extremism & populism

Definition of Populism


Despite different connotations of populism both in the media and in the academia, in recent years, scholars have come to a general agreement on the so-called “analytical core of populism” which this chapter adopts. This so-called analytical core consists of three fundamental, tightly connected characteristics which are discussed in more detail later. These characteristics are: 1) a perception of people and elites as homogeneous groups, 2) a focus on the antagonistic nature of the relations between the two groups and 3) a view of the people as morally sovereign. The most influential definition has been provided by Cas Mudde who perceives populism:

“a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated onto two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde C 2004,‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39 (4), pp. 542–563).

As Margaret Canovan (1999, ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies,47 (1), pp. 2-16.) points out, populism is best described as “an appeal to ‘the people’ against both the established structure of power and dominant ideas and values of the society” (p. 3). Populism is easily combined with other ideologies. Consequently, there are different types of populist political parties such populist radical right, social populist, ethnoregionalist populist or liberal populist parties.

One of the reasons, why so much attention has been paid to populist political parties in recent years, is the relationship of populism and democracy. On the one hand, populism is not an ideology which is incompatible with the concept of democracy but it is on the other hand often perceived as a logical consequence of the side-effects of democracy or rather of its inner tensions. Marc Plattner (2010) understands populism as “a broad tendency that is always latent to some degree in modern democracies” (p. 87). In relation to the two styles of modern politics defined by Oakeshott – the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism – Margaret Canovan (1999) talks about the two faces of democracy: pragmatic and redemptive. The redemptive face refers to a vision that promises “salvation through politics“, and the return to popular power with the people as the only legitimate authority and to the direct exercise of power without institutional constraints. The pragmatic face refers to a peaceful resolution of conflicts in society (as an alternative to violence or even civil war), to preserving the government, institutions and rules (Canovan, 1999). There is essentially a constant tension between the redemptive and pragmatic faces of democracy which helps to mobilise populism. On the other hand, populism may threaten the real functioning of democratic regimes. The key to understanding this face of populism is in its contrast to the principles of liberal democracy, such as the rule of law, fair and free elections, popular sovereignty, political equality with majority rule, but also the constitutional protection of minority rights (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012). In the eyes of populists, democracy is a one-sided phenomenon - it only represents the power of the people (Mény and Surel, 2002). According to Plattner (2010), populists “have little patience with liberalism`s emphasis on procedural niceties and protections for individual rights” (p. 88). Similarly, Takis Pappas contrasts populism with the liberal understanding of democracy and defines it as democratic illiberalism (Pappas 2012, 2014). Populism is not a threat to democracy because it is fundamentally undemocratic but because it is illiberal. All in all, populist political parties – especially when they come to power (as it is the case of contemporary Hungary and Poland) – may easily seek to weaken the basic principles of liberal democracy and turn the regime into a form of illiberal democracy with lack of respect to rule of law, human right or the system of checks and balances. Consequently, it is important to understand when and why populist parties are successful and who the voters of these political parties are.

Based on these definitions and our Database of Political Parties, there were 52 populist parties which won more than 1.0% of the votes in the European Union countries in the 2000-2014 period (see Database). There were half as many populist parties in the former Eastern Bloc countries than in the Western economies. Seven populist parties succeed in the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria and in Lithuania. Five populist parties received a significant number of ballots in Italy and in Slovakia. The most successful populist party was Fidesz in the Hungarian parliamentary election of 2010. Fidesz won 52.7% of the votes and had the majority in the lower chamber. The success of populist parties is often related to bribery, corruption, and clientelism.

The graph below shows the scores of the countries in the Corruption Perception Index in parliamentary election years on the x axes and the sum of voter share of populist parties (in percentage) on the y axes. The Corruption Perception Index ranges from 0 to 10 when higher number means lower level of perception of corruption in the country. There are two groups of countries in the graph. The fist group with scores bellow 6 points of the Corruption Perception Index includes countries of the former Eastern Bloc plus Greece and Italy. The second group consists of the former Western Bloc countries and Slovenia. When the score of the Corruption Perception Index exceeded 6 points, the sum of vote share of populist parties moved below 10.0%. Conversely, when the scores of the Corruption Perception Index were low, populist parties won in sum more than 20% of the votes. It seems that the perception of corruption could help populist parties in election support in the 2000-2014 period.


Graph: The Corruption Perception Index and the vote share of populist parties in the EU28 countries in the 2000-2014 period

Source: Database of Political Parties (2015), Transparency International (2016)



  • Canovan, M. (1999). ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies,47 (1), pp. 2-16.
  • Masaryk University (2015). ‘Database of Political Parties‘, online, available from: http://www.populism.cz/database.
  • Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasse, C. (2012). ‘Populism and (liberal) democracy: A framework for analysis’,in Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasse, C. (eds). Populism in Europe and Americas. Threat or Corrective for Democracy?, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-26.
  • Pappas, T. (2012). ‘Populism Emergent. A Framework For Analyzing its Contexts, Mechanics and Outcomes’,EUI Working Papers, RSCAS 2012/1, online, availablefrom: http://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/20114 [accessed 30 September 2014].
  • Plattner, M. F. (2010). ‘Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy’,Journal of Democracy,21 (1), pp. 81-92.
  • Transparency International. (2016). ‘Corruption Perception Index‘, online, available from: http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview.