Populism, is it Democracy’s Bastard or Twin? The Case of the European Union
Populism, is it Democracy's Bastard or Twin? The Case of the European Union
Jose´ Filipe Pinto 0 1
Authoritarian Populism Index 0 1
0 Department of Political Science, Security and International Relations, Lusophone University of Humanities and Technologies , Campo Grande 376, 1749-024 Lisbon , Portugal
1 & Jose ́ Filipe Pinto
What do we mean when we say populism? Is populism a threat for democracy or a contribution to improve a system whose performance falls below our expectations? This essay seeks to find an answer to these questions. Keeping the available literature in mind, it shall reflect on populism myths before presenting a new concept of populism. A concept based on fight for hegemony. The essay argues that, on one hand, there is no democracy without populism, and on the other hand, populism can represent both a threat and a chance for democracy. Moreover, it shall analyze the reality of populism and democracy in the European Union by crosschecking the data of the Authoritarian Populism Index and the Democracy Index, without forgetting the last reports on the citizens' satisfaction degree with the functioning of democracy and per capita income. This is a relevant theme at a time when the populist parties have popped up in some democracies, share, or occupy the power in some EU countries, and in one case both the ruling party and the one leading the opposition are of populist nature. A populist democracy.
Democracy; Democracy; Populism; Index
Value judgments on the relations between populism and democracy represent one of
those cases in which the sentence dictated by the published opinion seems to render
the judgment irrelevant. Populism is usually presented as a threat to democracy, a
danger for the democratic institutions, as it is considered to be no more than a loose
speech that only proposes false solutions for the social problems, whose complexity
it cannot understand. This was the reason for Mariano Grondona’s brief comment
some decades ago: populism likes poor people so much that it multiplies them.
This remains the dominant idea among the ruling politicians in European Union.
In 2010, the first President of European Council, Herman van Rompuy, identified
populism as the greatest danger for Europe. However, since science is made of
concepts and not of prejudices, perhaps, it may be opportune to go beyond this
reductionist vision, characteristic of the common sense. A journey to the origins,
that is to say, the search for the definition of populism.
Indeed, as Ferdinand de Saussure taught long back, each significant has a
meaning associated with it. Populism is not an exception. Therefore, it matters to
know the real meaning of populism, because as
:2–3) defends, each
author looks at it in his own way: ‘‘as an ideology
(Laclau 19771; Mudde 20042)
style of politics (Knight 1998),3 a specific discourse
4, or a political
’’5. Obviously, the list could be extended.
Without some clarifications, we cannot have a conceptual construction. The word
will go on having vague and abusive uses, as
alerted us. That is why
he spent much time to work out a Theory of Populism. An essential step to prevent
the myths from dictating the law. A kind of self-satisfaction with a false security
that cannot succeed when it faces the least questioning. Now, it is time to present a
clearer definition of populism.
1 Laclau (1977:194) defends that ‘‘’populism arises in a specific ideological domain: that constituted by
the double articulation of political discourse. The dialectical tension between ’the people’ and classes
determines the form of ideology, both among dominant and dominated sectors’’.
2 Cas Mudde has insisted on this position. In 2017, in Populism: a very short introduction, written with
Cristobal Kaltwasser, on the page 32 of the Portuguese edition he defends that, adopting an ideational
approach, populism can be defined as a thin ideology
(Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017)
3 In the abstract, Alain Knight says: ‘‘This article reviews some of the literature, suggesting that populism
is best defined in terms of a particular political style, characteristically involving a proclaimed rapport
with ‘the people’, a ‘them-and-us’ mentality, and (often, though not necessarily) a period of crisis and
mobilisation; none of which makes it exceptional, abnormal, ‘unmediated’, or irrational’’.
4 The author, in the abstract, explains that the article ‘‘pushes forward our understanding of populism by
developing one of the more underappreciated definitions of populism, populism as discourse. It does so by
creating a quantitative measure of populist discourse suitable for cross-country and historical analysis’’.
5 Later, Kurt Weyland would repeat this position saying that ‘‘Cha´vez and his friends used populism to
entrench their predominance and install competitive authoritarian regimes. Populism, understood as a
strategy for winning and exerting state power, inherently stands in tension with democracy and the value
that it places upon pluralism, open debate, and fair competition. Populism revolves around personalistic
leadership that feeds on quasi-direct links to a loosely organized mass of heterogeneous followers.
Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly organized parties, the leader—often a
charismatic figure—establishes face-to-face contact with large numbers of citizens’’ (Weyland 2013:20).
2 Defining Populism
To start, the word ‘‘people’’, the basis of populism, has several meanings. For
Adriano Moreira, in the preface
, as the words are temperamentally
uncertain, the expression is used at times to convey compassion and at other times to
endow political dignity to the communities of citizens or voters. Indeed, le petit
peuple toujours malheureux, a creation of Robespierre, was followed by what Karl
Marx would call proletariat, ‘‘moving away the pejorative sense and giving
ideological value to it’’. The people as construction: ‘‘we’’ opposed to ‘‘they’’, the
A conceptual construction carrying both an internal and an external dimension.
An internal dimension, because the concept does not include the domestic
privileged class, the elite or the chaste whose predatory action is denounced by the
populist leaders. An external one, because it does not accept Terence’s words—
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto—as it conceives ‘‘the other’’ as a threat
for the maintenance of the national identity. The external dimension helps to
understand the exacerbated nationalism and the manifestations of xenophobia and
racism, while the internal one constitutes a fertile ground for populism.
The several meanings of the term ‘‘people’’ are responsible for the existence of
so many definitions of the concept, implying that some of them do not refer to the
same phenomenon, but to different realities. Granting that populism was born in
Russia in the nineteenth century, the era of the Czars, as a reaction to the dangers of
industrialization process, I believe that the origin of populism must be found in an
earlier date, because it should not be considered as a democratic bastard, but as
democracy twin brother, or as
said, populism follows democracy as
Canovan’s typology of populism6 merited a very positive analysis by
:4), considering that it offered ‘‘the most ambitious attempt to get to grips with
populism’’ as ‘‘she draws back from seeing populism as unified, and rather offers a
key differentiation between agrarian populism and political populism’’. This opinion
was rejected by
:19) because of the lack of a coherent criterion
ensuring that the two categories—agrarian and political populism—do not overlap.
An endless quarrel despite some common points of view. Each researcher conceives
populism differently. That is why Laclau was very critical not only relatively to
Canovan but also to
For me, populism represents a way of fighting for hegemony. A process that
demands, as Laclau advocated and Chantal Mouffe still defends,7 the creation of an
:8) considers that Canovan distinguished between the agrarian and the political populism.
In the earlier case, she included three types of populism: the agrarian radicalism (such as the case of the
People’s Party in the USA), the peasant movements (such as the Green Movement in East Europe, and the
agrarian intellectual socialism (like the narodniki). In the latter case, Canovan included four types: the
popular dictatorships (like that of Peron), the populist democracies (like the referendums and the
participation), the reactionary populisms (like that of George Wallace and his followers), and finally, the
populism of politicians (like the construction of ideological coalitions that benefit from the unifying
appeal to People.
7 In several interviews, articles, and conferences, for example, in October 2016, in a conference held in
Portugal, debating with Jean L. Cohen from Columbia University, she defended that more left populism
antagonism based on the change from the differencialist logic, that of the ruling
authority, to an equivalential logic that conceives people as the agent, not always
coincident on the receiver condition of the change. People fail to recognize elite
authority, because the ruling class often refuses to satisfy popular demands.
On this point, it is important to emphasize that both the people and the elite are
no more primary elements, but illusory ‘‘re-creations’’ conceived as homogeneous,
in spite of the differences they carry inside them. No questions are raised, because
the homogeneity of both the concepts becomes useful to draw an internal border
between only two antagonistic fields. Antagonism and fight never end, because
when a leader reaches power he institutionalizes his model, but whichever the new
paradigm, it will not be inclusive, because the meaning of people and population
will remain separated, even when the new leader speaks in the name of people.
That is why populism follows democracy like a shadow. They usually do not go
hand in hand, but democracy feels that it is never alone. Although
looked at History as a cemetery of aristocracies, there is no doubt that the elite, as
Phoenix, proves to have an enormous capacity to be reborn. Such are the myths as
we shall see them.
3 The Myths of Populism
pointed to the existence of three myths concerning to populism and
tried to dispel these false narratives. The first of these myths defends that populism
is an ideology, however, a ‘‘thin’’ one. The second one considers populism an
extreme right-wing phenomenon. The third myth signs the existence of a close
relationship between populism and the charismatic leadership.
This article is not the right place to present the arguments that Pappas used to
break up these myths, but it is important to say that, at least in what concerns to the
second narrative, the deconstruction process is easy, because assigning the populist
responsibility only to the extreme right represents a serious mistake. Indeed, if there
are extreme-right populist movements and parties, such as Federation of Young
Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance (FIDESZ) and the Movement for a Better
Hungary (JOBBIK) in Hungary, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, the British UK
Independence Party (UKIP), the French National Front (FN), or the Dutch Party for
Freedom (PVV), populist parties can be found on the other side of political
spectrum, like the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) in Greece, PODEMOS
in Spain, the Left Block (BE) in Portugal, and so on.
An analysis of the programs and the plans of action of the above mentioned
parties is fundamental to dismount the first myth and to understand that populism is
Footnote 7 continued
was required as it represented the best way to fight against right populism. As it is known, Laclau and
Mouffe’s populism concept is mainly based on the study of populism in Argentina under Juan Pero´n and
Brazil ruled by Getu´lio Vargas. Studying some cases in the same continent, Kurt Weyland came to quite
different conclusions as he considered left-wing populism as a threat for democracy. In 2015, Slavoj
Zˇ izˇek wrote an article declaring his support to Syriza, Podemos, and the Latin American populism, after
an interview first published in Mexico where his opinion seemed to be quite different.
not an ideology, even if
:7) defends populism as ‘‘attached to some
very different ideological positions from the left to the right’’. A sentence that
dispels once again the second myth.
The programmatic content analysis allows verifying the simultaneous existence
of measures that, from the ideological point of view, represent different ways of
conceiving the reality. The ideology can become a dark chamber, far from reflecting
the reality. Ideology that as
:208) explained is also an ambiguous
More difficult is to dispel completely the third myth, as multiple cases of
identification of a populist party with its leader can be found. Indeed, to refer to
PODEMOS, it is to remember Pablo Igle´sias; the same about National Front and
Marine Le Pen, PVV and Geert Wilders, SYRIZA and Tsipras, FIDESZ and Orba´n,
and so forth.
Besides the myths pointed out, there are two more that, in my opinion, deserve to
be mentioned. Therefore, it is usual to relate the new populist outbreak with the
crisis that started as financial before spreading to the other sectors. The austerity
measures demanded a high social cost, reduced solidarity and promoted
individualism, and selfish goals, forgetting collective happiness. Such situations are
generally seen as responsible for the failing confidence of the citizens upon the
political elite, accused of serving the economic interests.
:109) considers that in the north of Europe where the big recession
was not so strong, and where many of those who required political asylum were
concentrated, the right-wing populism dominated, while in south Europe, countries
with high unemployment rates, such as Greece, Italy, or Spain, developed a
leftwing populism. The economic element seems responsible for the appearance of two
different types of populism. A typology accepted by many left-wing populist
leaders, because they consider left populism as revolutionary and right populism as
However, how do we explain the low level of populism in countries hardly
affected by the crisis? Or a strong or, at least, considerable populism in countries
where almost no crisis was felt? Examples of both the situations can be found in the
European Union. Besides, in a country, right-wing and left-wing populism can
coexist. For example, in the EU most important country, Germany, left-wing populism
represents 8.6%, but right-wing populism reaches 6%.
Another myth consists in defending the existence of an inevitable link between
populism and two other phenomena: nationalism and regionalism. Admitting the
possibility of a relationship between populism, nationalism, and regionalism, it is
necessary to say that we are confronting three different concepts, though having
some common elements, a situation that increases the difficulty of a clear
distinction. In addition, the separation of the three concepts gets worse when we
8 The author considers that the concept has been used with the theoretical function of: process in false
conscience (Engels), wrong conception and complete abstraction of History (Marx), distorted knowledge
(K. Mannheim), false conscience (K. Korsch), conception of the world (Gramsci), element of social
covering with mystifying content (Meynaud), mystifying representation (H. Lefebvre), system of
opinions (Schaff), system of representations (Althusser), set with relative coherence of representations
(Poulantzas), and so on.
analyze the political discourses, because politicians usually merge them. On one
hand, regionalism and nationalism use populist speech, because it appeals to the
people. It is a targeting strategy. It is important to reach the people, even when the
party invents a ‘‘Nation’’, as it happened in Italy where the Lega Nord invented
Padania that ‘‘theoretically came into being independent when it was declared
sovereign and independent on 15 September 1996’’, through a ‘‘well-publicised
party demonstration that took place along the River Po’’
the other hand, the populist leaders do not mind using regionalist and nationalistic
flags, since they serve populist interests. The attitude of many populist leaders
toward immigrants, mainly Muslims, and refugees constitutes a good-or a
badexample of such use. A self-interested religiosity advocated by some politicians
plays up the role of the church in the national culture even when they forget all
about going to Mass.
An example of the contact points among populism and nationalism is when
Jagers and Walgrave (2005)
include exclusionary populism in their typology.
Indeed, when the political speech is against the presence of out-groups, we can say
that we are facing a nationalist demonstration. However, when the defence of the
homeland represents a way to attack the ruling elite, responsible for the arrival of
immigrants and refugees, populism replaces nationalism.
Therefore, populism functions at another level. Populism is more than a fashion
or style. It is on a different dimension: the fight for internal hegemony. Populism is
not separatist and it must not be equated with the irredentism. It tries to influence
and it looks for the internal power.
Hence, a populist party does not necessarily require appealing to regionalist or
nationalistic sentiments. Its interest lies in picking on issues which are prone to
creating internal divisions and to discrediting the ruling class. As History proves, the
mainstream parties tend to keep such issues for a later debate or postpone them
As time never stops and it never forgives those who waste it, it is the moment to
get to the core of the issue. That one indicated in the subtitle of the present article.
4 Populist Dynamics in the European Union
In 2017, authoritarian populist parties participate in governments in seven European
Union countries: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and
Slovakia. Besides, they act as support to the ruling parties in Denmark, Bulgaria,
and Portugal. A populist presence impossible to be hidden and a situation that
political studies cannot ignore or underestimate.
One logical way of handling the theme of populist dynamics in EU is to
crosscheck countrywise the data of the Index of Democracy and the Authoritarian
Populism Index. The first index is elaborated for the Economist Intelligence Unit
of London based on 60 variables grouped in five categories: the electoral process
and pluralism, the civil freedoms, the functioning of the government, the political
participation, and the political culture. The index contemplates four levels: full
democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and, at the bottom far away
from democracy, the authoritarian regimes.9 This is not the only index about
democracy. For example, the classification made by Freedom House could be an
option, but as Diamond (2015:155) warns, the five criteria10 of this independent
watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy
around the world has led to a somewhat expansive and generous list of
democracies. The second index is prepared by Andreas Johansson Heino¨ , a
member of Timbro Foundation, and it quantifies populism in a percentile scale
from 0 to 100.11
Accepting that populism represents a threat to democracy, it will be
expectable that the European Union countries where the populist phenomenon is
not visible will be considered as full democracies, while the EU members where
populism is increasing will present the lowest values in what concerns the quality of
the democracy. Referring to the level of authoritarian populism in EU members, in
2016, the endnote shows a big difference between the top and the bottom.12 The
three countries where populism was very high: Hungary—66.4, Greece—57, and
Poland—46.4% had a little to compare with, at least, eight countries: Lithuania—
8.5, Estonia—8.3, Croatia—7.8, Belgium—7.4, Ireland—4.1, Slovenia—2.2, and
Luxembourg—1.6%, countries where populism did not reach two digits, and Malta,
a country free of populism.
Jagers and Walgrave (2005)
, they presented a typology containing
four types of populism according to the construction of people, the anti-elitism, and
the exclusion of outside groups. They called empty populism to the lowest level
9 The scale is: 0 to 4—authoritarian regime, 4 to 6—hybrid regime, 6 to 8—flawed democracy, and 8 to
10 Larry Diamond identified the five criteria. To be classified as democracy a country should score (a) at
least 7 out of 12 on the ‘‘electoral process’’ dimension of political rights; (b) at least 20 out of 40 overall
on the raw point scale for political rights; (c) the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections
were reasonably free and fair; (d) there are no significant hidden sources of power overriding the elected
authorities; and (e) there are no recent legal changes abridging future electoral freedom.
11 On the pages 14 and 15, the author explains the methodology that he followed. Two indicators are used
to measure influence. ‘‘First, the total amount of mandates. The index shows how many mandates are held
each year by representatives of authoritarian parties. This measure naturally only includes those parties
that managed to secure mandates. Parties like Front National or the United Kingdom Independence Party
have been relatively successful when it comes to numbers of votes, but as a result of the French and
British election systems, they have not been able to convert this into anything more than limited
parliamentary presence. The second indicator is participation in a government. In addition to measuring
election results and number of mandates (114 of the parties have won mandates at some point), I have
classified the parties as ‘‘left-wing’’ and ‘‘right-wing’’ and as ‘‘authoritarian’’ or ‘‘totalitarian’’.
RightLeft is primarily dependent on the parties’ own classification. In doubtful cases, I have followed the most
commonly used designations used in the secondary literature, and in a few, particularly difficult cases, I
have used the parties’ choice of collaborators to decide. These cases, however, are so few that a potential
error in classification is of no real significance for the main results. The division into authoritarian and
totalitarian depends on the parties’ view on democracy. Only explicitly anti-democratic parties have been
classified as anti-democratic. If a party contains Nazism, fascism, communism, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc.,
it is a totalitarian party’’.
12 Values in descending order according to overall score: Hungary—66.4; Greece—57; Poland—46.4;
Italy—33.7; Cyprus—29.4; Denmark—28.9; Austria—25; Czech Republic—22.7 France—21.7; Spain—
21.2 Portugal—20.5 Finland—18.2; Latvia—16.6; Romania—15.3; Germany—14.6; Sweden—12.9;
United Kingdom—12.6; Netherlands—10.1; Lithuania—8.5; Estonia—8.3; Croatia—7.8; Belgium—7.4;
Ireland—4.1; Slovenia—2.2; Luxembourg—1.6; and Malta—0.
where we can only find references to the people.13 According to the Authoritarian
Populism Index, none of these types was present in Malta and as this country was a
full democracy the first part of the hypothesis seems to be proved. The absence of
populism was accompanied by a high Democracy Index—8.39, which means that,
excepted for the political participation—6.11, all the parameters were high: 9.71 for
the civil freedoms, followed by the electoral process and pluralism—9.17, the
political culture—8.75, and the functioning of government—8.21. However, as
hurry is never a good counsellor, no conclusion should be drawn before presenting
all the Index of Democracy data.
In the European Union of 2016, there was neither hybrid nor authoritarian
regimes, since 11 members of the community belonged to full democracies and
seventeen to flawed democracies. The full democracies were: Sweden—9.68;
Denmark—9.20; Ireland—9.15; Finland—9.03; Luxembourg—8.81; The
Netherlands—8.80; Germany—8.63; Austria—8.41; Malta—8.39; United Kingdom—
8.36; and Spain—8.30. As the values suggest, none of these countries was at risk of
falling to a lower level.
One aspect to be emphasized is that none of the countries that once belonged to
the East Block is yet considered full democracy. The transition from a model in
which everything was supervised or controlled by the Communist Party to a model
based on private economic initiative was difficult. The civil society was not
prepared for the change. The reality hidden behind the wall was worse than what the
western minds could imagine, even when ‘‘a number of well-educated persons with
impeccable political credentials from the communist point of view’’ in 1982 were
sent to US with ‘‘scholarship grants by the Central Committee of the Slovenian
Communist Party’’ to study ‘‘stock exchanges or investment banking and public
finances, institutions that characterize the democratic societies’’
.14 This was just the exception that confirms the rule during the cold
The 17 flawed democracies included: Italy—7.98; France—7.92; Portugal—
7.86; Estonia—7.85; Czech Republic—7.82; Belgium—7.77; Cyprus—7.65;
Slovenia—7.61; Lithuania—7.47; Latvia—7.31; Slovakia—7.29; Greece—7.23;
Bulgaria—7.01; Poland—6.83; Croatia—6.75; Hungary—6.72; and Romania—
6.62. The data showed that this group was far from homogeneous, because five
countries were near the higher level, while some others were not far away from the
After crossing the data of the two indexes, the first part of the presumption was
confirmed again, because besides Malta, Luxembourg was the EU country with the
13 The other three types are: exclusionary populism, when there is the exclusion of out-groups; anti-elitist
populism, when the appeals to the people are combined with attacks on elites and complete populism,
when the three elements—appeals to the people, exclusion of out-groups, and attacks on elites—are
14 Umek (2008:118) considered that ‘‘when the changes to the economy and the political system were
introduced, they gained momentum’’ as they had ‘‘developed quickly and not always according to the
wishes of the ruling communist parties’’. The same author also says that these well-educated people
became ‘‘the predominant owners in their national economies through privatisation processes that they
second lower populism level, an almost residual value. It was also a full democracy
with the Index of Democracy at 8.81. In fact, in 2016, only the political
participation—6.67 did not follow the rule of a very high evaluation: 10, or the
maximum, for the electoral process and pluralism, 9.71 for the civil freedoms, 8.93
for the functioning of government, and 8.75 for the political culture.
However, the second part of the presumption was not confirmed, because in the
EU country that Heino¨ places in the first place, Hungary, populism reached 66.4%
in 2016 with the right-wing making the greatest contribution—65.2%, but it
continues to belong to the flawed democracies, occupying the 56th position in the
Index of Democracy, with 6.72, and with only one negative parameter: the political
participation—4.44. All the other parameters were positive and one of them was
strongly high—9.17 for the electoral process and pluralism. Those below were the
civil freedoms—7.06, the only element falling, the political culture—6.88, and the
functioning of government—6.07. Compared with 2015, the Index of Democracy
came down, because of the fall of the civil freedoms, an element that must be taken
in account, because as Bozo´ki (2015:27) affirms, when Orba´n won the power he
restructured the political system, modifying the Constitution and giving the
Government enormous de facto power. He nominated members of the party to
independent institutions, started a campaign against the intellectuals, and handed
over all major government-promoted businesses ‘‘to entrepreneurs close to Fidesz or
allies of the prime minister’’. Besides, ‘‘alternative artists, actors, and actresses
became targets of populist propaganda’’. A time to reward friends and for
harassment and punishment to foe.
Orba´n’s electoral campaign was marked by five words: ‘‘work, home, family,
health, and order’’, for the defence of a ‘‘new social contract’’ or a ‘‘revolution,
declaring the need for fundamental political changes required presumably by
the ‘‘will of the people’’
(Bozo´ ki 2015:26)
. However, there was a big distance
between the campaign promises and the measures that were taken by his
government and the people, in whose name everything was said to be done, were
obliged to suffer the consequences of the governmental measures, because by
introducing ‘‘a flat tax system, the cabinet aimed to win the support of the wealthy
against the interests of the poor’’, while ‘‘welfare benefits for the homeless and
unemployed have been cut from 6 to 3 months only’’
A right-wing populism forgets the people and it is believed to become a threat for
democracy, as it tries to capture the power. A disturbing situation or a worrying
development in a context in which the party leading the opposition, Jobbik, is
rightwing populist, as well. An electoral choice dominated by populist parties. As
verified, nowadays, representative democracy is facing the same problem
that occurred when Plato invented his perfect city: how can electors preserve
democracy and protect themselves against those politicians who become
undesirable when they reach the power?
However, as we said earlier, the right-wing does not monopolize populism in the
European Union. In fact, the second country with a high degree of populism is
Greece, since Syriza took over the government. Syriza used the crisis to discredit the
previous governing elite, while at the same time demonizing the external
institutions. It is the essence of populism. However, once in power it adopted a
relatively moderate discourse, effecting mere semantic changes to meet the reality.
It even formed—and repeated—a governmental alliance with a party belonging to
the other side of the ideological spectrum.
According to the Index of Authoritarian Populism, Greece presented, in 2016, a
value of 57%, with the left-wing responsible for the biggest average—45.1%, while
the right-wing contributed 11.9%. However, the Index of Democracy included
Greece in the group of flawed democracy countries. It occupied the 44th rank with a
value of 7.23. In this index, the highest points belonged to the electoral process and
pluralism—9.58, followed by the civil freedoms—8.82, very far away from the
political culture—6.25, and the political participation—6.11. The functioning of the
government held the lowest parameter—5.36.
It should be emphasized that, following the example of Hungary, also in Greece,
the quality of democracy fell as compared to 2015 when the index was 7.45. It went
down on two parameters: the civil freedoms and the political participation.
However, it is possible to say that the rising populism, from the right-wing in
Hungary and from the left-wing in Greece, was not decisive for these countries to be
excluded from being classified as flawed or incomplete democracies. The
conclusion will not change if the analysis is extended to the third country with
high populism, namely Poland. As a matter of fact, Poland was also a flawed
democracy with only one negative parameter, the political culture—4.38. All the
other parameters were high or acceptable: 9.17 for the electoral process and
pluralism, 8.24 for the civil freedoms, 6.67 for the political participation, and 5.71
for the functioning of government. However, both the electoral process and
pluralism and the civil freedoms were lower than in 2015, because the populist
party, PiS, ‘‘ordered a major purge of public radio and television, and abolished the
political neutrality of the civil service’’
denounces, the ruling elite likes to be obeyed and it hates those who dare to
disagree. An endless fight between the word of the power and the power of the
Probably, fact prods us to bring a new element into the debate: the satisfaction
with democracy as a measure of quality of democracy. It is something that goes
beyond the level of satisfaction with the functioning of the government as this is just
one of the categories of the Index of Democracy. Meneguello (2010:143) who had
the Brazilian society in mind, defended that for citizens, there was no a direct
association among satisfaction with democracy, the actuation of the institutions, and
the results of public policies. However, even accepting that the degree of
satisfaction with democracy does not result only of the functioning of the
government, this last element counts for the evaluation of the quality of democracy.
Therefore, these data will have two very distinct readings, depending upon the
populist parties being in the government or in the opposition. In the first case, if the
dissatisfaction is great, it will be the performance of the ruling populist parties that
is at stake. In the second case, the presence of a higher degree of dissatisfaction will
make populism appear as solution against the discredit of the current system, in
which ‘‘apathy and inertia’’ of the mainstream parties ‘‘could significantly lower the
barriers to new democratic reversals and to authoritarian entrenchments in many
. As it is well known, democracy is a recent
reality in many EU countries.
Or, as can be seen in the most recent Eurobarometer 8615 that evaluated this item,
the country where the voters showed to be less satisfied with the functioning of the
democracy—21%—was Greece. An average that does not play in favour of Syriza’s
populism, the populist party that, for two consecutive times, deserved the preference
of an electorate that had no faith in the ancient establishment parties. In addition, the
country of the European Union with the highest populism rate, namely Hungary,
was well below the satisfaction average, which remained 42%. The case of Fidesz
was similar to that of Syriza. Incidentally, Italy and Cyprus, ranking as 4th and 5th
with more populism, also appeared in the lowest rank for satisfaction with
democracy—33 and 37%, respectively, but as these countries were not led by
populist parties, the burden of responsibility fell on mainstream and ruling parties.
Thus, it seemed possible to say that the countries with the highest populism, both
in the government and in the opposition, were those where the citizens were more
displeased with the functioning of the democratic institutions. However, we see
some data that disagree with the above conclusions. Indeed, a country of high level
of populism, Denmark, was the second one where citizens were the most satisfied
with democracy—87%. The same happened in other states where populism was
strongly increasing, but citizens did not complain about democracy: Sweden—79%
of satisfaction, Finland—73%, and Germany—69%. By the way, the 20
parliamentary seats won by Geert Wilders’ party in the latest electoral act in The
Netherlands proved that nowadays, populism plays an important role in the country.
However, 78% of the inhabitants were satisfied with the functioning of democracy.
In this group of countries, only in Finland, the populists are nowadays part of the
governmental elite. A former Finish Prime Minister, Harri Holkeri, wrote that in
Finland the populist parties do not face so much contempt as in other countries, but
it seems possible to say that it is not—only or over all—the dissatisfaction with the
functioning of the democracy that explains the growth of populism.
To conclude the analysis, it is time to reflect on the relationship between
economic crisis and the populism growth. The study of the data concerning the per
capita income, that is, the identification of the countries that produce more or less
wealth per person in parity of the purchase power, allows us to draw some
conclusions regarding this relationship. Thus, a first confirmation: all the members
of the EU had a downward trend in 2009, though in Poland, Greece, and Portugal,
this breaking had started in the previous year. A second noteworthy element is that
almost the totality of the countries has started to recover in 2010, while only Greece
had to wait until 2013 to initiate the recovery. Moreover, this trend of growth was
steady in the great majority of the cases until 2015. Only in Finland, Croatia, and
Slovenia by 2013, in Luxemburg by 2012, in Portugal by 2011, and in Spain by
2012 and 2013, it was not so.
15 Values in descending order according to overall score: Denmark—91; Luxembourg—87; Sweden—
79; Netherlands—78; Finland—77; Ireland—73; Belgium—69; Germany—69; Malta—64; Austria—64;
United Kingdom—64; Poland—57; Czech Republic—53; Average Percentage—53; Latvia—52;
Portugal—52; Estonia—51; France—45; Slovakia—43; Lithuania—42; Hungary—42; Spain—39;
Romania—38; Croatia—37; Cyprus—37; Slovenia—36; Italy—33; Bulgaria—30; and Greece—21.
The data presented do not allow a link between the crisis and populism, and the
situation does not change if the five countries with highest and lowest per capita
income are included in the list. In fact, the group of countries with higher income—
Luxembourg, Ireland, The Netherlands, Austria, and Germany—includes countries
where the index of Authoritarian Populism is very different—1.6; 4.1; 10.1; 25, and
14.6%, respectively. In the same way, the five countries with lower per capita
income—Hungary, Latvia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria—present different
levels of populism—66.4; 16.6; 7.8; 15.3, and 17.5%, respectively.
Therefore, it is not possible to establish a linear correlation between the
economic crisis and populism. The reason for the new outbreak of populism must be
searched elsewhere. Probably, in the human nature more than in the human
condition, but before concluding, there is still a last element: the relationship
between media, net, and populism. It is an important issue, because nowadays,
communication plays no more only an instrumental role serving the traditional three
pillars of Political Theory: Political Philosophy, Sociology and Law.
5 Media, Net, and Populism
The relationship between media and populism is ambiguous. Therefore, it is
commonplace to hear that populism is just a media invention, but it is also said that
the media are important to fight against populism. Besides,
speaks about ‘‘media complicity’’, because ‘‘in many instances, the European media
appear to have contributed to a legitimization of the issues, keywords, and
communication styles, typical of populist leaders’’.
:145–146) agrees with Mazzoleni, recognizing that while the
media are ‘‘rarely sympathetic to the cause of populist nativist parties, their
excessive coverage reinforces their status as both legitimate and the ‘‘ real’’
alternative to the status quo, the ‘‘outsider’’ in opposition to the elite’’. To prove the final
part of the sentence Mondon says that ‘‘this kind of coverage and legitimization
have been particularly striking in France and the United Kingdom’’, because in
these two countries, the leaders of National Front and UKIP, Marine Le Pen, and
Nigel Farage, ‘‘have become regular features on prime time television and front
pages’’. In what concerns to UKIP, it is noteworthy that the regulator and
competition authority for the UK communications industries, Ofcom, decided that
the populist party should be treated as a major party during the campaign for the
2014 European Parliament election. A decision that allowed Farage a bigger
Obviously, more examples could be pointed of this populist presence in the
media in spite of populist leaders complaining that they are ignored by the media.
:48) noticed, in Finland, during 2011 campaign, Finns Party
‘‘accused the mainstream media of being a subservient tool in the service of
mainstream political parties’’ and ‘‘it succeeded in consolidating the perception
among the citizens that it was the political voice that went unheard and neglected by
the media’’ the very same media that ‘‘the party was highly visible in’’. That
situation was not true only in Finland. Populist parties know how to use negativity
and complaints in political communication. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is
strategically prepared. Victimization as a source of profits.
However, there exist also cases of effective marginalization. According to
and Walgrave (2005)
, in Belgium, the established parties built a cordon sanitaire
against Vlaams Blok, once this party was accused of being ‘‘racist, fascist, and
undemocratic’’ and De Cleen and Van Aelst (2017:103), using
De Swert (2001
source, did not deny that ‘‘although there has never been a cordon sanitaire
me´diatique, most media outlets (in varying degrees) have not treated the VB as an
ordinary party’’. A discrimination that ‘‘the public broadcaster VRT explained’’ on a
‘‘special note on its democratic role’’. The example was followed by newspapers in
2003, in the election day, when De Standaard ‘‘gave five potential reasons to vote
for each political party, but explicitly mentioned that there were no reasons to vote
for VB’’. Yet, this double marginalization did not function, because Vlaams Blok
obtained 767,605 votes corresponding to 11.6% and 18 deputies, more 154,206
votes, and three deputies than in 1999 legislative election.
As History proves, the leaders know that image and propaganda play a useful and
important role. Nobody can forget the role played by Leni Riefenstahl in the
promotion of Nazi regime. Some years later, television allowed ‘‘populists to reach
their followers ‘in person’. Cha´vez hosted a regular Sunday talk show’’
. Public television supervised and controlled by the ruling party. Space for
the opposition shrank or even disappeared. An ideological inculcation. Presenting
the reality through the power eyes. The official truth.
In Italy, Berlusconi may be presented as the best symbol of a populist leader in a
conjuncture in which information belonged to the small political and economic elite.
A leader who demanded ‘‘that identification was never with the party but with him’’,
because he considered himself as ‘‘the one’’ who represented ‘‘the interests of Italian
. Berlusconi was Fininvest owner, the business group that
controlled Mediaset, the biggest Italian mass media group, owning television
channels, radios, and content production companies. The 1994 political campaign
was programmed and played by Publitalia, Fininves´ts publicity enterprise, ‘‘with a
key role being played by its head, Marcello dell’Utri’’
(Ruzza and Fella 2009:143)
Publitalia was so present in the campaign that it had the mission ‘‘to choose the
candidates for the 26 electoral circles’’
(Santos 2012: 293)
However, in Italy, a new paradigm was discovered. Beppe Grillo, an ancient
comedian, and Gianroberto Casaleggio founded MoVimento5Stelle, as a no-party,
because they discovered that mass media only allowed ‘‘one to many’’
communication model, which needed to be replaced by a ‘‘many-to-many’’ model. As the
electoral results are proving, the digital citizenship has already arrived. It has
surprised the traditional parties whose leaders thought that they were dealing with
an epiphenomenon. It was just a project that mobilized young people in a
continent that is aging. A mistake because, according to
Lanzone and Woods
:60), M5S ‘‘has attracted a younger base of support than the main political
parties’’, but ‘‘the evidence indicates that movement’s key demographic support
are Italian men in their mid-40s with a relatively high degree of interest in
political and social issues’’.
An element that is noteworthy is that Grillo’s idea was followed by other
European countries. In the European Parliament, a new group was formed—Europe
of Freedom and Direct Democracy. A group including 20 members elected by
UKIP, 15 by MoVimento 5 Stelle, 2 by Sweden Democrats, 1 by Alternative for
Germany, 1 from Poland, 1 from Lithuania, 1 from Czech Republic, and 1
independent from France.
The net is more powerful than the traditional mass media. The populist message
can be broadcast continuously. No intermediary agents are required. The actions of
the political caste can be immediately denounced. The border line between
‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ is constantly noticed. Populist truth is a click away and almost
everybody is always on line. This is a reality that goes beyond the borders.
:299) said that almost everywhere ‘‘candidates use social media including
Twitter and Facebook to market, to mobilize and to engage with their supporters and
the general public’’, and
Pajnik and Sori (2015
:48) came to the same conclusion
saying that ‘‘populist leaders are highly present on line; they are keen users of the
Twitter and writers of blogs’’. Donald Trump, both during the electoral campaign
and after becoming President of the United States of America, represents a good
example of this way of making politics.
At last, it is important to mention that Benjamin De Cleen and Van Aelst
(2017:102) studied the relationship between mass media and populist parties
according to ‘‘two partly overlapping strands of analyses: populist parties and the
media, and the populism of the media’’. The final part of the sentence is clear.
Media is responsible for its own populism. A situation confirmed by
et al. (2003
:8) though considering that there exists a difference between the attitude
of elite media and popular media.16 A position that is far from consensual. On one
side, we can say that when the media cause emotions participating on the critics
against mainstream political parties and politicians accusing them of incompetence,
they are drawing a line between the elite and the real people, the basis of populism.
On the other side, we can consider that this role played by media only intends to
capture audience and that market hegemony is different of fighting for power
Nowadays, media are increasingly market-driven. Therefore, public interest is
replaced by the momentary interest of the public, the new designation of the citizen
in an evolutionary process in which public will give way to a broader concept—
audience. That is why
:218) says that audiences are no more seen as
citizens to inform but as consumers to attract. Political legitimacy is changing.
Some years ago, the discussion was between the ethic of conviction and the ethic of
responsibility. Now, a floating legitimacy is taking over. The evaluation is
permanent. More than direct or representative democracy, it is time to think about
deliberative democracy. A concept deeply worked by
16 Popular media use ‘‘to focus more obviously on the personality traits of political actors, on
entertainment values, or on the details of conflicts, rather at the level of gossip, than at the level of serious
This article tried to present populism deconstructing its myths as well as to show the
reality of populist parties and movements in the European Union, to get an answer
to the central issue, i.e., is populism a threat or a challenge to democracy? An
ambivalent question even considering that a threat can become an opportunity.
:149) said that the people that tend to protest in reactionary
societies usually dedicate their energy to activities such as higher studies and
liberal/professional occupations when living in democratic and relatively open
societies. However, this rule allows exceptions due to human nature, mainly when a
negative vision is presented.17 As
said, being neither angel nor animal
is being human. However, in spite of this double difference, humans suffer from the
limitations of the animal and dream as the angel. Or the devil, as History has often
proved to be true. As it is impossible to satisfy everybody when the protest becomes
commonplace, the gap between people and elite increases and it needs to be filled. It
is then that the differential logic is replaced by the equivalential one and populism
becomes more visible.
Therefore, our findings seem to lead us to conclude that democracy without
populism is almost an impossibility. There will be always reasons for fighting:
internal antagonisms, defence of an equivalential logic. On the other hand, populism
without democracy is not an inevitability but only a possibility as the measures
adopted by the ruling populist leaders, for instance in Hungary and Poland, prove.
In what concerns Belgium, De
Lange, and Akkerman (2012
:45) believe that ‘‘the
quality of the democratic process in Belgium does not seem to suffer greatly from
the emergence of populist parties’’, because ‘‘the negative effects that the
emergence of populist parties has had on liberal democracy are offset by positive
effects’’. What were those positive aspects? Just ‘‘an increase in the responsiveness
of the established parties, at least in the electoral arena, has to some extent
revitalized Belgian politics’’. A sentence denouncing that the performance of
traditional parties falls below citizens’ expectations and so populism can be seen as
an opportunity to democracy.
:195), influenced by Teilhard de Chardin,18 opined that
the international community was starting to obey to an increasing complexity
law, because, as the number of public and private decision centres was growing
(principle of dispersion), there would be a quantitative and qualitative developments
of relationship among them and this process leads to the institutionalization
of greater coordination (principle of convergence). The wrong way as European
Union deals with this prevision can also partially explain populist dynamics in the
community as the regional integration has been made without asking people’s
17 For example, St. Augustine identified three negative features in the human nature: cupidity, passion for
power, and sexual desire, and Thomas Hobbes identified three reasons for conflict: competition,
suspicion, and vanity. According to Hobbes, the man never stops, because he is afraid of losing what he
has already got.
18 The first Brazilian edition in 1975.
Is populism a shadow of democracy? Is democracy a populist shadow? Diamond
(2015:154) defends that ‘‘it is vital that democrats in the established democracies
not lose faith’’. Agreeing with this appeal, I believe that faith is necessary, but not
enough. The quality of the performance of the elected members has the final answer.
Jose´ Filipe Pinto is member of the International Academy of Portuguese Culture and full Professor,
Coordinator, and Senior Researcher in the Department of Political Science, Security and International
Relations of Lusophone University of Humanities and Technologies of Lisbon. He has a Ph.D. in
Sociology and Aggregation in Political Science. He was the Director of the courses of Master in
Diplomacy and International Relations, and of Master in Political Science, Citizenship and Governance
from July 2012 to July 2015. His research focuses on comparative political systems, leadership,
governance, globalization studies, Community of Portuguese Language Speaking Countries, International
Relations, and European Union. His most recent book, published in April 2017, is Populism and
democracy. Populist dynamics in the European Union.
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