Self-proclaimed populist challengers to the ‘establishment’ have taken hold in many European countries, but what lies behind the success of these parties? Werner Krause and Aiko Wagner show the reasons for voting for populist parties vary systematically with the degree of establishment of these parties. If citizens distrust national parliaments and believe the political mainstream is not responsive to their interests, then they may be more likely to support new populist parties. But established populist parties do not benefit from these attitudes.

Populist parties present themselves as regulating forces in the face of supposedly alienated modes of political decision- and policy-making. A central reason for the rise of these parties – so a corresponding widespread argument goes – is a growing discomfort of voters with the political elite, its responsiveness and the mechanisms of representation of liberal democracy. Populists are thus frequently identified as potential defenders of the will of the people in representative democracy.

From this perspective, one would expect that negative attitudes towards current mechanisms of representation are the lowest common denominator of populist parties’ supporters. Although previous studies at the European level have shown that low feelings of responsiveness are indeed a major reason for supporting populist parties, country-specific analyses show a greater variance in this question. While a lack of trust in the political elite is indeed important for some populist parties, for other populist parties, this effect cannot be observed.

One reason for the varying importance of anti-elite attitudes of populist voters might be the different degree of establishment of populist parties. Populist parties have repeatedly changed their strategies towards more established mainstream parties as a result of electoral successes. An example of this is the reorientation of the Danish radical right populists: When in 1995, the Danish People’s Party separated itself from the populist Progress Party, it was not primarily because of programmatic disputes but rather because of its strategic orientation. While the leadership of the Progress Party was in fundamental opposition to all established Danish parties, the newly founded Danish People’s Party was striving for stronger cooperation with the established non-populist parties in order to increase its influence on Danish politics.

External efficacy and the establishment of populist parties

In a recent study, we examine the question of whether the varying significance of critical attitudes toward the political elite for populist vote choice can be explained by the varying degrees of establishment of these parties. By “degrees of establishment” we mean the interplay of three factors: party age, electoral support, and government participation. If all three factors are present, we can speak of a fully established party. Figure 1 below illustrates the different values for all relevant populist parties active in Europe in 2014.

Figure 1: Degrees of establishment for populist parties in Europe (2014)

Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in Party Politics

We test whether and to what extent the support of populist parties depends on a lacking feeling of external efficacy, which here refers to the perceived openness of the political system to citizens’ concerns. In a first step, we estimate the effect of lacking feelings of external efficacy on support for 36 European populist parties individually. Afterwards, we compare these results and inspect whether the sizes of these effects vary with the different degrees of establishment of the corresponding populist parties. Figure 2 below shows this variation.

Figure 2: External efficacy and support for populist parties

Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in Party Politics

It can be seen that the effect sizes of lacking external efficacy decrease with higher levels of establishment of the populist parties: For non-established populist parties, feelings of external efficacy lead to increased support (positive effect parameter). For instance, in the case of less established parties in 2014 – such as the AfD in Germany, Podemos in Spain or the Sweden Democrats – the likelihood of supporting these parties increases if voters have low values regarding their external political efficacy. The more established a populist party is in the respective party system, however, the less it benefits from this lacking perception of efficacy. In the case of populist single-party governments (SMER in Slovakia and Fidesz in Hungary), the effect even becomes negative. This means that a lack of external efficacy can even have a negative effect on the support of these parties.

Populist parties not only differ from the rest of the European party universe with regard to their profound criticism of the elites and their demand for an immediate realisation of a “popular will”. They also proclaim more radical positions in their respective programmatic core areas, be it the emphatic demand for the redistribution of social wealth in the case of left-wing populist parties or anti-migration positions for right-wing populist parties.

Instead of investigating only the effects of lacking external efficacy, we go beyond the findings of our study and consider here also voters’ positions on specific policy issues and test whether the significance of these factors also varies with the degrees of establishment of populist parties. The left part of Figure 3 below shows the effect of radical issue positions on populist parties’ core issues on populist party support. For left-wing parties, these are positions regarding the redistribution of social wealth, and for right-wing parties, migration policy positions. In contrast to Figure 2 above, the regression line is almost horizontal and therefore does not suggest any significant effect. If we consider positions relating to the European Union (right part of the graph), the effect is reversed: For more established populist parties, critical attitudes towards the EU are more relevant than for non-established ones.

Figure 3: Radical issue positions (left) and EU-criticism (right)

Note: Compiled by the authors.

Less anti-establishment without positional moderation

The more populist parties become established players in their electoral arenas, the more their supporters will resemble those of mainstream parties, so some may hope. Such a finding would at the same time have a reassuring effect with regard to the question to what extent populist parties represent a corrective or a danger for the representative democracies of Europe: Including populist parties into governments and confronting them with the world of policy-making, would de-radicalise them and their supporters by forcing them to speak and deal with “the” political mainstream.

Our analysis shows, however, that this hope is ill-placed. The importance of some elite-critical attitudes indeed declines with increasing establishment of populist parties, which is plausible against the background that with increasing electoral success they themselves become part of the establishment they criticise. However, such an effect cannot be observed with regard to voters’ degree of radicalism on specific issue dimensions. These attitudes do not have the same moderating effect as anti-establishment attitudes. Increasing maturity of populist parties thus does not necessarily bring about a normalisation of their constituencies – voters of radical right populist parties remain fierce opponents of immigration and supporters of left-wing populist parties demand a substantial redistribution of wealth.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in Party Politics

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Werner Krause
Werner Krause has been a research fellow at the research unit “Democracy and Democratization” and the research project “Manifesto Research on Political Representation (MARPOR)”. He studied Social Sciences and History at the Humboldt University Berlin as well as in Mexico City (UNAM and CIDE) and New York (The New School for Social Research). He was also a visiting researcher at the University of Essex in 2018. His main research interests include political competition, radical and populist parties, comparative political behaviour and quantitative methods.

Aiko Wagner
Since 2009, Aiko Wagner has been a member of the Department “Democracy and Democratization” as part of the “German Longitudinal Election Study” (GLES). From 2019 to 2020 he is visiting professor at the Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Potsdam. His research and teaching focus on political attitudes and behaviour, representation, and political competition.

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