Populist leaders are threatening democracy, researchers warn

From Erdogan in Turkey to Trump in the US and from Orbán in Hungary to Bolsonaro in Brazil. the world is experiencing a dramatic rise in populism. The consequences can be dire and far-reaching, researchers warn.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump hold up signs during a campaign rally for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and other Tennessee Republican candidates at the McKenzie Arena November 4, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Image credits: Institute for global change.

When it comes to populism, the world is strongly divided — some people love them, while others hate them — which of course, explains why sometimes they’re elected into offices, and other times they fail. Scientists are also debating the effects of populist leaders. Though most scholars agree that populists erode a country’s democracy and wellbeing — some claiming that they cling to power by enstating a general state of corruption — others claim that populist governments are so incompetent they fail rather quickly. There’s even a minority of researchers (including, for instance, Chantal Mouffe) even praising the effects of populism. But in a new study, two data scientists analyze the effects that populist leaders have on democracy, and the results are truly concerning.

The report identifies 46 populist leaders or political parties that have held executive office across 33 countries between 1990 and today. Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased fivefold, from 4 to 20. Furthermore, while populist leaders once used to appear more in emerging or struggling economies, they are now starting to appear in developed, democratic countries.

Overall, 23% of populists cause strong democratic backsliding, compared to only 6% for non-populist elected leaders. Populists also work to attack people’s rights, reducing political rights by 13%, civil liberties by 8%, and freedom of the press by 7%.

Defining Populism

Finding a single, robust definition of populism is surprisingly challenging. In order to define populism here, Jordan Kyle and Limor Gultchin from the Institute for Global Change, a politically-neutral think tank, analyzed  66 leading peer-reviewed journals in political science, sociology, and regional studies. The two data scientists selected all the articles published in these journals related to populism and populist leaders, double-checking with country and regional experts.

After all this, they found two defining characteristics of populist leaders:

  1. A country’s ‘true people’ are locked into conflict with outsiders, including establishment elites.
  2. Nothing should constrain the will of the true people.

Simply put, populist leaders will always try to find “enemies of the people”, particularly among the elites. Whether it’s George Soros, the “swamp”, or any other people or group of people, they need an external enemy. They also address the “true people”, which the “enemies” want to harm. These two elements are used as justification for their decisions.

Populist leaders also tend to fall into three camps:

  • Cultural populism claims that the true people are the native members of the nation-state. Outsiders are enemies, and typically include immigrants and people of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as cosmopolitan and liberal elites. Cultural populists emphasize religious traditionalism, sovereignty, and what they consider as law and order.
  • Socio-economic populism claims that the true people are the country’s hard-working members of the working class. Outsiders are typically companies and other capitalist entities.
  • Anti-establishment populism claims that the state is run by an establishment, typically secret elites that work against the people.

Who are the populists

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, is the latest addition to the list. Image credits: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

By these standards, these are the populist leaders identified by the researchers. It’s very noteworthy that the world’s four most populous democracies in the world are ruled by populists: Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Country Leader or Party Years in Office Type of Populism
Argentina Carlos Menem 1989–1999 Anti-establishment
Argentina Néstor Kirchner 2003–2007 Socio-economic
Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 2007–2015 Socio-economic
Belarus Alexander Lukashenko 1994– Anti-establishment
Bolivia Evo Morales 2006– Socio-economic
Brazil Fernando Collor de Mello 1990–1992 Anti-establishment
Bulgaria Boyko Borisov 2009–2013,
Czech Republic Miloš Zeman 1998–2002 Anti-establishment
Czech Republic Andrej Babiš 2017– Anti-establishment
Ecuador Abdalá Bucaram 1996–1997 Socio-economic
Ecuador Lucio Gutiérrez 2003–2005 Socio-economic
Ecuador Rafael Correa 2007–2017 Socio-economic
Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili 2004–2007,
Greece Syriza 2015– Socio-economic
Hungary Viktor Orbán 1998–2002,
India Narendra Modi 2014– Cultural
Indonesia Joko Widodo 2014– Anti-establishment
Israel Benjamin Netanyahu 1996–1999,
Italy Silvio Berlusconi 1994–1995,
Italy Five Star Movement/League coalition 2018– Anti-establishment
Japan Junichiro Koizumi 2001–2006 Anti-establishment
Macedonia Nikola Gruevski 2006–2016 Cultural
Nicaragua Daniel Ortega 2007– Socio-economic
Paraguay Fernando Lugo 2008–2012 Socio-economic
Peru Alberto Fujimori 1990–2000 Anti-establishment
Philippines Joseph Estrada 1998–2001 Anti-establishment
Philippines Rodrigo Duterte 2016– Cultural
Poland Lech Walesa 1990–1995 Anti-establishment
Poland Law and Justice party 2005–2010,
Romania Traian Basescu 2004–2014 Anti-establishment
Russia Vladimir Putin 2000– Cultural
Serbia Aleksandar Vucic 2014–2017,
Slovakia Vladimír Meciar 1990–1998 Cultural
Slovakia Robert Fico 2006–2010,
South Africa Jacob Zuma 2009–2018 Socio-economic
Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa 2005–2015,
Taiwan Chen Shui-bian 2000–2008 Anti-establishment
Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra 2001–2006 Socio-economic
Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra 2011–2014 Socio-economic
Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan 2003– Cultural
United States Donald Trump 2017– Cultural
Venezuela Rafael Caldera 1994–1999 Anti-establishment
Venezuela Hugo Chávez 1999–2013 Socio-economic
Venezuela Nicolás Maduro 2013– Socio-economic
Zambia Michael Sata 2011–2014 Socio-economic

Credit: Institute for Global Change.

What populists do

Aside from the sheer growth of populism, the first striking finding is that populists tend to stay more in office. They are five times more likely to last more than 10 years in office compared to non-populist politicians; on average, populists stay in office twice longer.

However, when they do leave office, they often do so in dramatic circumstances. Just a third of populist leaders leave office democratically after their term ends and they are not (or cannot) be elected. The other two-thirds are forced to resign, impeached, or don’t leave office at all.

When in office, populists tend to try to destroy the system of checks and balances. Over half of them have amended or rewritten their countries’ constitutions, typically to extend their time or influence in power.

Populist leaders also instate a reign of corruption. Over 40% of leaders are indicted under corruption charges, and even when this is not the case, corruption ratings decrease dramatically during populist reigns. In addition, civil and political liberties are also decreased substantially under populists.

The bottom line

There is no historical precedent to help us estimate the effect of the populist wave the world is experiencing right now. Even in the US, a country which, for all its political woes, has been largely devoid of populist leaders, populism has started to rear its teeth. If such a successful and established democracy can be threatened, then truly, no country is spared.

For all of us, as voters, it’s important to be aware of this phenomenon and vote accordingly. We shouldn’t fall for a misleading and populist rhetoric. We should seek political depth and truthfulness rather than shiny but ultimately empty claims. Our future democracy may very well depend on it.

The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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