Populism – Threat or Necessity?

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch populist party, Partij voor de Vrijheid

It is an undeniable fact that the rise of populist parties – often radical ones, and commonly right wing – can be observed throughout Europe, creating cause for concern among many about the state of European party politics. Populist parties tend to be single issue parties, pushing questions which have not been prominent in the politics of mainstream parties. They thrive on strong leadership which allows voters to identify with the individual leader rather than with an ideology as a whole; an appealing alternative for many people today when the growing market-economy and rapidly changing society have upset many of the traditional structures that attracted voters to mass-parties with clear and distinct all-encompassing ideologies during much of the 20th century.

As the appeal of mass-parties started to decline, mainstream parties began to change their approach to attracting voters, pursuing an increasingly diverse voting-body rather than focusing on people of specific social classes or walks of life. As a result of this, the policies of established parties have converged considerably over the past few decades making the choice of different policies much less clear to the electorate. The role of the political party has shifted from one of representing the population in the government to the the point where they almost fill an entirely opposite function – representing the government in society. Considering this as well as the low and decreasing trust in political parties it is perhaps not a wonder that populist parties, which offer alternative policy-options and a strong criticism of the current function and structure of government, gain popularity. However, it can be questioned whether this is so entirely a negative thing as it is often seen to be.

The policies of established parties have converged considerably over the past few decades making the choice of different policies much less clear to the electorate

Populist parties have had various degrees of success in different countries, depending on several factors. The electoral structure, for example, has a significant impact on the possibility for minor parties to gain any kind of influence. The use of proportional representation in the Netherlands allowed Pim Fortyun’s party Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) to become part of the coalition government in 2002 in an election only three months after it was founded, and Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) has similarly had significant successes in the elections since then, most recently receiving 10.1% in the parliamentary election 2010. In contrast the UK Independence Party (UKIP), though they received 12.6% in the 2012 election, only secured one seat due to the single member plurality system of representation in the UK.

Perhaps most important, however, is the response of mainstream parties to the challenge of populist parties; how they handle the situation can have a serious impact on both their own continued success and the possibility for growth of populist parties. One strategy is to regain the interest of the electorate, and some mainstream parties have attempted to do this by emulating certain features of populist parties that make them appealing. An example of this is the reinvention of the British Labour Party into New Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s, and arguably another reinvention more recently under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

A more direct way to face the challenge populist parties pose, however, is to make a stand in the issues that the new, single-issue parties raise. As long as the issue is not so radical as to alienate large parts of the electorate, mainstream parties have a good chance to take ownership of new issues raised; their established status and greater access to resources ensures both that they can reach a larger part of the electorate, and that their actions are taken more seriously. The comparatively high amount of accommodation for anti-EU sentiments in the British conservative party has likely been a contributing factor to the low percentage of votes UKIP has received in elections until relatively recently (their results increased more than 9% between 2010 and 2015). The mere fact that an EU-referendum is due to take place in the UK later this year is also an indicator of the acceptance of the critical opinions among the electorate. This can be contrasted with other countries. In Sweden, for example, none of the mainstream parties have been willing to accommodate in a significant way for the opinions voiced by the most successful populist party, the Sweden Democrats, which received more than 12% in the previous election, and became the third largest party.

As long as the issue is not so radical as to alienate large parts of the electorate, mainstream parties have a good chance to take ownership of new issues raised

The impact of populism can be observed in the US as well, through the alarming amount of support that has rallied Donald Trump’s cause. While European style multi-party systems allow for the rise of specific populist parties, the strongly established two-party system in the US has caused populist sentiments to arise within the already existing framework of the Republican party.

Many variations of populist politics may appear threatening, both to society and to the current state of party-politics, but it may in fact be a necessary addition to it. The mere fact that politics and parties of this kind have been allowed to proliferate (both rise to prominence, and remain influential) indicates that there is something fundamental missing in the current party system. Populism can be dangerous and extreme, but perhaps a necessary wake-up call for mainstream parties. An indicator of what is lacking in the current system, and a push for mainstream parties to alter their role once again, to fit the wishes of the electorate on whom they are after all still dependent for legitimacy.


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