Rise in populism threatens European democracy, warns Tony Blair think tank

Institute for Global Change condemns 'inflammatory' attacks on independent institutions such as media or judiciary

Gavin Gordon
Friday 29 December 2017 10:27
Tony Blair's think tank Institute for Global Change notes an increase in support for populist parties
Tony Blair's think tank Institute for Global Change notes an increase in support for populist parties

Europe has seen a surge in support for “populist” political parties which threatens to destabilise democracy across the continent, a report by Tony Blair’s think tank has warned.

The survey by the former Prime Minister’s Institute for Global Change found the share of the vote taken by populist parties from both right and left has almost trebled since 2000 – rising from 8.5 to 24.1 per cent.

Over the same period, it said the number of European countries with populist parties participating in government has doubled from seven to 14 – creating an unprecedented “populist belt” from the Baltic to the Aegean.

It warned that the trend looked set to continue unless mainstream political parties were able to find a way to counter the populists’ appeal.

The report defines as populist those parties and politicians which “claim to represent the true will of a unified people against domestic elites, foreign migrants, or ethnic, religious or sexual minorities”.

It said they are often characterised by “inflammatory” attacks on independent institutions such as the media or the judiciary and support for highly restrictive immigration controls and protectionist economic policies.

They are strongest in Eastern Europe, currently holding power in seven countries – Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia – while populist parties are the junior coalition partners in two others and the main opposition in three more.

“Parties like Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz tend to emphasise a nationalism based on soil, blood or culture; take a hard line against immigration; and have, especially in Poland and Hungary, quickly started to dismantle key democratic institutions like the free media and an independent judiciary,” the report said.

“Working largely within the letter of the law, and drawing on widespread popular support, they have destroyed many of the institutions that are needed to safeguard democratic institutions over the long-run.”

In contrast to Eastern Europe, where most populist parties are on the right, those in Southern Europe are predominantly on the left, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

However, the report said left-wing parties from other parts of the continent – including Labour in Britain – had embraced elements of populism, underlining the impact populist politics was having on the mainstream.

The report’s co-author, Yascha Mounk, said: “2016 was the year that populism went prime time, but as our data makes clear: this rise started well before 2016.

“The huge transformation we are seeing in European politics is long term, driven by issues such as economic insecurity; a rebellion against immigration and the notion of a multi-ethnic society; and the ease with which extreme voices can make themselves heard in an age of social media.

“This populist wave has not crested and unless politicians manage to identify and counteract the structural drivers, populism will keep garnering strength in the years to come.”


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