Rise of populism in Europe 'a real threat to democracy'

A Polish supporter of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Budapest, 2012
A Polish supporter of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Budapest, 2012 Copyright REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Copyright REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
By Alasdair Sandford
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Tony Blair's think-tank says a populist belt has taken hold from the Baltic to the Aegean and threatens the whole of Europe.


A “blue wave” of populism has taken hold in large parts of Europe and in some cases is posing a dangerous threat to democracy. So say the US-based authors of a major study of the phenomenon in European politics since the start of the millennium.

The report by Tony Blair’s think-tank concludes that far from having peaked, populism is set to gain strength in Europe – and populist parties have “taken over the levers of government” in many countries.

The former UK prime minister’s Institute for Global Change bases its analysis on data tracking the electoral results of 102 populist parties in 39 European countries between 2000 and 2017.

"The rise of the populists, we argue, has already changed the social and economic policies pursued by many countries; created new tensions between nation-states within Europe; and begun to put pressure on democratic institutions in a variety of countries that had once been seen as consolidated democracies," the report’s summary says.

What is populism?

The report says populism can take root across the political spectrum, including both far-right and far-left. Its authors say it draws a “sharp distinction between friend and enemy”, with supporters portrayed as “legitimate” and opponents “illegitimate”. Parties and politicians go further than simply denouncing injustice or corruption: they invariably claim to represent “the people” against elites, immigrants, or some other minority – and have a fondness for referendums.

Nearly three-quarters of European populist parties are on the right (74 out of 102), says the study. However, left-wing populism has been strongest in the debtor nations of Southern Europe, and in Lithuania (as part of a governing coalition).

Central and Eastern Europe: ‘an unprecedented populist belt’

“Populists are strongest in Eastern Europe,” the report says, defining the area as stretching from Poland to Macedonia. They have taken power in seven countries - Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia - and are junior coalition partners in two more. One of the report’s authors, Yascha Mounk, tweeted that “you can now drive from the Baltic all the way to the Aegean without ever leaving a country governed by populists”.

The political right has the strongest presence, with parties like Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party and Hungary’s Fidesz promoting “a nationalism based on soil, blood or culture”. These two countries have “quickly started to dismantle key democratic institutions like the free media and an independent judiciary,” the study says.

The populists’ share of the vote has tripled over the past two decades, reaching over 30 percent on average in 2017 – and the number of populist parties standing for election has more than doubled. So striking is the change that even the main rivals to populist governments are themselves often populist.

The West and the North: ‘significant gains’

The populists’ average 13 percent share of the vote in Western Europe is four percent more than in 2000. They have a foothold in power in Austria and Switzerland. But while far less dominant than in the East, the gains made by the likes of Marine Le Pen in France and Alternative for Germany (AfD) are highlighted.

Significantly, the rising far-right influence has pushed many centre-right parties to adopt more extreme positions on issues including immigration, the report says. Moderate parties are finding it harder to form traditional coalitions.

Right wing populists have won increasing shares of the vote in Denmark and Sweden, with populists represented in government in Finland and Norway. Their influence on issues like immigration has grown, and has been felt most in the Baltic states where they’ve regularly shared power in government.

Southern Europe: economic battleground

Populist parties in Southern Europe tend to be left-leaning, boosted by the Eurozone crisis and austerity politics. The report singles out Greece, where Syriza is in power, and Spain, where Podemos forms the bedrock of the opposition. Left-populism has made significant inroads in France, where Jean-Luc Melenchon came close to qualifying for the presidential run-off, and in Britain under the Labour opposition.

In Italy, the study casts the Five Star Movement as neither right nor left, having become more anti-immigrant in its challenge to the political and economic establishment.


However, Blair’s institute says that overall in Europe, left-wing populism remains relatively marginal and – apart from in Greece and Lithuania – barely holds any power.

Populism in action: ‘a threat to democracy’

Anti-European Union, anti-immigration, protectionist… populist parties have already shifted the mainstream into more nationalistic directions, says the report, without violating democratic norms.

However, many populist parties – including some that have been in power – espouse “deeply illiberal” policies that use public support to undermine the rule of law and violate minority rights. “They can pose a real threat to democracy itself,” it argues.

Hungary is singled out as a striking example, its government accused of descending into “quasi-authoritarianism”, packing courts and electoral commissions with loyalists, and attacking independent media and universities. Even future free and fair elections are in doubt, the study says.


Polish democracy is also described as “looking much more brittle” than it was, with its new government criticised for “undermining the separation of powers” with its judicial reforms.

A darker future?

The institute argues that populism is far from being on the wane, with more electoral gains likely. The presence of Austria’s Freedom Party in government is cited. Restrictions on migration and access to welfare could be replicated elsewhere, the report says, as European politics moves towards more nationalism and protectionism. Finland, Estonia, Denmark and Norway have seen policy changes under populist influence.

While such a scenario is described as a potential “new normal”, the picture in Eastern Europe suggests that “a decidedly darker future remains possible as well”. In Hungary and Poland, populists are accused of having “destroyed” democratic institutions.

The report finds worrying signs that right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe have started to mimic the “overtly authoritarian rhetoric” of their Eastern European counterparts, with attacks on parliaments, the press and the judiciary.


If “populism’s corrosive effects” are restricted to the new democracies in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the study concludes that the gap between East and West will continue to grow. However, it warns that countries in Western and Northern Europe – including the like of Germany and Sweden – are not immune from a potential “process of democratic deconsolidation” if the populist surge continues.

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