Absorbing the Blow: Populist Parties and their Impact on Parties and Party Systems

Absorbing the Blow: Populist Parties and their Impact on Parties and Party Systems


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785521492
Publisher: ECPR Press
Publication date: 06/08/2018
Series: Studies in European Political Science Series
Pages: 346
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.03(h) x 1.27(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steven Wolinetz is Professor Emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Wolinetz writes about parties and party systems, smaller democracies - especially the Netherlands and Belgium - and the European Union.

Andrej Zaslove is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlands), at the Department of Political Science, in the Institute for Management Research. His research focuses on comparative European politics, political parties, with a special emphasis on populism and the radical right.

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The Impact of Populist Parties on Party Systems

Steven Wolinetz and Andrej Zaslove

We have all seen it happen. Imagine a large family, a set of friends, a group of co-workers, a class or a team. Within this unit, there are likes and dislikes as well as conventions about what can or cannot be said and how to get along with one another. One or more newcomers might arrive and behave differently enough that they alter the group dynamic. The same can occur if one of the regular members changes his or her behaviour. The group can respond in a myriad of ways. It can close ranks and marginalise newcomers. It can divide, with some members of the group interacting more with the newcomers and less with those who were there before. To be sure, not every newcomer alters or upsets pre-existing dynamics; indeed, some are easily assimilated into pre-existing norms and behaviour. However, others are not, and their presence forms an alternate pole that changes the unit and how its members interact through force of personality or because of who these new members are or what they do.

Readers could be forgiven for asking what this narrative has to do with European political parties and party systems. The answer is a good deal. Coping with newcomers – or with parties whose style and behaviour has changed is something with which older parties in many European countries have had to wrestle. In the first few decades following Second World War, most Western European party systems were sufficiently static that, following Lipset and Rokkan (1967), they could be characterised as frozen (Bartolini and Mair 2007; Mair 1997). Rooted in class and religious cleavages, many parties simply relied on electorates of belonging whose support they managed to cultivate and renew. Some older parties still do, but party systems are less firmly anchored than they once were. Rates of electoral volatility and the frequency of high volatility elections have increased, and many party systems are now more fragmented than they were in the 1950s and 1960s (Chiaramonte and Emanuele 2017; Mair 2008, 2013). Reflecting transitions to democracy in southern and east central Europe, the universe of party systems in liberal democracies is also larger.

Two new party families – 'Green' and left libertarian parties (henceforth, collectively referred to as 'Greens'), on one hand, and populist radical right parties, on the other – have emerged and become credible and, in some instances, formidable competitors, while Communist parties have all but disappeared or have been replaced by radical left parties (including a few that have themselves developed into populist parties). Articulating points of view different from mainstream parties, Green parties and populist parties were potential threats to the dominant position that mainstream parties previously enjoyed. Giving voice to concerns about environment, the quality of life and the quality of democracy, Green parties drew support from younger, educated voters coveted by Social Democrats. Populist parties presented a different challenge. Articulating a Manichean view that juxtaposed the demands of the people and what they truly wanted to an uncaring establishment deaf to these demands, populist parties were a potential threat not only to parties of the right but also to parties on all parts of the spectrum.

Not all the parties that forced others to sit up and take note were newcomers: in Switzerland, mainstream parties had to react to one of their own, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), that not only assumed a populist stance but also brought about a substantial shift in the party balance in so doing. Similarly, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) originated as a smaller nationalist and liberal party whose first impact on the party system was to provide the Socialists with a parliamentary majority in 1983. However, under Jorg Haider, the FPO redefined itself as a populist party and an outsider that was a newcomer for all intents and purposes.

In this volume, we examine the impact (if any) that populist parties have on the party systems of which they have become a part. Party systems are more than collections of parties. Instead, characterised by regular recurring interactions, they embody the fraternal relations among parties that regularly work together and the less-friendly relations among others that do not cooperate as readily or often. As we have noted, populist parties are not the only parties that have intruded on European party systems. Green parties often preceded them, appearing when older parties still retained more support from loyal voters; however, Green parties did not create the same stir and did not produce the same unsettling effect that some populist parties have in part because they grew more slowly. In contrast, as figure 1.1 demonstrates, populist parties have surged rapidly and often introduced an element of uncertainty into electoral competition that Green parties – despite the challenge to establishment practices that they initially presented – did not.

Classifying populist parties has been notoriously difficult. This has to do with several issues: First, there has been significant disagreement over how to define populism (see next). Second, we need to determine which parties fit the criteria of being a populist party. Third, we find populist parties across Average vote (%) for the Populist Radical Right, Populist Left, and Green parties in Western Europe in National Elections since 1990 the left/right ideological spectrum. This is confirmed in figure 1.1 where we compare the share of the vote won by populist radical right, Green parties, and the populist left in elections from 1990 to 2016. Both the populist radical right and the populist left are on a small but steady climb. In particular, we see that the populist left has done well in the last ten years. However, we have to be careful because the number of cases is small. We also see that there has been a steady increase in the populist radical right in Western Europe. In most cases, the populist radical right has fared better in Western Europe than Green parties (see figure 1.1).

Some of these populist parties – the Freedom parties in Austria and the Netherlands and the Front National (FN) in France, for example – have become part of the political landscape. In Austria, the FPÖ grew steadily in the 1990s and then suffered a sharp decline and a split during its stint in government in the early 2000s, but its support has since rebounded. In the Netherlands, populism broke through with the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) in 2002 and has been sustained by Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV). Established in 1972, France's FN is an older party challenging both the mainstream right and, to a lesser degree, the left. In Austria, the FPÖ began as the third party in a system dominated by two larger parties, and the SVP, once the smallest of four parties sharing power in Switzerland, is now the largest of these parties, garnering 26-29 per cent of the vote in recent elections. Although an insider – the SVP continues to share power in the Federal Council – it often assumes the position of an outsider, sponsoring referenda opposing government policy. Obviously, these parties are no longer minor players: In several countries, populist parties have grown strong enough that they are often the second or third and, occasionally, the largest party.

Surging support that has proven more durable than many anticipated is not the only reason that populist parties have been unsettling. Two other reasons are the association of some parties (e.g. the FN under Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FPÖ under Jorg Haider) with an earlier extreme right and the ability of some populist parties to attract cross-class support. The former not only raised the spectre of old fashioned extremism but also forced mainstream parties to decide whether they should be isolated and subject to a cordon sanitaire or treated as a party like any other. Strategic uncertainty is compounded by the ability of many populist parties to win votes from groups that mainstream parties had at one time counted as part of their loyal bases of support. Giving voice to – but also shaping – misgivings about immigration and multiculturalism and a European Union that can appear alien and intrusive has transformed some populist parties into viable competitors. Nor is this their only source of support. Several of these parties have also cast themselves as champions of welfare state entitlements that mainstream parties – struggling to stay within EU budgetary norms – have found themselves forced to trim. However, many would restrict benefits to those who 'deserve' them, that is, native-born citizens and those who have integrated as opposed to less deserving outsiders (Häusermann and Kriesi 2015). Adopting welfare chauvinist positions has enabled populist parties to win the support of those in routine occupations who in earlier decades might have supported Social Democratic or, in some instances, Christian Democratic parties. Notably, populist parties are increasingly drawing support from manual workers (Häusermann and Kriesi 2015; Oesch 2008, 2013; see also Jupskås, chapter 5, this volume).

Mainstream parties are not without advantages of their own, but they bear the burden of defending policies that may be unpopular and may find it difficult to deliver desired results or to translate them into support at the polls. The position they find themselves in is different from the immediate postwar decades. Then mainstream parties benefitted from sustained economic growth and full employment and could claim that they had delivered on their promises. By contrast, parties that govern today must grapple with intertwined problems – the cost of entitlements, the problems of interdependent economies and coping with immigration and diversity – that are proving to be far less tractable than they once were.

Populist parties have become prominent in party systems not only in older Western European democracies but also in younger East Central European democracies. Their party systems differ from those in older democracies in several key respects. Most are less firmly anchored in society, and parties position themselves differently on key dimensions (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2012). Some have also proven fertile ground, if not for populist parties, then for parties employing populist appeals. In Hungary, Fidesz initially a smaller liberal party and more recently a conservative and increasingly dominant nationalist party – leans towards populism. Along with a newer populist right party, Jobbik, Fidesz gives Hungarian politics a distinctly populist tinge. In Slovakia, the governing party in the 1990s, the People's Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), was a left populist party (Deegan-Krause and Haughton 2009). As Casal Bertoa and Guerra (chapter 9, this volume) demonstrate, populism has been a persistent element in Polish political discourse. In the early 2000s, two populist parties, the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self Defence (SRP), gained strength until their agenda was taken over by a conservative nationalist party, Law and Justice (PiS), an older political force rooted in the Solidarity Movement.

The emergence of populist parties has triggered the growth of a literature that has attempted to define and explain the phenomenon. In the next section, we consider what populism means, how populist parties differ from other parties and the ways in which they affect both competition for votes and competition for government.


Studies of populism paralleled the growing success of populist parties. Debates regarding how populism should be defined and conceptualised ensued: scholars studied and debated whether populism is an ideology, a style or a strategy and whether it is left-wing or right-wing (see Canovan 1999; Jagers and Walgrave 2007; March 2007; Moffitt and Tormey 2014; Mudde 2004, 2007; Weyland 2001). Although disagreements persist (particularly between Latin American and European scholars, cf. Weyland 2001), in the European context, there has been less controversy over how to conceptualise populism than some maintain (Akkerman et al. 2014). Most scholars now accept Mudde's notion that populism is a thin-centred ideology (Mudde 2004, 2007) to which other ideologies become attached. The thin-centred ideological perspective argues that populism reflects a coherent set of ideas about the world, representation and democracy, but that this worldview is not broad enough to stand on its own and that populists thus attach this worldview to other ideologies (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013; Stanley 2008).

The thin-centred ideological approach focuses on four core components: populism begins with the 'pure people' (Akkerman et al. 2014; Mudde 2004). Focusing on 'the pure people', however, is insufficient, and 'the pure people' are thus juxtaposed with the elites, that is, those who are thought to be corrupt (Mudde 2004). In addition, populism espouses a Manichean worldview in which the two worlds are at odds with one another. The tension between 'the pure people' and the elites is framed as a battle between good and evil (Hawkins 2009; Mudde 2004). Finally, populists contend that representation is about asserting the general will (Mudde 2004), a point that Mudde articulates succinctly. Populism is

a thin-centred 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 volonté générale (general will) of the people. (Mudde 2007: 23)

Because it is a thin-centred ideology, populism must attach itself to other ideologies. In Europe, populism has attached itself to radical right, market liberal and left-wing or socialist ideologies. The most common variant is the populist radical right. The ideology of the populist radical right is defined, in addition to populism, by its nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde 2007). However, populist liberals are neither nativist nor authoritarian, and they do not focus exclusively on law and order or moral traditionalism; moreover, immigration is not as important as it is for populist radical right parties. Notably, populist liberal parties are less prevalent in Europe, although Forza Italia (Go Italy/FI) and the List Dedecker in Belgium are clear examples of this phenomenon (Pauwels 2010; Zaslove 2008).

Populist left-wing parties fuse populism with socialist or social democratic ideologies. Left populists frequently define themselves in opposition to neo-liberalism and globalisation (March 2007). Although some left populist parties make anti-immigration claims, more often than not they support ethnic pluralism. Nevertheless, their principal focus is on economic issues such as regulation, redistribution and income equality. In addition, opposition to the EU – and to EU-mandated austerity measures in particular – is common. Left populist parties include the Dutch Socialist Party, the German Left Party, and more recently Podemos in Spain, as well as SYRIZA in Greece. The Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy is often classified as a left populist party, but its left/right status is increasingly less clear (Hough and Kon 2009; Kioupkiolis 2016; Otjes and Louwerse 2015; Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2014; Van Kessel 2015; Verbeek and Zaslove 2016).


Populist parties have become significant players in several European party systems, sometimes winning as many votes as mainstream parties. Our premise is that such parties have become sufficiently strong and that their presence is sufficiently unsettling that they may have an impact on these party systems. Whether and to what extent they affect party systems is the subject of this book.

To date, most research on populism and party systems has focused on populist radical right parties and why they arise and from whom they derive their support. Several studies focus on the effects of the party system on the success and/or failure of populism. For example, Ignazi (2006) and Kitschelt and McGann (1995) emphasise the extent to which the divergence (or radicalisation/polarisation) or convergence of political parties towards the middle creates opportunities for the rise of populist radical right parties. Divergence (radicalisation/polarisation) primes voters (Ignazi 2006), making them open to populist perspectives. Ignazi (2006) states, 'Radicalization and polarization, together with the politicization of new, salient, and misconceived issues, seem to be at the heart of the dynamic that fostered the rise of extreme right parties' (p. 212). By contrast, Kitschelt and McGann (1995) argue that convergence creates room at the margins for populist parties to emerge. Meguid (2005, 2008) approaches the problem from a different perspective by focusing on how mainstream parties decide how to react to populist radical right parties once they appear. How they respond – whether and how consistently they take dismissive, accommodative or adversarial stances vis-à-vis the newcomer – influences the electoral fortunes of populist radical right parties.


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Copyright © 2018 Steven Wolinetz and Andrej Zaslove.
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Table of Contents

Part One: Introduction / 1. The Impact of Populist Parties on Party Systems / Part Two: Simple and Extended Multiparty Systems / 2. The Impact of the Populist Radical Right on the Austrian Party System, Fallend and Heinisch / 3. From Limited to Extended Multipartism? The Impact of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, the Partij voor de Vrijheid, and the Socialistische Partij on the Dutch Party System, Lange / 4. Political Achievements, Party System Changes and Government Participation, Mazzoleni / 5. Shaken, but Not Stirred: How Right-Wing Populist Parties have Changed the Party Systems in Scandinavia, Jupskås / 6. Finnish Populism: Keeping it in the Family, Arter / Part Three: Bipolar and Post-Communist Party Systems / No Longer a Pariah? The Front National and the French Party System, Ivaldi / 8. Italian Populism, Toppling and Re-Building the Party System Twice, Verbeek, Zaslove and Roodujin / 9. Earthquake or Hurricane? The Rise and Fall of Populist Parties in Poland, Bértoa and Guerra / 10. Governmental and Oppositional Populism: Competition and Division of Labour, Enyedi and Róna / Part Four: Conclusion / 11. Populist Parties and the Changing Contours of European Party Systems, Wolinetz

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