My Populism is Bigger than Yours

The Trajectory of Populist Movements in Europe, Reasons for Their Success and Reactions of Established Parties

"A European Union map composed entirely o" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by European Parliament

Mainstream parties seem to believe that refusing ideological attachments and claiming that the populists are “the others” will be enough for the citizens to recognize them as the ones offering providential solutions. The problem is that, while the gap between representatives and represented is not narrowed, between a soft populism and the real thing, dangerous “others” might take the place with rather scary alternatives.

For a long time Southern Europe has been facing the wicked buzz of extreme right parties’ rhetoric. Regarding the great majority of these movements, the share of votes has been small enough to reduce them to background noise, with limited historical exceptions: the French National Front (FN) and the Italian Lega Nord (LN), together with Forza Italia. Managed by autocratic-style leaders (a dynasty in the case of FN), these parties had the monopoly of the populist approach to the ultra-conservative and nationalist fetish topics.

In more recent years, however, following the social and economic breakdown of Greece, a new player emerged in Southern European waters – Golden Dawn – proudly claiming the heritage of the extreme right thoughts, its iconography, guidelines and populist oratory. These were considered by the media and the other parties as the “extras” of the political cast of southern Europe’s political stage until recently, when a different group of non-mainstream parties, respectful of civil rights and liberties, gained visibility and achieved important electoral victories. That would be the case of the socialist SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal while, on the right front, the Spanish newborn Ciudadanos (C’s) starts to constitute a serious alternative to the established powers. Finally, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), although much more indistinct when it comes to claim an ideological legacy, has become a mandatory element in the Italian political landscape. These parties, as much as they may differ among one another, all stay in the spotlight since the beginning of the extended crisis that affects the EU and the southern countries in particular. Their increased popularity and power have shaken the political panorama, from a tango-for-two to a multi-player arena. This change led to a unanimous response by the mainstream forces, amplified by the media, consisting in the first place in dismissing all these movements as “populists”, regardless of their diversity in nature and actions.

But why would “serious” parties opt for such an apolitical response to what they perceive as a threat to their power? Why disregard the fact that the emergent movements are radically different one from another? In order to demonstrate this, they would only need to simply check their manifestos, their political positioning, their voting behaviour in national assemblies or the European Parliament and their alliances with civil movements and other political actors. Maybe, the simplest answer would be that if you name your opponent as “populist” and/or “radical”, you’ll be exempt of demonstrating that you are not. The same mainstream parties and media have been reinforcing the homily of the dangers of getting off the right path or, in other words, the There Is No Alternative (TINA) doctrine. But doing so, insisting on this TINA doctrine, they risk building an even higher wall between those who represent the elite of the decision makers and the others who claim to stem from the people and to defend the huge majority of “oppressed” citizens. Eventually, TINA is one of the fertilizers of what their predicators call “populism”.

The establishment of the mentioned parties develops in line with multiple changes in the social, economic and political context at national, European and global levels. The evolution of communication technologies together with the decline of the importance of traditional media as the messenger of trustable information, for example, opened the door to different ways of reaching the citizens (and the voters in particular). For most of the parties outside the mainstream, the novelty and informality of the new media fitted immediately with their image of being distinct. Still, to reduce the success of these (up to recently) peripheral parties to the smart use of social media would be naive. The growth of these parties is as well linked to the options taken at the EU level and their impact on people’s lives. The same can be said regarding the deterioration of the democratic principle of representation and the perception of the progressive hacking of the States’ machine by the mainstream parties. In general, the common idea remains that non-establishment outsiders have people’s interests as their main priority rather than personal or corporate interests. At least while they don’t appear to be avid for power as a cause for itself.

This global feeling that politics and the people’s representatives have abandoned the people is also reinforced by the European Union’s lack of empathy towards its citizens and, once again, the TINA diktat, repeated by all levels of power, elected or not. This was particularly evident in the response to the Southern European governments and their budget proposals or the several Memoranda of Understanding involving the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. During the whole negotiation phase, the EU position was one of imposing a particular view declining the slightest chance of accepting alternatives that were nonetheless produced and defended by governments, political parties and economists. This authoritarian posture expressed with a demonstration of force within the framework of a particular negotiation has become the modus operandi of the EU institutions, the latest examples being the reaction to the Walony refusal of the terms of the CETA agreement and the pressure to block anti-corruption investigations in Greece.

Finally, it’s also worth to stress the increasingly obvious shift of mainstream parties from political debate towards marketing strategies, simplified slogans and an evident allergy to discuss or engage in long-term strategies or ideological debates. In other words, although refraining to assume what could be an openly populist speech, said parties embrace a sort of mild populism that is yet providing more or less the same solutions. The refusal to engage in extended debates led to a situation within which every proposal or question on the status quo is therefore dismissed by political leaders or opinion makers as unrealistic, reducing their opponents to the cliché of unprepared populist speakers. This situation is particularly palpable in the positioning towards the EU. For example, PODEMOS’ and Bloco de Esquerda’s demands for a deep renovation of the decision-making system of the present EU have been dismissed as simple anti-EU rhetoric, the same argument used to classify open opponents to the European project like FN or UKIP. Still, a simple analysis of the political programs and the options assumed by each organisation in the national assemblies or in the European Parliament reveals a strong internationalist perspective on one side and a conservative nationalism on the other. To address both as mere detractors of the “European project” only strengthens the nationalist agenda of extreme-right movements in Portugal, Spain, Greece or elsewhere.

It is important to underline that southern Europeans have been particularly punished by the financial, economic and social crisis. In this context, the gap between the economic elites and the “common people” has widened, associated to a deepened conscience of inequality. Once again, the response from the well-established parties has been the replication of a mantra whose core strategy is hardly perceived as emerging from the people’s needs or having the citizens in mind. The arrogant and profoundly anti-democratic TINA doctrine only contributes to the identification of citizens with eurosceptic discourses. It is a binary logic of us versus them that excludes the possibility of dissent and mixes a wide range of alternatives into very simplified and limited positions In short, the idea of mandatory consensus excludes whoever dares to raise questions. In that context, the one providing miraculous answers has even more chances to lead the way.

Mainstream parties seem to believe that refusing ideological attachments and claiming that the populists are “the others” will be enough for the citizens to recognize them as the ones offering providential solutions. The problem is that, while the gap between representatives and represented is not narrowed, between a soft populism and the real thing, dangerous “others” might take the place with rather scary alternatives.