How do populists respond to growing insecurities?

by Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)

Academic and media debates usually portray right-wing populists as distinctively relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear. We tend to hear about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions as one of manipulation. For many, populists (but what is meant here is usually: ‘right-wing populists’) ‘distort’ reality by representing ‘outsiders’ as existential threats to the people, hence fuelling fears and hostility against them.

In my recent research, I argue that thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions in this one-dimensional way is not sufficient to understand the complex socio-political phenomena underlying the appeal of populism. Indeed, this line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

Firstly, we tend to equate populists ‘speaking security’ with discourses around crime or law and order, however this is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different populisms – we end up overlooking how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse, while not necessarily focusing on law and order per se. Secondly, we tend to think of populism as a negative phenomenon, ‘exploiting’ people’s deepest fears and clouding ‘rational thinking’. On the contrary – and just like any other political phenomenon – populism can elicit an array of emotional reactions, including positive ones.

To analyse this topic, I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French presidential election campaign in 2017. Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, by contrast, is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party. France represents an insightful laboratory for populism research because of these two competing populisms.

What is insecurity?

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity in numerous ways linked to notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety and the need to ‘protect the people’ from various harms. Crucially however, their ideology informs their identification of insecurity sources. For Marine Le Pen, ideas of physical violence (like crime and terrorism) or cultural threats (like multiculturalism and immigration) are the most salient. However, for Mélenchon it is climate change, international security and neoliberalism that matter as ‘threats’. Both actors overlap in identifying the EU as an ‘accelerator’, or the actor, ‘ultimately responsible’ for this ‘exploding insecurity’.

Insecurity beyond fear

In my work I captured the latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse by mapping implicit emotional appeals. This means capturing the extent to which a political message taps into the ‘cues’ that research has shown can arouse specific emotional reactions. These are also known as core relational themes. I have found that both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a ‘story of insecurity’ centred on the fact that some threats should be feared, some enemies deserve getting angry at, in-groups should make us proud and there are solutions we can hope for.

Populist emotional governance

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon arguably perform ‘emotional governance’, meaning that they help guide and regulate public emotions on a number of issues.

Fear appeals appeared right at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for what should be understood as a source of insecurity. Contemporary insecurity is a complex and blurry phenomenon, hence fear appeals constitute important interpretative cues guiding what citizens come to see as threats and dangers.

After introducing the source of insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon immediately shift attention to a key element of the insecurity story: the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent or even irresponsible behaviour of the elites in power, causing insecurities. These themes are central elicitors of anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the product of intentional and malevolent elites’ behaviour.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is then juxtaposed to positive, celebratory remarks praising ‘the people’. Acknowledging positive qualities, strengths and achievements lies at the core of pride arousal. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon are likely to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energising them, in a call to avoid resignation.

Finally, these actors seize the ‘insecure present’ by proposing actions to address insecurity in the ‘future’. In emotional terms, this means grounding insecurity narratives in appeals to hope. After telling their audience what is wrong with society and who is responsible for generating pervasive insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon offer a positive outlook towards the future grounded in the reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Where do we go from here?

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily immediately intelligible. As I argue in my research, identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding of this complexity, by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities usually linked to their appeal.

Donatella Bonansinga is the Populism in Action Project’s Research Assistant and a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

 

 

 

 

PiAP Research Fellows Share Three Key Findings From Their Research

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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Dr. Adrian Favero explores – “Leaders vs. Members: Can the Swiss People’s Party Deal with the Tension?”

 

Dr. Judith Sijstermans shows – “How Belgium’s Vlaams Belang Leads the Way in Digital Politics”

 

Dr. Mattia Zulianello surveys – “Italy’s League: A Modern Mass Party”

 

Dr. Niko Hatakka considers – “The Finns Party: Free Rein or Reining In?”

The Finns Party: Free Rein or Reining In?

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Niko Hatakka

In March 2020, the populist radical right Finns Party expelled its youth organization. The increasingly overt ethnic nativism of the young activists had become a hindrance to the party’s objective: re-establishing legitimacy as a potential component of a governing coalition.

To constrain unwanted communications, the leadership had urged the youth association to revise its rules and require everyone to be members of the party. When this was rejected, the youth branch was expelled.

The episode is a telling example of how the Finns Party’s organisational approach and practice teeters between horizontal participation, autonomy, and centralised control.

Building the Formal Organisation

In the early 2010s, the Finns Party became one of the largest parties in Finland, thanks to a massive boost in funding and perceived legitimacy after a strong performance in the 2011 elections. In the following years, the leadership developed an active and extensive network of local associations, whilst also adopting some characteristics of a movement party.

The party’s formal organization combines ostensibly democratic elements, such as a party congress where all members have the right to vote, with a weakly supervised and powerful executive. The regional and municipal organisations are run autonomously by volunteers. The national party instructs and guides them, with the executive reserving the power to assume direct control of problematic associations and expel troublesome members; however, direct intervention in the actions of the local and regional levels has only occurred in dire circumstances.

A wide and active organisation with low requirements for entry and participation are key to campaigning and candidate recruitment for the party. This has been vital for the Finns Party’s success, especially in municipal elections, with candidates recruited for 98% of constituencies for elections in June. Still, while existing on paper, the network of municipal associations is patchy and not especially active in certain regions.

In areas where the organisation is strong, the party’s communities of participating activists are characterised by a vivid collective identity and a high level of ideological coherence. According to the party’s elite, this is mainly fueled by a sense of belonging and a desire for change.

Adjacent and Informal Activism

As the Finns Party’s organisation expanded between 2008 and 2012, both in members and geographical coverage, the party became a vehicle for radical right demands articulated by online movements external or adjacent to the party’s formal organization.

According to its elite, the Finns Party tries to educate its membership and shape it ideologically. In addition to local meetings and events, this relies on active intra-party communications, mentoring, socialization, and training to discourage unwanted or ideologically incongruous activism. However, a significant number of the party’s members – and its supporters and sympathizers – have little or no connection to the party’s formal organisation.

Although the party’s official activism mostly takes place at the local level, almost half of the party’s members have not taken out membership in a local association. As many sympathizers identify with the party only through the media or online, some activism contributing to the party’s performance and functioning takes place in a realm that is external to the formal organization. For these activists, the party provides a point of identification and political purpose, but the formal party organisation cannot keep an eye on their actions and online interactions.

So while party-adjacent online activism has been essential to the rise of the Finns Party, it has also stripped the party’s official bodies of some agency.

Overlapping Modes of Organisation

The Finns Party can be characterized as a modern mass party benefiting significantly from synergy with party-adjacent online activism. It has enjoyed the stability of a strong formal organisation, while also being boosted by agile and sympathetic communities of online supporters.

But this has required the party to balance between the rewards of autonomy for its formal and informal activists and the challenge of knowing when, where, and how to rein them in.

Because of the horizontal nature of the party’s leadership selection and program production, its balancing act has had a permanent effect both on party ideology and on its organizational form. The party’s mix of formal and informal modes of organization was key, for example, in the mainstreaming of nativism and in the election of Jussi Halla-aho as leader.

Even though having two interlinked modes of political organisation is beneficial to the party, this situation also necessitates the formal party organisation investing time and effort into avoiding potential threats to its legitimacy, image and internal stability. This was highlighted by the party’s recent decision to rein in its youth organisation instead of turning a blind eye on its radicalisation.

Dr. Niko Hatakka is the Populism in Action Project’s Finland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

“Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?” PiAP at ECPR 2021

At this year’s European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference (taking place online, 30th August-3rd September 2021) the Populism in Action Team will be leading and participating in a panel entitled Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party? which will present key research findings from the project. The panel will be chaired by PiAP’s Dr. Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham), Co-Chaired by PiAP’s Dr. Stijn van Kessel (Queen Mary, University of London), with Prof. Sarah De Lange (University of Amsterdam) as the Discussant. 

Panel Abstract

This panel analyses the nature of populist radical right party (PRRP) organisations and the relationship between PRRP organisations, leaders, and party members. We present initial results of our comparative research project which studies long-established PRRP parties in Western Europe: the League in Italy, the Flemish Interest in Belgium, the Swiss People’s Party, and the Finns. PRRPs are often still associated with centralised and ‘charismatic’ leadership, but we find that several PRRPs have invested in creating organisations more similar to the ‘mass party’ model, in which parties actively recruit members and create communities of loyal partisan activists.

In our four case study papers, we explore how party elites attempt to foster involvement, activism and loyalty from the party base. We analyse how these efforts are managed within each party’s, often highly centralised, organisational structures. Through these in-depth case studies, our papers also reflect on the nature and development of the mass party model in the current era. Our panel will conclude with a comparative analysis of all four cases. This analysis explores the extent to which personalisation and centralisation have helped to manage organisational tensions in PRRPs and to facilitate changes in leadership. It will also reflect on the importance of these organisational structures and dynamics for populist parties today.

Panelists 

1. Dr. Mattia Zulianello (University of Birmingham) – Fostering and Exporting a Modern Mass Party: Agency and Structure in Salvini’s League

2. Dr. Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham) – Between horizontality and centralization: Organizational form and practice in the Finns Party

3. Adrian Favero (University of Birmingham) – Rootedness, Activism and Centralisation: The Case of the Swiss People’s Party

4. Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham) – The Vlaams Belang: A Mass Party of the 21st century

5. Stijn van Kessel (Queen Mary University of London; presenting), Daniele Albertazzi (University of Birmingham) – The Survival of the Mass Party: Centralisation, Rootedness and Control Among Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) in Europe

Programme details: A programme for this year’s ECPR General Conference will be released presently. It will be available via the Consortium’s website – where registration has already opened.

Italy’s League: A Modern Mass Party

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Mattia Zulianello

Most descriptions of Italy’s League (Lega), led by Matteo Salvini, portray it as a party whose success is entirely dependent on social media and the fortunes of its leader.

This is a mistake. The League is the legacy of its predecessor, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (Lega Nord, LN) and provides an outstanding example of a modern mass party.

For most of the LN’s existence, Bossi concentrated his energy on an organizational structure inspired by traditional mass parties. There was a notable paradox: while the LN had nothing to do with the ideology of Leninist parties, its organisational structure and its overall logic of operation were inspired by them.

The “people” whom the League claims to defend are no longer just Northern Italians, but all Italians. However, the organisational structure sought by Bossi continues and evolves by exploiting new technologies.

Democratic Centralism and Leninist Organisation

The LN was characterised by an unquestionable hierarchy, recruitment mechanisms designed to protect it from careerists and opportunists, a plurality of ancillary structures for all the League’s activities, and cadre schools for the formation of the ruling class. But above all, the LN was centered on the decisive importance of activism, Bossi’s “unknown militant”. This was a mission, a constant commitment, cemented by loyalty and devotion to the party.

In line with its Leninist-derived organizational structure, today’s League considers loyalty, respect for internal hierarchy, and ostentatious activism as its supreme values. The party’s apparatus is shaped like a pyramid and hinges on democratic centralist principles, conveying the idea of being “one body”. Space is provided for discussion and internal debate, but externally the message of the party must be univocal.

On the Streets and on the Web

While Bossi’s League was a traditional mass party, Salvini’s carefully exploits new technologies, in particular social media and instant messaging systems, to adapt this organizational model to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

The League today is less bureaucratic and more efficient, but its pillar remains the “ostentatious” militant, someone who sets up the gazebos, does flyering, and pours mulled wine. Social media is important for the communication strategy, but it is only one part of a triptych comprising Television, Internet, and Territory.

Old media, new media, and on the ground physical activism are integrated to amplify the message. Activists pursue a wide range of activities both on-line and off-line: leafleting, gazebos, party local festivals and rallies, protests, petitioning, social events, and book presentations. Activism is an activity and an ideology, enveloping members in a “family” or “team” for a grassroots base which can be mobilized as required.

This activist base, structured through a network of local, provincial, and regional branches, makes the League much more resistant when is losing support and helping it grow faster when conditions are favourable.

Exporting the North’s Modern Mass Party to the South

In Northern Italy, Salvini’s League has inherited the organizing principles and practices of the old LN, as well as its membership, structures, and resources. Activists can be mobilized in days thanks to deeply embedded patterns of loyalty, dedication, and respect for hierarchy.

The League is attempting to “export” this modern conception of the mass party to the South, but its potential for success remains unknown. Organisational routines require time to take root and consolidate in a new context, and the League’s roll-out of its organisational model is an unprecedented political operation.

The League has not only reinvented itself ideologically from a populist regionalist party to a state-wide populist radical right party. It has done so with the explicit intention of exporting its organisational model to regions that in the past were hostile and which the party derided. This is the League’s decisive challenge.

Dr. Mattia Zulianello is the Populism in Action Project’s Italy focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here.

 

Listen to New Patterns of Political Competition in W. Europe: Populists vs. Populists

On the 24th February 2021 the Populism in Action Project convened a virtual seminar to discuss the book Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe published in Routledge’s Extremism & Democracy series and edited by Dr. Daniele Albertazzi (Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator) and Dr. Davide Vampa.

A recording was made which can be heard here:

Listen here

The seminar explores how, and to what effect, populist parties of both the left and the right compete within the same political system. It presents the overall typology of populist party competition used in “Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe” and focus on the Greek, Flemish and British cases.

Chair: Dr. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Birmingham)

Discussion included the following participants:

Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)
Dr. Emmanouil Tsatsanis (EKKE)
Dr. Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham)
Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston University)

How Belgium’s Vlaams Belang Leads the Way in Digital Politics

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Judith Sijstermans

In 2019, the leader of Belgium’s right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang, Tom van Grieken, went on a “pub tour” of Flanders. The party’s videos of the 34-year-old politician showed him surrounded by admiring, chanting young people who were passing around beers.

Two years later, van Grieken’s Instagram, with 59,000 followers, is a series of videos. They are a mixture of home improvement, his new son, and commentaries criticizing the Belgian government. A link in his biography points followers to one of the party’s main campaigns: register as a VB voter, get a free face mask.

This campaign speaks to the current moment where Covid-19 necessitates almost-exclusively digital means of campaigning. But VB has long used social media to gain traction, having spent more than any other Flemish party online during the 2019 election. Between March and November, they paid more than 1.2 million Euros for Facebook ads, compared to a total spend of 2.3 million Euros by all the other Flemish parties combined.

Graph illustrating spend by Flemish political parties in 2019 on social media advertising

Facebook Expenditures of Flemish Political Parties (March-November 2019)
Source: VRT https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2019/11/15/politieke-partijen-blijven-campagne-voeren/

The distance and informality of social media may seem antithetical to the traditional “mass party” model of a large party membership on the ground. But virtual and in-person party activities are complementary, creating and maintaining VB communities. The question is whether digital means of campaigning will continue their Coronavirus-era dominance, or whether they are just one more phase of ever-shifting party strategies for organisation.

Party-Building on the Street and the Facebook Feed

Van Grieken has championed both social media and “local anchoring”. The party has invested in local branches by hiring more staff based in each province and developing a branch mentorship program. The branches engage and connect with ordinary members through social activities like barbecues, New Year’s parties, and political meetings.

On social media platforms quick growth can come from small monetary investment.” As one VB MP said: “Facebook is a story of money. A Facebook [page] with half a million people is not that difficult. A few hundred thousand euros, and in a few weeks, you have one.”

This investment complements local branch life. Events are advertised on Facebook and open to members and non-members alike, providing a “low level” way of becoming involved in the party.

Social media also gives local leaders more effective means of communicating political messages. While leaflets can be in production for at least a month before delivery, posting a video is almost instant. VB representatives told me that videos and images are considered more appealing than printed texts, which are seen as uninteresting and too time-consuming to read.

Social media also reaches more informal party supporters and develops a wider base than traditional party membership campaigns. VB’s Facebook following of more than 600,000 outstrips its membership of approximately 20,000.

The Shift from Membership to Party Community

According to almost all the VB representatives I interviewed, there is a widespread lack of enthusiasm for organizational membership, not just of political parties but of all local organisations. So VB’s investment in local branches and social media is not primarily part of a membership recruitment drive. Rather, the party seeks to connect itself to a supporter community of both members and sympathisers.

In-person events achieve closer bonds between members, as multiple Flemish parliamentarians told me, through “cultivating camaraderie” and “friendship groups”. However, as friendships cannot be fostered between each VB supporter, virtual solutions have emerged. VB MP and social media coordinator Bart Claes explained to De Morgen: “In 2014, VB was nowhere to be found. Not in the media, nor in people’s minds. That is why we have put a lot of effort into building a community, a digital community.”

For VB, the party community is underpinned by a sense of exclusion. Bonds are formed by the idea that members are “pushed into the same corner” by the cordon sanitaire, an agreement between all other political parties to block VB from participation in government at any level.

Evolving Through Exclusion

VB representatives credit their interest in social media to exclusion from the mass media, as the party feels underrepresented in traditional mass media. Social media provides a direct form of communication with supporters.

However, since social media companies in the USA took action against former President Donald Trump, VB representatives express concerns about possible “censorship” on Facebook and Instagram. Given these threats, where next for VB and social media?

The party has begun diversifying the channels it uses, rather than turning away from digital organizing. For a recent protest, the party mobilised activists using WhatsApp groups, and they began a “VBTV” section on their YouTube channel. Leader Tom van Grieken experimented with TikTok, while another high-profile representative, Dries Van Langenhove, began using Telegram to “arm” himself against censorship. At the same time, in some parts of Flanders, such as party bastion Ninove, activists are exploring door-to-door campaigning and house visits.

The VB’s way forward is continued pairing of the local and personal with the virtual in its development of a 21st-century mass party.

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is the Populism in Action Project’s Belgium (Flanders) focused Research Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

Populism in Action at the PSA International Conference 2021

This week all of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Team will be taking part in the 2021 Political Studies Association (PSA) Annual International Conference. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency this year’s conference is taking place online but it is virtually hosted by Queen’s University Belfast.

Populism in Action’s research will be presented at two panels, one taking place on the 30th March (15:30-17:00) and one taking place on 31st March (09:00-10:30).

Panel 824: “The Survival of the Mass Party? Discussing Party Organisation among Populist Radical Right Parties (Prrps) in Europe”

15:30-17:00, 30th March 2021

This panel is dedicated to the Populism in Action Project’s ESRC- funded research and will be chaired by our principal investigator, Daniele Albertazzi while the discussant will be Antonella Seddone. The four research fellows Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans and Mattia Zulianello, will present the findings of Phases 1 and 2 of their research.

They will discuss how the League, Flemish Interest, Swiss People’s party and Finns party are organised, with a particular focus on power relations within them.

Panel 923: Why Do Populists Succeed? Government Experiences, Discursive Strategies and Party Organisation

09:00-10:30, 31st March 2021

In this panel Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi and Co-Investigator Stijn van Kessel, will present some of the project’s research findings.

Their paper is entitled: “Why Do Populists Succeed?: The Survival of the Mass Party: Centralisation, Rootedness and Control Among Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) in Europe”

Drawing on Populism in Action’s comparative research, this presentation maps the formal and informal organisational structures of the League, the Flemish Interest, the Finns Party, and the Swiss People’s Party. It compares these parties’ institutional structures, and degrees of centralisation.

Leaders vs. Members: Can the Swiss People’s Party Deal with the Tension?

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Adrian Favero

Current academic literature depicts the Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union démocratique du centre (SVP/UDC, Swiss People’s Party) as one of most successful populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Western Europe (Stockemer 2018). From the 1990s onwards, the party’s de facto leader Christoph Blocher and his political allies in the influential Zurich Wing changed the SVP’s organisational structure, striving for greater centralisation and ideological internal coherence. As a result, the SVP enjoyed growing electoral success for many years since the mid-1990s.

Despite the party’s electoral gains and ability to mobilise its members, the extent to which national party leaders can concentrate power vis-à-vis the party’s cantonal branches remains a matter of contention (Mazzoleni and Rossini 2016). The SVP’s cantonal and local branches have retained some degree of autonomy due to the highly decentralised Swiss political system. Recent internal developments and structural changes at the party’s national level seem to have accentuated organisational and programmatic disagreements between the national organisation and regional branches, and may hamper recruitment and mobilisation of members.

My article in the forthcoming Populism in Action Special Issue argues that the dominance of federal party institutions and its highly centralised organisational structure could augment tensions between the SVP’s national organisation and its sub-national branches. Based on interviews with SVP representatives from three cantonal branches (Zurich, Bern, Geneva), I explore three key areas, which need to be addressed by the national leadership to avoid alienating sub-national branches. By exploring the cantonal representatives’ opinions on the party’s rootedness on the ground and its centralised organisational setting, as well as its activities, my article offers a thorough analysis of these matters of contention.

Rootedness at the local level and the Building of a Mass Party

Cantonal and local branches are instrumental in guaranteeing the SVP’s rootedness across the country. Local branches provide a direct linkage between the party and its members, and are the best way of attracting supporters. By relying predominantly on social activities and personal communication, branches mobilise voters by offering them a clear message and ideology, as well as the opportunity to become part of a community of people sharing the same ideas and values. To maintain the party’s mass support and electoral success, local branches need to be strengthened and supported by the national organisation, without ignoring cantonal autonomy and local idiosyncrasies.

Activism

Parties benefit from active supporters and a large membership base. Active members are important for electoral success, especially for communicating the party’s message within their communities. However, such a system requires the identification of the members with the party’s ideology and core issues. They have to relate to the Lebenswelt (life world) of party supporters for them to feel motivated to engage. Existing core topics, such as restricted immigration, independence from EU influence, and strengthening the middle class have been effective in mobilising their existing base and to strengthen cohesion within the party. Nevertheless, many SVP representatives claim that the party lacks focus on topics that matter locally, such as health care and child support. They argue that this has hampered further growth of an active membership base.

Centralisation

In recent years the SVP has increasingly centralised power in the national leadership. Organisational changes ensured that the Central Committee acquired more responsibilities, whilst electorally successful cantonal branches were granted more delegates to the National Delegate Assembly, and a newly created Party Executive Committee (Parteileitungsausschuss) became solely responsible for the party’s daily business and national campaigns. According to the party’s statutes, cantonal branches still possess organisational autonomy but not all cantonal branches are equally influential. Smaller cantonal branches and Delegate Assemblies have rather limited influence on preliminary decision-making processes regarding the development of strategies and programmatic proposals.  In reality the national party leadership and representatives from larger cantonal branches formulate the party’s ideological direction and make strategic planning decisions. Addressing this democratic imbalance would make the party more inclusive and ensure broader support for organisational changes and programmatic decisions.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, a centralized national organization and the provision of a clearly articulated ideology has enabled the SVP to attract members and mobilize activists. However, further centralization of decision-making may erode the ties between the national leadership and cantonal branches. The further growth of the party and its capacity for mobilisation might depend on the national leadership investing in rootedness on the ground, the development of mechanisms which increase inclusion of branches, and an extension of its key topics, for members to feel compelled to engage with them. To maintain its status as one of Europe’s most successful PRRPs these current tensions have to be addressed and resolved.

Dr. Adrian Favero is the Populism in Action Project’s Switzerland focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

Beyond Underrepresentation: Women’s Roles and Gender Politics in Flanders’ Populist Radical Right

by Dr. Judith Sijstermans

Populist radical right parties (PRRPs) have traditionally been the realm of men. Comparative studies have highlighted the underrepresentation of women, both in the parties and amongst their voters. Meanwhile, PRRP’s views on gender issues are more uniformly traditional than other parties on the right. On the other hand, Spierings and Zaslove found that the voting ‘gender gap’ is overstated and PRRPs ideological development over time may have begun to ‘demasculinize’ party programmes. Empirical studies of Bulgarian and Slovakian radical right parties argued that a focus on descriptive representation has obscured the substance of populist radical right parties’ work on women’s issues. Through these various lenses, this blog explores the role of gender in the Flemish populist radical right party Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest).

Identifying Women’s Activism

VB follows the patterns of PRRPs in having significantly fewer women than men in its ranks. Research published in 2010 showed that VB’s membership was 32% women, the lowest of any Flemish party. Correspondingly, just over one third of VB Parliamentarians are women. The party’s highest ranking executive board has 2 women out of 12 (16.7%) members.

When asked about gender in the party, the Federal Parliament group leader, Barbara Pas, has said: ‘I’ve always been a woman in a man’s world. I studied engineering and there the male-female ratio was a bit like in politics. It shouldn’t make a difference whether you are a man or a woman.’ Later in the same interview Pas goes on to acknowledge the constraints that weekend and evening-oriented work that comes with being an MP can put on women.

These time constraints might also obscure the day-to-day role women play. Coffe and Bolzendahl found that women were more likely to engage in ‘private activism’, including signing petitions, boycotting products for political reasons, and donating or raising money. VB local party life centres on each branch’s annual meal as well as other social activities such as breakfasts, barbecues, and family days. These informal and private types of political engagement are more difficult to document.

Scrinzi noted in a study of the Lega and Front National that women tended to refrain from referring to themselves as activists. Women were more likely to see their skills and work as part of wider relational and emotional care work rather than as part of party activism. Women’s roles in populist radical right parties, including VB, may be hidden from the eyes of political researchers since their activism is more likely to be private, informal, and downplayed.

Policy Moderation and Masculinity

Researchers have found that many PRRPs have begun to position themselves as the protectors of women and LGBTQ individuals. In VB, this has especially played out in rhetoric arguing against the ‘Islamisation’ of Flanders. The party’s leader in Antwerp, Sam van Rooy, wrote a book called For freedom, so against Islamisation. In an interview about the book, van Rooy argued: “Girls and women who really choose this themselves suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and raise a middle finger to our free society and to all the girls and women who are daily oppressed by means of the Islamic veil.”

A study of the relationship between conceptions of LGBT rights and ideas of nationhood in Flanders found that the VB were the most prominent proponents of ‘homonationalism.’ ‘Homonationalism’ refers to the way that LGBT rights are incorporated into predominantly Western understandings of the nation, premised on the exclusion of ethnic and religious ‘others’ who are seen as threatening to the LGBT community. The author quotes Van Rooy arguing, ‘I hear stories of young women, homosexuals and Jews who don’t dare to go to certain neighborhoods anymore…so we’ve already lost those neighborhoods to Islamic rules of behaviour. I want to fight that.’

Members of Vlaams Belang therefore portray themselves as defending Flemish societal norms, including in this case gender and LGBT equality. In this sense, while the VB adopts the language of social liberalism, they simultaneously employ an othering discourse towards Muslims, and particularly Muslim migrants, which is typical of the PRRP’s nativist ideologies. This approach maintains the party as the ‘masculine’ protector of women.

In the field of family policies, De Lange and Mugge’s 2015 analysis showed that the VB adjusted its policies over time. Whereas the party initially opposed divorce and pre-marital cohabitation, more recently it began to acknowledge difficulties in relationships, facilitate access to divorce and parenting support where necessary, and promote women’s participation in the workplace. In 2019, the VB’s party programme noted that the term ‘the family’ ‘should be interpreted much more broadly than the classical family of the 20th century.’

There has also been a moderation in the party’s use of masculinized images. Where the party used to position itself using images of boxing gloves and brooms (to ‘sweep away’ the competition) the party’s recent materials have focused on images of families and nostalgic, idyllic images of Flanders. One VB MP explained that the party had ‘put away the boxing gloves of the past’ and begun to emphasize ‘social policies.’ Here we can see some ‘demasculinization’ in the VB’s visual semantics.

Situating Populist Politics in a Man’s World

Whilst in this blog I’ve focused on the populist radical right, politics as a ‘man’s world’ is not exclusive to PRRPs. In fact, many similar patterns can be seen in other political parties. The VB’s nearest competitor, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), is a centre-right party, which has accepted non-traditionalist views on gender equality and LGBT rights. However, the N-VA’s acceptance of these social changes was described by Abts et al. as ‘carefully managed’. Like VB, the N-VA’s approach to social change was one of ‘evolution rather than revolution.’

Furthermore, women were only slightly less represented in VB at local level than its centre-right counterpart the N-VA, with 34% women local executive members as opposed to 39% in the N-VA. In fact, in 2018, only 7% of N-VA branch leaders were women compared to 21% in VB.

N-VA leader Bart de Wever has also been quoted criticising the veil, in a manner similar to how the VB does. He has said: “Those same leftists who were lighting their bras on fire in May of 1968 are now embracing the veil as a symbol of equality…People want to destroy Christianity but accept everything when it comes to Islam.” This comparison corroborates one of Spierings and Zaslove findings. They argue: ‘it appears that PRR parties, with respect to sex and gender, are in many ways simply a more radical version of centre-right parties.’

While it makes sense to highlight the underrepresentation of women in populist radical right parties, it is important to recognise that this underrepresentation does not necessarily set these parties apart from others on the right. Hence treating PRRPs as abnormal is not conducive to better research. Furthermore, moving beyond descriptive criteria around gender to consider gendered activism, policies, and images in populist radical right parties may provide a more nuanced view of these presumed ‘men’s parties.’

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is the Populism in Action Project’s Flanders focused Research Fellow. Her Research looks at the region’s Vlaams Belang political party. You can follow Judith on Twitter here.