European populism, democracy and participation

European politics in recent years has been concerned with the rise and popularity of populism, especially among younger generations. Populist political options – it is argued – are gaining unprecedented success and are beginning to pose a systemic threat to the well-being of all European democracies. These are the empirical facts, as much as they are political and media claims that emerge ahead of the European Parliament elections, on which the dynamics of European politics in the coming period will depend.

But how much truth is there in allegations of the threat of populism? Is it simply a threat to the normalization of right-wing extremism? Are the political systems themselves at stake, or just the incumbent political elites? Has the EU ever really been a democratically robust political community, or have fundamental constraints on the democratic will been built into the foundations of the European Union? And what could a greater level of civic participation do, and how to empower young people for it? A panel on European populism and democracy was held at the Mueller Hall of Zagreb’s Cinema Europe on April, 15.

The speakers were:

Dr. Anna Krasteva, a professor at the Department of Political Sciences at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, founder and director of CERMES (Centre for migration studies) and doctor honoris causa of University Lille 3, France. Her main fields of research are migration and ethnic politics and policies, populism and radical right, new mobilisations online and offline, e-citizenship, digital democracy.

Dr. Mojca Pajnik, an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana where she teaches at the study programs on communications and media. Her works cover topics of migration integration and discrimination, communicative practices, and populism in the online sphere.

Dr. Berto Šalaj is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb. Topics he works on include social capital, political culture, political socialization and political education, and he co-authored the book “The good, the bad or the ugly? Populism in Croatia”, with prof. Marijana Grbeša.

Dr. Mojca Pajnik initially stated that populism, as a form of political communication, is closely linked to a new era of democratic politics, with elements of populism being found on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. Populist politics has at its center a divide between “us, the people” opposite the elites, whom it blames for their insensitivity to people’s needs. Populism is thus both a type of ideology and a political style that invokes emotion, and ethno-nationalist populism that causes anxiety about the future of the European project is only one of the faces of populism. Populism is therefore a chameleonic phenomenon, a new way of functioning of politics, and populisms differ amongst themselves in whom they recognize and blame as the “harmful Others”.
Dr. Berto Šalaj stated that populism and democracy are closely related phenomena, and that there are different understandings of populism in the social sciences today. It is thus understood by various authors as a discourse, political style, a way of mobilizing and recruiting political support. The so-called “ideational approach” developed by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde understands populism as an ideology that perceives society as divided into two fundamentally opposed categories – a uniformly good people and a uniformly corrupt elite, and because of the applicability to populist politics of different ideological backgrounds, these two determinants – positively valuing people, and demonizing elites – perhaps succeeds in capturing the most important elements of populism in general. In so doing, while it is conditionally correct to identify populist politics as wholly in opposition to political and economic elites, the distinctive further characteristic of right-wing populism remains the identification of the Other as a cultural, demographic and identity threat. This Othering in recent years has applied foremost to non-European migrants.
Dr. Krasteva went on to reflect on where the political success of populism originated. She stated that populism is actually innovative, in multiple ways. The innovation of populist movements lies in the fact that they are effective even when they lose, because often their political influence is much greater than electoral success. Also innovative is their ability to set discourses, and there are numerous examples of success in introducing new topics and presenting them through a populist perspective. This innovation is communicative – some populist options have succeeded in bridging the “cordon sanitaire” united against them by the “old” parties and are now increasingly breaking into the mainstream. Populism today is thus transforming political discourse towards the instrumentalization of ignorance and scandal.
Explaining further how populism transforms political debates, dr. Pajnik referred to the fact that in parallel with the rise of populism, there was also the rise of the Internet as a space of political mobilization. The idea of ​​the internet was initially related to e-citizenship, education, empowerment and the promotion of active citizenship. However, profitable corporate influence – which grew until it filled the space of democratization – turned out to be dominant, and now we have a situation of media commercialization that successfully goes along with the rise of populism, in parallel with the media and the political. Twitter has proven to be an excellent platform for a type of short, emotional, and theatrical political speech typical of populist discourse. Though it did not start with Donald Trump, Trump is an ideal example. Krasteva added that Trump has made an epistemological shift in communication that bypasses the previously implied burden of proof, approaching communication as a competition in which he alone uses truth, and any criticism is simply a lie.

In practice, anti-elitist politics speaks to the young. Commenting on the ability of populist politics to mobilize young people, the speakers agreed that it was by no means negligible, but also that the real risks lies in the segment of populist politics – “hard” populism – which aims to mobilize young people for the goals of exclusion, discrimination and violence against vulnerable groups. For right-wing radicals, young people represent the desired target, and radical-right parties want to show that they involve the young more, connect with them and wish to attract them to the idea of ​​active, even revolutionary politics. These efforts are complemented by media portrayals of radicalized youth, leading to right-wing populists being aestheticized and glorified and having the opportunity to attract new supporters. On the other hand, youth mobilization for “green” issues and solidarity are relatively fragile forms of mobilization that have periods of surging, but also periods of marginalization by a number of actors who oppose them.

Prof. dr. Šalaj attempted to offer an explanation for how populism is so popular (and increasingly so) since it is such a simplistic idea, the antithesis of good people and bad elites. He presented three theses he considers crucial to this explanation: first, citizens are disappointed because they feel that their voice is not heard in the political arena, and they think that political elites have forgotten about them, both at the national and at the EU level. Second, people fear change, both socio-economic as well as cultural, and fear what they think will affect their daily lives. Finally, the economic reasons themselves are related to a deep-rooted sense of economic inequality and relative deprivation, that is, the expectation that their group is neglected and that its future will be bleak. Populist political options simplify all the complexities that led to these concerns about portraying ‘good’ people against ‘bad’ political and economic elites, but also ‘bad’ minorities and immigrants.

In conclusion, the speakers agreed that the outcome of the elections to the European Parliament will be crucial for the future of the European Union. However, they also agreed that the elections alone would not be enough to save democracy in Europe. A “business as usual” model of action will not be sustainable after the election, and there will be no quick and easy solutions to the ills of democracy in Europe. A comprehensive democratization agenda is needed, and future Members of the European Parliament, Commissioners and Commissioners need to hear and understand this message. On the other hand, it will not be entirely possible to bypass the populist repertoire of topics, since they essentially concern the limitations of democratic decision-making in the European Union and the Member States, and without affirming the importance of democratic decision-making, authoritarian tendencies can only continue to strengthen.

Gong is a Centre of Knowledge in the area of Civil Activism and the Building of Democratic Institutions within the framework of Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.