What exactly do the words ‘populism’ and ‘nativism’ mean? Does it make sense to use them interchangeably, as is the case in the media?


First published in July 2020.


Hungary’s parliament overwhelmingly voted to grant prime minister Viktor Orbán permission to rule by decree under the pretext of the coronavirus crisis. Orbán’s Hungary has come to epitomise the resurgence of populist and nativist movements and governments in Europe in the last decade. But what exactly do these terms mean? Does it make sense to use them interchangeably, as is the case in the media? As we hope to demonstrate, apart from one policy or another, Orbán and his party have little in common with parties such as AfD, despite usually being lumped together under the same label.

The ‘Populism and Civic Engagement’ (PaCE) project, a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission, involves the Democratic Society and eight other partners across Europe. The empirical and conceptual work related to populism is a key part of PaCE’s aim of understanding different aspects of populist movements, identifying and building upon lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens. Through this, we hope to play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for Europe.

Populism emerged in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, with a promise to serve the interests of social majorities, resorting to constitutional legality only when it is expedient, but disregarding it whenever it is. Nativism, on the other hand, a phenomenon more common in Western Europe’s liberal democracies, is premised on the defence of the native-born population against the perceived threat of those social groups viewed as outsiders, such as immigrants and people of colour. But in order to achieve that, nativists embrace both democracy’s electoral rules and modern liberal institutions.

There are several markers that help distinguish between populists and nativists. Populist leaders are predominantly found in post-war democracies with a liberal tradition in Europe and the Americas. Such parties can be found on either left or right of the political spectrum. In order to achieve this, their main political methods when in office consist of political polarisation and patronage politics. Nativist parties and movements, on their turn, are predominantly found in contemporary European liberal democracies and typically are on the right side of the political spectrum.

Populist parties are relatively strong and cohesive and tend to be autocratically led by charismatic and extraordinary, predominantly male leaders. Populists have won office in many countries, often singlehandedly, and they tend to have strong staying power with high potential of radical political transformation. Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) party has won every major election since it won a parliamentary supermajority in 2010, which was maintained in the subsequent elections in 2014 and 2018. Another example of a European populist party is the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland. In power since 2015, PiS is the largest party in the parliament, with 198 seats in the Polish Sejm and 48 in the Senate. In 2019, PiS narrowly won a second term in office, having lost control of the Senate. Without guaranteeing a two-thirds majority of seats in the lower chamber, the Sejm, its legislative agenda is constrained.

Nativist movements usually have weak party organisations plagued by intense infighting, led by non-charismatic leaders, and have a somewhat better gender balance, but are not very durable. Such movements rarely reach government in Europe, and when they do it is most typically as junior coalition partners, as they use liberal institutions to serve native voters to the detriment of foreign or those seen as non-belonging to the national in-group. The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), for instance, following its breaking away from the more radical Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) joined the coalition government in 2005 until the next election in 2006. Another case in point is the Blue Reform, which was a splinter party from the Finns Party in 2017, and which was one of the three parties composing the government led by Juha Sipillä, which resigned on 2019.

Populists’ view of society is premised on an irreconcilable split between “the people” and the “elites,” and they aspire to achieve an overarching political transformation that can be ultimately understood as illiberal democracy. In fact, Fidesz’s model of government has been described as illiberal Christian democracy. Although the Orbán government has carried out some liberal economic policies, such as a flat income rate, privatisation, social benefits cuts and corporate tax rate reductions, it has also embraced populist measures, including “a public works job program, pension hikes, utility bill cuts, a minimum wage increase and cash gifts for retirees”. Although economically liberal, PiS backs state-provided basic social safety net, housing loans and health care. It is also characterised by its firm anti-migration and anti-Islam stances. In the run-up to 2015, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned that refugees from the Middle East could bring diseases and parasites to Poland.

Nativist movements, in turn, see their homogenous national entity under threat from foreign minorities and cultures. For instance, the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2007 called for a halt to immigration from Muslim countries. They stand for the promotion of social liberal democratic policies for what they understand as the “natives” of their societies. This is illustrated by the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) relative progressive stance toward LGBTQ rights (it supports civil unions, although it is against same-sex marriage). The AfD leader in the Bundestag since October 2017 is Alice Weidel, who has been described as young, clever, lesbian.

Finally, populist leaders seek to carry out their agenda irrespective of institutions and liberal principles. Throughout Orbán’s tenure, there has been a gradual degrading of the country’s democratic institutions, including attacks on the judiciary, muzzling of the media and interference on the electoral system. PiS’ platform includes a constitutional reform that would permit the president to pass laws by decree and lower media protection and is centred on law and order policies.

This is in contrast to nativist movements, which use liberal institutions to carry out their agenda. The right-wing, nationalist Finns Party (PS) has been avoiding to criticise the centre-left government during the ongoing global pandemic, since “Opposition parties, the private sector, and even brusquely right-wing columnists have mostly expressed approval of the left-wing government’s actions”. Its main demands are public spending cuts on immigration, environmental regulation and culture. As it aspires to enter into government, it has moved to the right on its economic platform by defending austerity measures and has been in talks with the centre-right Coalition Party, which has, in turn, moved farther to the right on immigration.

The loose application of the “populism” label deprives it of explanatory power. It is thus important to understand what the term means so that it can be useful in shedding light on the peculiarities and complexities of various political contexts across Europe.🔷





[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 11 July 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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