Opinion & Analysis

How populist parties survive ‘mainstreaming’ once in power

Populists thrive on being perceived as outsiders. This creates an incentive for mainstream governing populist parties to portray themselves as challengers to the establishment. Anca Turcu examines the tactics governing populists in Hungary and Turkey employ to survive mainstreaming.

In their discussion of three common myths about populism, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti emphasise that not all populist parties are extremist or fringe entities. Many are mainstream, often governing, parties.

However, not being perceived as mainstream is crucial for their continued political success and electoral appeal. ‘Surviving mainstreaming’ as Zulianello and Guasti put it, entails carefully cultivating an image as outsiders, indefatigable challengers to an entrenched, often flawed and possibly corrupt status quo.

Blame game strategies

For populist parties in power, like Hungary’s Fidesz and Turkey’s AKP, maintaining their political appeal and a good chance at re-election means passing the buck. This is especially true when it comes to crises that force them to make potentially controversial decisions.

Deferred responsibility or, more simply, blame game strategy, is crucial for populist leaders who face challenging circumstances. Deflecting blame becomes a matter of political survival. This requires a large amount of time and effort, especially for governing parties that wield power. Some have been in government for more than a decade at a time.

Governing populists sell themselves as outsiders, claiming that power and authority lies undeservingly with someone else, outside their purview

Governing populists sell themselves as outsiders. One tactic is to convince their supporters that at least some decision-making powers are undeservingly in someone else’s hands. Another is to diminish their accountability by placing loci of authority outside of their purview. This tactic claims that foreign elites or institutions exclusively call consequential shots. Such external entities and those who control them putatively seek to sabotage national hierarchies. Their goal is to undermine legitimately elected (populist) national leaders and to replace their authority with that of a corrupt (foreign or supranational) establishment.

In this narrative, it becomes the duty of governing populist parties to stand up to such abusive entities, and to form an opposition to the corrupt establishment.

A paradox ensues. To maintain their political and electoral appeal, governing mainstream populist parties portray themselves as being in a perpetual state of opposition. In case of failures or crises, accountability rests with the more powerful, nefarious foreign outsiders.

The EU as supranational bully

For the ruling parties in Hungary and Turkey, embracing the strategies described above has delivered numerous consecutive electoral victories. It has also let them skilfully eschew the pernicious effects of mainstreaming. In doing so, both parties have followed similar, almost standard, modi operandi.

At home they portray a foreign entity (the European Union) as a supranational bully, relentlessly seeking to impose its will. Meanwhile, they themselves are perpetually engaged in heroic acts of opposition and resistance.

One example among many comes from Hungary’s National Consultation Campaign of 2015. This signalled to the Hungarian people that the Fidesz government was seeking their input and support as allies in a ‘crisis’ that conflated immigration, asylum and terrorism. The government presented this crisis as the result of ruthless EU impositions.

Fidesz and the AKP avoid electoral accountability by portraying a foreign entity, frequently the European Union, as a supranational bully

In Turkey, President Erdoğan has portrayed the EU as a bully on many occasions. He did so most notoriously in November 2016, after a non-binding European Parliament vote to suspend EU accession talks. Erdoğan’s speech claimed numerous instances in which arrogant European powers had not adequately compensated Turkey’s efforts, or, worse, sabotaged them.

At a time of profound national emergency, like the 2015 Syrian migration crisis, both parties successfully avoided electoral accountability by pinning the blame on the EU.

‘Homeland populism’

Abroad, Fidesz and the AKP don the protective opposition mantle for the supposed benefit of large diaspora groups. These are primarily Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia, and Turks in Germany and the Netherlands.

The two mainstream populist parties often invoke the ‘plight’ of their citizens abroad, who they portray as vulnerable to unfriendly European host governments. This reinforces blame narratives that cast them as the perpetually vigilant opposition.

The two governing populist parties recruit and engage diaspora voters in ways that actively shape domestic politics

This approach creates strong connections with large, cohesive diaspora groups, leading to a phenomenon known as homeland populism. The two governing populist parties recruit and engage diaspora voters in ways that actively shape domestic politics.

This narrative reinforces the tropes of national vulnerability and oppression at the hands of unfriendly foreigners. As a result, in both cases, diaspora voters have provided en masse support that secured comfortable winning margins in several consecutive national elections.

Perpetual opposition

The examples above show that populists are well aware of the dangers of power. Winning elections and becoming a governing party can mainstream them in a way that might make them unappealing to their voters in future electoral cycles. Populist parties therefore need to maintain an illusory status of perpetual opposition to an equally perpetual perceived bogeyman.

In the case of Hungary and Turkey, that role is filled by the EU, or European powers more broadly. By convincing their electorates at home and abroad of the ubiquitous and nefarious power of the EU, Hungary’s Fidesz and Turkey’s AKP have repeatedly managed to pass the buck and avoid accountability for internal and external crises.

And, what is more, their blame game strategy has been successful. Both parties have survived mainstreaming while continuing to stay in power for decades.

About the Author

Anca Turcu is Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, Security and International Affairs, University of Central Florida

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