Populist parties succeed if they mobilise disaffected constituencies. But they fail if they stimulate their opponents to go one better.
Last month Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected president of Taiwan. While a story seemingly unrelated to European politics, her populist opponent, Han Kuo-yu, manifested a phenomenon all too well-known in Europe and instanced a common challenge for populists around the globe.
Looking the likely winner in spring 2019, Han obtained around 1.7 million votes more than his party’s candidate in 2016. Tsai however mobilised even more voters—young people in particular—and won a decisive victory.
We call this the paradox of turnout. Globally, populists appear to be successful in mobilising certain sections of society but they are ultimately victorious only if other parties do not manage to match them with other sectors. Populists thus depend on low turnout.
Populist parties and movements often arise in response to widespread dissatisfaction with the political elite and their parties or a general disengagement from politics, which tends to be manifested in high levels of political distrust. Eminent political scientists, such as Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas, would even argue that they are the indicators of the crisis of liberal democracy themselves.
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The literature on political participation has dealt extensively with decreasing voter turnout. The perception of having less competitive elections in a less polarised party system may be counted as only one reason for citizens’ decisions to abstain from voting.
The populists see the ‘elites’ as corrupt and self-enriching or simply not responsive to the demands of the population. They present themselves as meeting a (real or imagined) ‘representation failure’ and standing for policies different from those of the mainstream parties.
The Alternative für Deutschland started out as the only party in Germany fundamentally opposed to the bailouts in the European Union. Likewise, Syriza in Greece provided voters with an option to express their preferences against austerity measures.
Populists open up new political supply sides to otherwise disaffected voters. They share aversion towards the current political elite and what they perceive as party system ‘cartelisation’. Populists claim to articulate the ‘will of the people’. Hence their appeal to voters who have previously abstained or are dissatisfied with the traditional political parties.
The AfD for instance gained almost 1.5 million votes in the 2017 federal elections from people who did not go to the polls in 2013. Similar trends have been seen on the subnational level in Germany. In some countries, right-wing populist parties have been particularly successful in convincing working-class voters of their cause—the Sweden Democrats, for example.
Radical-right populist parties’ emphasis on cultural conflicts, immigration and integration allows them to move past the traditional political dimension of left-right, which has been complemented by a range of other important issue dimensions. By linking complex issues to simple solutions, they may motivate the less educated parts of society to participate in politics and cast their vote—a strategy which is of course deliberate.
Yet while populists attempt to mobilise some parts of society, they dread an overall mobilisation. When voter turnout is high—when other parties also mobilise their supporters successfully—results for populist parties tend to be worse.
This may however be an intrinsic populist dilemma. By raising the stakes of the political game and promoting polarisation in the party system, populists may inherently stimulate mobilisation by their political opponents.
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A case in point was the French presidential election of 2002, in which the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, defeated the extreme-right leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac arguably benefited from a higher turnout. A similar, if less powerful, argument could be made vis-à-vis the victory by Emmanuel Macron of La République En Marche over Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National in 2017. And in Austria the Freiheitliche Partei Ӧsterreichs seems to have benefited from a relatively low turnout between 2002 and 2017.
Populists—particularly right-wing populists—thus face an electoral quandary. If they polarise the party system and voters too much, this will play into the hands of their political opponents, paradoxically serving to weaken them electorally.
James F Downes is a lecturer in comparative politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and an associate fellow at the Center for Research and Social Progress (Italy). Felix Wiebrecht is a PhD student in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.