In the evolving landscape of European politics, the rise of populism challenges traditional ideological boundaries. Examining parties’ policy preferences reveals distinct clusters, cutting across geographical and traditional left-right divides. From the ‘Central and Eastern European populists’ rejecting European integration to the ‘Identity politics and intersectional left’ group emphasizing extreme positions, these clusters redefine the political spectrum, highlighting the complex interplay of factors shaping party positions and policy preferences. As Europe grapples with these shifts, understanding the nuanced nature of populist policy choices becomes crucial for policymakers and scholars navigating the ever-changing political dynamics.
January 11, 2024
Populism has become a prominent force in contemporary Europe, reshaping the political landscape and challenging traditional definitions of ideology. We can see this in the emergence of new forms of right-wing populist politics across Europe, with the Fidesz government in Hungary and, until recently, the one led by Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland being key examples.
These new actors use populist rhetoric in a traditional sense but deviate significantly from the earlier concept of populist policy preferences primarily associated with Latin American politics. Populist policies in Latin America imply the use of fiscal stimulus instead of austerity, printing more money, and expanding budget deficits. They emphasize growth and income distribution, and downplay the risks of inflation and deficit finance. Ultimately, they are leftist in nature. The parties led by the Kirchners in Argentina, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia are some of the most prominent examples.
The fact that new forms of populist preferences have emerged that are very different from the leftist Latin American ones led experts to believe that populism was more about rhetoric than policy. In other words, while we can always see common elements in populist rhetoric regardless of time and space, populist policies can vary depending on the local context.
This new tendency to conceptualize populism as rhetoric relegated the study of populist policies to the back seat for over three decades. However, as the paper “Clustering and Analysing Relevant Policy Dimensions of Populist, Left-Wing, Centrist, and Right-Wing Parties across Europe” finds, even if populist leaders hold different policy preferences across various contexts, there is some recurrence in preferences in Europe.
A cluster analysis finds that parties in Europe fall into four distinct groups based on their policy preferences, as recorded in the 2014 and 2019 Chapel Hill Expert Surveys. One of these groups encompasses most of the parties in Europe that the PopuList dataset identifies as populist. Contrary to what may be expected, the clusters cut across geographical boundaries and traditional left-right divides. They are:
- Central and Eastern European Populists: This cluster primarily encompasses parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which have a strong focus on identity politics and centrist economic positions. These parties reject the European integration project and extreme economic policies. Notable examples include Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s PiS, which emphasize anti-EU and anti-liberal values.
- The Left and Moderate Centre: The largest cluster, this consists of parties primarily in Western Europe but with a significant presence in Northern Europe and elsewhere too. While this cluster is identified as left-wing, the parties hold moderate positions on most policy issues and take a moderate and inclusive political stance. They are characterized by their concerns about the role of the EU in domestic political life and their extreme positions on migration issues.
- The Pro-Europe and Pro-Liberalism Centre: This cluster is most prevalent in Southern Europe but also extends into Central and Eastern Europe. It aligns with centrist ideologies, strongly supporting European integration, liberal values, and economic liberalism, and taking neutral positions on identity issues.
- The Identity Politics and Intersectional Left: This cluster, primarily located in Western and Southern Europe, is ideologically aligned with the left. It stands out for its extreme positions on economic issues, favoring a more statist approach and opposing free-market policies. This group has growing emphasis on intersectional politics that address issues of identity, race, gender, and class.
These clusters challenge the notion that populism in Europe can be solely defined by parties’ economic policy positions or location, as argued about the Latin American cases and consequently in the populism literature. Instead, in Europe, a complex interplay of libertarian-authoritarian, left-right, populist-non-populist, and geographical factors shape party positions and policy preferences.
While there is no straightforward cause-and-effect relationship between party politics, policy preferences, and policymaking, understanding party positions across Europe is crucial. Exploring their complexities can help us understand the evolution of the European political space beyond a simple left-right ideological divide, and it can draw attention to new dynamics that may influence the European project. In fact, the traditional left-right ideological divides seem to be less relevant today. The emergence of parties clustering around extreme positions on economic and identity issues concurrently (like the “Identity Politics and Intersectional Left” group) reflects a growing departure from conventional ideological categorizations and cleavages, potentially altering trends of party competition and alliance-building efforts in Europe.
At the same time, parties in the “Central and Eastern European Populists” and the “Identity Politics and Intersectional Left” clusters pose a different challenge: being critical of the European integration, they have the potential to create further divisions within the EU. As the examples of Fidesz and PiS show, the rise of such parties can pose challenges to the integrity of the EU. The distinctive policy preferences among the four clusters suggest that Europe may witness divergent policy directions in the future. Parties with significantly different positions may pursue varying policy outcomes, depending on their access to power and the broader political context.
These new trends are but a glimpse into the ever-changing landscape of party politics. As Europe continues to grapple with these shifts in political dynamics, further research in this area is crucial to providing a comprehensive understanding of populism’s evolving nature. As populists continue to reshape European politics, a nuanced understanding of their policy choices becomes increasingly vital for policymakers and scholars alike.
Elena Cossu is a research fellow at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics at SciencesPo Paris.
For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper entitled “Clustering and Analysing Relevant Policy Dimensions of Populist, Left-Wing, Centrist, and Right-Wing Parties across Europe” in the Central European Journal of Public Policy.
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