What do populists do once in power? In what do they differ from traditional authoritrian leaders? In this article, Wojciech Sadurski answers these questions while introducing his new book “A Pandemic of Populists” (Cambridge University Press). First, all populist leaders in power, he claims, share some common characteristics: they use aggressive language about their opponents, and often demonize their enemies. The narratives they develop often draw on conspiracy theories, and their discourse deploys familiar tropes that brings it close to fascism (anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, antipathy to rationalism and Enlightenment, xenophobia). Moreover, formal institutions are viewed by populist leaders as irritants, unnecessarily throwing obstacles on the path of implementing the leadership’s will. Finally, populist regimes rely on a thoroughly corrupt symbiosis of political power with the economy.
But isn’t this just traditional authortiarianism? No, argues Sadurski, because populist regimes respect at least one civil right of their citizens: that of participating in free, fair and regular elections. Indeed, populists are unlikely to fundamentally abolish free and fair elections because their whole legitimacy relies upon the claim to represent the People. But what sort of democracy do you have if there are no checks and balances which prevent the accumulation of all powers in the hands of one person?
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My forthcoming book on populism was completed before Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. The conflict has provoked not only immediate military/strategic questions, but also broader reflections on the nature of the political regimes involved, and the growing contest between liberal democracy and alternative models of governance.
Neither the invader nor its victim belong to the category of states discussed in my book, which deals with novel political systems in-between the full blown autocracy of Putin’s Russia and the democratizing project of pre-war Ukraine. The case studies discussed in my book: Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, India and Brazil, are less oppressive than Russia but on a converse trajectory from that of Ukraine.
It is impossible to know what Russia’s aggression will mean for populism, both in Europe and around the world. Two of the case studies discussed in my book have already been affected by the invasion’s shockwaves. Poland has overnight become one of the world’s largest host countries for refugees and the venue for US presidential speeches about hope and liberal democracy. Suddenly, the Polish government has switched from attacking refugees to housing them, while simultaneously using the war as an opportunity to wrap itself with the flag, step up attacks on pro-rule-of-law forces within, and seek to distract the world, particularly Europe, from its multiple forms of democratic backsliding. Hungary’s government meanwhile has been exposed as a Putin-sympathising pariah. In the midst of this, Fidesz has decisively won elections for the fourth time, partly by doubling down on the tactics described in this book, and partly with the promise that pandering to Putin will keep gas and petrol prices down.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is one example of a new family of political systems often branded as “populist” – and their numbers are rising. All share some common characteristics, already hinted at in the account of Hungary just given. They are ruled by leaders who use aggressive language about their opponents, and often define an “enemy” (George Soros, Muslims, the liberal left, Jews, atheists, etc.) to demonize. The narratives they develop often draw on conspiracy theories: there are invidious “plans” to harm the people, but these plans are fortunately exposed by the Leader. The discourse used by leaders often deploys familiar tropes that brings it close to fascism: anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, antipathy to rationalism and Enlightenment, xenophobia.
They all have a charismatic leader personifying the regime, and often the name given to the regime carries the name of the Leader. As a result, these political systems are highly personalized: there is no feasible procedure for replacing this particular person with another. (Occasionally, they appear out of nowhere and become suddenly popular thanks to a brilliant “performance” which the electorate turned into audience enjoys. Orbán became well-known after his speech in Budapest in 1989 at the reburial of national heroes of the 1956 uprising; the political career of Chavez was launched by his appearance on television in the aftermath of a failed coup which… he actually had set in motion).
In addition to their use of exclusionary discourse and charismatic leadership, those regimes are in many ways “anti-institutional”. The institutional toolkit of representative democracy, inherited from their predecessors, is respected only insofar as it suits the new ruling elite. If it does not – it is disposed of without regret. Sometimes (as in Hungary or Venezuela) formal constitutional rules are changed, and sometimes (as in Poland or India) they remain unchanged – and unused. Formal institutions are viewed by populists as irritants, unnecessarily throwing obstacles on the path of implementing the leadership’s will. Populists do not like being straightjacketed by formal rules and institutions: they are impatient and practice instant democracy in which political will is smoothly transformed into binding policy or new laws.
Populists do not like formal institutions, but they are not averse to using the law whenever it suits them – including to reward their cronies and disadvantage their opponents. “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law” – this (in)famous maxim by Peru’s General Óscar Benavides is a nice encapsulation of what has become known as “discriminatory legalism.” While the law may provide a handy hammer with which to hit your opponent’s head, law enforcers in populist systems look the other way when a Leader and his acolytes obviously break the law.
Each of these “populist” regimes relies on a thoroughly corrupt symbiosis of political power with the economy: businesses operate thanks to government largesse (privileges in public procurement, special taxes, government contracts – all devices that justify the economist and former liberal politician, Bálint Magyar, calling today’s Hungary “a mafia state”) while the rulers, for their part, benefit from these businesses’ reciprocal generosity
One may think that all these features are indicative of traditional authoritarianism. Aggressive language and paranoid narratives, a charismatic leader and a cult of personality, a cavalier attitude to formal institutions and to the rule of law, structural corruption … but there is a difference. All the populist regimes discussed in my book involve rulers emerging from (by and large) free and (by and large) fair elections. So, in contrast to good old authoritarian tyrants (tanks on the streets, thousands of political prisoners, general violence and fear), populist regimes respect at least one civil right of their citizens: that of participating in free, fair and regular elections. They come to their first term of office by offering policies which are accepted by the majority (and if not the majority, at least by the largest plurality). They stay in power because their mandate is reconfirmed by the electorate. Populists are unlikely to fundamentally abolish free and fair elections because their whole legitimacy relies upon the claim to represent the People. To achieve reelection, they want to be liked by people. Hence, much of what populist regimes do between elections can be understood in terms of maximizing their chances of reelection, i.e. their popularity. And that is what makes them “populist” in an ordinary, intuitive sense of the word.
Of course, there is a degree of exaggeration in the last point. Populists in power do many other things, in addition to endear themselves to the electorates. They cheat and deceive the population, often through state-run propaganda machines. They conduct non-transparent dealings and, in the process, break the law. They corrupt some businesses and discriminate against others. They buy docile judges and prosecute independent ones. Most significantly, they change the rules of the electoral game in order to reach a result that is optimal for them, including by controlling electoral officials. Irrespective of whether these activities increase the genuine popularity of populists, each targets re-election. We must be realistic in our perception of populist strategies. And we must always keep in mind that actions speak louder than words, and that it is more important to see what populists do than what they say. Which, of course, applies to all politicians, populist or non-populist alike.
Populists claim to be democrats – in fact, they insist that they are even more democratic than the much-maligned “liberal democracy” that they reject. What they are building now, they say, is a better democratic system – an “illiberal democracy” – which is a concept coined years ago by Fareed Zakharia as a pejorative term, but gladly adopted by Viktor Orbán, among others, not with apologies but with pride. And even some anti-populist scholars who depict democratic deficits in the existing liberal democracies adopt this perspective. “The populist surge is an illiberal democratic response to decades of undemocratic liberal policies” – says Cas Mudde, a leading expert in radical and extremist movements.
An illiberal but democratic response … but what sort of democracy do you have if there are no checks and balances which prevent the accumulation of all powers in the hands of one person? Or the rule of law which makes it possible for people to be assured that their grievances will be fairly adjudicated by an independent court? Is it a variant of democracy, or rather deformation of democracy – to the point at which the absence of civil rights, of the separation of powers, and of the rule of law, depletes the system of all the reasons why democracy is such a valued ideal in the first place?
My book argues for, and tries to justify, the latter response: populism in power as a deviation from, rather than a variant of, democracy. The steady erosion of democracy in the world over the past two decades is mainly due to populist regimes with weak democratic practices but with unquestionable electoral pedigree. As shown by experts in democracy studies, about two-thirds of all episodes of democratic decline were overseen by democratically elected incumbents, not by military putschists. These incumbents have employed a number of different strategies causing democratic erosion, including by restricting media and civil society organizations, sidelining the opposition, and undermining the autonomy of electoral officials. I document in my book such (and many other) strategies.
And then along came the pandemic. In a separate chapter of my book, I consider the impact of Coronavirus crisis on the fate of populist rulers. The jury is still out, of course, but at least a weak statement can be made: the virus has not enhanced the power and popularity of populists, contrary to the fears of many of us. At the outset of the pandemic, conventional wisdom had it that Covid-19 would strengthen populist appeal, deepen populist grip on power, and threaten democracies worldwide. Populists, it was feared, would exploit its means of social control, unconstrained by checks and balances, and display the weaknesses of liberal democracy unforgivingly at a moment when time and authority are in dramatically short supply.
It has not happened. Liberal democracies have demonstrated many built-in advantages which equip them better to handle the pandemic. In comparison to populism, liberal democracies acted faster and more effectively than populist regimes. Democracies have been no less willing to restrict some rights of their citizens (e.g. of movement and public assembly) when preserving life was essential, but they were usually carefully calibrated, non-discriminatory, with sunset clauses, oversight, judicial review etc. If they occasionally tried to exceed reasonable limits, the force of civil society prevented such excesses. This is the mechanism of self-correction in a well-functioning democracy. My favourite example is that, when in January 2021 the Norwegian government proposed to add a curfew provision to existing emergency legislation, the outrage was so strong (nearly 1500 submissions protesting the proposal) that the government quickly shelved the bill. One of the submissions, by the Norwegian Bar Association, stated that during the pandemic, the Norwegian population has demonstrated that we trust the government – “the authorities should also show that they trust us.”
No such mutual trust exists, and is sought, by populists in power.
Wojciech Sadurski is Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney and a Professor of the University of Warsaw, Centre for Europe. He has previously held a professorship at the European University Institute in Florence in 1999-2009 (where he served as head of department of law in 2003-2006), and he has taught most recently at New York University School of Law, Yale Law School, Fordham Law School, and Rutgers University. His most recent books are Poland’s Constitutional Breakdown (Oxford 2019) and Constitutionalism and the Enlargement of Europe (Oxford 2012); in 2022 his new books A Pandemic of Populists (Cambridge), Constitutional Public Reason (Oxford) and Demokracja na czarną godzinę [“Democracy for dark times”, Austeria, in Polish] will be released.