Populism – Threat or opportunity?

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I recently attended a conference comparing the effects of the financial crisis for populism in 12 European countries. One of many debates regarded the role of populism in a democracy – is it a threat to liberal democracy or a productive force? Populism wants the general will of the people to be turned into political decisions as directly as possible, and is thus hostile towards the checks and balances of liberal democracy and expertise in government. By this simplistic view of how decisions should be made, it offers the people inflated promises which might prove difficult to keep in the long run. On the other hand, however, it can increase citizens’ interest, understanding and influence in politics – a good thing, for most believers in democracy.

So populism has its up- and downsides. However, it seems that context matters tremendously for which of them end up weighing more. Populism affects the functioning of democracy very differently in different democracies.

Greece, for example, has been ruled by populist parties, chiefly the left-wing PASOK and more recently the radical left SYRIZA pretty much since the advent of modern parliamentary democracy in the country in the 1970s, to the extent of being called a “populist democracy”. The particularity of Greek populism has been the advocation of unsustainable public spending. The percentage of Greece’s public debt of its GDP was over 60% already by the beginning of the 1990s – a number that’s now making the Finnish government panic to implement serious spending cuts. Greek debt kept increasing steadily, while nobody basically did nothing up until 2010, when the financial crisis hit with Greece’s debt of GDP at 130%, and we all know what happened next.

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Now, I’m not saying “public spending is populist and bad”, or “public debt shouldn’t exceed 60% of GDP“, but high public spending has to be backed by effective taxation in the long run. Without, it doesn’t take an economist to tell you it can’t go on forever. But the issue in Greek politics has for decades been one of clientelism – the voters of populist parties are promised extensive redistribution, e.g. money from the state coffers in exchange for their vote, combined with low taxation. Once a party like this achieves power, it’s nigh on impossible for a challenger preaching rational restraint to compete. Why would anyone vote for “less money for everyone”?

The situation is somewhat similar in Bulgaria, where the last decade has been one of populist rule, namely that of parties NDSV and GERB, with promises of stamping out corruption, improving employment and increasing wages. However, such promises have been tough to keep, and the final straw was the connection of GERB to a corruption scandal – which sometimes happens in politics, but is quite destructive for a party with campaigns based specifically on opposing corruption. Bulgaria is currently embroiled in mass street protests against the government.

However, the Finnish case is different. Finnish political culture can be considered the polar opposite of Greece, with political disputes typically considered as neutral issues where the most rational option should be chosen based on a careful assessment of facts. Instead of “the people” demanding what rightly belongs to it, against immoral elites, or heated moral battles over what is right, Finnish politics is largely viewed as “taking care of common issues”.

There are definite perks to this, like the stable political system that has managed to “get things done” as it has promised quite well, with scandals and crises a relatively rare occurrence. However, it is also a system where very few citizens are sincerely interested and active in politics. The “Big Three” parties, the Social Democrats, Centre Party and National Coalition, have increasingly converged politically, resembling one another more and more. Voter turnouts have declined since the 1960s and the word to use about the level of citizens’ political enthusiasm would be “apathy”.

In such a situation, maybe the perks of populism might outweigh the risks. The voter turnout in the 2011 general elections, where the populist Finns party shot from obscurity to being a serious challenger of mainstream parties, was higher than before. According to research, citizens’ interest in politics, especially that of young people, increased with the elections, (PDF, p. 289). You don’t have to agree with the Finns party’s policies to agree that Finnish politics has been electrified by the party in a way that it hasn’t seen before.

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Margaret Canovan writes about the “two faces of democracy”. On the one hand, democracy has a “redemptive face”. It provides experiences of emancipation and exaltation via participation. But on the other hand, democracy is also “pragmatic” – it is about “getting things done”, the everyday functioning of politics. She argues that whenever the gap between the pragmatic and the redemptive gets too wide, populism can wedge itself in. This is indeed the case in Finland. In the sea of grey and bureaucratic pragmatic democracy, the Finns party gives its supporters a taste of redemption in a way few Finnish political parties seem to be able to.

Another populism scholar, Paul Taggart, notes that populism has a “self-limiting” quality as well – because it’s based largely on protest but uses the official channels of parliamentary democracy, it has a tendency to die down fairly soon after achieving victories. You can’t be part of the political decision-making machinery and present yourself as a radical opponent to it at the same time.

If you combine Canovan’s and Taggart’s ideas, and add in the notion of context-specificity of populism, you’re left with a rather optimistic view of populism in stable polities like Finland: When it’s needed, it rises, shakes things up a bit, reconfigures the system to better suit the needs, and then self-destructs. Whether such optimism is warranted in the Finnish case remains to be seen. Meanwhile, let’s hope that instead of just condemning populism, parties and politicians opposed to the Finns party’s nationalism and conservatism learn something from its ability to mobilize voters through redemptive democracy. We could use a bit of redemption for the other end of the political spectrum as well.

In addition to the writers mentioned, this post is heavily influenced by Hanspeter Kriesi, Takis Pappas, Paris Aslanidis, Blagovesta Cholova and other participants of the conference on Democracy and Populism in Sofia, Bulgaria, 13.–14.9.2013.

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