After the Eurozone crisis and the so-called European refugee crisis triggered its rise between 2009 and 2015, electoral support for populist parties in Europe seems to have plateaued on a moderate level while scholars continue to debate its societal origins. In this blog post, Gunnar Placzek argues in favor of a stronger focus on regional and local election results in populism research. Examples from Germany and Spain highlight how this approach can contribute to a better understanding of the phenomenon’s root causes.
In 2021, national elections across the EU have shown once again that populist parties are unlikely to vanish any time soon from European parliaments. After its rise in the course of the Eurozone’s financial crisis in 2009 and the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, electoral support for populism didn’t experience a major drop-off across the board recently. Rather, this year’s election results confirm the impression that populism has firmly established itself in the party landscapes of EU member states: The Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš’s ANO faced some losses, but both remain relevant and highly influential political forces. In the Netherlands, the populist far right now encompasses three parliamentary parties, thus diversifying and strengthening populist mobilization. And even in Bulgaria where the populist center-right party ITN discredited itself massively by sparking a constitutional crisis, it was replaced by yet another anti-establishment newcomer party in the November 2021 snap election.
Populism – widely understood as a thin ideology that views politics as a cosmic struggle between the virtuous and homogenous people and the corrupt elite – seems to persist because, even years after acute public dept crises and mass migration stirred up European societies, still millions of people don’t feel their views and interests represented in mainstream politics and put their faith in self-ascribed anti-establishment challengers.
Zooming in: regional deviations and contradicting trends
However, the perception that European populism has reached a phase of stagnation or even slight decrease carries the risk of overlooking current dynamics and developments. For example, the fragmentation of the populist far right in the Netherlands into three different parties (Freedom Party, Forum for Democracy, JA21) since the recent March 2021 election is a new and alarming trend. It led to an overall strengthening of the Dutch far-right as well as a normalization of its rhetoric, and the same phenomenon with significantly stronger amplitude is already looming for the Italian general election in 2023.
Furthermore, taking a closer look at the output of the Dutch election reveals considerable deviations between provinces: all three right-wing populist parties display regional differences in their individual success as well as their combined vote share. For example, the south-eastern province of Limburg is a stronghold of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, while Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy achieved above-average results in the Northeast. In contrast, the province of Utrecht appeared to be exceptionally resistant to any populist mobilization.
Turning to neighboring Germany, the regional differences in popular support for right-wing populism are even more remarkable: While the AfD achieved only the fifth-best result of all parties countrywide (10.3%), it came in first in the states of Thuringia (24%) and Saxony (24,6%) and won a total of 16 constituencies. The party managed to extend its support in Thuringia and remained stable in Saarland and Saxony-Anhalt – contrary to the national trend of mild losses.
Taking advantage of small-scale election outputs for populism research
For the study of populism, the findings raise the question of how to interpret the outlined variances and contradicting trends. So far, research on root causes of populism mostly relied on opinion surveys, linking populist voting behavior to a feeling of disconnection from society or mistrust in political institutions, and has rarely allowed for differentiation along regional or local lines for a more multifaceted picture. In his 2018 volume “The political economy of populism”, Philip Manow chose a different path and made determined use of the availability of socio-demographic data and disaggregated election results on the local scale.
Manow was able to show that areas in Germany which had witnessed high levels of unemployment in the early 2000s stand out today for a stronger electoral performance of the AfD. He interpreted this correlation as a higher sensitivity to socioeconomic fears of decline among the local population as an echo of the past. Moreover, his analysis suggests that it is not the “losers of globalization” – the unemployed or unskilled low-wage workers – who are overrepresented among AfD voters, but rather skilled workers in the manufacturing industries, who have seen the greatest dismantling of their social security systems over the past 20 years.
In sum, the development of the local labor market appears to be an important predictor for the success of right-wing populism in Germany and could – at least partly – account for the vast differences in regional election results.
Mobilization around the center-periphery cleavage
As promising as Manow’s study design appears to be for research on the root causes of populism, its application to other national contexts is not always practical, particularly due to the unavailability of community-based data in many cases. However, a different example from Spain shows that examining populist election results on a medium scale is also worthwhile. The Spanish case is a particularly interesting one due to its combination of a right-wing (Vox) and a left-wing populist party (Podemos) with similar levels of success.
Vox entered the Spanish parliament in April 2019, the first national election after the constitutional crisis around the question of Catalonian independence. This, on the one hand, gave the impression that public dissatisfaction with the central government’s handling of the territorial conflict played a greater role in facilitating Vox’s success than anti-migration sentiments: More nationalistic voters who preferred a strong central government over regional autonomy were expected to vote for Vox in large numbers.
On the other hand, a common assumption had been that populist actors tend to align themselves with local or regional identities in the center-periphery cleavage due to their animosity towards national political and bureaucratic elites. This premise most likely originated from regionalist populist parties such as the Lega Nord (Italy), Vlaams Belang (Belgium), the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru (Wales), and it was not in line with the anti-regionalist image of Vox.
A 2020 study by Davide Vampa clarified the situation by taking a closer look at province-level election results: In its breakthrough election, Vox performed far worse in regions with secessionist tendencies, such as Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia, while its strongholds lied in the central regions and the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. For Podemos, it was the other way around precisely. Not only did Vampa emphasize that territorial disputes were a more important mobilizing factor than migration in the Spanish context. He also added a valuable note to the more general conceptual debate on populism by stressing that state-wide populist parties do not necessarily position themselves on the regionalist end of the center-periphery cleavage.
Both examples from Germany and Spain prove that the analysis of local and regional deviations in election results has the potential to bear new insights into what motivates people to vote for populist parties. The phenomenon is too complex and diverse in its manifestations to be studied only at the state level, first, because regional issues can be a core mobilizing factor, and second, because regional or local variation in populist parties’ success is a potentially crucial puzzle piece in studying the root causes of populist voting behavior. The overall picture of populism’s stagnant or slightly retreating success in Europe today may be a comforting one, but it shouldn’t distract from the fact that in some parts (or regions) of the continent, populist actors continue to extend their societal and political influence, which calls for scientific explanations.