How did populism end?

Right-wing populism

Prof. Frank Decker / Dr. Marcel Lewandowsky

Prof. Frank Decker / Dr. Marcel Lewandowsky

Frank Decker, Dr. rer. pol., Dipl-Pol., has been Professor of Political Science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn since 2001 and Scientific Director of the Bonn Academy for Research and Teaching of Practical Politics (BAPP) since 2011. Dr. Marcel Lewandowsky is a political scientist and research assistant at the Institute for Political Science at the Helmut Schmidt University / University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. He is the author of numerous specialist publications on the subject of right-wing populism.

The term "right-wing populist" has established itself for a number of xenophobic protest parties. In research, however, it has long been disputed whether right-wing populist parties have a common ideological basis. The political scientists Frank Decker and Marcel Lewandowsky on the genesis and ideological content of this political trend.

Jörg Haider with his wife Claudia at an election event in Vienna in October 1986. (& copy picture-alliance, picture alliance / IMAGNO)


Since the mid-1980s, a new and at the same time novel family of parties has emerged in numerous Western European countries, for which the term "right-wing populist" has become established in science and in journalistic parlance. When the newcomers on the right-wing fringe (Front National, Lega Nord, Vlaams Blok, FPÖ) stepped onto the scene in their countries and achieved the first spectacular electoral successes, people were still inclined to dismiss them as fleeting protests, as they are in the western democracies - also in a populist form - had always existed. There was therefore the expectation that the challengers would sooner or later be trimmed back or disappear from the party systems entirely. Further development should refute this thoroughly. Not only that the right-wing populists were able to defend their position and even expand it. The phenomenon began to spread to other Western European countries and did not stop at the new democracies of Central Eastern Europe.

The term "right-wing populism" has largely established itself both in research and in everyday language as a term for xenophobic protest parties. In research, however, it has long been disputed whether it can be traced back to a common ideological basis or whether it is even suitable as an object of research. When examining the European representatives, overlaps between populism and extremism became apparent again and again. Some authors emphasize that populism is a supplementary characteristic of a radical ideology, i.e. that it is merely a special political style of parties of the radical right. Other researchers see the populist parties as an independent type of party. In fact, populism is proving to be extremely versatile. Particularly successful exponents such as Geert Wilders ‘Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) in the Netherlands or the Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark no longer present themselves as outsiders from the right, but as defenders of liberal democracy against the supposed threat of" Islam ". Cultural ones take the place of racist demarcation patterns. The immigrants and the political elites are denounced at the same time. The latter had neglected a successful integration policy and, because of a misunderstood political correctness, were unwilling to name the problems associated with migration. The establishment had set itself apart from the citizens anyway; it pursues (material) self-interest in the spaceship-like parliaments, while "the people" as the bearer of democratic legitimation is not (no longer) taken into account in the decisions.

After a continuous growth up to the year 2000, the success curve of the right-wing challengers initially declined slightly until the mid-2000s; afterwards the response increased again significantly. Right-wing populism now also spread to countries in which it had not previously appeared. The interim low is likely to have had more to do with weaknesses in the political offering than with a decline in voter sensitivity to right-wing populist messages. Proof of this is that populism has increasingly spread to the established parties of the political "mainstream". These made both the issues of right-wing populist actors and how they addressed the voters their own. A good example of this is Nicolas Sarkozy's aggressive presidential campaign in France in 2012. Today the Christian Democratic-Conservative and Social Democratic parties are gripping two varieties of populism - often overlapping in party form - a social-populism that is critical of capitalism and / or welfare-chauvinist and a culturalist-backed anti-Islamic populism.

What is populism?

The "shimmering" of populism has almost become a proverb in research. In everyday language, populism is often equated with a politics that seeks popularity, chases and yields to the mood of the population. As a consequence, it has a negative connotation. It is said that the populist contrived "the people's opinion"; for him it is not about the matter, but only about the favor of the voters.

The scientific content of the term this only partially applies. Here, populism primarily describes an attitude that takes sides for the so-called "simple" people and against the ruling social and political elite. Populism is therefore in opposition to the (alleged) establishment and therefore deliberately refrains from the approval of relevant sections of the population. It is precisely this outsider status that gives him credibility among his supporters.

Such an anti-establishment orientation can be carried by individuals, movements, parties or even entire regimes. For the scientific analysis of populism, it makes sense to distinguish three levels of meaning from one another. The first level of meaning asks how populism comes about, that is, what social causes it is based on. The second level of meaning relates to the ideological content of populism, which demarcation patterns it cultivates and which group (s) it addresses with its popular term. The third level of meaning focuses on the formal and stylistic features of the phenomenon; this is about the organization of populism and its methods of addressing voters.

Social origins. Populist parties and movements are a phenomenon of societal modernization crises; They occur when, as a result of too rapid change or too great upheavals, certain groups of the population suffer a loss of value and orientation. These losses go hand in hand with fear of status, uncertainty about the future and feelings of political alienation. There have already been populist movements in earlier times that took advantage of this. The scientific term owes its name to the populist party that arose in the USA at the end of the 19th century. Another example could be the Poujadists in the IV French Republic, whose MPs at that time already included Jean-Marie Le Pen, who later became the founder of the Front National. If historical populisms are staggered phenomena, the current modernization processes are characterized by the fact that societies are moving closer and closer together in terms of their economic, cultural and political problems. This explains why most of today's populist parties in Europe emerged around the same time and were able to establish themselves permanently in the respective party systems.

Self-image and ideology. Characteristic of populism is its "schizophrenic" understanding of equality: On the one hand, the populists position the people against the ruling elite, which they brand in a conspiracy-theoretical manner as traitors to the actual will of the people. On the other hand, they separate the "native" people from supposedly non-members from other nations or cultures. It is not primarily a backwardness, but the anti-egalitarian factor that qualifies such demarcations as ideologically “right”. Left populists also cultivate anti-elitist resentment, opposition to the system and partisanship for the "common people". As a rule, however, their concept of the people does not play them off against other social groups - such as the "foreigners" - and left-wing populism tends to be more liberal in value-related issues. There are, however, exceptions to this ideal-type distinction, especially with the Dutch populism around Geert Wilders and its ideological predecessor Pim Fortuyn: Fortuyn lived out his hedonistic lifestyle and his homosexuality openly, and Wilders too stages himself as the guardian of the liberal social order vis-à-vis Islam.

Appearance and organization. In formal terms, the main characteristics of right-wing populist parties are their self-image as a social movement (for example in cooperation with extra-parliamentary protest groups) and the principle of charismatic leadership. Intra-party conflicts are often not carried out democratically, but rather decided by the top leadership in an authoritarian manner. In addition, populism characterizes a certain way in which it relates to the courted voters. The content and formal characteristics of populism are closely related. The self-image in terms of content culminates in the focus on a leader figure as the embodiment of the "will of the people"; the anti-establishment orientation is expressed in the techniques of populist agitation.

Identity and enemy images

The addressee and ideological basis of all forms of populism is the romanticized idea of ​​a homogeneous "people" as an ideal that creates identity. The complexity of modern societies, which is reflected in the diversity of interests and ways of life, is negated. The content of the popular term varies depending on the ideological orientation. Right-wing parties refer to national identity, while left-wing groups appeal more to the social status of workers and the unemployed, for example. Both directions have in common that they propagate the particular interests of their addressees as the "true" and only popular will.

So populism is always an ideology of demarcation. The "good" people are contrasted with the political elite, who withdraw from the actual democratic sovereignty through self-interest and have distanced themselves from the will of "the people". The populist notion of democracy is vague. It plays off popular sovereignty against the constitutional state, "claims to express democratic will without democratic forms." [1] Democracy is understood as the direct and absolute implementation of the constructed, homogeneous "popular will". The populists attribute inadequacies in the political process and material governability problems to the unwillingness of the political elite to take the will of the people into account. Political decisions are therefore resolved from complex contexts and assigned to the responsibility of individuals or the "establishment" as a whole.

In order to directly express the "will of the people", the populists rely on charismatic leaders who are staged as the "mouthpieces of the people". On the other hand, they propagate direct democratic forms of participation that the representative and constitutional institutions are supposed to avoid in the political decision-making process.

On the cultural axis, populism excludes all those groups that it identifies as "foreigners" according to its popular concept, i.e. primarily ethnic, cultural and religious minorities; Parts of the population can also be targeted because of their sexual orientations (e.g. homosexual people) or political convictions (leftists). Individual countries such as the USA or transnational institutions such as the European Union, which are portrayed as a threat to national culture, also belong to the enemy.

Who is one of the "enemies" is different depending on the political situation. While asylum seekers were often exposed to verbal attacks from right-wing parties in the 1980s and early 1990s, the election successes and media resonance of populism since the 2000s are due not least to agitation against Muslims (for example in the case of the PVV, the Dansk Folkeparti, the Swiss SVP or the Austrian FPÖ). As the German debate about Thilo Sarrazin's book "Germany Abolishes" has illustrated, anti-Islamic resentments have penetrated the political mainstream far. Often Islam is equated with Islamism as its political form and a bridge is artificially built to terrorism. The refugee movements from North African and Arab states have taken up right-wing populists with warnings of "foreign infiltration" and "Islamization" and made them useful for themselves.

Anti-Islamic populism benefits from existing fears that have grown from the series of Islamist terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001. Muslim communities are often perceived as "parallel societies" that refused to integrate. Populism can certainly point to real problems here, such as growing religious radicalization or the difficulties Muslim migrants have on the labor market. The perfidious thing is that its representatives exploit these problems by stirring up distrust of the "strangers" and placing Muslims under general suspicion. The right-wing populists warn against the takeover of the "Christian West" by an aggressive Islam, as a rule, not on the basis of a racist, but rather a Eurocentric worldview. Instead of understanding and promoting an enlightened, liberal Islam, they rely on isolation and demarcation from the supposedly non-belonging cultural outgroup up to the open demand for mass deportation.

Populism and Modernization

The social modernization process, which is accelerated by globalization, is accompanied by massive structural changes: Employment relationships are changing, entire branches of the economy are disintegrating, traditional ties (e.g. to the family or to institutions such as trade unions, parties, churches, etc.) are loosening. Modernization not only produces objective losers who live permanently in unemployment and / or poverty. Even people who are not directly affected, but simply fear their own social decline, can be unsettled by the process.

The already mentioned first "real" populist party, the Populist Party that emerged in the USA at the end of the 19th century, saw itself in this sense as the mouthpiece of the farmers in the south and west of the country, whose economic position and cultural way of life were driven by industrial development was threatened. In other countries, too, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe, populism initially developed as an agricultural populism that wanted to defend the rural world against industrialization and urbanization.

Whereas it was the decline of the primary sector at the end of the 19th century, Western societies have been shaped by the decline in the importance of the industrial sector since the second half of the 20th century; the classic service industry, in turn, has been affected by increasing digitalization since the turn of the millennium. Here, too, the structural change means that certain professional qualifications are no longer in demand; At the same time, the nation-state's ability to shape its economy is coming under pressure in view of the globalized economy. The individual countries are forced into a competition for the best location conditions, which tends to depress wages and social standards. The consequences are unemployment, welfare state benefits and a widening of the gap between rich and poor.

The electoral successes of right-wing populists are also related to the cultural change that we have been observing in Western societies since the 1960s. This is driven, on the one hand, by the influx of migrants, who, especially in the urban agglomerations, appear as religiously and culturally delimitable groups. On the other hand, traditional notions of order that prevailed earlier have been replaced by a new variety of lifestyles and post-materialistic value orientations (individualization).

So-called "modernization losers", who are directly affected by the negative effects of economic progress, make up a relatively high proportion of the electorate of right-wing populist parties. However, the explanation for their electoral approval cannot be reduced to this. It is above all subjective deprivation, i.e. the fear of social decline, paired with the feeling of being politically powerless and not represented by the established parties and politicians, that makes certain groups in society receptive to the populist messages.The electoral successes of right-wing populist parties therefore do not stem directly from economic and cultural modernization, but from the fact that the moderate parties of the left and right mainstream fail as the transmission belts of the political system during the crisis: On the one hand, they will always ideologically compete for the majority of the electorate more similar, so they can no longer credibly convey that they stand for different political concepts. On the other hand, both the social democratic and the conservative or Christian democratic parties have evacuated economic and cultural positions that have shaped their programs and ideology for decades.

These party problems are in part homemade; in part, they are also based on structural changes that make it more difficult for them to fulfill their traditional functions as representative bodies and carriers of democratic competition. The transfer of decision-making responsibilities to transnational and supranational bodies - such as the European Union - is leading to ever longer chains of legitimation and growing lack of transparency. The political actors react to this by decoupling the representation and media-appropriate staging of politics from its technocratic reality. The voters in turn notice or suspect the contradiction. It is therefore not surprising that the image of a powerless political class lost in phrases has largely become compatible.

Organizational characteristics

The populist challengers also have their own organizational characteristics that set them apart from representatives of the political mainstream. In party research today, the latter are mostly subsumed under the type of "professional voter party" - so called by Angelo Panebianco - which represents a modernized form of member and functionary party. In the case of right-wing populists, three different types of organization can be distinguished, some of which merge into one another: The first type could also be referred to as Panebianco following Panebianco charismatic party describe. The majority of today's right-wing and left-wing populists fall under him. Such parties are grouped around a single person who, as leaders, are usually also the originators of the party. Institutionalized structures and democratic procedures take a back seat to the authority of the leader in the organization; the principle of loyal allegiance applies. Examples are the French Front National under its former chairman Jean-Marie Le Pen or the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), which has its only member in its chairman Geert Wilders.

In the second type, exemplified by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia or the Czech ANO of the oligarch Andrej Babiš, the organization is founded by a single entrepreneur, financed largely from their own resources and managed according to the principles of a commercial enterprise. This type of Business party is less ideologically shaped than the populist type to which he otherwise resembles; it represents a specific form of the electoral party. What both types have in common is that there is a rather loose institutional connection between the party leadership and the members; the parties are organizationally less differentiated than established parties.

The third type is formed by Move or frame party. Their organization consists of a loosely connected network of activists emerging from society. Examples are the pirates, the German Greens in their development phase or the five-star movement by Beppe Grillo in Italy, which also overlaps with the charismatic type. In the United States, there is a long tradition of populist movements that have done without dominant leaders. One example is the right-wing populist tea party movement.

The movement character of populism can be determined, on the one hand, from the fact that its representatives are mostly not split offs from existing parties, but rather of social origin. On the other hand, it follows from the ideological understanding of an anti-party party. The criticism of the power system of the representative institutions and the advocacy of more direct decision-making rights of the people are sides of the same coin in the populist conception of democracy Point seems to be best represented. The movement's dependency on this person remains precarious, however, because sooner or later their aura will fade. The importance of the charism for populism has to be put into perspective. It is particularly evident in the establishment phase - in the founding and breakthrough of the parties in elections, which in fact almost always owe to individual outstanding leaders. Most of these parties, however, managed to survive and remain successful even after they left. In the course of this institutional stabilization, they weakened their movement character and adapted their organizational form to the mainstream parties.

In some countries, the institutionalization is already predetermined by the legalization of the party system. For example, in the Federal Republic of Germany it would not be possible to set up a party based on the "Führer principle", since the Basic Law and Party Law make strict democratic demands on their "internal order". The fact that the grassroots' participation claims generated in this way make it more difficult to build up the party organization in a controlled manner can be seen from the escalation of the personal and power conflicts in the AfD that preceded the split in July 2015. In this respect, the requirement of intra-party democracy is a greater obstacle to success for the populist challengers than the right to vote or the rules of party funding. The problem is exacerbated by the plebiscitary understanding of democracy that they themselves propagate, which they must consequently also accept in their own organization. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that the AfD often lets members' assemblies decide instead of delegates. With its model of an equal triple or double leadership in leadership, it also has organizational elements that were previously only known from the left-wing parties (Greens and Die Linke) in the Federal Republic.

Stylistic devices of populism

Political style is the appearance - the performance - of a political actor, that is, the way in which he approaches and relates to the electorate. This includes the rhetorical address on the one hand and the aesthetics of the appearance on the other. In ascending order of their radicality, the following “stylistic devices” of populism can be identified:

Recourse to common sense arguments. A typical figure of argument consists in equating individual and collective morality according to the motto: What has proven itself in the private sector and proven to be correct cannot be wrong in the public sector! This logic follows z. B. a large part of the populist statements on economic policy (demands for frugality, greater personal provision, individual liability in case of corporate bankruptcies and the like).

Preference for radical solutions. Populists do not believe in a policy of small steps, but always demand courageous action, the big hit. Because they see the ability to compromise as a vice, they almost inevitably get into the status of a fundamental opposition. Accordingly, they find it difficult when they take responsibility themselves, unless - as in Hungary under Fidesz - they have full power and can implement their radical solutions without major resistance.

Conspiracy theories and thinking in terms of enemy images. The populist image of society corresponds to a clear front position: here the people and their advocates, there the internal and external enemy. The image of the enemy is constructed, on the one hand, through personification - social problems are projected onto certain groups of people in order to expose them as guilty - and, on the other hand, through conspiracy-based justifications. One's own party or movement is often portrayed as a "victim".

Provocation and breaking taboos. Taking sides with the "little man" does not mean that populism chases after his mood and only represents those opinions that are particularly popular. On the contrary, the compulsion to distance oneself from the supposedly ruling elite calls for calculated derailments; these should touch taboos and thus have a provocative effect. Populists deliberately and sometimes with relish disregard the precepts of political correctness, which they regard as the outflow of a "left-liberal opinion cartel".

Emotionalization and scare tactics. Choice of words and diction help to emotionally fuel moods in the population. The populist actor plays with resentments and prejudices that are aggressive towards the alleged enemy. Existing insecurities and fears of status are not invalidated by argumentation, but on the contrary deliberately stoked as a "malaise" in order to make the audience receptive to the populist message. The juxtaposition of friend and foe gives the agitator the opportunity to present himself as the chosen and savior.

Use of biological and violence metaphors. In order to convey the hostile situation in a credible manner, the agitator uses drastic formulations and uses language that is reminiscent of violence and war. The rejection of the alien and "unnatural" is expressed through sexual, medical or animal metaphors, which are supposed to paint the picture of a sick society threatened by disintegration and decomposition (national body, scourge, parasite, predatory capitalism and the like).

Populism and extremism

Populist parties can also be extremist if they cross the threshold of open hostility towards the system. Among the European representatives, this was for a long time the French Front National, the Belgian Vlaams Blok - later renamed Vlaams Belang - and the Sweden Democrats. In the meantime, these parties have pushed back the harsh extremism and are striving for a more moderate appearance. Whether this is an honest confession or just a camouflage of racist ideas remains controversial among the observers.

The FPÖ and the AfD can also be described as right-wing populist representatives with extremist "sprinkles". This makes them the exception within the populist family of parties, the mainstream of which - from the Scandinavian progressive parties to Berlusconi's Forza Italia to Fidesz in Hungary - is not extremist. Conversely, there can be right-wing extremist parties that lack the typical elements of populism. This applies, for example, to the German NPD, which only conducts virtual election campaigns and is not at all intended to enter into a publicly visible relationship with the electorate it is courting.

In a European comparison, the non-populist extreme right-wing parties are clearly losing out to the non-extremist populist representatives. Populism is therefore the real formula for success of the right-wing parties. Extremism stands in the way of such successes because it scares off ideologically moderate voters and hinders the development of a populist strategy for addressing voters. At the same time, however, the connection has an unattractive downside from the point of view of the more moderate representatives: If the populists are successful in the electoral competition, extremist forces could try to jump on their stepping stone. In this way, a number of far-right parties in the Federal Republic of Germany were infiltrated (Republicans, Bund Freier Bürger, Schill Party), which promptly lost voters or perished in internal party conflicts of direction. Looking at the success of the Dutch Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, the assumption is that populism is the more successful the further it locates itself in the supposed "middle" and the more bourgeois it is in its demeanor.

Conversely, if the extremists are "hostile to the system", that does not mean that the right-wing populists automatically move within the "constitutional arc". The populist conception of democracy contrasts the "deliberative" elements of modern democracy, patient negotiation, weighing and argument, with the authoritarian "decision". The real diversity of interests and opinions in today's differentiated societies is denied and should be undermined in a majority absolutist, tendentially authoritarian organization of decisions. Ultimately, populism is always anti-liberal and anti-pluralistic. Because it undermines the institutional and cultural principles on which today's democracy is based, it acts like a "creeping poison".

As long as the challengers remain in the opposition and act as pure protest parties, they should not pose any direct threat to the constitutional order. It only becomes questionable when they have government power and can actively implement their ideas of democracy. Experience after right-wing populist parties took over or took over power in Austria, Italy, Hungary and, more recently, Poland have shown that these fears are by no means out of thin air and cannot be dispelled by the possible failure of the populists in government.

Right-wing populism in the Federal Republic of Germany

For a long time Germany was considered difficult terrain for right-wing populist parties. This was not because the attitudes that right-wing populism relies on are less pronounced among voters in this country. However, none of the challengers have made it into the Bundestag so far. Under the influence of the then grand coalition, the NPD achieved a respectable success in 1969 with 4.3 percent of the second vote. It then took almost half a century for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its 2013 result of 4.7 percent, a newly formed right wing party to outbid this result.

From comparative research we know that it usually takes an initial spark, a certain "populist moment", in order to produce such parties or movements. At the AfD, it was the financial and euro crisis that opened the "window of opportunity" for a new party critical of the EU. Their key programmatic demands - the controlled dissolution of the monetary union and the rejection of a further deepening of the European integration process - were ideally suited to docking with a broader right-wing populist platform that linked opposition to the establishment with anti-positions on the immigration issue and other areas of social policy.

The AfD was not an ad hoc party formation. Rather, it can be interpreted as the result of a long-lasting, bourgeois-conservative protest against the European policy of the German government of Angela Merkel (and her predecessors). The AfD was founded from a group of conservative economists, but also comprised socio-political conservative networks. Empirical findings on the party's candidates show that right-wing populist attitudes were present from the start. However, these initially found little echo in the party's program. Up until the 2014 European elections, the AfD appeared populist by criticizing the established parties, the federal government and the EU, but it concentrated on eurosceptic positions. Their demand for the processing of the common European currency included not only the economic but also a political dimension, in that it aimed at regaining national sovereignty. At the same time, the party made sure to maintain as civil an appearance as possible. Nonetheless, statements by AfD functionaries directed against Islam or gender mainstreaming gave rise to the suspicion that if the party was not a right-wing populist party in the classic sense, it was at least a functional equivalent; a party that is not openly right-wing populist, but functions like one at the electoral level.

After the 2014 European elections, the AfD increasingly focused on socio-political issues. In contrast, the euro crisis was of much less importance. Instead, the party campaigned with restrictive positions in immigration policy and, especially in the eastern German states, stylized itself as the guardian of local culture. The internal party dispute, which was sparked by the leadership style of the spokesman Bernd Lucke, but essentially concerned the ideological orientation of the AfD, culminated in their split in the summer of 2015. After Lucke lost the chairmanship in a battle vote to Frauke Petry, he and his followers left the AfD and launched a new group called "Alliance for Progress and Awakening" (ALFA), which, however, had no chance in the subsequent state elections should stay. In the meantime, the right-wing populist profile of the AfD has become increasingly clear. It was solidified in the summer of 2016 at the Stuttgart party congress, where the party gave itself a basic program for the first time. The self-description as an alternative to the established, but also critical passages against Islam and the commitment to the traditional multi-child family formed its core statements.

The 2013 Bundestag election had already shown that the AfD owed its support less to the euro issue than to the discomfort of large sections of the population about migration and integration policy. The finding coincides with other studies that empirically contradict the diagnosis, which keeps popping up in public discourse, that it is a short-lived protest party: According to this, the AfD lives on the one hand from the disenchantment of its voters with parties and politics. On the other hand, there is a high degree of convergence in socio-cultural positions between the party and the electorate. Even if only a good quarter of AfD supporters have a united right-wing extremist view of the world, this can be read as an indication that the AfD is supported to a large extent out of protest, but at the same time it managed to get into the political one Union migrated in the middle to win over the potential voters on the right fringes of the party system. At least in the medium term, there is a lot to suggest that right-wing populism in the form of the AfD can now also establish itself in Germany.

Right-wing populism in Central and Eastern Europe

In the Central and Eastern European states, a different form of right-wing populism has developed than is known from Western Europe. The main differences are that the representatives there are directed less against immigrant Muslims than against established national and ethnic minorities - such as Sinti and Roma. As a rule, they appear with the claim to bring their own ethnic group together within the common, historically legitimized boundaries (irredentism). In addition, religious identity in the form of Catholicism (for example in Poland) or Orthodox Christianity plays a far greater role than in the secularized societies of Western Europe. Compared to the right-wing populists there, whose economic policy program also bears liberal features, the majority of the Central and Eastern European exponents propagate a social protectionist policy. Together with their Western European neighbors, they are protesting against the political establishment. With the party "Law and Justice" (PiS) and the Hungarian Fidesz, right-wing populist state parties have established themselves, which continue their anti-elitist habitus and their role as outsiders on the European stage.

The reasons for the development of a specific right-wing populism in Central and Eastern Europe lie in history. The parties follow authoritarian pre- and interwar traditions as well as the transfigured equality of the state socialist social order. After the epochal change in 1989/1990, political competition began practically from zero. Correspondingly, right-wing populist parties benefit from a lack of party ties and great skepticism towards the old and new political elites.

As in Western Europe, the spectrum of right-wing populist parties in Central Eastern Europe is anything but uniform. This is shown by a comparison between the Polish PiS and the Hungarian Fidesz. The ideological core of the PiS, which was founded by Lech Kaczyński in 2001, is based on the image of "Polishism" and consists, on the one hand, of Polish nationalism and, on the other hand, of its conservative Catholic social policy. The party has close ties to the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja. It has participated in Polish governments several times and has been the sole governing parliamentary group since 2015.

Fidesz has been the Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán since 2010. However, the party was founded back in 1988. However, at that time it was a liberal, bourgeois formation. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s that a conservative, nationalist profile emerged after the split-offs, which became even more acute after the 2002 election defeat. For a long time, the Hungarian electorate was not viewed as having an affinity for right-wing populism. The consolidation of Fidesz as a party with broad majorities did not materialize until after 2006, when a scandal surrounding Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány brought down his social democratic government. The examples of Poland and Hungary illustrate the effects right-wing populists' participation in government can have. In Poland, immediately after the elections, the government expanded its influence on the public service media and at the same time tried to disempower the Constitutional Court. In doing so, it is not only emulating the "anti-liberal" example of Hungary, whose conversion to a quasi-democratic authoritarian system has been consistently pursued since Fidesz came to power, but also the model of rule of the - which its creator Vladimir Putin cynically dubbed the "controlled" democracy hated Russian neighbors. It was Hungary and Poland who most consistently demonstrated their will for freedom against the Soviet Union during the communist era.

Opinion: strategies of dispute

The consistently high election results of the right-wing populists indicate that these are not short-lived protest phenomena. The established parties and civil society actors have to get used to the fact that right-wing populist parties are establishing themselves - the question is how the populists can be countered. A major goal should be to deprive them of the grounds for protest from which they benefit. This requires a combination of actual (material) problem solving through "good" governance, symbolic representation of the potential protest electorate and political confrontation with the right-wing challengers.

In the political competition, the mainstream parties have tried different strategies. These range from isolation (Germany, France), imitation (Denmark) to cooperation (Austria, Finland). None of the chosen strategies has so far caused the election results of right-wing populists to fall permanently. In Denmark and recently in Austria, after conservatives and Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats have also accepted the positions of right-wing populists and paid a high price for it. In Denmark, the government led by Social Democrats was voted out of office in the parliamentary elections in mid-2015. In Austria, after the switch to a more restrictive refugee policy, it plunged into a deep crisis in 2016, which ended with the resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann.

Austria is also an example of the consequences that government participation can have for right-wing populist parties. Between 2000 and 2007 the conservative ÖVP formed a coalition with the FPÖ at the federal level. During this time, the Alliance Future Austria (BZÖ) split off from the FPÖ. This was preceded by a series of defeats in state elections and a massive loss of votes in the early National Council election in 2002. Even if the BZÖ has now disappeared into oblivion and the FPÖ has been on par with the SPÖ and ÖVP for years after votes, the example shows that the compromises of a coalition government can plunge protest-oriented parties into violent internal conflicts. The "Finns" party has also struggled with a sharp drop in popularity since it entered the government in Finland.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, conservative governments were tolerated or supported by right-wing populists. Such constellations may pay off most for right-wing populists: They can influence government affairs, but are not responsible themselves.

Demonization and isolation, on the other hand, as attempted by the established parties in Germany and France, do not lead to the hoped-for effects. The fundamental problem is that the established parties want to "expose" the challengers, but are themselves the object of populism - they are precisely the representatives of those "old parties" against which the right-wing populists successfully mobilize their voters. Trying to marginalize the parties can then have the undesirable effect of making their sympathizers feel just as stigmatized. The exclusion from the political debate leads to the fact that the right-wing populists' right-wing populists' right-wing populists' claim to be an outsider. It should therefore generally make more sense not to avoid the political confrontation, but to look for it. Here too, however, it is important not to address the party's role as an outsider, but to confront the political opponent in terms of content and confront it with his lack of solutions. If the left and right parties of the political mainstream claim to have the better arguments, they should also use the opportunity to calmly bring them forward.

Which recommendations for action can be derived from the failure of the opposing control strategies? In addition to the direct political debate, the following four tasks (fields) appear to be essential: Firstly, a policy is required on the national as well as on the European level that brings the economic and social cohesion of societies more into focus. The awareness of the importance that the welfare state is gaining for this cohesion has been increasingly lost in the past. It is particularly evident when it comes to international competition: the more economies open to the outside world, the more important education and training (in order to prepare for competition) become, but also protection against the internal risks arising from competition. If politics does not succeed in building a society on the basis of equal opportunities and fairness, the potential for populism cannot be reduced.

Second, with right-wing populism, you have to try to meet the competition in its own field - the politics of values. This is a difficult problem, especially for the Social Democrats, who are more materialistic in their understanding of values, but who can only win back the lost credit if they counter the right-wing "counter-modernization" with their own, non-regressive model of a good society that meets the needs of the Accepts people by belonging. This is especially true for immigration policy. Just as it is decided to counter right-wing populist perfidy to reinterpret social conflicts into purely cultural or national conflicts, conversely one should not be tempted to reduce cultural difference (and how to deal with it) to an exclusively social problem.

Thirdly, it is important to make it clear why a policy that regulates the markets at the European and transnational level and relinquishes national competences (or would be willing to relinquish) is nevertheless in the national interest. This challenge arises equally in the confrontation with right and left populism. The citizens, who are increasingly tired of Europe, can only be won back for the integration project if the social and cultural side effects that result from market events are no longer surrendered exclusively to national politics. In other areas - such as foreign and defense policy - it would be necessary for the political elite to jump over their own shadow; here the overcoming of national thinking does not fail because of the resistance of the population.

And fourthly, the parties must open up to the public. This calls for a different understanding of representation and organization that breaks with the current model of member and functionary parties controlled from above. It should also be considered whether and in what form the representative party democracy can be supplemented by direct democratic participation procedures - so that the right-wing populists do not exclusively seize this demand. Above all, a new culture of listening and interacting is needed. The politician's closeness to the people, which is indispensable in a democracy, does not dictate that the will of the people be followed, but rather that the citizens should be heard. This presupposes that you know the realities of life of your voters or at least not avoid them.


Bornschier, Simon (2012), Why a Right-Wing Populist Party Emerged in France but not in Germany: Cleavages and Actors in the Formation of a New Cultural Divide, in: European Journal of Political Science 4 (1), p. 121- 145.

Canovan, Margaret (2002), Taking Politics to People. Populism as the Ideology of Democracy, in: Yves Mény / Yves Surel (eds.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge, Basingstoke / New York, pp. 25-44.

Canovan, Margaret (2004), Populism for Political Theorists ?, in: Journal of Political Ideologies 9 (3), pp. 241-252.

Decker, Frank (2004), The new right-wing populism, 2nd edition, Opladen.