In the past few years, the tendency of populism has been increasing worldwide. Many state leaders are reckoned as populist due to their proposals on policies, such as the former President of the U.S, Donald Trump, the former President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
Among all ideologies, populism is one of the most contested concepts in political science. In fact, in different movements, populism comes with different characteristics. Generally, populism is the opposite of pluralism, which supports the separation of power. Therefore, many experts worried that the raising of populism might lead to a single politician/party taking over the government. Although authoritarian tendencies are also a challenge in European politics, it is more difficult for populist parties to capture the system due to some properties of the European political model. Comparing the different types of governments in western democracies, the European political model is better to mitigate the impact of populist radical right candidates and parties than the American political model because of its characteristics of parliamentarism over presidentialism, and proportional representation over plurality electoral systems.
The European political system is very different from the American political system. From the perspective of political institutions, most European governments are parliamentarism instead of presidentialism as the American government. Moreover, from the standpoint of political culture, most European countries are social democracies instead of liberal democracies like the U.S. The main difference between parliamentarism and presidentialism is the relationship between the legislative branch and the executive branch. Many countries around the world are parliamentarism, such as Japan, Spain, Canada, Australia, and more. It is the dominant form of government in Europe. Although parliamentarism does not only exist in Europe, Europe is the origin and the heartland of parliamentarianism (McCormick, 2010). Moreover, Europe and the U.S. share similar histories, cultures, and values. Therefore, Europe is the best example for the U.S. to learn the parliamentary system, comparing to other countries also apply the system of parliamentarism.
In parliamentarism, the legislative and executive branches have shared origin and survival. The legislative branch is elected directly by the people through voting; then, the legislators elect a prime minister to form the executive branch among themselves. The confidence relation must exist between the two branches; otherwise, there will have a new election to reform the government. In order to maintain a confident relationship between the cabinet and the other legislators, the executive branch is usually made up of legislators from different parties instead of only the legislators from the majority party. Thus, this reason leads to one of the core elements of the parliamentary model, which is the collective decision-making of the cabinet (McCormick, 2010). Overall, parliamentarism emphasizes the fused power of the government.
In presidentialism, the legislative and executive branches have separate origins and survival. The legislative branch and executive branch are elected separately by people through voting, and they are not able to remove each other under normal circumstances (Crepaz, 2017). In this system, the check and balance of government power are essential in order to prevent the overpowering of a single branch. For example, the president of the U.S. has the capability of Veto, which means to refuse to approve a bill from congresses. In most parliamentarism, the prime minister does not have the power of Veto. Overall, presidentialism emphasizes the separated power of the government.
In other words, the cabinet and the legislators work closer under a parliamentary system, while they work more individually under a presidential system. One of the reasons the European political model is better to mitigate the impact of populist radical right candidates and parties than the American political model is its characteristics of parliamentarism over presidentialism because parliamentarism makes it less likely for one party to commandeer the government. As we mentioned above that, parliamentarism focus on the fused power of the government, the system is designed to form a collective government. Suppose populist radical right parties or candidates win the elections and enter the legislative branch. In that case, it is unlikely they were able to control the whole government by forming an executive branch with only populist radical right candidates because of the strict confidence relation between the legislative and executive branches. Only when the populist radical right party has an absolute majority in the legislative branch can it form a single-party cabinet (Crepaz, 2017).
Besides parliamentarism, the other reason that the European political model is better to mitigate the impact of populist radical right candidates and parties than the American political model is its characteristics of proportional representation electoral system over plurality electoral systems.
A proportional representation electoral system means each party receives seats based on the proportion of the party’s votes. For example, if a party wins 30 percent of total votes, it will be awarded 30 percent of total parliamentary seats (Crepaz, 2017). Under this type of electoral system, the non-mainstream parties are more likely to get parliamentary seats. Therefore, the parliamentary is often formed by multiple parties. Moreover, a proportional representation electoral system reduces the possibility of malapportionment and gerrymandering because there will be more than one winner instead of winner takes all. The parliamentary formed under a proportional representation electoral system increases the representation of different interest groups, especially the minorities. However, the coalition formation of the government makes it more difficult for the government to find a consensus on decision-making.
On the other hand, a plurality electoral system means the candidates will only get parliamentary seats if they win the majority votes in their constituencies. For example, if candidate A receives 49 percent of the votes and candidate B gets 51 percent of the votes, candidate B will win the election. It is hard for candidates from non-mainstream parties to compete with candidates from main parties and win the majority of votes. Thus, winners usually come from the main parties. Under this type of electoral system, the parliamentary is often formed by only two main parties.
In other words, the proportional representation electoral system boots fairness over efficiency, while the plurality electoral system boots efficiency over fairness (Crepaz, 2017). The use of a proportional representation electoral system makes it harder for authoritarian tendencies and populist radical right tendencies to grow and take over the government because it reduces the ability to use malapportionment and gerrymandering to eliminate the oppositions.
Both the U.S. and Europe have faced the challenge of authoritarian tendencies in the past few decades. Especially many states’ leaders have been supported by populists in recent years globally. How to mitigate the impact of populist radical right candidates and parties became an important issue for many countries. The properties of the European political model, parliamentarism and proportional representation electoral system, allow the system to mitigate the impact of populism better because it makes it more difficult for a single party to control the whole political system.
Crepaz, M. M. L. (2017). European Democracies (9th ed.). Routledge.
McCormick, J. (2010). Europeanism (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.[Populism]. (n.d.). https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/populism-rise-democracies-under-challenge-15772
Hello Ann, this is a super interesting post. I agree that different forms of representation affect how power is distributed. I had not considered how a parliamentary system could improve this or be enacted in the United States. Interesting perspective!
I think comparing the pros and cons of democratic forms of government is a great way to fully explain what might make a government more or less susceptible to populism. I also agree that a distribution of power across parties, that isn’t present in the US, is necessary to stop the back and forth or one party or the other having almost all the power.
Your explanation of populism on an international scale is very interesting. While former president Donald Trump used populism to increase his supporter count and mobilize politically, populism has also had its effect in Europe through situations such as Brexit. I agree that populism is a danger to democracy, and American and European use of populism, has led to situations that at times feel come out of authoritarian tendencies. Overall this was a great and interesting article to read.
I really like your discussion comparing the costs and benefits of both parliamentary and presidential systems and how populism effects both. To me, your discussion also brings to mind the French elections and the effect which Le Pen has had upon the French Electorate and the National Assembly.