Written by Felice Valeria, edited by Tommaso Filippini
The rise of populism, especially the populist right, has emerged as a political trend and significantly contributed in shaping the political landscape in many Western European countries in the past decade. The Brexit referendum in 2016 and the doubling of support for France’s National Front are two examples of the influence exerted by the populist movements in the region. It can be seen that, in the last 55 years, votes for anti-establishment parties in Western European democracies have more than doubled (Bertoa & Caamano, 2017). This phenomenon also seems to be significantly exacerbated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders for refugees and asylum-seekers in 2015, which has triggered the rise of the anti-immigrant parties in Germany (e.g. Alternative for Germany – AfD) and has driven a crisis in the European Union.
The influence of populist parties in Western Europe, especially on the issue of immigration, has grown significantly. As countries with well-established democracies, it is questionable whether or not Western European states are vulnerable to the influence exerted by charismatic and authoritarian populist leaders, especially taking into account the fact that Western European democracies are considered more stable than those of Central and Eastern Europe, the majority of which has been established around 30 years ago, after the fall of the iron curtain. Nonetheless, it is also not impossible for the West to experience democratic deconsolidation in the near-future, due to the upsurge of populism (Sandford, 2017), which is claimed to have created new tensions among European countries, exerting pressure on democratic institutions, and changing the social and economic policies pursued by numerous countries (Institute for Global Change, 2017).
In general, establishing an exact definition of populism is deemed as impossible due to its ambivalence. However, according to Akkerman (2003), populism could be defined through several approaches, such as considering it as a radical, right-wing party, or deeming it a tool for political parties to gain advantages by not sacrificing constitutional democratic processes. Furthermore, populism could also be perceived as an ideology that focuses more on certain political, social and economic aspects, leaving other matters untouched. From its common core, according to Canovan (1999), populism means “an appeal to the people against both the established structures of power and the dominant ideas and values of society”, with supporters depicted as ‘legitimate’ and opponents ‘illegitimate’ (Institute for Global Change, 2017). Despite its ‘common analytical core’ (Panizza, 2005), populism emerged in two environments that are fundamentally different in terms of politics (Herman, 2012). Hence, the discourses in Western Europe (an area characterised by well-established democracies) and Eastern Europe (the theatre of post-communist countries/democracies) might also require different approaches.
According to Mudde (2004), the phenomenon of ‘populist Zeitgeist’ is currently taking place, in which both government/majority parties and their oppositions are incorporating populist features in their discourses. Since the 1990s, populism has occurred regularly in Western Europe, and it could emerge in all forms of a democratic system (Bryder, 2009). The causes of such emergence might vary. Panizza (2005) claims that populism would be more likely to emerge as a consequence of the failure of the institutional system to regulate political subjects within the economic, social, and political sphere with the aim of remaining stable. Panizza also argues that populism aims to “bridge the gap between representative and represented”, further distressing the connection between populism and representative democracy.
According to Meni and Surel (2002), the emergence of populism on the one hand and the personal perception of democracy on the other hand could also be caused by several political factors, such as the crisis of the structures of a political intermediation, the increasing role of media in daily life, and the personalization of political power. In a situation describable as ‘political malaise’, a lack of distrust and interest in politics, declining party membership, and an upsurge in the number of voters open to radical alternatives due to their de-aligned position can be observed (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008). Furthermore, the social factors could be the emergence of globalisation and post-modernisation, with the population compelled to adapt to drastically new social situations, such as the influx of immigrants from underdeveloped countries, the rise of unemployment, intensified integration of global markets, which might drive social exclusion and an identity crisis (Adolfo, 2005). This absence of horizontal ties among the people might also drive the reliance of individuals toward vertical ties (the ruling elites), in accordance with the mass theory developed by William Kornhauser, who suggests that those in a mass society “lack attachments to independent groups” (Kornhauser, 1959). Hence, the political narratives of the ruling elites or populist political parties, especially those concerning immigrants and other minority groups who are considered as ‘outsiders’, could easily give way to xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments of the natives toward the immigrants; it should also be considered that Western European populist rhetorics deem the ‘other’, whether it be immigrants or asylum seekers, as an invasive external threat that might endanger the people’s homogeneity (Herman, 2012).
Western European Democracies
25 years ago, liberal democracy had triumphed over Europe, in practice and principle. Nonetheless European democracies are currently facing a great number of external and internal challenges, including those from populist parties, claiming that liberal norms and policies might weaken democracy and harm the people. The economic and financial crisis that started in late 2007 represented economic failure, followed by the inability of political leaders to deal with it and its social consequences. This in turn led to an upsurge in populism, which also threatened the EU and endangered liberal democratic governance. Consequently, political actors began to question liberal-democratic values, such as minority rights, the freedom of press, and the rule of law due to the populist insurgence across Western Europe (Galston, 2018).
In Western European countries, liberal democracy has become a political identity, especially since the 1970s. Nonetheless, starting from 2006, democratic erosion could be observed across Europe, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in 2017, due to the rise of populism. A steep decline in democratic political participation, trust, and tolerance could also be seen. However,, the populist discourses of Western Europe should not be compared with and should be distinguished from those in Eastern and Central European states,due to their status as post-communist societies, which are more likely to be vulnerable to the resurgence of populism than the West because of the high sense of anti-elitist and anti-political sentiments, which is derived from communism (Mudde, 2002).
Currently, the erosion of liberal democracy in the West has reached a critical proportion, which might be caused by the perceived threat towards the socioeconomic status of the people. The political rhetoric thrown out by the populists, mainly focused on immigration issues, as well as the decline of individual rights (especially minority groups), has significantly questioned the liberal values of political parties that the West upheld. Hence, the question is whether or not it is the democracy in general that is threatened, or the ‘liberal democracy’ that is challenged by the uprising of populism through the notion of ‘illiberal democracy’, as despite the uprising of populism, democratic political culture in Western European countries is still implemented, such as the election of parliament and executive, which might be considered as representing the voice of ‘the people’.
The Effects of the Rise of Populism toward Western European Democracies
The rise of populism in Western European countries seems to not really challenge their ‘pure’ democracies. Instead, the phenomenon might further challenge the liberal aspect of democracy, or, in other words, distressing ‘illiberal democracy’, as proposed by Fareed Zakariahas. According to Mudde (2004), in the most extreme interpretation, populism rejects every constraint on the expression of popular will, such as the independence of institutions and minority rights. It could be argued that the real threat towards liberal democracy in Western Europe is the rise of illiberal democracy promoted by the populists. Those charismatic authoritarian political figures might claim they represent the interests of the people, which may be considered as a democratic practice despite violating liberal norms that rely upon the promotion of individual rights and freedom. Illiberal democracy itself could be defined as “a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems” (Galston, 2018).
The upsurge of populism could also enhance the presence of illiberal democracies by growing the sense of xenophobia and racism among the people, as political parties could influence and shape the public’s opinions, especially on immigrants. Through their political narratives, they could also gain more support and electoral votes from the public due to their power and influence at the upper hierarchical position as the ‘ruling elites’; an example of this could be AfD in Germany, an anti-immigrant political party that has significantly evolved over the past ten years This phenomenon could thus threaten the very essence of liberal democracy due to the neglection of immigrants’ rights. Furthermore, the parties’ tendency towards an anti-pluralistic ideology could also threaten the very essence of a democratic system.
In democratic competitions, such as in elections, it is in the interests of the leaders of political parties to obtain and distribute the information that might make up the mind of the voters, which would later vote in accordance with democratic procedures. Nonetheless, the lack of accountability of the parties in providing necessary and reliable information for the voters is not in accordance with the very essence of a democratic political culture, in which citizens (majority rule) should ensure the accountability of the government or those in power (Pasquino, 2008), as there is an antagonistic and exclusionary relationship between the two groups emerging in the society, the ‘ruling elites’ and the ‘common people’.
It can be seen that the main problematic outcome of the surge in support to populism in Western Europe is weakening those liberal values that go hand in hand with the democratic principles that the West has highly upheld ever since the end of the Second World War. ‘Illiberal democracy’, as what the populists have promoted and demonstrated, has taken place in the political discourses of the West. Despite the democratic political culture and procedures that are still guaranteed, many individuals or groups, particularly immigrants, see their rights and freedoms challenged, due to the growing anti-immigrant sentiments; liberal values highly emphasise individual rights and freedoms. Moreover, democratic competitions among populist political parties have also further driven anti-immigrant sentiments by voicing out numerous political narratives regarding the issue. Their electoral gains have been considerably high, indicating a rise of xenophobia in Western Europe caused by populism, especially by the fact that the antagonistic gap between the ‘ruling elites’ and ‘common people’ is considerably wide. The notion of ‘illiberal democracy’ is the main problem resulting from the rise of right-wing populism in Western Europe.
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