The Rise of the Populist Left and Right

An opinion poll published on Sunday showed that “Podemos”, a new left-wing populist party, had emerged as the largest political party in Spain with nearly 28% of voters supporting the party. Similarly, Irish opinion polls have shown Sinn Fein conquering the top spot ahead of the traditionally dominant Fianna Fail and Fine Gail.

Obviously, Denmark isn’t Spain or Ireland which both saw massive employment and growth crises following the financial crises, but the country has been severely hit by the fall-out of the 2007-08 Financial Crisis and basically economic growth and employment has been flat for the past 5-6 years. So it is perhaps less surprising that parties outside the established centre have won support with the Danish People’s Party competing with the Social Democrats for second place and the Red-Green Alliance enjoying record levels of support?

“Populism” is a tricky concept – do voters support a party like DPP because of the leader’s charisma, because of the party’s stance on immigration and the European Union or because of a general feeling of unease about the development of the Danish economy and society? (Something similar could be said for the RGA). Still, even in a stable democracy like Denmark we may be witnessing the effects of some very deep forces and concerns unleashed by social and economic changes (eg. globalisation) and crises (eg. the financial crises) and not addressed by the traditionally governing parties who have worked on the assumption that problem-solving and administrative competence would be sufficient to mobilise voters.

From Kjærsgaard to Thulesen Dahl

Pia Kjærsgaard’s announcement that she will be resigning as chairman of the Danish People’s Party with Kristian Thulesen Dahl as her chosen successor was hardly surprising: The question was more when rather than if this change would happen. Even if DPP in particular appeals to older voters – something which sets the party apart from the typical “angry young un-educated man” of right-wing populist parties – her age (she is 65) would begin to show in the coming terms and a change during the autumn would give the party a chance to profile Thulesen Dahl in the run-up to an election which could come during 2013 or 2014.

Most of the comments have focussed on the perceived differences between Kjærsgaard’s and Thulesen Dahl’s background and style: Kjærsgaard has a lower middle-class background while Thulesen Dahl’s parents were teachers, Kjærsgaard was trained as an office worker while Thulesen Dahl has a university degree in business economics and while Kjærsgaard was seen as a politician with an emotional style, Thulesen Dahl is seen as the negotiator with a strong grasp on policy details. All in all, a woman of the people is replaced by a man of the parliament and this raises some questions about the future direction of the DPP. Or so we are told.

The reality is more complicated. First of all, Kjærsgaard was always concerned with turning the anarchic and often dysfunctional Progress Party into an effective parliamentary and membership organisation. Even if the PP continued to attract votes, its political impact during the 1970s and 1980s was more often than not very limited. The creation of the DPP also adopting a tightly controlled party organisation on both the membership and parliamentary arenas. Researchers have pointed out that a party like the DPP in fact in many ways is reminiscent of classical communist parties with a strong leadership which leaves little or no room to manoeuvres for the membership. Thulesen Dahl was one of the people helping to turn Kjærsgaard’s visions into realities all the way back from 1995. Kjærsgaard may have had an emotional style in public but she did have a correct appreciation of the uses of organisation and discipline and there are few signs that a change of leader will lead to any significant changes in the DPP organisation.

As Troels Mylenberg has pointed out in a perceptive commentary, Kjærsgaard often used the politics of offence as her weapon of choice (thereby curiously mirroring the behaviour of her opponents in the 2006 cartoon crisis) and many Danes would probably recognise the otherwise inimitable Yvonne from the Olsenbanden films as a major inspiration. Other prominent members of DPP – most recently Ole Hyltoft – have used the same style even if Thulesen Dahl in general has avoided making too crude statements. Consequently, while Thulesen Dahl may adopt a more mainstream style than Kjærsgaard, the party still has plenty of representatives who can play the offended-by-the-elite card. And Thulesen Dahl’s image as the perfect son-in-law will still go down well with the party’s electorate.

Finally, we shouldn’t necessarily expect a change in policy strategies because of the change of leaders. Again, Thulesen Dahl has been a core member of the DPP leadership since 1995 and the dual emphasis on anti-immigrant and welfare policies has characterised DPP strategy since the 1990s. The big difference between the present and previous electoral terms is that the DPP isn’t a supporting party to the government. On the one hand, this gives the party a freer hand in its choice of issues, on the other hand it will have fewer concrete results to show voters. What the 2011 election did show was that the DPP despite changes in the general political agenda with the general economy overtaking social and health policy and immigration as the main issue was able to hold on to its voters.

So to sum up: The change of leaders points to continuity in terms of organisational, parliamentary and electoral strategies. What we may see is a situation where Kristian Thulesen Dahl will be playing the “good cop” while other DPP representatives play the “bad cops”, delivering emotionally charged attacks on immigrants, “the elite”, the EU and so on.

Populism Notes II: The True [insert value] Argument

I’ve had this saved as a draft for some weeks now. The discussion ends somewhat abruptly but maybe I will get back to the issue at some point.

Just to continue a line of thought from my previous note: The question about populist parties presenting themselves as “the true Social Democrats”.

The issue may be more relevant in Denmark and Sweden where support for the Social Democrats has taken a hit while the Danish People’s Party and to a lesser extent the Sweden Democrats have gained. Commentators have pointed out that SweDem have played the “real Social Democrats” card by trying to gain ownership of the “Folkhem” concept. As it is, “Folkhem” has a complicated history (it is in many ways a word which lends itself to discourse analysis) being first a Conservative and later a Social Democratic slogan. “Folkhem” also points to the development where Social Democracy changed from being an internationalist to an essentially nationally oriented political movement with the creation of the welfare states in the Scandinavian countries from the 1930s onward as the best-know effect.

Welfare state researchers will note that the national welfare state model probably reached its peak around 1980 (the period used by Gösta Esping-Andersen in his seminal book “Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism”) but that internationalisation and Europeanisation since then has put the national models of welfare under pressure. “Multiculturalism” and “Structural change” do not carry the same emotional weight as “Folkhem”: They are, at best, technocratic terms.

However, we should be careful in focussing too much on the word “Folkhem” as it is a uniquely Swedish term. Danish has no equivalent – “welfare state” is the closest – and this points to the risk of generalising Swedish experiences. As it is, the “welfare state” only really emerged as a political term during the 1960s in Denmark and it was fiercely debated in the 1960s and 1970s. To use discourse analysis-speak, the hegemony of the “welfare state” was less obvious than the hegemony of the “folkhem”.

Populism Notes

Åbo Akademi Vasa

I spent last week in Vaasa (or Vasa, in Swedish; the town is officially bilingual) participating in a workshop on populist parties. The work was quite intensive with five official sessions and no less than two dinners and here are some of my thoughts after the discussions:

1. Dealing with “the populist parties” in the Nordic countries as a group is problematic for a number of reasons, most notably because of the lack of formal links between the Danish People’s Party (DF), the Sweden Democrats (SD), Fremskrittspartiet (FrP) and Perussuomalaiset (PS) – DF and SD have shown an interest in creating some kind of ties, though – but also because FrP in particular occupy a different position in the political space compared to DF, SD and PS. FrP in many ways look more like a conservative party with more liberal positions on economy while DF, SD and PS all combine an economically centrist position with an authoritarian position on social issues (immigration and crime as the most notable issues).

2. Several of us implicitly or explicitly addressed questions related to the institutionalisation of populist parties in the Nordic party systems. Even if SD and – to some degree PS – are newcomers, all parties were established in the 1970s (FrP) or 1990s (DF, SD, PS) and while it is still difficult to predict the future strength of PS and SD, we should expect them to stay in the national party systems for some time. We should also note that the parties have led deliberate strategies to stabilise the party organisations on the membership and parliamentary level (A colleague noted that DF’s organisational practices in many ways resembled those of communist parties with a very strong and centralised leadership).

3. Two concepts often associated with populism were spectacular absent from the discussions: Charisma and distrust. There are many good reasons why charisma has fallen out of favour in academic discussions – the concept is hard to operationalise and the institutionalisation processes I described above make references to the party leaders’ charisma less relevant.

I am less certain about distrust. If we look at electoral research, populist party voters usually stand out with low levels of political and social trust compared with other voters. The phenomenon of distrust is not uncomplicated – a Danish research project from the 1990s argued that conflicts between elite and majority positions on the one hand and minority positions on specific issues on the other may generate distrust. Immigration and European policy were cited as the most likely sources of political distrust back then. That distrust disappeared from view has to do with the perspective changing from (voter) demand to (party) supply but this is probably where you write: “More research is needed”.

4. Marie Demker has argued that populist parties are better understood as nationalist parties. The argument is interesting as it sees nationalism as the ideological basis which sets these parties apart from other parties in the Nordic party systems. The argument would also fit with the parties’ position on the libertarian-authoritarian scale. Here populism could be seen as a means used by nationalist parties (and other parties – think of Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s famous New Year’s Speech from 2002) to mobilise voters.

If I should argue against Demker’s thesis I would first of all acknowledge that the present-day DF and SD (and in all likelihood PS) unquestionably qualify as nationalist. If we look at the Danish political history, nationalist agrarianism has manifested itself at certain points during the 20th century (The Free People’s Party, later the Peasants’ Party 1934-1945 and the Independents 1960-1966) but so has an outspoken anti-state populism (The Justice Party 1926-1960, 1973-1975, 1977-1981) and I would question if the Progress Party of the 1970s could reasonably be seen as a nationalist party. Again, more research would be necessary here. We should also consider if the peasant populism that we know from the 1930s and 1970s can be meaningfully compared with the working-class populism of the 1990s (in the case of Denmark: 1970s) onward.

One way of reconciling the “liberal” populism of the 1970s and the “nationalist” populism of the 1990s could be to focus on the European dimension. We know that the EC and later EU has been a continued source of problems for the Social Democratic parties in the Nordic countries with the parties being split between internationalism and welfare-state nationalism.

5. One final round of discussions, linked with #4, had to do with populist parties presenting themselves as “the true Social Democrats”. Both SD and DF have used this line of argument with the 1950s as some kind of imagined Social Democratic ideal (something which most people who were adults or adolescents during that decade would probably question) with the post 1968-Social Democracy presented as traitors to the national Social Democratic idea. This calls for some further arguments which I will leave for later.