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Democracy in Europe threatened by surge of ‘populism,’ Tony Blair’s think tank warns

Friday, December 29, 2017

Supporters of Hungary's main opposition Jobbik party attend a torchlight demonstration in Budapest © Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

A surge of “populist” political parties threatens to destabilize democracy across Europe, Tony Blair’s think tank has warned. Its new report points to the rise of anti-EU parties in Italy, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change said populism could become the “new normal” in Europe and “transform public policy in radical ways.”

Defining populist parties as those from the left and right that “claim to represent the true will of a unified people against domestic elites, foreign migrants or ethnic, religious or sexual minorities,” the report says their number has almost doubled in Europe since 2000, from 33 to 63, and their average vote share in elections nearly trebled from 8.5 percent to 24.1 percent.

Over the same period, it said the number of European countries with populist parties participating in government has doubled from seven to 14 – creating an unprecedented “populist belt” from the Baltic to the Aegean.

Populist parties are the strongest in Eastern Europe and currently hold power in seven countries – Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, and Slovakia, the report says.

It highlighted British allies Poland and Hungary as run by parties that have begun to “dismantle key democratic institutions.”

According to the report: “Parties like Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz tend to emphasize a nationalism based on soil, blood or culture; take a hard line against immigration; and have, especially in Poland and Hungary, quickly started to dismantle key democratic institutions like the free media and an independent judiciary. Working largely within the letter of the law, and drawing on widespread popular support, they have destroyed many of the institutions that are needed to safeguard democratic institutions over the long-run.”

In contrast to Eastern Europe, where most populist parties are on the right, those in Southern Europe are predominantly on the left, such as Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain. The report said left-wing parties from other parts of Europe – including Labour in Britain – have embraced elements of populism.

The think tank warned the trend looks set to continue unless mainstream political parties are able to find a way to counter the populists’ appeal. There are more and more instances of populist parties governing in coalition with larger parties, such as in Austria, where the right-wing populist Freedom Party has just become the junior partner in Sebastian Kurz’s new government.

One of the report’s authors, Yascha Mounk, a Harvard University lecturer and executive director at the institute, said the transformation of European politics was “long-term.” He said: “This populist wave has not crested and unless politicians manage to identify and counteract the structural drivers, populism will keep garnering strength in years to come.”

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