Interview #14 – The Strange Case of Dr. Populist and Mr. Corruption


Lisa Zanotti

Lisa Zanotti is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at University Diego Portales in Chile and a Ph.D. researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis, a project that aims at studying the factors influencing the emergence of the populist/anti-populist cleavage in Italy in comparative perspective.

In this interview POP discussed with her about the role of corruption in triggering populism both in Latin America and Europe, both theoretically and empirically, with a focus on Italy, France, the Netherlands, Chile and Brasil.

1) Theoretically, the crisis of representative democracy might offer the space for populism to thrive. As soon as the political system is perceived as unresponsive, unaccountable and distant, populist discourses are effective in mobilizing disillusioned voters. Is this mechanism actually working in reality?

If voters feel unrepresented by traditional political parties there are more chances that they vote for a populist party that depicts itself as completely diverse and “pure”. However, since unresponsiveness is a very generic phenomenon that may manifest in very different ways, to fully analyze this relationship we need to study which aspects of unresponsiveness are the ones that are linked to the emergence of populism. This of course, varies from country to country. One example is the convergence of the mainstream parties. When the latter converge ideologically and propose undifferentiated policies at the eyes of the voters, they feel unrepresented and might vote for populist alternatives that present themselves as different. This mechanism was evident in Venezuela before the emergence of Chavismo but also in Greece during the economic crisis of 2008/2009 and the implementation of the structural adjustments.

2) Do you find that corruption alone can trigger the success of populist actors or must it be combined with other factors such as social inequality and poor economic performance?

Corruption surely can be a condition that favors populism but it is neither a sufficient nor a necessary one. Moreover, in my opinion, it is not even the issue of corruption per se that drives the emergence of populism but the ability of political actors to use the topic and make it relevant. In other words, if politicians are capable to make the voters feel that corruption is a problem in the country, even if objectively it is not, they may have a chance to construct a relevant populist option by presenting themselves as “pure” and portraying the traditional political class as “corrupt”. Social inequality and poor economic performance, on the other hand, do not seem like factors that, by themselves or combined with corruption, may necessarily trigger populism. For example, Portugal is a country with a comparatively high corruption index among European countries and one of the most affected by the Great Recession of 2008/2009, but there is not a relevant populist alternative in the country. However, even if social inequality and poor economic performance are far from being neither sufficient nor necessary causes for the rise of populism, they may increase the chances for the populist discourse to be more effective and for populist to be more successful.


The Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania. It is the fourth-biggest building in the world: 70% of it remains constantly empty, and it consumes as much energy as a medium-sized city.

3) Interestingly, a report from the Corruption Perception Index found that anti-corruption populists seem to be more corrupt than other politicians. Do you think this contradiction might help explaining the usually short-lived experiences of populist actors in positions of power?

When a populist party bases its antagonistic discourse on the issue of corruption finds itself involved in a corruption scandal, it may be problematic to keep following this path. However, this does not automatically account for the short experiences of populists in power. I think that much has to do with the capacity of those parties to re-invent their populist discourse. An illuminating example is the Lega Nord in Italy. When the party was heavily involved in a massive corruption scandal back in 2010, the new leadership was able to fully change the main topic of its confrontational discourse from corruption to immigration. By doing this, the party managed to present itself like a credible alternative again, even losing a portion of its vote in the following election.

4) In Italy, for example, the Five Star Movement claims to be the herald of honesty and to fight the widespread corruption and incompetence of professional politicians. However, also ‘the man of the street’ can end up being involved in corruption scandals, such as Virginia Raggi, Mayor of Rome. Would you say that power inevitably corrupts people? Or is Virginia Raggi simply victim of her lack of experience and amateurism?

I would say that there’s a difference between corruption and politicization of corruption. Some populist parties or movements use corruption as a mean for attacking the mainstream parties like others use, for example, immigration. The fact that their discourse is based on corruption does not necessarily mean that they are less corrupt than the others, it means that in the constructed worldview that they create – and presented to the voters – there is a clear distinction between the “pure” and the “corrupt”. Consequently, the success of these parties rests in their capacity of presenting themselves as “pure” and diverse from the others, always depicted as “corrupt”.

5) One can claim that corruption contributes to raising populism in Europe, but Marine Le Pen almost leads the polls in France despite the fact that the European Parliament asked her to pay back €300,000 unduly paid for parliamentary assistance. Do you think that blaming supranational institutions, big business and the media allows populist actors to be immune from any critique in the eyes of their supporters?

I think that in this case it is also important to analyze the discourse of the populist party in question. For those populist parties that put corruption at the center of their confrontational discourse, being involved in a corruption scandal is surely harder than for those populist parties or leaders who politicize other issues. The Front National in France is unanimously depicted as a populist radical right party. Populist radical right parties share three features: nativism, populism and authoritarianism. Corruption is not one of the key issues of their discourse therefore it may be easier for this kind of parties, if involved in corruption scandals, to blame others and not been punished by their voters. They might even say that mainstream parties aim to create an ‘fake news’ to portray the populist party as corrupt.

6) The link between corruption and the success of populism, as we said, seems to be theoretically very strong. However, while in many countries populism is on the rise as a reaction to repeated scandals of corruption and low trust in political parties, this does not happen everywhere. For example, how do you explain the absence of populism in Chile and Brasil?

As I claimed before, the case of Chile and Brazil seems to prove the point that corruption per se is neither a sufficient nor a necessary cause for the emergence of populism. In Brazil, the high level of corruption scandals has not lead to the emergence of populist parties. So we know that the link is not necessary straightforward, but why? It might be because there was not a political actor capable of capitalizing this high level of corruption and construct a credible confrontational discourse. On the other hand, it is also possible that even the politicization of corruption does not necessarily lead to the emergence of populist parties. The case of Chile is slightly different. Even though the level of corruption has raised in the last years, in comparative terms we cannot say there is a high level of corruption in the country. Therefore, to me, the analysis of the Chilean case is not conclusive on the relation between corruption and populism. The case of the Netherlands, on the other hand, demonstrates that corruption is not a necessary cause for populism. In fact, in a country with a very low corruption index, we find a very electorally strong populist party, which is focused on the politicization of immigration rather than in the politicization of corruption.


P.S. The picture on top of the article shows, in the background, the Pyramid of Tirana (Albania). It was a museum about Enver Hoxha, leader of Communist Albania, and it has been co-designed by Hoxha’s daughter Panvera and her husband Klement Kolanec. It was the most expensive individual structure constructed in Albania when it was inaugurated in 1988.

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