Prof. Reinhard Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. He has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
One of the leading experts on populism, Prof. Reinhard Heinisch, of Salzburg University, has argued that the end of liberal democracies—or the dawn of illiberal democracies—is possible. Prof. Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. Heinisch has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers. “Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy,” he said. Prof. Heinisch also criticized European Union (EU) for not taking necessary measures in a timely manner.
The following are excerpts from our interview with Prof. Heinisch.
Why do you think Austria has been the cradle of populist and far-right parties? Is it about culture, politics, or what?
There were two main factors: to recover from civil strife and WWII, Austria created the ultimate consensus democracy—to the point that elaborate power sharing mechanisms between the two major parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, dominated national politics for over 40 years. Their complete control of all political institutions—and even civil society—resulted in power cartelization, influence peddling, and political nepotism. This, in turn, provided the initial raison d’être for the radical-right Freedom Party to style itself as an anti-system, protest party fighting corruption.
The second factor is sociocultural: The forebearers of today’s Austrians considered themselves largely German. The experience of Nazism—and the need to distance the country from its German past—left Austrians with a highly ambivalent and insecure national identity. Often local customs, lifestyle, and widely shared sensibilities serve as superficial substitutes for a deeper understanding of what it is to be Austrian. To be a “real” Austrian often just means to like and do certain things and not others or to look and behave a certain way. Cultural outsiders and immigrants challenge these ideas and force Austrians to confront their own ambivalent identity. Political operators can effectively appeal to this sense of cultural insecurity by claiming that Austrian culture is under threat. Austrians also have a selective view of their past, often glamorizing the imperial legacy but exorcising the darker chapters. External criticism has in the past led to a rally around the flag that was exploited by populists.
In your article with Fared Hafez, you argue that right-wing populism has changed Austria’s political approach to Islam. In what ways did these changes occur? Can you please elaborate?
Austria had very tolerant and liberal political approach to Islam going back many decades. While this was in part a consequence of Austria not having a [large] Muslim population, this also did not change once the share of guestworkers and immigrants, especially from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, substantially increased the population. Also, a number of terrorist attacks in and around Austria carried out by Middle Eastern commandos in the 70s and 80s never resulted in a discussion about Islam. Even after 9-11, this was essentially not the case. Only the radical-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) mobilized against Islam in the 1990s, opposing the construction of mosques and minarets, raising the issue of headscarves and foreign imams, and constantly associating Muslims with terrorism and the subversion of Christian civilization. Gradually this language was picked up—especially by the Christian Democrats, who adopted an anti-Islamic discourse and aim to pass new legislation directed against what they call “political Islam.” Under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Christian Democrats moved substantially to the right in an effort to steal voters away from the Freedom Party.
Islam has been one of Austria’s official religions since 1912, yet it is so alien. What is the correlation between the rise of populism and Islamophobia?
Islam is the third largest religion in Austria, ahead of Protestantism, and the fastest growing. In Vienna’s largest district, the name Mohammed was the most popular name for a baby-boy in 2020. In general, the Austrian [Muslims] population has grown substantially in recent decades (by about 20%) resulting in sizable increases of both foreign residents (18.5%) and Austrians with an immigrant background—for Vienna, this percentage is 34%.
Immigration and asylum also mean increases in the Muslim population, which is now 8% of the total population but highly concentrated in certain areas. At the same time, we have seen a general decline of traditional Austrian religions, which has prompted traditionalists and the radical right to frame the issue of immigration and asylum as a battle for national identity and culture. The extent to which populism is an ideology framing politics as an antagonism between corrupt elites and dangerous outsiders on one hand and the virtuous people of the heartland on the other, allows populists to score political points by portraying Muslims as the “cultural other” who pose a threat to the “heartland,” whose identity and way of life is in need of defending. Immigrants—especially from outside Europe–are the most palpable sign of global change in everyday life and can be easily framed as a danger and scapegoated by populists, whether in Austria or in the US of Donald Trump.
Francis Fukuyama in his famous article The End of the History claimed that liberal democracy had won, and it [liberal democracy] would spread all over the world. Yet today we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?
Like all complex developments, this one is multicausal and represents a confluence of developments. First and foremost, there is a loss of political legitimacy of established institutions and parties who have committed failures of representation. A growing number of people have the sense that vital decisions affecting their daily lives are made by unaccountable elites in far off capitals, in opaque international institutions and trade organizations, in Brussels or some boardroom. These policies may in and of themselves be efficient, rational, and in the long-run economically beneficial, but for countless people the consequences are disruptive, divisive, and feel at best technocratic.
Second, globalization and the spread of sociocultural liberalism resulted in traditionalist and parochial backlashes. We may not necessarily agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but most of us clearly underestimated the ability of political actors to mobilize on the basis of identity and construct identity narratives.
The third cause is technical in the sense that new forms of electronic communication and the internet have resulted not only in competition at a global level but also in raising both expectations and fears. Whereas the former may induce merely discontentment or a willingness to migrate, the other breeds resentment. In times of change that induce distress and pressures to adjust, people crave stability and a return to the status quo. This is when authoritarians and populists can excel by promising order and thus a modicum of protection and safety. Populists are change agents who promise that in the future, the present will be more like the past, a familiar place where the community was whole, and everyone had their place—Make America Great AGAIN. In Eastern Europe, the return to a rose-coloured past is precluded by the negative historical experience, so populists construct an imagined and idealized national destiny, be this a hyper Catholic Poland or an ultraconservative and authoritarian Hungary that has moved past its Trianon trauma.
The integration of economies and the creation of large markets created new forms of competition and winner and losers…
Yes, this is an important aspect in global or integrated markets: the economic winners can uncouple themselves from the local economic losers. As a result, the experience of two groups within the same political system become detached from each other. In Austria, wages—especially of male workers in certain blue-collar jobs—have experienced significant stagnation. As such, they [blue-collar male workers] become susceptible to populist politicians scapegoating immigrants and purportedly uncaring elites. In Austria, the radical-right, populist Freedom Party has been the dominant blue-collar party going back to the late 1990s.
Looking at the huge surge of populist leaders all over the world, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?
I think both are possible, and we are likely to see further increases either in illiberal democracy from the top (cf. Hungary) or populist democracy from below (unchecked majoritarian dictates through clever mass mobilization). However, as we saw in the US and also in Austria when populists were in government (2017-19), in long established democracies, institutions are quite durable and sticky. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he was unable to bend election officials, the courts, and the media to his wishes. It is the institutions of liberal democracies and the roles of individuals therein that give me confidence in the durability of democracy. Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy.
Facing a huge boom of populism, do you think the European Union has taken necessary steps to counter it? Fidesz has left the EPP only yesterday!
Clearly no! Democratic institutions are not set up to fight democratically supported parties and groups operating from within democracy. This is what makes populism both so effective and dangerous in that it plays within the rules of democracy. Populists are responsive but not responsible actors; however, democracy generally rewards responsiveness more than responsible action. The EU especially often acts responsibly by being measured, deliberate, and bringing in diverse interests but this is precisely what gives it a bad reputation in the eyes of those who see only their own interests, favour quick but simple solutions and focus on headlines and messages.
In the cases of Hungary and Poland, there was a clear failure of imagination on the part of the EU. Brussels and the member states would have had to take actions much sooner and much more decisively. They would have had to imagine effective mechanisms that work even if more than one-member state decides not to play by the rules and that result in automatically suspending the offending member countries. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived action by EU member states against Austria in 2000 because of its inclusion of the radical right in the government backfired badly and spooked the EU later, when forceful action would have been warranted.
Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, there are some populist leaders—like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin—who have kept power for a long time. How can their long stay in power be explained
This thesis of success in opposition and failure in government, which is the title of my most frequently cited article, needs to be qualified. There is something in the DNA of populists that makes them a poor match for running governments because populists are fundamentally voter-seeking in their strategy; thus, their operation and organization, their candidate selection and campaigning, is geared toward maximizing votes. This means they simplify and overpromise and ignore policy talent and policy expertise in favour of popularity and charisma. This catches up with them in government.
However, this is mainly a problem when populists need to interact in government with non-populists, such as in coalitions with mainstream parties (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, etc.) or with strong democratic institutions (the US). There, populists either fail or are sufficiently tamed/mainstreamed that they have little lasting effect. However, where they end up in complete control of government and where institutions are weak, they are able to dominate the discourse and reframe the issues, engage in conspiracy theories, and explain away their own failures as the result of the machinations of “fake news media” (Trump) and “corrupt elites” (think of Orban’s campaign against George Soros). This is why successful populists try to change the rules (election laws, the constitution, the composition of high courts) to give themselves more control. Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, and Putin are each in their own way good examples. Trump was trying hard to do likewise but failed this time.
What will replace eventually failed authoritarian populists? Liberal democracies or harder dictatorships?
This is hard to say. Social scientists are not good at predicting the future as we do not have hard data on what will come next. Even successful authoritarians such as Erdogan, Putin, or Orban differ from a more totalitarian system like China in that power in the former is highly personalized. Take the person out, what happens? These are all not young men (Trump included). While the formula for power is clear, it is still not easily transferrable because in each case leaders also require personal attributes that make them successful—successful populist leaders were each able to convert certain personal abilities and strengths into political power, and they will each leave a certain vacuum that may result in wars of the Diadochi. Venezuela, with the transfer of power from Chavez to Maduro, is the most successful example. Personalized power that is neither dynastic nor based on a police-state like structure is hard to preserve when leadership changes. We would expect that after the leader’s demise, these systems will revert to flawed liberal democracies prone to seeking populist answers to political problems when needed, so that at some point the cycle may start again.
Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground?
As argued above, my answer revolves around liberal institutions. I know this is unpopular, because these days it is all about grassroots activism and mobilization against political evils, and people often do not trust institutions. But my concern is that mobilization can go in different directions, and, of late, we have seen a lot of mobilization against Coronavirus measures where neo-Nazis, populists, people waving rainbow flags, and leftists were all marching in lockstep. Conspiracy theories come in all stripes, and people who are convinced that they are right and need to do what they need to do to save the planet or save something will ride roughshod over those standing in their way. Strengthening liberal institutions is an important antidote by providing sufficient funding for courts, prosecutors, and the justice system, for shoring up media independence and investigative platforms, for training civil servants, for supporting NGOs and watchdog groups, for strengthening parliaments to increase staff and boost the policy expertise of MPs, to fortify election systems and enhance the democratic accountability of social media platforms. Politically, we know that a so-called cordon sanitaire—that is the ostracization of populist actors—has worked to weaken their policy influence (e.g., the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) whereas adopting populist policy positions by mainstream parties may strengthen populists in the long run because it legitimizes these positions. As populism is a multicausal phenomenon, the answer is also multicausal—there are no silver bullets.
Some argue that populism has, to a certain extent, a democratizing aspect in terms of increasing democratic participation. Do you agree? When do you think populist parties/actors start to pose a danger to democratic values?
There is good empirical work on this by two of my former students, Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, who have shown that in opposition, populism can have a democratizing effect by bringing into the political arena new or politically marginalized groups (this was especially the case in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Populists also successfully draw the spotlight onto existing problems and democratic corruption (Austria, Italy, France) or on policies that were quite unpopular but hard to change within the existing political system (Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.). There are also scholars who persuasively argue that politics and political systems require conflict and choices between opposites and that in late capitalist liberal democracies, all this has vanished. By reintroducing conflict into the political system, populism serves a purpose. However, we have also seen that once in government, especially when they are not controlled by checks and balances, democratic quality suffers, and corruption goes up substantially. So, if populists gain too much power, they do pose a danger to democratic values, which was clearly on display in the US following the relentless campaign to overthrow the outcome of the last election and culminating in the storming of the US Capitol.
Who is Reinhard C. Heinisch
Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian politics and also Head of the Department of Austrian Politics in Comparative Perspective at Salzburg University. His main research interests are comparative populism, Euroscepticism, and democracy.
He is the author or co-author of numerous publications including Understanding Populist Organization: The West European Radical Right (Palgrave 2016), Political Populism; A Handbook (Nomos/Bloomsbury 2017) and Populism, Proporz and Pariah: Austria Turns Right (Nova Science 2002). Other publication appeared in West European Politics, Democratization, Comparative European Politics, and others. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of Comparative European Politics on Populism and Territory as well as contracted for a book with Routledge on the same subject.