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Populism matters beyond just Europe and the US. Here’s why

Our key finding is that the international structure and the regional context are decisive in determining the exact content of populist ruptures around the world.

lead Thaksin Shinawatra, who has just become 23rd PM of Thailand, with George Bush in the Oval Office in 2001. Wikicommons/White House photo by Eric Draper. Some rights reserved. It is difficult to think of a political phenomenon that has gained more currency in public and policy debates internationally in the last few years than populism.

Already the object of analysis in a voluminous literature, populism proved to be a highly relevant factor in momentous political events such as the emergence of radical left anti-austerity government in Greece in 2015, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States and the vote of the British people to leave the EU (Brexit) in 2016.

These events came on the heels of a longstanding process of strengthening of populist forces in the West more generally. But populism has now become a relevant phenomenon in many other world regions as well. Long a dominant force in Latin America, populism has now emerged as a distinct feature of politics in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Why is this so, and what does the global emergence of populism mean?

In a recent special issue of the International Political Science Review, experts in the politics of a broad array of regions – West and East Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Muslim world, and Africa – reflected on the emergence and impact of populism. As a scholarly exercise, our special issue is an addition to a growing but still underdeveloped literature on cross-regional comparisons of populism. But even this literature is primarily concerned with comparisons between the two regions with the strongest populist footprint – Europe and Latin America.

In our special issue, we extend the geographical range of comparison by looking as well at regions that rarely appear in cross-regional analyses.

Conceptually our special issue integrates discursive, critical and structural perspectives in the analysis of populism. It thus constitutes a departure from currently dominant approaches to populism as a thin-centred ideology. Without discarding the insights of these approaches, we believe that our conceptualization of populism can accommodate diverse appearances of populism in many different regional settings. Opposing forms of populism… may be an emerging pattern in mature European and North American democracies as well, as traditional norms of liberal democracy erode.Our conceptualization owes a lot to a critical reading of the work of Ernesto Laclau, since we understand populism as an antagonistic, oppositional discourse that pits the ‘people’ against ‘official power’. Populist discourses have the capacity to rally a chain of unmet and frustrated demands by constructing a new political identity woven around the empty signifier of the ‘people’.

This definition allows us to bring quite varying populist phenomena in our comparative fold, from anti-Eurozone populists in southern Europe to left-wing populists in Latin America, Islamic populists in Indonesia and populist leaders as diverse as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand and Michael Sata of Zambia. In this way, our special issue fills another important gap in the literature: the relative absence of collective works that employ discursive and critical approaches to populism in structured, historical and question-driven comparison.

Finally, our approach is structural in character, in that we relate the emergence of populist discourses to gaps in political representation and to economic dislocation brought about by incorporation into the globalized capitalist economy. We thus transpose Laclau’s view of populism as emerging out of imperfect discursive overlaps between power and the people in specific political systems to the international level. We address populism as the expression of popular frustrations with how political élites chose to have their states and societies adapt to neoliberal globalization, a process that entails both political and material-economic tensions. We address populism as the expression of popular frustrations with how political élites chose to have their states and societies adapt to neoliberal globalization, a process that entails both political and material-economic tensions.

Our key finding is that the international structure and the regional context are decisive in determining the exact content of populist ruptures around the world. States’ positioning within international and regional economic and geopolitical constellations condition the nature of representational and material gaps that emerge between people and official power, and hence the timing of the emergence and the choice of discourse of populist politics.

We show that populism is an inherent feature of a world characterized by severe transnational economic and societal pressures on the state, and by the persistence of unequal core-periphery relations. Other factors that interplay with structure are pre-existing patterns of state-society relations and historical legacies of populist mobilization.

The findings of the special issue vindicated the decision to conduct this cross-regional comparison. Juan Grigera’s historical analysis of populism in Brazil and Argentina – as a response to the changing dynamics of the political economy of the region – reflects our interest in how structural and regional contexts impact the apparition of populism. Yet his critical perspectives on the socioeconomic policies of Lula in Brazil and the Kirchners in Argentina highlight the role populism plays not just as a reaction to globalization-driven socioeconomic modernization, but also as a tool of incorporation of the masses. This is a theme that also appears in Angelos Chryssogelos’ historical analysis of Greece, where populism is commonly considered to be an endemic phenomenon, but in fact only appears periodically in momentary ruptures that are then absorbed and accommodated by state élites in populist-like official discourses that justify continuous adaptation to Western modernity.

Populism in power is a theme most of us explore – another added value given that most analyses of populism in Europe concern populists in opposition. Again, our conceptual framework yields provocative insights. Kevin Hewison and Alastair Fraser, for example, doubt whether Thaksin in Thailand or Sata in Zambia were always the populists observers had made them out to be. Hewison questions that Thaksin was a populist when he first entered office, and Fraser challenges the perception of Sata as populist by the time he acceded to power.

Yet both leaders expressed at some point in time anti-establishment sentiments that appealed to social strata clamouring for a different model of socioeconomic modernization. Fraser especially argues that post-populist political arenas become ‘empty’ of politics as the effervescence of populism recedes, an insight as true in Zambia as it is in Greece after the radical left SYRIZA signed a new austerity program with the Eurozone in 2015. Post-populist political arenas become ‘empty’ of politics as the effervescence of populism recedes, an insight as true in Zambia as it is in Greece after the radical left SYRIZA signed a new austerity program with the Eurozone in 2015.

Neil Robinson and Sarah Milne’s essay utilises populism to make sense of the changes in the legitimating discourse of the Putin regime in Russia. Here as well the traditionalist populism articulated by Putin after 2012 was not meant to negate western-style modernization, but to shape Russian society’s perceptions of the regime at times of acute socioeconomic crisis. Thus, the nexus between economic crisis and populism can be activated in semi-authoritarian as much as liberal democratic settings. The case study of Islamic populism in Indonesia by Vedi Hadiz and Richard Robison also provides a challenging comparative conclusion. Indonesian politics seem to be increasingly realigning around competition between opposing forms of populism, a pattern that may be emerging in mature European and North American democracies as well, as traditional norms of liberal democracy erode. 

In conclusion, our special issue demonstrates the usefulness of discursive and critical approaches in the comparative analysis of populism, as well as the importance of the international dimension for a better understanding of populism in a globalized world.

Increasingly populism is becoming a fixture of representative politics, be it in power or in opposition, and is transforming the practice and meaning of old and new mass electoral regimes globally, thus turning the liberal democratic post-Cold War ‘end of history’ euphoria on its head.

Our discursive-structural conceptualization of populism is an invitation for more serious research on populism as an inherent feature of world politics and as a relevant analytical category in international political economy and international relations.

About the authors

Angelos Chryssogelos teaches European politics at the Department of European and International Studies, King’s College London. He is an associate of the Europe Programme of Chatham House. He can be followed @AChryssogelos.

Vedi Hadiz is professor of Asian studies at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

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openDemocracy was at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the impact of populism on our media, political parties and democracy (see the WFD2017 website for details).


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