February 22, 2019 Print

The Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index (TAP) has been one of the most popular indices over the last few years. Timbro recently published its 2019 edition, tracking the status of populist movements across Europe in the past year. According to the data, 2018 was a successful year for populist parties, with over 1 in 4 European citizens, or 26.8 percent casting votes for authoritarian populist parties. In addition to this, the average voter support for populist parties, or people who claim to be a part of the movement, now stands at 22.2 percent, a 1.5 percent increase from 2017.

“Authoritarian populist parties are characterized by the fact that they see politics as a conflict between the 'elite' and a homogeneous people with coherent interests,” said the index’s author, Andreas Johansson Heinö. “These parties have an authoritarian view of democracy that threatens many of the values that so far have been at the heart of European democracy.”

Authoritarian populists participate in 11 of 33 governments in Europe, while offering parliamentary support in an additional four.

These trends prove to be unique in the European context. Following World War II, a general consensus existed amongst the population that favored liberal democratic institutions and values. Amongst these were support for a representative democracy, rule of law, the gradual expansion of rights, independent courts and media, and protection of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

But the populist movements threaten to disrupt the status quo in Europe in ways that have not been seen since the Second World War. Today, populists are noted for being Eurosceptics, critical of immigration, protectionist, and nationalistic. Highlighting all populist movements is explicit rhetoric that employs nationalism, populism, and anti-capitalism. The index notes that most movements feature at least two or three of these characteristics, while all utilize at least one.


Credit: Timbro.

Populism has proven to be an alternative political option for those that are disillusioned by the status quo. In fact, the combined support for left- and right-wing populist parties now equals that of social democratic parties, and is nearly twice that of classical liberal parties. As these trends show, the rise of populism as a novel political force is one that could prove to be incredibly destructive towards both European institutions and moderate ideology.

While almost all populist parties have been in existence since before the year 2000, recent policy issues have proven to be consequential in moving the groups from fringe to mainstream. Environmental and European issues have disrupted the old political establishment, but the topic of immigration has proven to be the most destabilizing.

Most representative of this trend is the fact that from 1998-2018, support for authoritarian populism has more than doubled. While many assumed that populism reached its zenith following the 2016 Brexit vote and election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the TAP report suggests that this conclusion is misleading. What’s more, 2019 could prove to be another consequential year for populism to establish an even stronger foothold in European parliaments.

“This spring, both European Parliament elections and national elections in Spain, Denmark and Finland await” said Heinö. “We already know that populist parties will be at the centre of the media reporting.” Should the trends continue, Europe may move even closer towards far left and right candidates that favor authoritarian rule and the erosion of key institutions.

“It’s time for individuals rather than political parties to take back control,” said Adam Bartha, director of the European Policy Information Center (EPICENTER) Network, to which Timbro belongs as a member. “Institutional and economic reforms that would enable voters to express significant political preferences at a local level would lead to more economic prosperity — especially in the poorest areas of various countries — and empower the individual as a political actor. Instead of changing the political elites, we should be changing the political system so it doesn’t require powerful political elites. If we reduce the scope of decisions taken at the highest level and allow more regional autonomy on taxation, education, healthcare, while taking other policy areas — like nanny state regulations — out of the political arena altogether, then people would regain a sense of control over their lives and would not be taken in by the seductive promises of populist strongmen."

For a region marked by consistency and moderation following the Second World War, the disenchantment of large portions of the population are concerning. If the people begin to feel as if they have far greater individual agency over politics than they currently feel, then perhaps the trend of populism can be curtailed. But until then, TAP’s findings suggest that this movement is far from a flash in the pan, and is far closer to being a mainstream force than previously anticipated.

TAP has been covered in media outlets in the UK, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Greece, and Poland.