Emerging evidence shows that populist support in Europe may be waning. A YouGov survey found that fewer people agree with targeted statements meant to measure populist beliefs .
Populism, according to Cinar and other researchers , is a belief system which espouses anti-elitism and takes a Manichean worldview, organizing populists and their opponents into moral saviors and ill-intended evildoers respectively. However, different strains of populism pick different enemies. Left-wing populists make a division between the economic elite and the common people, whereas right-wing populists target partisan opponents, ethnic minorities, and other outgroups. Populist leaders such as Marie Le Pen, Victor Orban, Andrezj Duda, and others across Europe have tended to be right-wing populists.
Scientists behind the study found that there was “a clear pattern of decreasing support for populism” in the 10 countries surveyed. Populism has seen rapid growth as a political force in Europe, evidenced by the rise of support for populist parties in national elections from 7% to greater than 25% over the past 20 years . These parties have risen to the forefront of national conversation in many EU countries.
Support for populist beliefs such as the view that “my country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” decreased from 61% to 49% in France, and saw similar decline in Germany (54%-46%), Spain (70%-65%), Poland (73%-63%), Denmark (29%-15%), Italy (65%-54%), Sweden (42%-36%), and the UK (58-54%) .
Political Sociologist at the University of Amsterdam and expert on populism Matthijs Rooduijn remarked that the survey across 22 countries and totaling 24,000 voters showed that there had been a “clear drop” in preference for populist sentiments from 2019 to 2021, when the voters were first and last surveyed. While the survey showed that voters were tending towards more moderate and less populist views on average, “the small, very vocal group of people who vote for populist radical right parties” may have become more radical. And though there have been concerns about the growing prevalence of conspiracy theories as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Rooduijn stated that the pandemic likely had a reinforcing effect on trust in science and, to a certain degree, government.
But does this mean that populism is on its way out of Europe? The enduring presence of populist national leaders such as Victor Orban and Andrezj Duda, as well as their political parties, suggests otherwise.
While the study gives evidence that populism may have already peaked and may start to fall out of favor, populist leaders retain firm support from their parties and supporters, and where they have ascended to government, are secure in their positions as well. Take Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz party, which had such strength of voter support that it won enough seats in Parliament to amend the constitution and begin implementing its purported anti-pluralist, anti-immigration, ethnonationalist views . Orban and Fidesz have seen continued electoral success over the years, despite mixed economic outcomes and the pandemic. The case of Hungary, and other nations which have elected populists such as Poland, may lend credence to arguments for populism’s continued survival in Europe. Nevertheless, the waning support in populist beliefs suggests a potential for political transformation at the national and continental levels. Henley, Jon. “Support for Populist Sentiment Falls across Europe, Survey Finds.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/18/support-for-populist-sentiment-falls-across-europe-survey-finds.  Çinar, Ipek, et al. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 2020, pp. 240–263., https://doi.org/10.1111/psq.12656.  “Revealed: One in Four Europeans Vote Populist.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Nov. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2018/nov/20/revealed-one-in-four-europeans-vote-populist.  See 1  Krekó, Péter, et al. “Anti-Muslim Populism in Hungary: From the Margins to the Mainstream.” Brookings, 4 Nov. 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/anti-muslim-populism-in-hungary-from-the-margins-to-the-mainstream/.
The article by Mayuma Elmi explores the question of “Is Populism on it’s way out of Europe?” through the analyses of various studies. Through a study of 10 countries in Europe, Elmi discovers that there was a clear sign of decline in support for populism. Despite these findings, there are a few exceptions to this argument which Elmi recognizes towards the end of the article—such as the case of Hungary. In Hungary, there is still evidence of populism, despite the lack thereof in other areas of Europe.
However, prior to analysis of Hungary, it is crucial that the definition and parameters surround populism in this context are elucidated. According to Müeller, populism revolves around the notion of persuasion. Populism “is a political approach as it strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups” (Müller, 2016). In the identification process of Populism, Müeller follows particular criteria. For example, most of their political strategy is based on the mentality of “us” versus “them” and being anti-elite. With this approach, their arguments are based on their moral and dualistic perspective on the world, such as the “good versus evil” troupe. Populists often demonize their political opponent with not only criticism, but also with the claim that they represent the people (Müller, 2016).
An important aspect of populism which Elmi mentioned was how “different strains of populism pick different enemies” (Elmi, 2022). This is in reference to left-wing populists versus right-wing populists. Elmi discusses how left-wing populists have a barrier between the common people and the elite; whereas, right-wing populists deliberately target minorities (Elmi, 2022). In Hungary, an example of a right-wing populist leader is Viktor Orbán. The article “History, Nationalism and Democracy: Myth and Narrative in Viktor Orbán’s ‘Illiberal Hungary’” by Michael Toomey, examines the relationship between Hungary’s illiberal turn’ and it’s nationalistic discourse in regard to the election of Viktor Orbán in 2010 to 2015 (2018). Orbán could be described as the embodiment of populism in a leader. According to “Anti-Muslim populism in Hungary” from the margins to the mainstream” by Peter Krekó et al., Orbán essentially illiberalized the entirety of the democratic system through these years (2019).
The democratic illiberalization of Hungary to this extent does not occur out of nowhere, there were events which took place causing a populist leader to be elected into power in the first place. Mounk argues a conservative party that emerges after suffrage will not be able to resist the control of a populist leader. When democratic institutions lose their legitimacy, citizens do not have faith or trust in their power, thus leaving them vulnerable to populism. Mounk explains thow the feeling of discontent with liberal democracy is due to lack of deliverance of promises through the generations, therefore leading to dissatisfaction which populists capitalize off of (Mounk, 2014). For example, Hungary was controlled by the Soviet Union, a socialist satellite state, following World War I. In 1989, the transition to democracy was simple however, detrimental to particularly the lower-class population. Due to privatization on the rise in the job markets, it has caused the lower-class population and unemployment population to rise. This change created feelings of resentment and anger from the lower-class which caused them to be susceptible to populist leaders such as Orbán (Sandsmark, 2021).
When a populist is in office, their goals are to capture judicial officers and referees to deconstruct laws and regulations in state intuitions and manipulate the electoral rules in a way that benefits them as a leader (Mueller, 2016). Prior to Orbán’s ruling, a new constitution ‘Fundamental Law’ was created and approved during 2011 by the ruling party which then provided a political framework that favored Orbán. Some of the changes involved the requirement of two-thirds of the votes being rewritten. Subsequently, this framework completely catered towards Orbán’s political interests which gave him an advantage and his opponents a disadvantage (Kreko et al., 2019).
As mentioned briefly earlier, Müeller explains how populists follow the notion of “us versus them”, this idea if congruent with the way in which Orbán has led as a right-wing populist. Xenophobia in Hungary has only increased since Orbán’s reign. “In 1992, 15 percent of Hungarians expressed xenophobic attitudes but the number increased to 39 percent by 2014 and reached a peak of 67 percent in October 2018” (Kreko et al., 2019). Furthermore, results from a survey from Pew Research Center regarding the halt of migration from primarily Muslim countries show that 64 % of Hungarian responses were in support (Kreko et al., 2019). In addition, an article “Restrictions on Civil Societies in Hungary” by Erika Schlager & Daniela Ondraskova, discusses how Orbán launched direct attacks at the rights of the citizens by restriction foreign funding towards any organizations, inspired by the Russian Policy in 2012 (2020). Therefore, this evidence suggests that Orbán’s populist leadership tactics have affected the population, moving towards an illiberal democracy.
Through this analysis of Hungary, particularly how the leader Victor Orbán utilized populist tactics to illiberalize the democracy, it is clear that, as Elmi mentioned, there are exceptions to the decline of populism in Europe. Even if the majority of populism is not present in a particular place, it is important to recognize the exceptions and outliers because it affects the lives of current and future citizens.
Elmi, Maymuna. “Is Populism on Its Way Out of Europe?” Democratic Erosion, 26 Feb. 2022, https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2022/02/26/is-populism-on-its-way-out-of-europe/.
“Hungary’s Illiberal Democracy.” UVA Religion Lab, 2021, https://religionlab.virginia.edu/projects/hungarys-illiberal-democracy/.
Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism?, chapters 1-2
Krekó, Péter, et al. “Anti-Muslim Populism in Hungary: From the Margins to the
Mainstream.” Brookings, 4 Nov. 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/anti-muslim-
“Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary.” CSCE, 28 Feb. 2020, https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/publications/restrictions-civil-society-hungary.
Toomey, Michael. “History,NationalismandDemocracy: Myth andNarrative in ViktorOrbán’s ‘IlliberalHungary’: Review of Central European Affairs.” New Perspectives 26.1 (2018):
87,108,157-158. ProQuest. 2 Mar. 2022 .
Yascha Mounk, “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” Foreign
Affairs, Vol 93, Issue 5, 2014