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Will global populism continue to erode democracies?

- September 13, 2017

As we head into election season in Europe, the question that dominated the past spring’s elections remains on everyone’s mind: What will be the fate of populist movements, parties and candidates? I reached out to Stanford University political scientist Anna Grzymała-Busse, who just guest-edited a special issue of Slavic Review on “Global Populisms,” and is  the 2017 President of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion.

JT: You recently were the guest editor of a special online issue of Slavic Review on “Global Populisms.” First off, what exactly do you mean by that term?

AGB: We hear a lot about populism — but it is both an amorphous concept and very diverse set of movements and parties. Populists (as defined by University of Georgia political scientist Cas Mudde) seek to represent the interests of “the people” against what they view as a corrupt and collusive elite establishment.

“Global populisms” refers both to the widespread popularity of these appeals — and their very different manifestations across the world, ranging from the left-wing populism of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to the welfare chauvinism of the Danish People’s Party to the conservative nationalism of the Polish Law and Justice Party.

JT: What was the impetus behind the special issue?

AGB: The major catalyst was the erosion of liberal democracy under populist rule in Poland and in Hungary. Populism has been rising in popularity across Europe, but in these two countries, after populists gained power, they proceeded to politicize and neuter the constitutional courts, limit media access and freedoms, rewrite electoral laws, and divide society into “better” and “worse” sort of citizens.

As scholars primarily of post-communism, we also wanted to take stock both of the diversity of populism in the region, and how it manifests itself in different settings and over time. So one goal here was to document the very distinct forms of populism in one relatively small region and address their prevalence. Populist parties have also governed Slovakia (HZDS in the 1990s and Smer-SD from 2006 to 2010 and again since 2012), and they are important political players in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia, among others.

We also examine how populist movements manifest themselves in different domains: how they exploited economic reforms that eroded the state; how transnational ties begin to link the nativist far-right; and the ways in which populist parties have evolved (from nationalism to the radical left, in one prominent example).

JT: You wrote one of the articles. What was the main argument of your piece?

AGB: I argue that the weakness of mainstream parties allows populists to take power. Centrist parties that respond to electoral concerns and offer distinct policy alternatives are on the wane. Populists can then not only claim the mantle of representing popular interests in the face of mainstream party indifference, but they also can gain the votes and seats to govern with supermajorities. These enormous majorities then allow them to govern without coalition partners and preclude effective parliamentary checks. In both Poland and in Hungary, these parties have more freedom than ever to erode the formal institutions of liberal democracy and the informal norms that underpin them.

JT: Looking forward, where do you see the trajectory of global populism heading in the medium-term future, say, the next three to five years?

AGB: It’s here to stay. If I’m right about mainstream parties and their weakness, then even with the best of intentions and resources it will take some time before the center-left, in particular, can rebuild. Many of its problems are structural: the collapse of the working-class coalitions, the constraints on policymaking due to international pressures and so on. Center-right parties have actively gone after these voters, and transformed themselves in the process. For example, in Poland and in Hungary, the ruling populist parties used to be conservative, and then adopted a far more nativist, xenophobic, and populist set of appeals that criticize the democratic establishment for not representing the “real” Poles and Hungarians.

There are no easy fixes. That said, there has been a bit of a backlash against these parties after Brexit and the election of President Trump — for example, in the Austrian presidential elections in December, in the Dutch elections in March, or most recently, in the French elections in May. But even in France, 40 percent of voters supported Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen, each of whom offered a populist message.

JT: Where can our readers find the articles in the special issue, and how long will they be available?

AGB: The entire issue is available here, and it will remain ungated until the end of the year.