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Can Populism(s) Withstand the Test of Democratic Institutions?

Three Questions to Olivier Duhamel

Can Populism(s) Withstand the Test of Democratic Institutions?
 Olivier Duhamel
Former President of FNSP (Sciences Po)

To what extent are democratic institutions fit to withstand the populist policies being implemented in several countries? Do recent developments in the United Kingdom or Italy show the limits of this form of government? Interview with Olivier Duhamel, President of FNSP (Sciences Po) and contributor on political and institutional issues at Institut Montaigne.

Matteo Salvini's failure in Italy, Boris Johnson's setback in the United Kingdom, Benjamin Netanyahu's impasse in Israel: is the exercise of power undermining the populist model? Are populists more effective in opposition than in power?

The comparisons you suggest have some relevance, but only to a certain extent. I am not sure that Netanyahu should be classified as a populist. Boris Johnson's setbacks are more closely linked to the knots of Brexit than to his populism. As for Matteo Salvini, failure could only be very temporary and lead to a great electoral success when the day comes. To imagine the situation unfolding otherwise would require nothing less than a clear success of the strange alliance between the 5-Star Movement and the Democratic Party meaning this government is able to hold out over the long term and pull Italy out of its economic slump and identity crisis, with the contribution from the European Union. These are all conditions that will not easily be met. 

More generally, "one swallow doesn't make a summer". In 2002, Viktor Orbán lost power in Hungary. He returned eight years later and has since ruled unilaterally maintaining support from a majority of his people.

Are the rules of the democratic game and institutions effective safeguards against populism?

On the one hand, the rules do protect us. An independent judiciary system, a free press and a smart opposition mitigate some of the excesses of a populist leader. On the other hand, it is the deficiencies of political practices that feed populism, particularly the isolation or arrogance of leaders and the corruption – lato sensu – of the elite’ symbolic figures.

Can we change the French and/or European institutions to fight against the populist trend?

With regard to French institutions, one solution would be adopting a truly proportional system so that everyone feels represented, including populist voters. It is often argued that it would result in the President likely losing an absolute majority in the Assembly: this would be excellent news forcing a coalition government and a more democratic practice of power. However, I am more skeptical about extending the use of referendums, because voters no longer respond to the question asked, instead venting their discontent  against governments of all kinds. 

As for European institutions, the case is even more complex. In many policy areas, nothing substantial can be done except at the European level, whether it is immigration policy, regulation and taxation of GAFAs, critical and major public investments or the fight against social and fiscal dumping. Let us add that Europe should also encourage public policies that make sense for citizens: Erasmus for high school students, development of European cultural institutes around the world at a time when many countries are closing or restricting theirs, etc. The time will eventually come to be courageous and to overcome certain taboos – perhaps even up to the point of creating a new entity around the euro zone, if not less?

Last not least, we need tools for global governance more than ever. The winds are blowing in the opposite direction, but necessity could eventually prevail. 

Policy battlefields are therefore immense. They will only advance in response to pressure from civil society, powerful think tanks, less short-term oriented media, universities of excellence, intellectuals who do not waste time on egotistical, if not simply nauseating, micro quarrels…

To those who consider all this a utopia, let us respond that recent mass mobilizations of young people against climate change should remind them of Romain Rolland's statement – wrongly attributed to Gramsci: "Pessimisme de la raison, optimisme de la volonté" (Pessimism of rationality, optimism of the will in English).


Copyright : Institut Montaigne / Duncan McGlynn / POOL / AFP / Nicholas KAMM / AFP

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