Government participation and populist discourse transformation of radical left SYRIZA and radical right ANEL

Supporters of Syriza left wing party with flags outside Athens University in Greece on January 25, 2015. The baner says:"This is really good night Mrs Merkel." Syriza, won general elections. Photo: Kostas Koutsaftikis.


This study examines how the government participation within an EU country can affect the discourse of the left-wing and right-wing populist parties. We analyzed this question by tracing two Greek populist parties’ discourse, the left-wing Syriza and the right-wing Independent Greeks (Anel), during the 2012-2019 period. We have split the examined period into two subperiods (2012 to July 2015, and August 2015 to 2019). The turning point was the Syriza-Anel government’s signature of the third EU bailout program in August 2015. The first hypothesis was that the government accession within the EU context would slightly decrease the populist logic of the two parties. The next two hypotheses referred that the EU leverage emerged by the signing of the bailout agreement will decrease the populist rhetoric of the two parties towards the external elites (mainly the EU). However, the right-wing populists (Anel)- even after this decrease- will target the external elites to a larger extent than the left-wing populists. To examine the hypotheses in-depth, we applied a combination of quantitative content analysis with qualitative discourse analysis. The findings have corroborated our three initial hypotheses. Simultaneously, the qualitative discourse analysis offered us some additional findings concerning the two parties’ use of topos of “History” to increase their populist appeal within the electorate.

By Alexandros Ntaflos

In the last years an increase in the appeal of populist parties has been occurred all around Europe (Inglehart & Norris, 2016; Ibsen, 2019). In some countries, the populist parties have participated in the national governments (Mair, 2013). According to the literature, populism’s main feature is that it divides society along two sides: the people (general will) vs. the elites (Laclau, 2005; Mudde, 2004). However, many analysts have mentioned that significant differences between the left-wing and right-wing populism exist (Otjes & Louwerse, 2015; Katsambekis, 2017). The gradual decrease in mainstream parties’ appeal had allowed right-wing populist parties to increase their electoral share participating in government cabinets in countries such as Austria, Italy, Norway, Finland, etc. (Mair 2013, p. 46). Furthermore, in Southern Europe, populist parties with left leanings have gained significant power after the 2008 Great Recession in Greece, Spain, and Portugal (Agustin, 2018; Bosco & Verney, 2012; Polavieja, 2013).

Given that populist parties have increased their power in many EU countries, often participating in governmental cabinets, it is -both academically and socially relevant- to investigate how these parties act when they assume governmental positions, and whether they adapt their discursive strategies (Kriesi 2014, p. 368; Albertazzi & Mueller, 2013). Following the Mair’s (2009) thesis, in contemporary democracies, it is tough for a government to be both representative and responsible, thus leading to a division of labor between the mainstream parties (responsible government) and the populists (representative role in the opposition). In this rationale, it is critical to explore how the populist parties of the EU democracies change their discursive articulation from the opposition to the government.

Greece constitutes a distinct case of populism. Following the country’s bankruptcy in 2010 the mainstream political parties faced an unprecedented electoral deterioration. Left-wing populist, Syriza (Coalition of Radical Left) and right-wing populist Anel (Independent Greeks) were the main newcomers that arose from the huge crisis of representation existed. The significant increase of their electoral power allowed them to form a government coalition in January 2015. However, the huge EU economic dependence that Greece had forced the two parties to sign a new bail-out agreement in August 2015 continuing the austerity policies implemented by the previous governments. Given that the two parties have articulated populist narratives targeting both domestic (mainstream parties, oligarchy, banking system, media) and external (EU bureaucracy, financial markets, globalization’s system) elites it is significant to examine how their accession to government within a period that Greece was under a strict EU financial surveillance affected their discursive strategies. A combination of quantitative content analysis with a qualitative discourse analysis on the party leaders’ pre-electoral public speeches -within the period 2012-2019- will take place to examine this question.

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