Populism in Europe - a comparative study of 9 populist parties


 “Populism in Europe” is a FES project comparatively examining European far-right political parties in cooperation with an international team of academics with expertise in party politics and the analysis of the right-wing phenomenon. The primary goal of this comparative project is to enquire into the internal ‘supply-side’ framework and measure the populist attitudes of the far-right family’s main party representatives in eight countries: Germany, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France, Sweden, and Spain, as well as to identify their socio-economic orientation in terms of policymaking. The focus on the internal ‘supply-side’ context offers an opportunity to draw inferences regarding the existence of convergencies among far-right parties along policy dimensions that have been significantly determining the structures of political competition across contemporary European party systems.

The construction of the two-dimensional maps of aggregate party positions is based on a twofold methodology. More specifically, the academic team suggested the clusters of policy issues that are associated with economic policy and populist attitudes respectively. The placements of far-right parties along the aggregate economic dimension as well as the economic regulation and wealth redistribution sub-dimensions were derived from official party sources, while an expert survey was conducted with the purpose of establishing the parties’ positions on the vertical populist vs. non-populist axis. Parties were positioned on every single policy issue using a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (completely disagree) to 5 (completely agree).

Figure 1 portrays the aggregate positions of far-right parties on the horizontal left-right economic dimension and the vertical populist vs. non-populist dimension, while Figures 2 and 3 display their positions on the economic regulation and wealth redistribution sub-dimensions, respectively, as a means of providing a more in-depth understanding regarding the fundamental components that constitute far-right parties’ economic agenda. The aggregate two-dimensional map (Figure 1) indicates that the element of populism plays a key role within the ideological dispositions of the far-right party family. The parties are positioned near each other within the populist pole, reflecting a remarkable convergence vis-à-vis their viewpoints on the vertical populist vs. non-populist axis. Far-right parties are studded with a populist narrative and prioritize the ethno-centric conception of ‘people’s interests’ against the ‘vile elites’ aimed at achieving the ethic and socio-cultural isolation of the nation-state.

Regarding their aggregate positions along the horizontal left-right dimension, far-right parties are characterized by heterogeneous socio-economic policy stances. More specifically, most of the parties fall into the right side of the left-right dimension, given their predominantly pro-market socio-economic agenda. Rassemblement National (RN) has an incoherent economic profile due to its positioning in the centre of the horizontal axis, meaning that the party ascribes to both left- and right-wing economic policy propositions. On the other hand, Greek Solution (EL) and The National Popular Party (ELAM) have a left-wing orientation, being in favour of economic interventionism and social protectionism in accordance with the principle of ‘welfare chauvinism’, where the ethnic majority of the population is subjected to privileged treatment compared to minorities. Figure 2 reveals that the aggregate party positions along the horizontal dimension are rather similar, when their stances relating to economic regulation exclusively are considered. However, there are notable differentiations between far-right parties when it comes to their positions regarding redistribution policies (Figure 3), associated with social protectionism and welfare issues. The findings show that Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Lega and Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) do not have a purely pro-market profile, as they converge towards more centrist aggregate positions, while Vox and Chega, as well as ELAM and The Sweden Democrats SD appertain to the right-wing and left-wing side of the wealth redistribution axis respectively. Far-right parties tend to adopt a ‘chameleonic’ strategy, tactically readjusting their economic policymaking propositions by taking into consideration the circumstantial political context. Most of the parties espouse a blurred economic profile which is comprised of contrasting viewpoints with either a left-wing or right-wing slant, aiming at the expansion of their cross-class coalition of electoral support. Notwithstanding, far-right parties are surrounded by a solid and converging policy agenda based on their central ideological motifs pertaining to a culturally ‘exclusionary’ orientation complemented by the cultivation of an anti-establishment narrative as well as the advocacy of direct-democratic decision-making procedures.

Written by Jenny Mavropoulou, Centre for Political Research, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences

How Were the Graphs Created?

The graphs show the position of political parties in Europe in a two-dimensional political space, based on stances regarding 37 issues pertaining to populism and economic policy. The statements were selected by an international team of academics with expertise on populism and party politics. Each issue statement is framed in such a manner that it relates to the economic left-right dimension or the non-populist - populist dichotomy. The horizontal axis represents the economic dimension, differentiating political parties on policy issues related to state intervention in the economy, redistribution, taxation policy and the welfare state. The vertical axis addresses populist issues relating to the popular will, black-and-white thinking and scepticism in science.

Parties were positioned on the issues with a 5-point scale ranging from “completely disagree”, “disagree”, “neutral”, “agree” to “completely agree”. We use expert survey data to determine the positions of political parties on the vertical axis. On the horizontal axis, hand-coded justifications, derived from official party sources are used to determine the party positions.

The main spatial map (Figure 1) is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions. The precise party position is located in the centre of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both populist and non-populist statements have a lengthier ellipse on the populist – non-populist axis. More specifically, the broadness of an ellipsis refers to the spread on the left and right dimension whereas the height is the result of variation on the populism axis.

Figure 2 and Figure 3 follow the same methodology, albeit with a different selection of statements: in Figure 2, party positions on the left-right dimension are based solely on statements that pertain to policies related to economic regulation, while in Figure 3 party positions on the left-right dimension are solely based on statements that pertain to wealth redistribution. This allows for comparing the aggregate positions of parties on the two aforementioned economic sub-dimensions. Obviously, important differences emerge, that would enable a better understanding of the economic stances of European far-right populist parties. It is clear that most of these parties are more inclined to support wealth redistribution while opposing economic regulation. Notable exception include RN and Chega: while RN’s position moves to the right when redistribution is concerned, the one of Chega does not change. All other parties are at least somewhat supportive of redistribution – a position more vocally adopted in the 21st century, after it has become clear that the majority of far right voters belong to the more precarious and economically disadvantaged strata of the population. The comparison of Figure 2 and Figure 3 reveals what the current economic profile of most far-right populist parties is: while advocating for a more generous welfare provision (often reserved for nationals only), they maintain a business friendly character. This seemingly incompatible symbiosis of two economic strategies has apparently allowed the far-right to appeal to broader segments of the population than simply voters on the ideological fringe.

Populist versus Non-Populist

The vertical axis measures whether parties are populist or non-populist. Political science defines populism as a set of ideas that divides politics and society into two camps. Populists speak in the name of the “good” ordinary people and offer common-sense solutions. They claim to be the sole representative of “the people”, protecting them from the “bad” establishment - a powerful elite that controls the state. In general, populism denotes a political vision and rhetoric that emphasizes popular sovereignty and the relevance of the popular will over the rights and freedoms of individuals. Populist politicians do not see the people they represent as individual and autonomous citizens but as a like-minded entity. They portray established political parties as divisive instruments of corrupt politicians and privileged elitist interests. Populists prefer majoritarian decision-making, to the complex checks and balances of liberal democracy, and regard pacts and political negotiations as forms of corruption and impediments to the expression of popular will. They often favor a “personalization of people’s will”, where a strong political leader projects the interests of the people, unmediated by professional politicians or bureaucrats.

Different aspects of populism are considered in the vertical axis: people-centrism (championing the ordinary people), anti-elitism (general criticism against the elite, including the EU), black-and-white thinking (dividing society into good and evil) and complexity of politics (proposing simple solutions to complex problems). First, populists see the common (homogeneous) people as the driver of political decisions through instruments of direct democracy, such as referendums (people centrism). Secondly, populists adhere to a strong anti-elitism, in the sense that they invariably perceive established politicians as a corrupt elite serving outsider interests. The third aspect of populism - black-and-white thinking - denotes a binary way of thinking: for populists, politics is a constant struggle between good and evil, where populists and the policies they propose are always positive, while their political opponents are demonized. Populists are also hostile towards outsiders, such as ethnic and/or religious minorities, immigrant groups or other ‘outsiders’ who stand in contrast to the homogeneous people. Finally, populists believe that decision making should be guided by common sense solution. Populists do not think that politics is complex and are therefore rather sceptical of scientific evidence and expert opinions.

Left versus Right

The horizontal axis measures divisions pertaining to the traditional debate between ‘the left’ and ‘the right’. This axis contains statements that distinguish between support for wealth redistribution, state regulation, egalitarianism, collective wellbeing, and generous welfare provision on the one hand, and meritocracy, individualism, freedom of choice and personal responsibility on the other. Parties on the left side of the axis are in favor of a government with more responsibilities. They believe that the government should not only manage, but also distribute wealth, provide generous welfare, and expand social security as a means of achieving a just society. Parties on the right side of the axis, on the other hand tend to be proponents of a free-market economic policy, where the government has mainly administrative functions and does not intervene in economic affairs. Such parties are often opposed to higher taxes and wealth redistribution and emphasize individual responsibility and competition when it comes to personal well-being. Parties on the right believe that the government should intervene in economic affairs as little as possible.

Welfare egalitarianism versus Welfare chauvinism

By introducing an additional dimension measuring welfare chauvinism, it is possible to make a differentiation between parties who are genuinely in favour of redistribution and egalitarianism, and those who are only concerned with their own (ethnic) ingroup (figure 3a). Making this distinction is crucial, since right-wing populist parties often adopt economic stances which resemble those of the (centre) left. Therefore, a closer look is necessary to avoid focusing on the purely economic dimension of political competition which could make far-right populists inaccurately appear economically left-wing. While in some cases this may be true, it is only valid when it comes to policies targeting the native population. Therefore, it is important to reveal the deeper lying elements of the far-right policy proposals. Using a purely economic dimension to position populist parties is rather reductionist since it does not account for their exclusionary proposals. Introducing this additional dimension makes it clear that even though some populist parties appear to be economically left-wing, their policy proposals are not universalist, but rather ethno-centric.

The 9 populist parties

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) - Germany

Chega - Portugal

Greek Solution (EL) - Greece

The National Popular Party (ELAM) - Cyprus

Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) - Italy

Lega (League) - Italy

Rassemblement National - France

The Sweden Democrats - Sweden

Vox - Spain


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André Krouwel
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Yordan Kutiyski
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