that ensures any nefarious moves they may want to make face a substantial and societally visible countermovement, as in Romania.
The main take-away message is that European democracies prove resilient to anti-pluralist populism in multiple, different ways. In western Europe, populist parties face serious trade-offs if they want to stick to a truly anti-pluralist strategy. A case in point is the AfD in Germany, which 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 by younger populist competitors. In turn, the Vlaams Belang faces a comparable dilemma in Belgium, as the cordon sanitaire imposed upon it by the other parties has benefitted it but also confirmed its marginal status and, ultimately, places a natural ceiling to the support it can attain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our findings suggest above all that populist parties are more likely to be successfully accommodated in political systems with strong pluralist institutions and a well-consolidated party system as background institutions. In contrast, for most targeted interventions, the impact is mixed and conditional.
Thus, legal persecution of extremist and racist positions may have a sanitary effect, as seems to have happened in Germany, but much of that hinges on the authority that these legal institutions enjoy. Similarly, high electoral thresholds may work to keep anti-pluralist parties out, but they may also help the build-up of societal frustration. Interestingly, in the case of the Netherlands we find that low electoral thresholds help to destabilise anti-pluralist parties and create an ongoing inflow of new competitors.
The same applies for strategies that mainstream parties can adopt vis-à-vis their populist contenders. Our sample includes cases in which anti-pluralist parties have been courted by the mainstream parties – both in programmatic terms as well as in actually making them a coalition partner in government – but also cases in which populist parties have been isolated by way of a cordon sanitaire.
While the cordon sanitaire strategy may be the more principled one, it has certainly not been unequivocally successful. In the Belgian case, it has actually served the Vlaams Belang quite well. In contrast, government participation may have helped to accommodate Podemos and the Five Star Movement, but in the cases of the FPÖ in Austria and the supporting role that the PVV played for the Dutch government in 2012, it rather seems to have fuelled the anti-pluralism of the populist parties in question. What stands out from this inventory of mechanisms is that the further anti-pluralist actors are normalised without having rejected their anti-pluralism inclinations, the more likely it is that they will be empowered in an undemocratic direction and contaminate the political system.
Populist parties are here to stay in Europe’s party systems. However, they do not signal the inevitable demise of democracy in Europe. In fact, populist parties often remain ambivalent about democracy, and in some cases can reinvigorate it. Rather than a blanket disqualification of their democratic credentials, their words and actions have to be closely monitored for anti-pluralist inclinations. Ultimately, Europe’s democratic systems can prove their resilience by carefully calibrating their institutional and behavioural responses to populist parties.