Growing Strength of Populists: Timbro’s Authoritarian Populism Index

For the second time, the Swedish think tank Timbro has presented its “Authoritarian Populism Index”. The index “aims to shed light on whether populism poses a long-term threat to European liberal democracies” (it includes the EU countries as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Serbia, and Montenegro). The authors not only present the current state of affairs, but they also go back to historical data showing the rise of support for populist and authoritarian parties in the recent decades in Europe.

The creators of the index admit that although the populist parties vary, they all share most of the following characteristics:

1) self-image of being at war with corrupt and crony elites,

2) lack of respect for the rule of law,

3) demanding an increased role of direct democracy,

4) the pursuit to increase the role of the state in individuals’ lives and in economy by, for example, additional powers for the police and military or by nationalization of private banks and corporations,

5) strongly criticizing actions of the European Union, openness to immigration, globalization, free trade, and NATO,

6) using revolutionary slogans and promises of a radical change.

There is no doubt that the ruling party in Poland – PiS (Law and Justice) – exhibits most of these qualities and hence it is no surprise that Timbro classifies it as a populist party.

As the authors of the index show, strongest support for populist parties occurred in the last elections in Hungary, Poland, and Greece, while the weakest in the small countries like Iceland, Montenegro, Luxembourg, and Malta. Recent elections in Europe show that the total support for right-wing and left-wing populists has grown to around 20%, and commands votes of over 55 million people in Europe. Support for populist ideas is two times higher than in the early 1980s.

The authors link the fastest growth of support for populists with the global economic crisis of the past few years, and with the response to the influx of refugees into Europe. In countries where recent important European elections have been held – the Netherlands and France – populists have not been able to win, but have strengthened their positions.

Populist parties are, however, in power (either alone or as members of a coalition) in nine European countries: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Seven of them belong to the European Union; that poses a threat to the stability of the European community, due to – among others – the hostility of these parties to many of the EU values and principles.

Support for parties of the nationalist-authoritarian right has been on the rise for years. After the last election, as the authors point out, the greatest was support for the populist right in Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark. It has only been a few years since the radical left has seen a similar upward trend. The radical left has reached the strongest electoral support in Greece, where it took power, and it is also popular in Italy, Spain, and Cyprus.

However, the results presented by Timbro should not lead to the feeling of hopelessness. It is true that the populist parties in Europe have a lot in common, but that does not mean that the roots of their support are exactly the same in different countries. The reasons vary and require a good local diagnosis by the anti-populist side of civil society, NGOs, and political parties who want to effectively deal with populism without trying to outbid populists.

As I wrote in the XXV Issue of the Liberté! magazine, bad transitions should not paralyze, only mobilize. The populist governments of rightist and leftist parties (sometimes combining right-wing ideologies with left-wing economic programs) ruling in many countries in the world should stimulate efforts to reduce the influence of the governments and politicians on our lives. The antidote for economic and non-economic populism is not a still bigger populism with a different label, but strengthening of individual freedom and foundations of open market economy.

Stronger rightist and leftist populism calls for greater mobilization and organizational efficiency. Those who do not want the political and economic systems in Poland and other countries to fall victim to politicians who compete to distribute even more taxpayers’ money or who destroy the rule of law in the name of “will of the people” should act now.

You can learn more about the index in the Epicenter press release and on the Timbro website.

We also recommend Review about populism and radicalisms.

Marek Tatala