Charismatic leaders winning votes with simple answers to complex problems


As the continent’s political establishment converges in the centre ground, policy gaps are being filled by opportunistic parties

THERE ARE two things Finnish populist Timo Soini pulls out at every public appearance: his blue and white Millwall FC scarf and his favourite slogan: kansa tietää – the people know.

On April 17th almost a fifth of Finnish voters gave their mandate to Soini’s True Finns party and, though the party finished third, it was the real election winner after a barnstorming campaign against euro zone bailouts and immigration.

Ask Soini how his party doubled its support in a year and he will tell you simply and openly: populism. And what does that mean exactly? “The case of the little man is very important,” he tells The Irish Times. “The little men and women are fighting back and what else do they have but their voice?” The True Finns party is about to join a growing list of populist, Eurosceptic parties that have shared office or supported governments in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Poland and Italy. This success shows no sign of abating and prompts the question: has populism in Europe gone mainstream?

“We are definitely dealing with a new wave of populists with smart leaders who are more elegant in their tactics and more flexible in their approach than old populists like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen,” says Dr Kai-Olaf Lang, an expert on populism with the SWP think tank in Berlin.

The problem with populism is the term itself. Notoriously slippery to define, it is generally agreed that populism has its modern political origins in the People’s Party, founded in 1892 as a third political force in the US to represent the interests of mid-western farmers. Since it came into common use in Europe in the 1980s, some analysts have defined it as an umbrella under which parties with common, popular political policies can be gathered. Others suggest that populism is merely a method of political agitation.

Established political parties are happy to exploit this fuzziness of definition, branding as populist all unwelcome pretenders.

Europe’s populist parties range from the openly racist Jobbik, a self-styled “movement for a better Hungary”, to parties such as the True Finns, who tolerate racism in their ranks. There are the national conservatives with ultra-Catholic and anti-Semitic streaks, such as Poland’s Law and Justice, and a collection of anti-Roma parties in the Baltic countries.

Despite their differences, all draw from a common playbook, adding their own local spice. A populist party assumes the right to represent what it sees as a suffering, silent group, lending a listening ear and delivering simple answers to complex problems.

Tools of the trade include shattering a perceived consensus and the creation of a permanent crisis by a continual process of taboo-breaking and provocation. Binning political correctness in favour of “plain speaking” is the bread and butter of modern populism.

All populist parties can be placed somewhere on two axes. On a vertical axis the populist party joins – uninvited – the “people” at the bottom against the “elite” up top. Every populist party defines its own enemy elite, from the Lega Nord’s nomenclatura to Law and Justice’s uklad – ex-communists still supposedly pulling strings in modern Poland.

On a horizontal axis, populist parties function like a club: on one side their homogeneous members and on the other, those who do not belong, excluded.

This is often framed in nationalist terms with a vision of a simpler, better time when the country was free from outside influences. This nationalist us-and-them axis can work well even in countries of relatively low immigration, such as Finland (3.9 per cent of the population) where the True Finns targeted immigrants and the Swedish-speaking minority as a threat to Finnish culture, traditions and identity.

“The True Finns foment and cultivate nostalgic reactionarism based on a revisionist history of a Finland that never was,” says Ann-Cathrine Jungar, associate professor at the Baltic and East European Graduate School.

THE COMMON DENOMINATORof all populist parties is a charismatic leader. Timo Soini won the most votes of all Finnish politicians by making a shambling show of his ordinariness, summed up in his expression, “I know the suburbs”.

This personality cult cannot function without the media: while the new, social media has been vital to boosting the profile of smaller, populist parties – everyone is equal on Twitter – the classic mass media is vital for amplifying simplistic, populist messages that journalists find impossible to resist.

After falling into disarray post-1989, analysts have spotted a regrouping in populist camps. The far left has repackaged socialism and communism by embedding them in calls for social justice in an age of globalisation. The modern far right, meanwhile, offers orientation for those lost in modern society.

Most interesting is the shift from the so-called “hard” populism of the BNP or France’s Front National to the “soft” populism of the True Finns and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ). What sets these modern populists apart is their ideological agility: as larger, established parties drift to the political centre in search of votes, Europe’s new “soft” populists dive opportunistically into policy gaps. “Their populism allows them to update their demands in step with those who fear globalisation, immigration and liberalised economies,” writes Florence-based researcher Angelos-Stylianos Chryssogelos in a paper on populism for the Centre for European Studies. “They may oppose aspects of modern society but they are not anti-modern per se. They engage in modern politics as efficiently as anyone and their leaders are masters of the media game.”

Austria’s Jörg Haider was an early mainstream example of this new ideological adaptability; today’s best example is Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. A decade after the late Pim Fortuyn dumped the Dutch liberal consensus, Wilders’s flaming anti-Muslim campaigns appear to align him with the far right, yet he distances himself from the racist BNP. Meanwhile, in last year’s election he backed the opposition to raising the retirement age, a classic left-wing theme.

What’s interesting is that Europe’s new populists are not simply scooping up disaffected voters as before. “They are appealing to the middle classes now, people afraid of losing their standing in society if they have to keep paying for others,” says Dr Florian Hartleb, editor of the book Populism in Modern Democracy. Voters used to letting off steam in second-rung elections – local and European polls – are now using national elections to vent their frustrations with the political establishment.

This was the key to the True Finns’ success, in which the party amplified a fatigue with the pro-EU establishment and fear of globalisation and channelled them into resentment of bailouts and Brussels. Like many soft populists, the True Finns question the euro zone and EU but don’t call for an exit. Instead, the euro zone crisis has offered populist parties a wedge to prise apart the political parties and insert themselves into the debate. It has also provided a scapegoat – essential to all successful populist campaigns. The return of the “lazy Greeks” shows there are still votes to be had with the old reliables of racism and xenophobia.

Such attitudes have coloured anti-immigration campaigns in all Nordic countries. Populist parties were the winners as economic pressures – home-made and globalisation-related – weakened the Nordic social model and its supporting social consensus. Supporters of the populist Dansk Folkeparti say their successful push for tighter migration laws shattered a stale status quo that was widely abused; critics say the party swapped Denmark’s liberal and tolerant tradition for a populist, racist consensus – with all political parties now playing along.

Fears of terrorism and ignorance of Islam have been conflated into a blanket fear of Muslims which has been the common thread running through many recent populist successes: from the Sweden Democrats and the Dutch Freedom Party to Italy’s Lega Nord. A leading True Finn MP was convicted of hate crimes for linking Islam to paedophilia; Austria’s FPÖ returned to form with the campaign slogan Daham statt Islam – home rather than Islam. “Racism, in its many incarnations, is still at the heart of the populist parties’ agenda, although it varies across Europe,” says Lisa Bjurwald, Swedish author of Europe’s Shame: Racists on the Rise. “In Eastern and Central Europe, hatred towards the ‘internal enemies’ – Jews and Roma – have proven to be a recipe for political success, while the hostility towards Muslims and immigrants dominates in the West.”

Norwegian political scientist Elisabeth Ivarsflaten has claimed that the key for populist parties anxious to clear a 5 per cent threshold is to “mobilise grievances over immigration better than all major parties”.

Thus the energy with which populists have pounced on the pressures facing the Schengen border agreement. Senior EU officials have complained that Italy’s Lega Nord interior minister Roberto Maroni of using the Lampedusa situation for electoral ends.

Meanwhile, attempts by Tunisian migrants to join friends and family in France have further boosted National Front leader Marine Le Pen. As a result, President Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a populist line on migration and other social issues. “Populism is not just for the populists anymore: even the BNP claims that David Cameron has stolen its ideas,” says Bjurwald.

WHERE IS THIS ALL GOING?The experts warn against hysteria: populist parties, once in parliament or power, have a track record of engineering their own collapse. Attempts at pan-Europe co-operation usually fail thanks to policy differences and outsized egos.

But analysts say the continent’s political establishment should not underestimate voter frustration at current EU crises – nor the determination of Europe’s new populists to play a double game to both fan the frustration and profit from the aggravated crisis.

Europe’s new populist wave is thriving precisely in complex yet vital areas of politics where voters feel left in the dark by national governments and EU institutions. “As unpleasant as it may be, populism has an important function – putting topics on the agenda where mainstream parties have been asleep on the job,” says Dr Lang of the SWP. “Populism can have something useful if it forces the EU to explain itself.”

The challenge for Europe’s political parties is to resist the temptation to debase political discussion to populist levels while doing something they have been unwilling or unable to do: start a debate explaining their decisions and, in particular, underlining the tangible benefits of EU and euro zone membership, particularly in times of crisis. As the late Ralf Dahrendorf warned in 2007: “The accusation of populism may be populist in itself, a demagogic substitute for real arguments.”


One of the most important living conditions for a populist party is to blatantly stand out from the other parties A populist leader is always eminent in political rhetoric and language. He is a folksy person that is easy to relate to. For populists, the voice of the people is the voice of God. Populism is about hearing the inner voice. Populism is at the same time both a call for help and the voice of the nation



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