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Politics & Governance

Divisiveness or Delivery? Populism and the Primacy of Policy Responsiveness


Paper11th January 2024

This article is part of TBI’s ongoing analysis of populism around the world  


Chapter 1

Executive Summary

Concern about the global health of liberal democracies has grown in recent years, with their number having declined to an almost 30-year low. Right-wing populist parties have ascended in Western Europe – including a surprise victory in the Netherlands – to consistently become one of the three most popular parties in many countries in the region. Meanwhile, in the coming year, four of the world’s five largest democracies will be holding general elections, which will result in almost 2 billion people going to the polls where support for populism is palpable.

Despite this we have found that the number of populist leaders in power remains near a 20-year low. How can we reconcile these developments? In this, the latest instalment of our annual report on populism worldwide, we argue that both populist and mainstream leaders rise and fall on policy delivery. When mainstream leaders fail to address issues that are important to much of the public (as with immigration in Western Europe) they open the door to populist challengers. Populist leaders fail when they emphasise political divisiveness over policy delivery, but it also works the other way: several populist leaders continue to win elections and engender themselves to their citizens because of effective policy delivery.

An update of our Populists in Power database reveals that the number of populist leaders in power has increased to 12, which is up one from the beginning of 2023 but still near a 20-year low. This brings us to four important themes.

1. While the number of populist leaders in power is near a 20-year low, concerns about democratic backsliding are near an all-time high.

According to leading democracy-research institute V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), the number of liberal democracies is at its lowest for three decades and more than 70 per cent of the world’s population lives under autocracy. How can we explain the fact that democracy is at its weakest point in years when populism appears to be declining? Although populists have been some of the most likely leaders to attack democratic institutions, many have faced strong resistance from civil society; this has limited their ability to undermine electoral institutions and political opposition. Our analysis finds that attacks on liberal-democratic rights and institutions (such as the judiciary and press) can actually stimulate support for a populist incumbent’s opposition, provided that there haven’t also been extensive attacks on electoral institutions. We illustrate this phenomenon by comparing Poland, where attacks on liberal-democratic institutions had a limited effect on electoral competition, with Turkey, where attacks on electoral competition have been more significant.

2. Several of the populist leaders who remain in power are among the world’s most popular because of their economic and security policies.

Several populist leaders have been effective at delivering both economic and security policy, especially for underserved citizens in poor, peripheral urban neighbourhoods and rural areas. Many of these policies have been highly controversial, causing negative economic side effects and raising human-rights concerns. But low-income members of society have been willing to overlook these negative effects – and any worries about democratic backsliding – to instead focus on the benefits of these policies in their day-to-day lives.

3. Right-wing populist parties have grown in influence across continental Western Europe, likely because of their resistance to immigration.

Right-wing populist parties have been ascendent in Western Europe in 2023, with the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) achieving a surprise victory and the German Alternative for Germany (AfD) achieving its highest-ever poll numbers. In the past ten years, right-wing populist parties have consistently become one of the three highest-polling parties in numerous Western European countries. This is due in large part to the continued prominence of immigration and immigration-related issues. We find that support for right-wing populist parties follows spikes in the number of asylum seekers and notable immigration-related events.

4. Greenlash may create more support for right-wing populist parties in Western Europe.

While the public has become increasingly supportive of climate action in recent years, its associated costs have been broadly speculative. Now that large segments of the public are beginning to face climate-policy costs, as has happened recently in the Netherlands and Germany, right-wing populists are actively opposing these policies and helping to stimulate a green backlash, or greenlash. If mainstream politicians fail to address these concerns it could create another opportunity for right-wing populists to garner support.


Chapter 2

Introduction

In the wake of Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 US presidential election and the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, US citizens became familiar with what many others around the world have long known: populist leaders often don’t leave office quietly after losing at the polls. Indeed, Trump’s attempt to nullify the 2020 election was just one example, albeit the starkest, of a trend that scholars of democracy have been flagging for years: a decades-long expansion of democracy around the world has ended and we are now living in an era of democratic backsliding.

Furthermore, right-wing populism is on the rise in Western Europe, with the surprise election victory of Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands and the AfD polling at its highest-ever levels. Indeed, the degree to which right-wing populist parties have ascended in the past ten years is remarkable: while they barely existed in major countries such as Germany, Spain and Portugal, they’re now consistently one of the three highest-polling parties in each of these countries (and many others in Western Europe).

But when we examine populism around the rest of the world, we find the opposite: the number of populist leaders in power has declined by more than 40 per cent in the past five years, from a near all-time-high of 19 in 2019 to a 20-year low of 11 at the beginning of 2023. In this year’s report we have found that there are 12 populist leaders in power at the start of 2024, still close to a 20-year low.

How can we reconcile growing concerns about democratic backsliding, and the recent success of right-wing populism in Western Europe, with the decline of populist leaders globally? The key is policy responsiveness and delivery: when politicians, whether mainstream or populist, implement policies that are responsive to the public’s concerns, they poll well and get re-elected. When they’re not responsive, they lose.

As we’ve documented in previous reports, populists who emphasise political divisiveness over policy delivery give opposition parties the opportunity to coalesce around a negative campaign against the populists. These campaigns can be successful because, as we discuss below, many populist leaders have only undermined electoral competition to a limited extent. But as we subsequently discuss, not all populists have a poor policy track record – and it appears that many voters may be willing to overlook divisiveness and democratic backsliding if their leader’s delivery record is strong.

Lack of responsiveness from mainstream parties also explains the recent success of right-wing populists in Western Europe. Immigration, which is the core issue exploited by right-wing populists, remains the central concern; we have found that any increase in support for populists closely tracks the number of asylum seekers in any given country. Right-wing populists have also leveraged a growing backlash against green-policy costs to attack mainstream governments.

To fend off the populist threat, progressives must develop responsive policies that deliver on the public’s pressing concerns and lay the groundwork to address future challenges. They can’t rely on populists to make mistakes, nor expect the public to believe ominous warnings about what populist challengers will do, when they themselves have not been addressing the public’s concerns. With new issues such as technology and climate change moving to the forefront of politics, progressives must develop policies with significant foresight, delivering tangible benefits to maintain support now while preparing for what lies ahead.


Chapter 3

Populism: What Is It and Why the Concern?

Populism has been defined in different ways, so it is important to clarify what the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change means by it. We follow the ideational approach to the study of populism, which is the most prominent in current political science and economics research. Under this definition, populists are united by two claims: first, that a country’s “true people” are locked into a moral conflict with “elites” and, second, that nothing should constrain the will of the so-called true people. Rather than seeing politics as a contest between different policy positions, populists treat the political arena as a moral battleground between right and wrong – between a country’s true people, who they claim have sole legitimate claim to govern the country, and the elites or other groups that populists deem to be outsiders (such as immigrants, and ethnic and religious minorities), who supposedly do not have the same claim. Because of the absolute nature of political conflict, there can be little room for compromise on most issues. The ideational approach focuses on leaders’ and parties’ rhetoric; populist leaders and parties are those who, in running for office, use highly divisive rhetoric, railing against “corrupt elites” and undeserving outsiders.

Echoing our previous reports, we place populist leaders into three sub-categories:

  1. Cultural populism: Also commonly referred to as right-wing populism or radical-right populism. Claims that the true people are the native members of the nation state, and outsiders can include immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites. Populists argue that these groups pose a threat to “the people” by not sharing their values. Cultural populists tend to emphasise religious traditionalism, law and order, anti-immigration positions and national sovereignty.

  2. Socioeconomic populism: Also commonly referred to as left-wing populism. Claims that the true people are the honest, hard-working members of the working class, and outsiders are the big businesses, capital owners and international financial institutions benefiting unjustly from the working class’s difficult economic circumstances. This form of populism is almost always accompanied by a left-wing economic ideology, though the specific policy agenda varies across contexts.

  3. Anti-establishment populism: Focuses on state corruption and less on grievances against other groups in society, sowing fewer intra-society divisions than its cultural and socioeconomic counterparts. It claims that the true people are hard-working victims of a state run by special interests. Often, these special interests are the elites empowered by a former regime (such as former communists in Central and Eastern Europe). Some anti-establishment populists promote pro-market reforms following left-wing leadership, while others focus on issue areas outside the typical left-right political divide, such as corruption, democratic reform and transparency.

We classify leaders as populist if they were initially elected in free and fair elections and employed substantial populist rhetoric during their campaigns. Our definition is based on how they won office in the first place, not on their actions while in office. We continue to define such leaders as populists for the whole time they are in office, even if subsequent elections are not free and fair. Because of this, there are several autocrats, such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, on our list of populist leaders. There may also be leaders who don’t run for office as populists, but then use divisive populist rhetoric and pursue illiberal policies when in office, such as President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador. Please see our November 2018 report for further discussion of our coding methodology; details of how that methodology was further refined are outlined in our February 2020 update.

Populism is concerning because its core idea – that there is a homogeneous “true people” whose will provides the sole basis for political legitimacy – conflicts with the core liberal-democratic value of pluralism: that society comprises different types of groups and that each has a legitimate claim to govern the country if it can convince others to support it. Because they claim to represent the so-called true people, populists consider any checks on their power – whether to limit their scope for policymaking or to protect the press or minorities – to be illegitimate. We have found that populists are more likely than other types of democratically elected leaders to attack checks and balances and are less likely to leave office under normal circumstances. The erosion of checks and balances degrades democracy because it restricts challengers’ ability to compete fairly for political power. Populists also increase political polarisation, which may degrade a country’s political norms, and they have been associated with a variety of poor economic and welfare outcomes.


Chapter 4

Updating Our Populists in Power Database

Despite growing concerns about democratic backsliding and its well-established link to populist leaders, at the beginning of 2024 the number of populist leaders in power remained near a 20-year low of 12, up one from 11 at the beginning of 2023. While several remain, there are fewer populist leaders in regional hotspots such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, as well as in South-East Asia.

Figure 1

The number of populists in power has declined since a 2013 high

Source: TBI Populists in Power database

Also consistent with what we’ve found in recent years is that the distribution of populist leaders remains skewed towards cultural populism, with seven cultural populists but only three socioeconomic populists and two anti-establishment populists in office at the beginning of 2024.

Figure 2

Cultural populism has become the dominant form in recent decades

Source: TBI Populists in Power database

Eastern Europe is a traditional hotbed of populist leaders. While the number of populist governments in the region remained at four in 2023, there were two transitions: the defeat of the cultural-populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) government in Poland, but also the return to power of Robert Fico in Slovakia. PiS’s loss was surprising to some because of the belief that democratic backsliding had limited the opposition’s ability to compete effectively. But as we discuss in greater detail in the next section, many of PiS’s methods generated a large public backlash, which increased support for the opposition.

Fico has been prime minister of Slovakia twice, from 2006 until 2010 and from 2012 until 2018. We previously classified him as a socioeconomic populist because he opposed centrist economic reformers. But we have reclassified him as a cultural populist for this year’s report because, in this electoral cycle, he focused largely on cultural issues, including opposition to immigration and LGBTQ+ rights. He also promised to end support for Ukraine. Taken together, these positions resulted in Fico’s Smer party being kicked out of the Party of European Socialists, a European political party.

The other regional populist hotbed is Latin America – though, as we discussed last year, the wave of socioeconomic populists in the region has subsided, and most Latin American countries now have centre-left presidents. However, several countries in the region have a history of alternating between left- and right-wing populists – and this has happened again in Argentina. The maverick libertarian economist Javier Milei won nearly 56 per cent of the vote in the runoff election to become president after the country had spent 20 years largely under the control of various populists and non-populists from the left-wing Peronist Partido Justicialista. We classify Milei as an anti-establishment populist because he has chiefly attacked the country’s governing elites rather than minority groups and has focused on non-cultural issues, like stabilising the currency and reducing the size of the state. He has expressed these views through extravagant gestures, such as wielding a chainsaw at campaign rallies to symbolise how he’ll slash the budget and carve up government bureaucracy (as evidenced by his promise to abolish ten of 18 ministries).

The victories of Milei and, to a lesser extent, Fico illustrate a recurring theme: when mainstream parties produce poor policy outcomes or fail to respond to public opinion, they create an environment in which populists can win. Argentina has been experiencing its worst economic crisis in 20 years, with inflation at more than 160 per cent at the end of 2023 and a poverty rate of around 40 per cent. Given several decades of recurring economic crises, it is no surprise that Argentinians have elected an outsider who refers to the two major parties as “the caste” and promises drastic measures to address the country’s extreme – and enduring – problems. Fico ran on ending military aid to Ukraine – a policy that, whatever its overall merits, was popular among Slovakians. Most of them believe that Ukraine and the West were to blame for the war and Slovakia has a history of being less pro-West than its neighbours.

Figure 3

Tracking the number of populists in power from 1990 through 2023

Source: TBI Populists in Power database


Chapter 5

Distinguishing Degrees of Democratic Decline: Poland versus Turkey

While the number of populist leaders in power remains close to its recent low, concerns about democratic backsliding are near an all-time high. In a recent report V-Dem, which maintains gold standard datasets on democracy around the world, found that the number of liberal democracies peaked at 42 in 2012 but that by 2021 the number had reduced to 34, the lowest level since 1995. It also found that the share of people around the world living under autocracy increased from 49 per cent to 70 per cent. In 2022, the number of liberal democracies declined further, to 32, and the percentage of people living under autocracy increased to 72 per cent. Freedom House, another important democracy think-tank, found that there had been a 15-year decline in global freedom and that in 2020, freedom had deteriorated in 75 per cent of countries. Scholars also note that the way autocrats operate has changed: rather than blatantly undermining elections, they gradually reduce the opposition’s access to the media, decrease institutional constraints on their own power and strategically harass the opposition.

In truth, there are degrees of democratic backsliding and many populists, although they tilt the electoral playing field somewhat in their favour, do not fatally undermine electoral competition and are still beatable in elections. Many of their divisive reforms are targeted at liberal rights and institutions such as the judiciary, which may not meaningfully weaken electoral competition. And attempts to undermine liberal-democratic institutions energise and unify the opposition and shift some marginal voters towards it, with the potential to cause populist leaders’ attempts to insulate their power to backfire. But changes that populists make to liberal-democratic institutions and rights might take time to reverse; because of this, measures of a country’s democratic health might not rebound until a few years after a populist has left office. That being the case, recent years could have been the high-water mark for democratic backsliding, assuming there is no resurgence of populism and that backsliding among non-populists is limited.

What this suggests is that a populist leader who only partially undermines democracy – who attacks some liberal rights and liberal-democratic institutions without taking more extensive measures to undermine electoral competition – might be less likely to win their next election than one who does nothing to undermine it. This is because said approach stimulates opposition to their leadership without reducing their political competitors’ ability to compete. Based on that rationale, a populist leader who more thoroughly undermines democracy might be more likely to “win” their next election, because they take more extensive measures to impair their political opposition’s ability to compete.

This idea is captured in Figure 4, which visualises the hypothesised relationship between the degree of a populist leader’s attacks on liberal-democratic institutions and their likelihood of retaining power.

Figure 4

Not all efforts to undermine democracy improve a leader’s likelihood of retaining power; partial attacks may be worse than no attacks at all

NEW LIVE MASTER_Populists in Power_2024_2 – image

We can illustrate this relationship by comparing the two most prominent 2023 elections in which a populist leader was on the ballot: those in Poland and Turkey. Both countries have been among the most notorious cases of democratic backsliding in recent years; indeed, V-Dem classifies Poland as having had the highest level of democratic backsliding in the past decade. It was categorised among the top 10 per cent of democracies in 2012 but is now only in the top 40 to 50 per cent, close to the threshold at which it would no longer be considered an electoral democracy. While Turkey was just below the threshold for electoral democracy in 2012, it is now much closer to full autocracy than electoral democracy.

There have been similar warnings about the state of democracy in Poland and Turkey, but the degree of backsliding has clearly been greater in the latter and it is important to understand why. Overall, democratic health in Turkey is lower because Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government faces fewer civil-society constraints than the Polish government and has been able to do more to restrict political competition; it also has a record of manipulating elections and invalidating outcomes it deems unfavourable. While Erdogan has also enacted many popular policies (which we discuss in the next section), he and other populists, such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, have degraded the electoral process to a much greater extent than Poland’s PiS or several other recent populist leaders.

Figure 4 raises the question of why a populist leader would ever only take halfway measures to undermine democracy. Populists’ anti-democratic ambitions may be restrained by civil-society institutions and these constraints are much stronger in Poland than in Turkey. Poland has greater media pluralism than Turkey (and Hungary), with several major media outlets owned by foreign companies. And while large state-owned firms supported the Polish government, many of the country’s leading private-sector firms supported and financed the opposition.

Most of the leading private media organisations in Turkey are owned by Erdogan supporters and the government has cultivated support among big businesses – especially in the construction sector – through state contracts. This has given the Turkish government greater ability to suppress dissent and the political opposition; it has arrested people for critical social-media posts and is the world’s fourth-leading jailer of journalists. Government officials have also used highly illiberal laws that make it a violation to insult various Turkish leaders and institutions, which has resulted in the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) being sent to prison and Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s presidential challenge being significantly undermined.

According to leading democracy scholar Adam Przeworski, one of the key elements of democracy is that “incumbents … leave office when the rules so dictate”. In addition to doing more to tilt the electoral playing field before elections, the Turkish government has manipulated both the elections themselves and their results. Turkey’s electoral commission invalidated the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, an important vote that often produces future national political leaders (including Erdogan). In contrast, Poland’s PiS did not significantly contest its 2019 senate-election loss, which made it much more difficult for the party to enact its agenda (nor did it significantly dispute the most recent election). In the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, there was evidence of fraud sufficient enough to have changed the outcome in favour of the government.

It’s important that democracy commentators are clear about the extent to which leaders have thwarted the openness of electoral competition. Undermining liberal institutions and rights without significantly hurting the opposition’s ability to compete in elections may make elections more competitive. Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that there is no harm in eroding liberal institutions and rights but not electoral institutions. Weakening liberal institutions and rights degrades a country’s political norms, which heightens political conflict and polarisation, and increases the threat that each side faces from the other being in power. This, in turn, creates a perverse incentive to consolidate power when in office and can create a populist-autocratic spiral (which has happened in many Latin American countries, with alternation between left- and right-wing populists and autocrats over the past few decades). While democracy scholars should distinguish between degrees of democratic backsliding and note when a leader’s actions are unlikely to render elections uncompetitive, it is still important for them to continue to raise awareness of the corrosive effects of liberal institutional and rights violations.


Chapter 6

Successful Delivery is Key to Populist Success

Divisiveness isn’t always enough to sink political leadership. Despite many controversial policies and concerns about democratic backsliding, several populist leaders have been in office for years and remain popular among their own electorates. So why do so many voters continue to support populist leaders despite concerns about backsliding? Because the world’s most successful populist leaders have a record of delivering popular economic and security policies, especially for citizens in rural and peripheral urban areas that have been underserved by the state.

Voters are aware of and disapprove of democratic backsliding in many cases, but still support the leader because their policy positives outweigh the negatives. Economic policies have included a mix of small-scale benefits that reduce the cost of daily life – such as child payments, fuel subsidies and cash transfers – and large-scale benefits that help with economic development, such as infrastructure programmes. Security measures have included aggressive crackdowns on drug dealers and gangs. Many policies have been controversial and have generated problems for the country but, while they may have upset some people, they have proved popular among low-income sections of society.

Many populist leaders are social conservatives, but among their most noteworthy policies has been the expansion of social-policy benefits for lower-income citizens. One of Prime Minister Orban’s social policies has been a workfare programme that provides jobs for people in high-unemployment rural areas. This has contributed to his high support in those areas, even though respondents to a recent survey recognised that there has been democratic backsliding. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has broadened social-benefit access to young workers and the elderly, replacing a means-tested programme targeted at mothers with one that delivers direct cash transfers to a broader swath of struggling citizens. In India, the digital-ID system Aadhaar has enabled the delivery of highly popular policies, like the direct transfer of fuel subsidies and easier access to banking. And then there’s Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who lost the 2022 presidential election but increased his support among low-income voters during the Covid-19 pandemic – and in the final weeks before the election – by raising support payments and fuel subsidies.

But perhaps more notable have been policies focused on economic development in underserved areas. President Obrador has focused his infrastructure spending on the outskirts of Mexico City and in the poor south, where he has constructed a railway to link tourist areas to the countryside and spur development. The Indian government has built roads to connect underdeveloped areas to cities, increased rural connectivity to electricity and the internet, and reduced disease contagion with the construction of toilets. And although Erdogan’s government has done much to undermine electoral competition, part of its enduring strength is a long track record of development, which has significantly reduced poverty and modernised the infrastructure and economy in the underdeveloped east. Construction and infrastructure spending were such a large part of Erdogan’s first decade in power that Turkey was referred to as a “constructocracy”. Much of this spending was on roads to link rural areas to cities, education investment in the underdeveloped east, and subsidies to spread industry to the east, which spurred the rise of so-called Anatolian tiger cities. These policies benefited many areas affected by the 2023 earthquake and it is significant that, despite perceived missteps in handling the crisis, these areas still largely supported Erdogan.

Another critical area is security policy. Law-and-order issues are crucial to many populists, but some who face especially challenging security situations have taken strikingly illiberal measures, including indefinite detention and extrajudicial killings. Perhaps the most well-known example was Rodrigo Duterte, former president of the Philippines, who allowed security forces free rein in combatting suspected drug dealers. While Duterte faced a one-term limit and left office in 2022 without issue, during his last few months in office his approval rating was around 75 per cent, one of the highest in the world.

President Bukele[_] of El Salvador has taken a page from Duterte’s book in cracking down on his country’s gangs: he declared a state of emergency and ordered security forces to arrest – and hold in indefinite detention – those bearing distinctive gang tattoos. These actions have helped make Bukele likely the world’s most popular leader, with an approval rating of more than 90 per cent. One of the main reasons is that gang removal has stimulated small-scale economic activity. The gangs ran protection rackets in urban slums, extorting local businesses and often committing acts of violence against shopkeepers. But this has disappeared with Bukele’s crackdown, allowing urban markets to flourish. Bukele’s popularity has enabled him to pack the Supreme Court with supportive judges, who ruled that he can run for re-election despite an explicit constitutional ban. Most believe that Bukele running for re-election is unconstitutional, but more than 70 per cent say that they would still vote for him anyway.

While these policies have helped make these leaders popular among those on low incomes, they have not been without long-term drawbacks. Duterte and Bukele’s crime crackdowns raise obvious and significant human-rights concerns. Erdogan’s economic-development policies have fuelled inflation with their focus on the construction of unnecessary buildings, rather than long-term infrastructure. Much of Obrador’s infrastructure spending has been in non-forward-looking sectors, like oil and gas, and not in parts of the country that are likely to generate future growth, such as those with close connections to the US.

Despite some drawbacks, these populist leaders’ socioeconomic and development policies have endeared them to voters. Their successes contrast with multiple cases of populist failure over the past few years, whereby leaders’ reputations for divisiveness far outpaced their reputations for delivery. Presidents Bolsonaro and Trump downplayed Covid-19 and created conflicts with public-health officials over how to manage the virus, which enflamed a broader Covid culture war. Prime Minister Jansa of Slovenia tried to emulate his neighbour Orban in taking control of the media, which stimulated massive protests. All of these leaders are remembered more for the conflict they generated than what they accomplished.

Progressive policymakers should try to find a sweet spot between extremes, acknowledging and emulating some of the strengths of successful populists’ policies while minimising their weaknesses. This means developing policies that deliver for underserved communities while also providing a basis for long-term growth. The positive version of populist economic policy involves investment in physical and digital infrastructure that will allow the economy to grow rather than in commercial construction: roads, utilities and digital infrastructure rather than shopping centres and sports stadiums. Moreover, they should emphasise the development of projects in underserved communities, including those that may not always support them. With security issues it is crucial that crimes are aggressively investigated and prosecuted; this will help deter criminals from attempting more serious crimes and efforts to economically control localities. When crime is out of control, there may be no substitute for tough measures to bring peace and stability into people’s lives. Assertive policing and prosecution can help avoid that.


Chapter 7

Immigration and the Entrenchment of Cultural Populists in Western European Party Systems

While populists in Western Europe lead only the Italian government, one of the biggest stories in populism around the world in 2023 has been the strength of cultural-populist parties across the region. Most notable was Geert Wilders’ surprising election victory in the Netherlands, in which he received 23.6 per cent of the vote, almost 50 per cent higher than his previous high of 15.5 per cent in 2010.[_] The other was the cultural-populist AfD, which has become the second-highest-polling party in Germany, consistently reaching over 20 per cent support throughout the second half of 2023, up almost 50 per cent from previous highs in the mid-to-upper teens.

This is part of a broader story that has been building for several years and has now reached full maturity: the entrenchment of cultural-populist parties in party systems across Western Europe. In every large Western European country outside the UK and Ireland, a cultural-populist party is consistently polling as one of the three largest parties. As we can see in Figure 5, which presents quarterly polling data, this is a massive shift from ten years ago, when Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden and Germany either didn’t have a cultural-populist party or had a weak one. Now cultural-populist parties in Germany, Italy and Sweden consistently poll at 20 per cent or higher and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) leads the Italian government.

Figure 5

Support for cultural-populist parties has ballooned in Western Europe in the past decade

Source: Politico Poll of Polls

Why have cultural-populist parties become so prominent across Western Europe? The most likely explanation is that their principal issues – resistance to immigration and immigration-related crime – have become consistently salient across Europe. The number of asylum seekers in Europe, which has become the keystone of the immigration debate, almost doubled from 1.79 million in 2014 to 3.22 million in 2015, and increased to more than 4 million per year starting in 2019. This gave immigration-focused parties their first major growth spurt and then established them as the go-to parties for immigration-sceptical voters. In addition, crime related to immigration has become increasingly prominent as an issue across Europe. This was notable in last year’s Swedish election, which focused on crime and saw the Sweden Democrats record their best-ever election result.

Some of the biggest increases in support for these parties followed considerable migrant inflows or landmark immigration-related events. While just under 14,000 asylum seekers came to Italy in 2013, this number more than tripled to approximately 45,000 in 2014 and increased again to around 60,000 in 2015. During this period, support for populist party Lega more than tripled, from just under 5 per cent to the mid-teens. Vox barely existed in 2014 when just over 7,500 asylum seekers entered Spain, but when that number almost tripled to just over 20,000 by 2018, Vox’s support shot up from 2 per cent to 10 per cent (and has remained above this level since).

One of the most significant immigration-related events was former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”) speech on 31 August 2015, in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis; it was a remarkable statement in support of housing refugees in Germany. But, as we can see below in Figure 6, AfD support more than doubled in the months following this statement.

Figure 6

Support for AfD rocketed after Merkel’s pro-refugee speech

Source: Politico Poll of Polls

Immigration was also the central issue in the 2023 Dutch election. The previous centrist government, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, fell because of divisions over refugee policy between more conservative members of his centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party and more socially liberal coalition partners in the Labour Party and D66. The VVD chose to focus its election campaign on immigration, but this appears to have played into the hands of Wilders’ PVV, which has been the country’s main immigration-sceptical party. As in other Western European countries, there has been a specific focus on asylum seekers, the number of which has almost doubled in the past two years and surpassed its previous 2015 high.

With continued conflict, political repression and a lack of economic opportunities across the Middle East and Africa, immigration to Europe is likely to remain highly relevant. This will ensure a constant source of support for cultural-populist parties. As with the VVD in the Netherlands, it may also affect the behaviour of centre-right parties: concerned about losing voters to the cultural populists, they may increase their focus on immigration and move to the right. But past attempts at this do not appear to have reduced support for cultural-populist parties because when the centre-right focuses on immigration it increases its salience, which in turn increases support for cultural populists – a point reinforced by the PVV’s electoral success.

Looking to the future, this entrenchment of cultural-populist parties in European party systems will have a major impact on government formation. Given that they typically represent one of the two largest right-wing parties in each country, it will be almost impossible to form a right-of-centre government without them. When Meloni became the prime minister of Italy, a cultural-populist party led a government for the first time since 1945 in Western Europe. But cultural-populist parties have also been part of governments in Austria and Finland, and have supported minority governments in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. While all other German parties have continued to maintain a cordon sanitaire – a strong consensus against cooperation with the AfD – this will prove difficult to maintain in the formation of German state governments (this is especially true in the former East Germany, where in many places the AfD is the most popular party). There is a good chance that the AfD will play an important role in forming a German state government in the next few years – and possibly at the federal level as well.


Chapter 8

Populist Greenlash in Europe

While the continued resonance of the immigration issue has ensured a stable base of support for cultural populists, there’s a new issue on which they’ve started to gain support: the backlash against green policy or greenlash. Public sentiment has become more favourable to green policy in recent years but, in many cases, those answering surveys have not yet begun to experience the costs of the policies for themselves. This has started to change, however, with a populist-led public backlash to green land-use policy in the Netherlands and a green heating policy in Germany. If climate-change progressives are not careful, they risk transforming green policy into another core issue for cultural populists. Or – even worse – they could tempt centre-right parties to move to the right on climate.

Why have cultural populists led the greenlash? In part because their supporters are more likely than others to be sceptical of expert opinion that climate change is caused by human action and that costly measures are necessary to avert significant harm. But they are also suspicious of those international organisations and NGOs that have called for governments to take greater action to address climate change.

This is an especially important issue in Europe because much of the push for green policy comes from the EU, which has enshrined carbon-reduction targets in law and proposed policies to cut emissions this decade. This means that cultural populists can add green policy to their list of grievances with the EU. The growing conflict between populists and the EU over climate policy bears some similarity to a previous issue: the Syrian refugee crisis. When the EU tried to develop a system to equitably distribute asylum seekers across member countries, cultural-populist leaders used it as a rallying cry.[_] Populist leaders have already challenged EU climate targets, with Italy and Poland pushing back on EU efforts to ban the production of cars with internal-combustion engines by 2035, and Poland contesting country-specific carbon-reduction targets and land-use regulations in court.

Greenlash may cause centre-right parties to try and avoid discussing green issues, especially if their policies have been its source. More drastically, they may try to move to the right to establish a reputation for climate scepticism. Part of the reason why the VVD put such a strong emphasis on immigration in the 2023 Dutch general election is because of the negative reaction to the government’s green land-use policies, which led to a surprise victory for the agrarian populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) in the spring 2023 senate elections. Elsewhere, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shifted to the right by delaying the 2035 deadline to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars, and gas boilers.

If concerns about the cost of green policy continue to mount, centre-right parties may move yet further to the right because unlike issues such as immigration and the EU, which have long been associated with cultural populists, greenlash is relatively new; it is likely that most of the public does not yet strongly identify any party with it. As such, if centre-right parties sense that the green backlash is mounting, they may stake out right-wing positions to pre-empt cultural populists from claiming ownership.

Green policy presents a paradox for progressives: while they favour action on climate change and want to increase public awareness of the need to act on it, if climate policy imposes costs (as it inevitably will) then growing awareness may also increase public resistance. How can progressives navigate this? They must recognise that there’s a fundamental asymmetry in green politics: many of the costs must be incurred now but the benefits will largely accrue to future generations. If they want to deliver green policy, they must adopt sensible positions that deliver short-term benefits (including mitigating the effects of climate change) and avoid policies that either impose excessive costs or demand behavioural changes on too short a timetable. They should also consider a positive messaging campaign that focuses on progress in green policy, such as how China has become a world leader in renewable energy production and how technology is increasing the effectiveness of our climate actions. This would help convince an often-sceptical public that climate efforts will bear fruit.

If progressives want to retain ambitious climate targets, they need to pursue policies that will stimulate the development of the technology and infrastructure necessary for the green transition while trying to build support for their policies. One promising recent approach is the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which uses tax incentives and subsidies to stimulate green-energy development. A noteworthy aspect of the IRA is its prioritisation of developing projects in areas that have struggled in recent economic transitions. It includes location-based bonuses for clean-energy investments in low-income and high-unemployment areas, and most announced projects are in areas that are below average in both incomes and the percentage of college graduates. Many of the projects are in places where Democrats struggle, such as Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and the I-85 corridor southwest of Atlanta. This distribution of projects echoes that of the successful populist policies covered earlier in this report, in that it includes areas that have been underserved by development policy.


Chapter 9

Looking Forward: 2024 Elections Involving Populists

Four of the world’s five largest democracies – India, the US, Indonesia and Pakistan – will be holding general elections in 2024. With the elections in India, the US and for the European Parliament, almost 2 billion people will be voting in an election where support for populism will be a factor. Perhaps the most significant election is that in the US, where Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee. But that’s one of the few things about the US election that is likely. While the Democrats have been doing very well in state and local elections, largely by running on abortion rights, President Biden continues to poll poorly. A good chunk of this is about the cost of living, but much of it is about Biden’s age and perceived lack of vitality. Polls comparing him with Trump are currently showing Trump leading in several swing states. But much could change given the numerous legal cases that Trump faces.

Almost as significant are elections in Mexico and, especially, India. These have several similarities, not least because both incumbents are very popular. While President Obrador is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, his party has widespread support and has settled on a candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is well ahead in the polls. The Indian government is also likely to be re-elected, having recently won several important state elections. In both countries the opposition parties are embracing the playbook against populism, uniting to run against the populist leader or their successor. But the opposition parties face a high hurdle: the populists are running on their popular social-policy records, which limits the opposition’s ability to distinguish itself.

Less certain is the outcome of the election in Venezuela, one of the populist-led countries that has descended into dictatorship under the presidencies of Hugo Chavez and his successor Maduro. The country’s economic descent under these leaders has been shocking: it has gone from being one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America to one of the poorest. The Maduro government has been looking for ways to attract investment while also trying to extricate itself from swingeing US sanctions on its oil industry; because of this it has come to an agreement with the US government to hold competitive elections if the latter eases oil sanctions. The Maduro government has pledged to allow all parties to choose their candidates and invite missions from the EU and UN to oversee the voting.


Chapter 10

Conclusion

Perhaps it is no surprise that when liberal democracy was at its peak in 2012, so was the number of populist leaders. Democracy produces its own discontents as politicians often fail to respond to the needs and desires of significant sections of the public. When this happens, populists are more likely to run for office and get elected. We saw this again in 2023 with the return to power of Fico in Slovakia and the ascent of Milei in Argentina. That populists run for office and get elected shows democracy’s greatest strength: it is a mechanism for ensuring political responsiveness.

But democracy is not self-maintaining: it can be undermined by the same politicians whom it brought to power. While these concerns are sometimes exaggerated and populist divisiveness often proves to be its own downfall, this doesn’t happen without public vigilance and engagement in the political process. As the contrast between Poland and Turkey shows, civil society plays a critical role in limiting populist leaders’ ability to weaken electoral institutions. But populists also don’t remain in power purely because they corrupt democracy: they often enact popular policies that build and sustain a winning coalition of voters, who may be willing to overlook some of their corrupting actions.

This suggests a lesson for progressives and other mainstream parties: to avert populist challenges, they must be responsive to the public’s concerns. While leaders should embrace bold policies in forward-looking areas such as climate change and artificial intelligence, they must also think several steps ahead to anticipate the backlash that these policies might generate and develop ways to combat it, without giving up on their original goals.

Public opinion changes in unpredictable ways and mainstream politicians must develop policy strategies that are robust and agile enough to respond to many possible developments. If not, today’s policy oversight could become the cause of tomorrow’s populist backlash.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    We don’t classify Bukele as a populist in our database because when he ran for office in 2019, he portrayed himself as a youthful reformer and neither used divisive populist language nor proposed illiberal policies. But he has become much more populist in office, consolidating his power, firing all judges over 60 and getting the Supreme Court to change the law to allow him to run for re-election.

  2. 2.

    The Netherlands will have a populist-led government if the PVV can successfully form a coalition. But the process will likely take several months and because of the longstanding controversy surrounding PVV leader Geert Wilders, other parties are not likely to agree to a coalition government with him as prime minister. Therefore we do not classify the Netherlands as having a populist-led government at the beginning of 2024.

  3. 3.

    Notably, the Brexit referendum happened not long after the peak of the migrant flow into Europe, when cultural-populist momentum was at its strongest.

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