Populist parties are on the rise in most European countries. But do the citizens that back them also support one of their core demands – more direct democracy? And do they deliver it?
A charismatic politician gestures wildly from a podium as he speaks to his audience in a tone of outrage; a raised finger signifies that his message is one of warning. The concerns of ordinary people have too long been ignored! he says. While the corrupt establishment follows only its own interests, his party will give power back to the people.
Such a scene is now being played out in almost every European country. Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini and Beppe Grillo in Italy, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Their ongoing electoral success raises the questions of whether and how they relate to democracy and what kind of democracy they, and their voters, want.
So, do populist-leaning citizens really want to be more directly involved in policy-making? And will these parties deliver it?
The populist conundrum
The mainstream academic definition defines populism as consisting of two main dimensions: anti-elitism and people-centrism. Simply put, there are only two groups – the elite and the people. The former is bad, while this latter is seen as upright and good and its will trumps all. A populist, then, is someone who both denigrates the elite and praises the people; just doing one is not enough.
Populists should also be distinguished from so-called ‘stealth democrats’: those who care about direct participation as a last resort. In their view, direct participation is necessary only as an instrument to prevent a corrupt and self-serving elite from taking bad decisions. As long as “the right” political decisions are taken, stealth-democrats do not care about who governs, be it an elected government, successful business people, or a group of non-elected experts.
Previous studies have tended to conflate populists and stealth democrats, both of which share a frustration with representative democracy and its outcomes. Indeed, populists have often been assumed to favour more direct democracy because they hold stealth-democratic attitudes.
However, we argue that populist and stealth-democratic preferences for direct democracy are rooted in distinct motivations. For example, stealth democrats primarily see direct citizen involvement as an effective mechanism to control the elite; they also welcome the use of expert opinion. This contrasts with the populists’ primacy of the will of the people.
The main goal of our research project, therefore, was to better understand how populist and non-populist individuals differ in their support for direct democracy after discounting for the stealth-democratic features mentioned above.
To do this we carried out a survey of 4,000 people in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland – four countries with substantially different political systems. The empirical findings matched what we expected: populist-leaning citizens indeed favour direct democracy more than other citizens, while they also support lower constitutional boundaries on the application of direct democracy.
Falling short of the ideal
Indeed, it is often by promising more direct democracy that populist parties attract voters with such attitudes, with Switzerland often held up as the shining example. The 2017 programme of the German AfD party opens with the promise to introduce public referenda based on the Swiss model; in Austria, candidates for the presidency of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) also promised more Swiss-style direct democracy.
But such calls by populist parties are, to some extent, strategically motivated. In reality, the plans tend not to fully match up to the “Swiss model”. For example, the FPÖ in Austria initially called more direct democracy an “absolute coalition condition”; but once they entered negotiations with the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), automatic referenda from plebiscites were postponed until the end of 2022 – after the end of the legislative period.
Meanwhile, a citizen’s initiative on banning smoking in public places received almost 900,000 signatures, a number exceeding promises for automatic plebiscites both by the ÖVP and FPÖ. And yet, both parties turned a blind eye to these demands because the initiative directly opposed government policy, which had re-allowed smoking in restaurants and cafes.
Populist parties, once in power, sometimes even shift the power balance away from citizens and back to the executive. While their leaders praise the people, the parties are often diligently engaged in undermining fundamental liberal-democratic rights.
This has been seen in the case of Hungary’s President Orbán and Poland’s conservative-nationalist government, both of which have chipped away at the pillars of democracy. Most notably, they’ve done so by eroding the checks and balances guaranteeing the separation of powers, as well as by undermining the protection of minority rights.
Ultimately, it will be interesting to determine the extent to which populist-leaning citizens are inclined to vote for these parties because of their promotion of (more) direct democratic procedures – and if populist parties’ failure to actually deliver more direct citizen involvement in policy will undermine populist support in the long-run.
This post highlights key insights from a publication project by Steffen Mohrenberg (DemoSCOPE), Robert Huber (University of Salzburg) and Tina Freyburg (University of St.Gallen). The actual manuscript of a journal article is currently under review. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.