Schütz, Imke & Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “Report on Panel #2 / Mapping European Populism: The Peculiarities and Commonalities of the Populist Politics in Southern Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0003
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements.
The panel, which opened by Dr. Erkan Toguslu’s welcome speech on behalf of European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), was continued with the overall assessments of Dr Daphne Halikiopoulou who is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Reading over the populist politics and tendencies in these countries. Then, 2-hour panel went on with the striking presentations made by Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou on populism in Greece, Professor Oscar Mazzoleni on Italy, Professor Andrés Santana on Spain and Professor Susana Salgado on Portugal. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session. The panel was moderated by Professor Halikiopoulou.
This report is a by-product of this fruitful panel and intended to keep the record of this successful scholarly gathering. The report includes brief summaries of the speeches delivered by our panelists and, also, links to the full video of the panel. ECPS thanks Imke Schütz and Maximilian Wolf for writing the report.
Prof Sofia Vasilopoulou: “Greece: A Case of Populism in Decline?”
Prof Vasilopoulou argued that the 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse.
Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou, Professor of Politics at the University of York, sought to shed some light on the unique populist conjuncture in Greece, almost exactly 10 years after the “seismic” 2012 elections that saw the far-left and far-right reshuffle the playing field amid an ailing Greek economic situation marked by unmanageable debt, huge unemployment, and a war of words with the European Central Bank (ECB). She argued that it was that election — indeed two elections in rapid succession, in May and June respectively — that lastingly changed the party landscape in the country. The center-left PASOK, until that point one of Greece’s two main parties, came in third, ceding much ground to the more radical left SYRIZA, which became the largest opposition party. On the right, meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, running on an anti-democratic platform, managed to gain some 7 percent and almost 20 parliamentary seats in the process. By the time of the next round of elections in 2015, SYRIZA became the largest party, gaining over 35 percent of the vote as PASOK essentially vanished from the political scene, while Golden Dawn was able to solidify its hold in Greek politics. More surprisingly, SYRIZA finally formed an unexpected coalition with the radical-right ANEL, an unusual bedfellow for the left-wing SYRIZA in a country that historically has struggled with coalition governments.
Following this historic overview, Prof Vasilopoulou argued, however, that these 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse. Despite the discord between the party’s pre-electoral promises and its governmental record, Prof Vasilopoulou noted, they were able to consolidate their status as a major player in the Greek system, coming second in the 2019 elections. The story of Golden Dawn is even more complex: after their dramatic rise to the Greek parliament, a number of legal issues, including a five-year-long trial around the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in Greece and a number of violent attacks on migrants and political opponents, finally led to the imprisonment of a number of its leaders and the designation of the party as a ‘criminal organization.’
So how are we to interpret these developments? Prof Vasilopoulou’s work focused on the demand side of Greek politics, specifically voter attitudes around the values of liberal democracy. Data from the European Election Study 2019 indicated that significant portions of the Greek electorate held illiberal opinions. On the question of the value of a judiciary independent of political influence, some 10 percent were opposed while another 20 percent saw themselves as ‘on the fence.’ On whether a government should be able to prohibit a peaceful protest under certain circumstances, approximately a quarter of respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed fully.’ On a more positive note, freedom of public media free from political influence scored better, with only 5 percent disagreeing. Approximately a quarter of Greek respondents felt that ‘having a strong leader that bends the rules to get things done’ is a good thing, while, reflecting populist attitudes in the country, over half of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘the people and not politicians should make the most important policy decisions.’
Prof Vasilopoulou linked these sentiments to another important statistic which indicated that some 75 percent of the Greek population felt dissatisfaction with the Greek political system. In all, she argued that these persistent illiberal attitudes provide fertile ground for threats to Greek democracy in the future, particularly if they will again be able to find concrete political expression in anti-democratic movements like Golden Dawn.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Oscar Mazzoleni: “Italian Multiple Populism: Evidence, Causes and Impacts”
Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Professor Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Science at the University of Lausanne, reflected on Italy’s status as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ To begin, he explained why Italy can be considered a case of ‘multiple populism’ – Italian populism is not limited to the radical right; there exists a multiplicity amongst Italian populists. For one, populist parties have been persistently present in Italian politics since the 1990s. Second, both cooperative and competitive patterns evolved between populist parties as they competed in the country’s electoral arenas, for both parliament and government. Third, Italy’s populist parties espouse various ideologies: there are regionalist, radical-right, nationalist, left-wing, moderate, and syncretic populist parties. This highlights the ideological flexibility and the complexity of Italian populism.
So why does populism thrive in so many forms in Italy, despite parties’ diverse ideological and organizational features? Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Not only has the system shifted from proportional to majoritarian, but changing parliamentary coalitions exacerbate instability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum, especially when connected with anti-corruption stances. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Since the 1990s, populist trends in Italy have foreshadowed trends in other Western European democracies. According to Prof Mazzoleni, two of the most notable trends are the breakdown of the traditional party system with its mass party organizations after World War II and the permanent redefinition of the relationship between politics and the media. The former led to an unprecedented openness of the political system to new parties, while the latter introduced a strong media logic into politics. One well-known case combining these two trends is Berlusconi, who switched from the media to politics. For these reasons, Prof Mazzoleni argues, it is reasonable to label Italy as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ Another factor that contributes to Italy’s ‘multiple populism’ is the populist actors themselves. Living up to populism’s chameleon reputation, Italian populists stand out for their entrepreneurship and flexibility; both the political system’s insiders, like Salvini, Meloni or Bossie, and its outsiders, like Berlusconi, Grillo or Conte, are confronted not only with the uncertainty of their parties’ electoral success but must also deal with the challenges of managing their authority both inside and outside their parties. Furthermore, they have had to develop strong political marketing skills – when in government positions, populists tend to tone down their agendas and discourse, to ensure the party’s continued political success and authority.
Prof Mazzoleni recommends, then, that the study of populism focus on populism’s impact on policy and changes in the polity. Observing these dimensions, one might investigate the reciprocity of populist and mainstream parties’ performative styles. Changes in the latter’s performative style set the context in which populists must act and influence the framing opportunities they can take advantage of. This is particularly visible in Italy, where the populist performative style connects with anti-party attitudes. Slowly transforming democratic communication and reshaping constitutional and judicial rules, populists reshape their structural opportunities over time. Thus, it is important to connect the dimensions of polity, policy, and politics when examining populists’ success.
In sum, the case of Italy as a ‘laboratory for populism’ sheds light on populist actors’ myriad forms and paths. The openness of Italy’s political system to anti-establishment actors leads to the continuous presence of a multitude of populist actors. Extending the scope of populism research to include populism’s effects on the polity dimension could yield valuable insights and greatly improve our understanding of populism.
Reported by Imke Schütz
Prof Andres Santana: “Podemos and Vox: Opportunities and Challenges Posed by Left- and Right-wing Populism in Spain”
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for (right- and left-wing) populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Professor Santana, Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid turned the spotlight on the populist battleground of Spain. By way of introduction, he noted that Spain was not always a populist battleground: until 10 years ago there were two relevant parties in Spain, the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right PP; much like in the Greek case, however, the mid-2010s proved a fruitful conjuncture for populist movements on the right and left to gain and consolidate some ground. For a long time, Spain had considered itself “immune” to populist challenges.
All of this changed, however, in 2014 when — almost simultaneously — Podemos on the left and Vox on the right threw the “Iberian exception,” and Spanish democracy into disarray. Vox, born in late 2013, was initially as unsuccessful as many other small right-wing movements vying for influence in Spain, gaining a few percentage points here and there; however, Vox did not follow those others to what Santana called the “graveyard of small right-wing parties,” instead, becoming, some years later, a serious player in Spanish politics and polling as high as second in recent polls. Podemos, led by a university professor and born out of the ‘Indignados’ protest movement, came into being around the same time and, much more immediately than Vox, made an immediate impact on the Spanish political scene, winning some 1.2 million votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Despite both movements coming into being in the ‘populist moment’ of the mid-2010s that spawned many similar movements on the right and left throughout Europe, Prof Santana argued that, while many such movements have since faded into irrelevance again, this is unlikely to occur with Podemos and Vox. He noted that the Spanish electoral system generally rewards larger parties, meaning the barrier for new challengers is relatively high; this very mechanism, intended to strengthen and stabilize the winners of elections, has had the unintended consequence of generating a significant turnaround for medium-size parties: while, in 2015 and 2016, Podemos was able to secure some 20-25 percent of the vote, behind PP and PSOE, the next election in April 2019 saw their support crater to 14 percent and a new movement, Ciudadanos, taking third place; this was only to last until an election re-run in November of the same year, where Ciudadanos dropped to 6th place, while Vox — led by the enigmatic Santiago Abascal, leapfrogged the field to come third with 15 percent of the vote. This “dance,” as Prof Santana called it, attests to the fact that the Spanish electoral system is not built for five major parties; indeed, he argued, it struggles to accommodate three. In his estimation, Vox looks most likely to secure that coveted third spot in the political space, with Podemos relegated once again to a fringe movement.
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for both populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Susana Salgado: “Support for Right-wing Populism in Portugal: Protest or Deep-rooted Attitudes”
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. As Chega crushes this long-held view, Prof Susana Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
In the last contribution, Professor Susana Salgado, Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, investigates whether support for right-wing populism in Portugal is a manifestation of deep-rooted attitudes or if it is merely a protest phenomenon. To begin, Prof Salgado points to the nationalist and populist party Chega as a case study of Portugal’s right-wing populism. The party was founded a few months before the 2019 parliamentary election. As expected, Chega’s obtained vote share of 1.3 percent was insignificant. Despite this initially poor vote share, public support has been growing exponentially. In the same year, Andre Ventura, the leader of Chega, ran for president and increased the party’s publicity. He surprisingly received 11.9 percent of the vote, placing him close to the 2nd runner-up. The snap election in 2022 confirmed the trend of electoral support: Chega increased its number of MPs from 1 to 12 as the party with the third-most votes.
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. To explore whether latent populist sentiments existed prior to Chega’s emergence, Prof Salgado tested for latent populist sentiments amongst various Portuguese population groups in 2017. Her data revealed that Portuguese politicians, as a group, are most negatively regarded and blamed for many of the country’s issues, followed by the wealthy, then immigrants. These results suggested that an attitude of blame towards politicians could be a structural characteristic of the Portuguese population. Moreover, it appears that news items containing anti-elitist and right-wing populist content had a greater influence on the study’s participants than left-wing populist news items. Thus, Prof Salgado suggests that respondents were more susceptible to right-wing claims and potentially more prone to right-wing populism. She also found that anti-immigrant discourse activated more populist sentiments than anti-elitism discourses. Prof Salgado furthermore noted that Chega’s voters do not, according to self-assessments, consider themselves right-wing, and refuse the radical-right label. Moreover, they consider themselves less right-wing than voters of the Conservative party. Correspondingly, Chega integrates its supporters’ self-perception into its image as a conservative, nationalist, liberal and anti-establishment party.
To further explain Chega’s attractiveness to Portuguese voters, Prof Salgado turns to Ventura’s tactics and political discourse. Prof Salgado’s work reveals that voters’ main motive to vote for Chega was a desire for change. Chega voters evaluate Portugal’s state of affairs and economic problems more negatively than other voter groups. These attitudes correspond with the geographical distribution of Chega voters; districts with relatively high numbers of immigrants and few hospitals and schools showed the highest electoral support for Chega. Accordingly, Chega voters’ testimonies emphasize their desire for improving their regional situation, and for someone who cares about them. To gain popularity, Ventura taps into these desires; he promotes Chega as an anti-system party and uses typical populist discourses, such as exclusionary ideas, calculated ambivalence, provocation, appeals to a national identity, an ideal nation, and historical and religious symbols. While Ventura paints other parties as a syndicate apathetic towards the ‘authentic people,’ he presents himself as the people’s ‘true representative’ – a typical populist tactic.
Finally, Prof Salgado notes three interesting demographic characteristics of Chega’s voters. First, men tend to vote for Chega, while women tend to vote for left-wing parties. Second, voters with higher education tend to vote for right-wing parties; contrary to the belief that the uneducated are particularly susceptible to populism and right-wing parties, Chega’s voters are not the least educated. Finally, Portugal’s young voters tend to vote for new parties such as Chega. In conclusion, Chega crushes the long-held view that the Portuguese are immune to right-wing populism. Furthermore, Prof Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
Reported by Imke Schütz