The populist challenge: why Eastern Europe is different?

The rise of populism in Central and Eastern Europe

Authors:

Hanspeter Kriesi, Stein Rokkan Chair at the Department of Political and Social Sciences European University Institute

What is populism?

I follow a tradition in political science that defines the term populism as ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups – ‘the pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people’. This definition includes the existence of two homogenous groups – ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, the antagonistic relationship between the two, the idea of popular sovereignty, and the positive valorisation of ‘the people’ combined with the denigration of ‘the elite’.

Scholars of populism has identified three conceptions of ‘the people’ – a political one (the people as sovereign), a cultural one (the people as a nation) and an economic one (the people as a class). The notion of the people as nation is typically associated with right-wing populism, while the notion of people as a class (the class of the downtrodden which stands for the people as a whole) is characteristic of left-wing populism. The people as sovereign implies a specific vision of democracy.

Whatever the meaning of the people, the general conception of populism implies quite a specific perspective on democracy. As some of my colleagues suggested, populism is ‘democratic illiberalism’. First of all, populist democracy is illiberal, because it takes ‘government by the people’ literally and rejects all checks and balances on the popular will. Secondly, populist democracy has monolithic conception of the people, which implies that the popular majority (the ‘general will’) is always right. It is also illiberal because of its hostility to the ‘aristocratic element’ of representative democracy – the fact that the representatives constitute a selective political elite that cannot be controlled on a daily basis.

The central populist message is that politics has escaped popular control and that popular control has to be restored. The populist attempt to provide a closer link between the citizens and the decision-makers may take different forms, but the characteristic way for the populist vision of democracy to provide such a direct linkage between the people and those who govern is to introduce a charismatic leader.

Populists are against all kinds of intermediaries between the people and the decision-makers, and against political parties in particular. They plead for a more direct linkage of masses to elites. The central populist message is that politics has escaped popular control and that popular control has to be restored. The populist attempt to provide a closer link between the citizens and the decision-makers may take different forms, but the characteristic way for the populist vision of democracy to provide such a direct linkage between the people and those who govern is to introduce a charismatic leader (or a political organization). This leader does not belong to the established political elites, but is an outsider (a new challenger), who incarnates the demands of ‘the people’. The populist leader has direct, unmediated access to the people’s grievances, and acts as the spokesperson of the vox populi.

Preconditions for the rise of populism in West European democracies

Populism has been on the rise for some time in Europe now. Scholars have linked it to the increasing erosion of the representative function of European party systems including declining party membership and party identification, declining voter turnout, and increasing volatility of the vote. In my scholarship I have long argued that the erosion of the parties’ representation function in Western Europe has deep structural roots, which are related to two major challenges of contemporary democracy. They are: (1) the increased importance of the European and the global level multilevel governance structures; (2) and the increasing mediatisation of politics.

The first issue is tied to the increasing denationalization of politics and policy-making. This structural process has led to the empowerment of the executive branch at the detriment of parliament. Which, in turn, serves to reinforce the governing function of the parties who routinely govern, at the detriment of their representative function (which operates above all through parliament). Second, the addition of a European level of decision-making has led to longer, and less more in-transparent chains of delegation, which has, in turn, reduced the accountability of the political decision-makers. As representatives of the national citizen public, they are expected to be responsive and accountable to their voters; as responsible governments, they are expected to take into account the increasing number of principals constituted by the many veto players who now surround the government in its multilevel institutional setting. This extension of the scope of accountability implies that their accountability to the national constituency of voters, i.e. their representative function, is diminished. Finally, the increasing importance of supra- and international governance structures contributes to the increasing divorce between ‘front-stage’ and ‘back-stage’ politics at the national level. The increasing importance of the European Union and other supranational actors has reinforced representation in the administrative channel at the detriment of the electoral channel.

The addition of a European level of decision-making has led to longer, and less more in-transparent chains of delegation, which has, in turn, reduced the accountability of the political decision-makers.

The second issue of mediatisation of politics contributes to the shifting balance of party functions by reducing the role of the party apparatus, by linking the parties’ leaders more directly to their voters, by enhancing the personalization of political leadership, and by fostering the ‘depoliticization’ of the party base. This reliance on more direct communication between the party leaders and the public audience of the voters contributes to the personalization of power, since the success of the party increasingly depends on the communication qualities of its leaders.

The populist challenge in West European democracies

Populist democracy may be understood as popular democracy without parties. The voters get the impression that the parties who habitually govern are all alike, that they all betray the public behind the scene, and that they all merit to be sanctioned by a popular vote in the upcoming elections. In other words, the decline of the parties’ representation function invites populist reactions in the traditional sense.

As I see it, the rise of ‘protest populism’ takes three different forms, all of which have the potential to transform the configurations of these systems as we have known them:

  1. the rise of new challengers in the party system;
  2. the radical rejection of the party system as such;
  3. the expansion of conflict beyond the party system.

What do I mean by the rise of new challengers in the party system? Political scholars have argued that we might observe a division of labor between two types of parties: the mainstream parties and the new populist parties. In a nutshell, this division implies a division of labour between ‘partyless populism’ by the mainstream parties, and ‘protest populism’ mobilized by permanent challenger parties at the margin of the party system. There is, however, no reason why this assumption should hold in the not so long run. It is possible that the attempt of the mainstream parties to focus on the management of the public affairs will fail and that they will be forced to face new challengers who give voice to the suppressed conflicts and succeed in ‘bringing the voters back in’. Moreover, it is quite likely that these new challengers do so in a populist manner, insisting on the betrayal of the people by the political elite. I call this risk as rise of new challengers.

Second, under the pressure of the economic crisis, the erosion of the established parties’ representation function may also give rise to a more wholesale rejection of the party system in general. The new challengers may revolt against the party system as such. Illustrations of such a radicalized form of populism include Jon Gnarr’s ‘best party’ in Iceland or the movement ‘cinque stelle’ of the Italian comic Beppe Grillo.

Last, but certainly not least, in the absence of immediately available options in the electoral arena, discontented groups of citizens may mobilize outside of the electoral channel and, in particular, they may resort to the protest arena, and try to force political concessions from political elites by directly appealing to the general public.

Last, but certainly not least, in the absence of immediately available options in the electoral arena, discontented groups of citizens may mobilize outside of the electoral channel and, in particular, they may resort to the protest arena, and try to force political concessions from political elites by directly appealing to the general public.

All three forms of ‘protest populism’ are likely to benefit from the very same mediatization trends that contribute to the erosion of the representation function of the established parties. Thus, populist challengers can generally rely on some sort of ‘media complicity’: the media provide a significant degree of support for the rise of populist phenomena in general, because, under conditions of mediatization, news coverage yields to general popular tastes. Examples of the media’s own populism include their craving for the more extreme and scandalous aspects of politics, their dramatization of the political language, and their increasing use of populist formats and approaches (talk shows, phone ins, solicitation of calls, faxes, and e-mails for response by interviewed politicians etc). Successful populist challengers are attractive for the media because they have news-value: they tend to have charisma, they are typically outsiders, who have not been part of the traditional political elites in their respective countries, they share the resentment of their clientele, and they are crass enough to express the emotions and ideas of these potentials (i.e. who spell out publicly what the ‘common man’ has always thought by himself).

The rise of populism in Central and Eastern Europe

Most of the existing scholarship of populism has exclusively addressed the situation of the party systems in West European countries. However, we also find the phenomenon of populism in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, in these countries, populism, if anything, is even more widespread. We still can argue that populism in Central and Eastern Europe is a proximate result of a party system that does not fulfil its representation function. In following this insight, we should keep in mind, however, that, in the very different world of Central and Eastern European politics, the reasons for the party system’s dysfunctions are not the same as in Western Europe.

We still can argue that populism in Central and Eastern Europe is a proximate result of a party system that does not fulfil its representation function. In following this insight, we should keep in mind, however, that, in the very different world of Central and Eastern European politics, the reasons for the party system’s dysfunctions are not the same as in Western Europe.

While the mainstream parties of West European party systems are no longer adequately representing their constituencies, the Central and Eastern European party systems have not yet produced mainstream parties that adequately represent their constituencies: in contrast to the party systems of Western Europe, the party systems in Central and Eastern Europe have never been institutionalized to the same extent.

For a party system to be institutionalized, four conditions must obtain: First and most important is stability in the rules and nature of party competition. This implies that the configuration of the party system does not change from one election to the other, no new challengers appear at each election, the volatility of the electoral outcome is low. Second, the parties have stable roots in society, which allows them to structure the preferences of the voters. As a consequence, the parties’ relative ideological positions tend to be consistent. Third, the parties are considered to be legitimate by the major political actors. Finally, party organizations matter. They are not subordinate to the interests of ambitious leaders. They acquire an independent status and value of their own.

When measured by these four criteria, party systems in Central and Eastern Europe appear to be little institutionalized. Just like the Latin American party systems, they are characterized by an extraordinarily high level of volatility; they have not (yet) developed stable roots in society, the concept of cleavages structuring the party system hardly applies to them; they are hardly considered legitimate by the citizens of their countries, and their organizations tend to be unstable.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the low level of institutionalization of the party systems provides a general opportunity for the rise of new populist challengers. This opportunity becomes all the more important, given the widespread dissatisfaction of the Central and Eastern European publics with their political elites.

However, the fact that Central and Eastern European party systems have not yet been institutionalized to the same degree as West European party systems makes them even more susceptible to populist phenomena. In Central and Eastern Europe, the low level of institutionalization of the party systems provides a general opportunity for the rise of new populist challengers. This opportunity becomes all the more important, given the widespread dissatisfaction of the Central and Eastern European publics with their political elites. The low level of political and administrative performance contributes to the constitution of anti-elitist sentiments which provide a general breeding ground for populist challengers. Thus, a strong majority in all Central and Eastern European EU member states perceives public officials as acting in a corrupt manner when exercising their power. Together, perceptions of corruption and feelings of unfair treatment by authorities explain a large amount of the lacking regime support (i.e. satisfaction with how democracy works) in these countries. There is a deep-seated disenchantment of citizens with democratic politics.

While these dissatisfied democrats constitute a potential for populist mobilization everywhere, my point here is that their large numbers in Central and Eastern Europe become particularly conducive to populist mobilization in the context of a non-institutionalized party system. As a result of this particular combination of circumstances, the populist mobilization takes on particular characteristics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Hanspeter Kriesi was born in 1949 in Bischofszell (Switzerland).  He studied sociology at the Universities of Bern, Zurich and Chicago. He obtained his PhD in sociology at the University of Zurich (1976), where he also did his Habilitation in sociology (1980).  In 1984 he became a professor for collective political behaviour at the University of Amsterdam. In 1988, he went to the University of Geneva, where he taught as a professor of comparative and Swiss politics until 2002, when he took up the chair for comparative politics at the University of Zurich. He was appointed to the Stein Rokkan Chair at the Department of Political and Social Sciences European University Institute in September 2012.

This blog is based on a paper published some years ago. Most of the ideas and insights from that publication are of great relevance up to date. All references are properly listed in the original version of the paper with all authors of original ideas being credited and respected.

Main photo: depositphotos.com / stevanovicigor

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