The Finns Party is yet to close the door on contention over Covid-19

by Dr. Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham)

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Finns Party (PS) appeared an outlier amongst European populist radical right parties. The PS’s initial response to the Finnish government’s actions to contain the virus were unitary, consensual and moderate.

As the pandemic persisted, however, the party seemed to be finding it more difficult to avoid becoming an organisational vehicle for the contestation of mainstream views on COVID-19.

Whereas the PS initially only focused on the pandemic’s economic impact, arguing in favour of welfare nationalism, budget discipline and what it saw as the protection of Finnish national sovereignty, now the party has started to express resistance towards the measures the government has adopted to curb the rate of infection, too.

Hence the party opposed the introduction of Digital COVID Certificates by arguing that their use would closely equate to “mandatory vaccinations”. The arguments used in parliament were similar to those advanced by party leadership candidate Ossi Tiihonen, who gained the support of an unexpectedly high 14 percent of the vote in the recent party leadership election by running a COVID-focused campaign.

COVID-19: a catch-22 for the Finns Party leadership

The perception that the Finns Party is at odds with the scientific consensus or opposed to vaccination could put the party’s regained legitimacy at risk and cause discontent among many of its members. On the other hand, as in early 2021 only about half of PS supporters were willing to get vaccinated, alienating vaccine-sceptical voters could also harm the party’s polling.

Perhaps in response to these limitations, the party’s leadership has adopted an ambivalent stance towards tackling the pandemic. Hence they have stressed that “the Finns Party is not a corona party, and the party does not follow a specific corona line”. Ex- party leader Jussi Halla-aho also stated in the party’s paper that “people do not agree [on COVID-19]…, meaning it is impossible for the party to fulfil conflicting hopes and demands.”

To be clear, the party’s leadership has not sponsored vaccine-scepticism nor has the party officially supported non-compliance with government guidelines. Indeed, the party leadership has gently encouraged party activists to trust experts and science and has implicitly supported the government’s strategy of obtaining herd immunity via vaccination. Also, as a way of putting clear water between the PS and the emerging anti-vaccine movement, the party executive has expelled one of the party’s MPs, Ano Turtiainen. Turtianinen had – amongst other things – defied the party’s leadership by refusing to wear a mask in parliament.

Still, apart from the most extreme and conspicuous cases, the Finns Party’s leadership has allowed its politicians and members to discuss the pandemic as they see fit.

Perceived as an ally of controversial online movements – again

The Finns Party’s online presence comprises mainly de-centralised communications by individual politicians, members and supporters. Despite the party lacking in online message control, the PS’s engagement and perceived affiliation with COVID-19-related conspiracy theories or vaccine scepticism remained initially tenuous.

During the first wave of infections in Finland, there were no large demonstrations against public health authorities’ restrictions and recommendations. Unlike in Germany for instance, there was simply no pre-existing public discourse, movements, or platforms for the Finnish radical right to co-opt and to engage in protest with.

This – combined with the party’s initially pro-consensus stance – largely discouraged Finns Party activists and supporters from participating in or sympathising with COVID-related protest actions.

During later waves, however, this has changed. Individual PS politicians and activists appear to have contradicted the party’s consensual line on social media by, for example, questioning the motivations behind the vaccination campaign and by sharing disinformation about the pandemic. Also, as the party’s heightened oppositional rhetoric in parliament has shown some similarities with the claims made by Finland’s emerging online anti-vaccination movement, this has led other parliamentary parties to accuse the PS of flirting with COVID-denialism,

This situation is reminiscent of the late 2000s, when the Finns Party first became scrutinised and critiqued for providing a platform to nativist online activists and movements. Later on, nativism mainstreamed as a core element in the party’s ideology.

Waiting it out may backfire

Due to the significant formal and informal power of the party executive, and the party’s regular top-down communications with members, the Finns Party’s leadership could attempt to pre-empt or at least slow down a hardening of the rank and files’ views on COVID-19. However, enacting disciplinary measures or demanding stringent message discipline on the topic would cause undoubted bad blood within this fast-growing party and cause some members to seek new political homes elsewhere – for instance in the emergent Power Belongs to the People movement.

It cannot be foreseen for how long COVID-19 will remain a political signifier and point of division in Finnish and world politics. The Finns Party seems settled upon a strategy of waiting whilst leaving their door ajar to individuals for whom contesting the government over Covid-19 is a stimulating and worthy political pursuit.
However, the longer this persists, the more difficult it will be for the Finns Party to avoid becoming – in former leader Jussi Halla-aho’s words – “a corona party”.

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



Change of leadership not likely to be a source of massive change for the Finns Party

by Dr. Niko Hatakka

Jussi Halla-aho, the leader of Finland’s populist radical right Finns Party, will not run for a third term. He will step down from leadership in August. Considering that Halla-aho has painted a picture of himself as a reluctant but duty-bound leader ever since his election in 2017, him relinquishing the party’s top slot is not a tremendous surprise.

But what explains the leadership change and how will the 2021 party congress affect the party?

Halla-aho’s Legacy

During Halla-aho’s two terms as leader, the Finns Party has developed a more inclusive, open, and participatory organizational culture. Party MPs and regional and local activists have had greater leeway to contribute to the cause, organization and program under Halla-aho’s leadership.

Therefore, Halla-aho choosing to continue delegating power matches up to the party’s internalised rhetoric of a party thriving because of its grassroots.

In the last four years, the Finns Party has regained and surpassed its previous high point at national level and increased the size of its membership by about a third. In the latest round of local elections, the party increased its support in the municipalities by 5.6% across the country.

Halla-aho leaves behind a reunited, autonomous and extensive party-on-the-ground. However, crediting the recent victory in the municipalities to his leadership would be misleading.

The seeds of the party’s firm entrenchment in local politics were planted between 2008 and 2013, when it established nearly 150 new municipal associations. Given that during the previous municipal elections in 2017 the party was going through a severe internal crisis, a smaller victory in 2021 would have been considered a failure.

Halla-aho’s greatest legacy is the revival of enthusiasm for the party as a worthy cause among the activists within the network of local associations that the leader inherited. Retaining this re-established legitimacy and unity will be a key task for his successor.

Well-Timed Change at the Top?

Considering how unwavering support for Halla-aho has been amongst the Finns Party’s membership and almost 300 associations, a change of national leadership could theoretically unbalance the party’s internal cohesion and dent its electoral performance.

However, because of the delegation of leadership, there are several potential candidates to take over. They include, for example, vice-party leaders Riikka Purra and Juho Eerola, and the parliamentary group leader Ville Tavio. All enjoy strong support and legitimacy among members nationwide.

It is unlikely that the change of leader will cause widespread ideological or organizational realignment. The Finns Party will probably continue on its recently-established populist radical right alignment and its reliance on activists.

Changing leaders in the middle of the Parliamentary cycle could prove well-timed. Whilst it is likely that a lesser-known figure will lead the party, Halla-aho was deemed “too extreme” by the Centre party and the National Coalition Party in 2017. Therefore, with success in the next national ballots, The Finns Party may be better placed in any negotiations for a governing coalition.

Tweaking the Rules

The 2021 Finns Party Congress will also vote on rule changes. They are not likely to fundamentally change the current governance structure, apart from making the party council slightly more powerful and ensuring more regional representation on the party executive.

The proposed changes will not substantially decentralize power in the party. However, they will make the rules more coherent, placing some informal norms and practices of governance on a formal footing. A significant revision might be the consolidation of power of the most populous regions on the party council, at the expense of regions with fewer members.

However, as the party executive is yet to publish the final suggestions for the new rules, the only thing certain at this point, is that the Finns Party will have a new leader come autumn.

The Finns Party has developed organizationally to the point that the organisation will persist regardless of who of the party’s current elite takes the helm. And if the new leader pays heed to Halla-aho’s example of investing in establishing a heartfelt connection with the party-on-the-ground, the Finns Party will continue to thrive.

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

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


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. 

Niko Hatakka Writes Report on Finland for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Series on Right-wing populism and the COVID-19 Crisis

Populism in Action’s Finland focused Research Fellow Niko Hatakka has written a report for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s “The Profiteers of Fear? Right-wing populism and the COVID-19 Crisis” series. His contribution explores developments in Finland since the pandemic first began battering European countries in March 2020.

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation describe the series’ purpose as providing:

…reports from Sweden, Finland, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Germany – all countries with large or growing right-wing populist movements and parties. The reports explore the question, if right-wing populism in Europe has been able to benefit from the Corona-crisis. A synopsis will interpret and classify the developments in the individual countries in a comparative perspective.

In his contribution to the series Niko:

…analyses how the Finnish far right has reacted to the government’s handling of COVID-19 and the economic consequences of the virus during its first wave. It explains, how the populist radical right Finns Party has remained reasonably reserved in its criticism, and how the party has attempted to avoid affiliation with the Finnish online far right. Instead of uniting Finnish far right actors, COVID-19 has reinvigorated coalition building potential especially between the centre right and the populist radical right.

The full paper, along with the others in series can be read here in England and in German on the Friedrich Ebert Foundation website.

Video: Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Finland

This post originally appeared on EA Worldview

In the fifth and final interview in Populism in Action’s first video series, Finland-focused Research Fellow Niko Hatakka explains the position and aspirations of the right-wing populist Finns Party.

Niko explains that, having moved from center-left to right in recent years, with a change of leadership in 2017, the Finns Party has undertaken development of organization and a social media strategy. At the same time, the Party’s members are often “loose” or “unaffiliated”, with their own political and ideological positions influencing the leadership.

So what chance of the Finns Party returning to a coalition Government?

Before Niko’s interview, I ask Stijn van Kessel, co-director of the Populism in Action Project, how European right-wing populist parties will respond to the UK’s impending departure from the European Union.

A Starter Library on Populism

By PiAP’s Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans, Mattia Zulianello – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview

We asked each of the Research Fellows on the Populism in Action Project to give us opening recommendations to learn about populism, populist parties, and the future of European politics and society.

This is their Starter’s Library:

Dr. Adrian Favero, Switzerland focused Research Fellow

Nicole Loew and Thorsten Fass (2019) “Between Thin- and Host-ideologies: How Populist Attitudes Interact with Policy Preferences in Shaping Voting Behaviour,” Representation

Loew and Fass, from the Freie Universität Berlin, explores the demand side of left-wing and right-wing populism in Germany. They focus on voters for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Linke (Left Party), applying the ideational approach to populism as a framework for their research.

The study considers the complex interaction between populist attitudes, policy preferences, and voter choice. Loew and Fass build an analysis derived from the literature on host ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, that influence voting behavior.

In their conclusion, they outline convincingly that on the demand side of politics, populist attitudes and strong policy preferences lead to votes for populist parties on either the left or the right. Yet voters with moderate policy concerns and strong populist attitudes are still more likely to vote for populist parties because these attitudes substitute for policy preferences.

The article sheds light on a group of voters who are less driven by policy preferences than they are motivated by populism itself. If this is true across the nation, populist parties can rely on either policies or populist attitudes as a driver to increase their vote share.

Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber (2020) “Right-Wing Populism, Social Media and Echo Chambers in Western Democracies”, New Media & Society

Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber explore the effect of self-exposure to social media–based “echo chambers” on the rise of right-wing populism.

Based on a large-scale survey of 4500 respondents conducted in France, the UK, and the US, the authors assess citizens’ experiences of echo-chamber effects and support for populist parties. The novelty of this strand of research is the study’s comparative approach, which rules out country-specific explanations such as economics and immigration.

The study also assesses the polarizing effect of echo chambers and polarization’s link to left-wing or right-wing ideologies. The authors conclude that exposure to selective information in social media echo chambers does not predict support for right-wing parties as opposed to other parties. However, they find an echo chamber effect in the context of offline discussions with like-minded people, which is associated with support for right-wing populists.

The findings challenge the common assumption that digital echo chambers increase the propensity to endorse right-wing populism.

Laurent Bernhard and Hanspeter Kriesi (2019) “Populism in Election Times: A Comparative Analysis of 11 Countries in Western Europe”, West European Politics

Bernhard and Kriesi, through a content analysis of press releases in 11 countries in Western Europe, offers an interesting comparative analysis of the populist ideology expressed by parties during election campaigns.

They evaluate three types of appeals: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and demands for popular sovereignty. They not only look at populist parties from both the radical right and the radical left, but also at the division of issue dimensions, such as culture and economy, in northern and southern Europe. The article combines quantitative text analysis with qualitative examples, providing the reader with helpful illustrations of the national context.

The authors conclude that mainstream parties are less prone to rely on populist rhetoric. Intriguingly, this challenges the assumption that mainstream parties adjust to populist strategies exhibited by the far left and right. This description of gradual populism among “extreme parties” is important because it highlights the importance of nuanced classification.

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: "Finally Create Security"

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: “Finally Create Security” (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Niko Hatakka, Finland focused Research Fellow

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Mervi Pantti, and Gavan Titley (2020) “Broadcasting the Movement and Branding Political Microcelebrities: Finnish Anti-Immigration Video Practices on YouTube”, Journal of Communication

The authors analyze the usage of YouTube by Finnish anti-immigration movements after 2015.

Despite online platforms having significant effects on the style, contents, and form of populist radical right activism, in and parallel to the Finns Party, specific Finnish online movements have rarely been researched empirically. The study is based on qualitative content analysis of the actors, genres, functions, styles, framings, and strategies employed in YouTube videos affiliated to two separate movements, Rajat Kiinni and Suomen Kansa Ensin. The qualitative analysis is preceded and eloquently informed by a simple, yet effective, network analysis.

The paper highlights the role of microcelebrities as pivotal nodes in the movement’s network. Without explicitly stating the outcome, the authors display and discuss how YouTube’s properties and functions affect the process of empty signifiers uniting hybrid political movements.

Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart (2020) “The Rise of a Populist Zeitgeist? A Content Analysis of Populist Media Coverage in Newspapers Published between 1990 and 2017”, Journalism Studies

Hameleers and Vliegenhart’s article contributes to the discussion on the mainstreaming of populism as a thin-centered ideology in Western Europe.

Focusing on a 28-year period in the Netherlands, the authors use a dictionary-based approach to analyze the temporal prevalence of populist communication in newspapers. Measuring the number of articles which contain pre-selected words that are indicative of four selected elements of populist communication, the study portrays how people-centric and anti-elitist communication has become more prevalent over time.

The paper is the first attempt to use a word-based automated analysis of populist communication on a longer time scale. Because of its single country focus, it effectively proves an outlet-independent increase in the elements of populist communication measured.

Future studies seeking to pursue this method will have to resolve the problem of being able to use it reliably in a comparative setting. The difficulty of this task raises interesting questions about whether the thin-ideological understanding of the different elements of populism, for example viewing “the people” as the “ordinary people”, corresponds to the reality of how populist mobilizations are enabled by a staggeringly vast array of signifiers.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguascha (2020) “Did Somebody Say Populism? Towards a Renewal and Reorientation of Populism Studies”, Journal of Political Ideologies

The mainstream of populism research is strongly rooted in the ideational approach, which regards populism as a set of ideas or a thin-centered ideology. So it is refreshing to read articles that engage with the “other” approach, the Laclaudian theory of populism.

Dean and Maiguascha critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical approaches and encourage populism scholars to critically evaluate whether their use of the concepts are useful. Specifically they urge scholars to ask whether their selected definition of populism can both feed into anti-populist rhetoric and provide momentum for “populist hype”.

The authors suggest that more scholarly attention should be directed to populism not as a concept but as a signifier that has potential to be more political than analytical, especially outside of academia. A good first step will be a more conscious effort by scholars to recognize and be transparent about the epistemic limits of our definitions and operationalization of “populist ideas”, “populist style”, and “populist logic”.

Referring to only one of these distinct elements comprehensively as “populism” makes little sense and enflames disputes between the different populism research communities. Further work to combine the theoretical aspects of the different sub-disciplines of populism research should be encouraged, and this article is an excellent contribution to such a pursuit.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Dr. Judith Sijstermans, Belgium focused Research Fellow

Léonie de Jonge (2019). “The Populist Radical Right and the Media in the Benelux: Friend or Foe?”, The International Journal of Press/Politics

De Jonge’s work focuses on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and ties into the case of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB), one of four cases being studied by the Populism in Action Project.

Drawing on evocative interviews with media practitioners, de Jonge argues that the media in the Netherlands and Flanders have taken a more accommodating approach to right wing populist parties, in comparison with that of the media in Wallonia and Luxembourg. These approaches are shaped by mass media market dynamics in each country and the nature of their political systems.

De Jonge suggests that differing media responses have shaped the populist parties’ electoral trajectories. This speaks to an interesting dynamic within Belgium, where Flanders and Wallonia differ significantly in terms of populist radical right success. This has been further studied by Hilde Coffé.

It may seem incongruous to include a work so focused on the media in this review. However, in my early interviews with VB representatives, the media has been a pressing issue. The party seeks out support on social media to bypass what they see as a widespread “cordon mediatique” in the Belgian press. De Jonge discusses her work in a podcast (in Dutch).

Menno Fenger (2018). “The Social Policy Agendas of Populist Radical Right Parties in Comparative Perspective”, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy

It is a stretch to say, as Fenger does, that “there has been only limited research on the attitudes of these populist radical right parties towards the welfare state”. However, the novelty in this article’s approach is its broad empirical comparison between six populist radical right parties.

The inclusion of Donald Trump as a populist radical right figure is controversial but interesting. Fenger shows a clear gap between the social policies portrayed by Trump and those of his European counterparts, despite “some European leaders highlight[ing] their association with the Trump Administration”. The strategy of adopting Trump’s language has emerged in the Flemish Interest, making it useful to include Trump here, if only to highlight how few substantive similarities exist despite the professed symbolic links.

The article raises more questions than it answers providing a starting point for further research. Why are some parties, as Fenger says, “dogmatic” whilst others are “pragmatic”? Should we include Trump in future analyses? What causes similarities in Dutch and Flemish approaches to social policy? Studies of PRRPs rarely cover such broad ground, and given the comparative aims of our own project, this article is a useful reference point.

Agnes Akkerman, Andrzej Zaslove, and Bram Spruyt (2017). “‘We the People’ or ‘We the Peoples’? A Comparison of Support for the Populist Radical Right and Populist Radical Left in the Netherlands”, Swiss Political Science Review

The authors of this article compare supporters of a populist radical right and populist radical left party in the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) and the Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP) respectively. They test hypotheses on the attitudes that unite and divide these parties’ voters.

Populism in Activism Project co-investigator Stijn van Kessel has suggested that the SP has stepped away from its populist rhetoric. However, studying populism in parties on either side of the ideological spectrum is a useful way to move past preconceived notions about populism. The authors argue that, given their faith in the “people”, “a populist vote may not only be a vote against but also for something”. Both parties’ supporters hold populist attitudes and low levels of trust, but what supporters of each party are voting for differs.

Tying into Fenger’s discussions of social policy, the authors posit a certain symmetry in the welfare policies of PRR and PRL parties, hypothesizing that supporters of both support more social security benefits. However, their findings do not support this.

For those with an interest in this dynamic, other scholars have delved more deeply into the links between economic positions and populist attitudes in voters including in this article by Van Kessel and Steven Van Hauwaert.

Poster of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party: "Thanks Voters!"

Poster of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party: “Thanks Voters!”

Dr. Mattia Zulianello, Italy focused Research Fellow

Lenka Buštíková and Petra Guasti (2019). “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism”, East European Politics and Societies

Buštíková and Guasti provide an excellent and intriguing analysis of technocratic populism, a little-studied manifestation of the populist phenomenon. Focusing on the case of Czech Republic since 1989, the authors ground a solid empirical analysis within a valuable theoretical framework, which greatly enhances our understanding of the many populist actors that do not fit the typical left-right categorization.

Technocratic populism is exemplified in the contemporary context by Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011. This is the leading force in today’s Czech government, and “strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message”, which emerges “at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism”.

The authors argue that the broader appeal of technocratic populism in comparison with economic and nativist forms of populism, as well as its claim to rule in the name of “the people” on the grounds of technical expertise, make it a “sophisticated threat to liberal democracy”. In particular, by combining an emphasis on technocratic expertise with a people-centric message, this form of populism may lead to democratic backsliding by fueling civic apathy and by providing political actors with a master frame to “legitimize” concentrations of power.

Luigi Curini (2019). “The Spatial Determinants of the Prevalence of Anti-Elite Rhetoric Across Parties”, West European Politics

Spatial analyses of political competition are a true political science classic, and this article by Luigi Curini shows the utility and elegance of such approaches to the study of key aspects of contemporary party politics.

Using data from the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data, the author conceptualizes anti-elitism “as a non-policy vote-winning strategy” that has “quasi-valence” features, because they can be positively evaluated by a wide pool of voters. In light of such properties, anti-elitism is understood as a strategy that can potentially be used by any political actor with the goal of increasing their electoral appeal.

Curini’s analysis suggests that the decision of political parties to focus on anti-elitism “does not depend entirely on some inner identity; it also depends on the spatial environment in which they compete”. Indeed, this paper reveals that a given party has a higher incentive to resort to anti-elitism if it is “ideologically ‘squeezed’ among adjacent parties”. Most notably, in such a context, focusing on anti-elitism may help a political party differentiate itself from its proximate competitors in the eyes of the electorate.

Sergiu Gherghina and Sorina Soare (2019). “Electoral Performance Beyond Leaders? The Organization of Populist Parties in Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics

Gherghina and Sorina Soare offer an excellent example of how to study the impact of leadership and organizational features on the electoral performance of populist parties.

Grounded in the qualitative analysis of primary and secondary sources, the paper focuses on three cases from post-communist Europe that present considerable differences in terms of their electoral fate: the Bulgaria Without Censorship Party, the Party of Socialists from the Republic of Moldova, and the People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu of Romania.

Rather than treating leadership and organization as a single variable, as it is often the case in the literature, the authors operate a useful and meaningful distinction between the two in their analysis. This approach makes their contribution of interest to comparativists and to scholars of populism.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that personalization and concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders is not sufficient to achieve electoral survival. This paper highlights that endogenous factors are important in the decline of populist parties, especially if they do not develop proper organizational structures and rely instead on the personality of their leaders.

Coronavirus Aftermath Is Likely to Unite Finland’s Right-Wing Parties

By Niko Hatakka (PiAP Finland focused Research Fellow)

Coronavirus and a quest for a role in government have forced the Finns Party (PS) to ease off the gas pedal of its ideology and confrontational style.

However, there is plenty of road ahead to accelerate until the 2023 Parliamentary elections. And the ride is likely to get bumpy.

As in Italy and Switzerland, the public health crisis initially appeared to render traditional political divides irrelevant, at least temporarily.

The Finnish Government has carried out strict measures to control transmission of the virus. Due to the country’s developed health care system, comparably advanced crisis preparedness, and the Finnish people’s compliance with the restrictions, there have been less than 200 deaths. Opposition parties, the private sector, and even brusquely right-wing columnists have mostly expressed approval of the left-wing government’s actions.

Some of the loftier analyses have even rekindled the “spirit of the winter war”, the setting aside of political disputes to face a formidable common enemy in World War II.

Until the start of the pandemic, the environmentally-aware and generally “woke” government, led by five women, provided the Finns Party with the perfect symbol of what the party’s supporters consider wrong with “the elites”. But with the government’s authoritative tackling of the shared biological enemy, the Finns Party’s appeals to rally against the threat of green-leftist “climate hysteria” and “pandering to immigrants” appeared tangential.

Yet any decrease in support during the time of Coronavirus will not be a crisis for the Finns Party.

Remaining Fit For Government

Finnish citizens have rapidly rallied around their charismatic leader, the Social Democrat Prime Minister Sanna Marin. With the Finns Party’s support decreasing about 3% to a level of 20% since the first recorded case of Covid-19 in the country, the Social Democrats have overtaken PS to become the most popular party.

For the Parliamentary elections in 2023, the Finns Party must hang on to their largest-ever support while still being viewed as fit for government. Thus far, the party leadership have incrementally toned down their online communications, and even discouraged unnecessary confrontation that could be interpreted as inability to govern responsibly during a crisis.

There has been plenty of scornful public discussion about the government’s failing to source hospital-grade protective equipment, but Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho has been reserved in responding to the handling of the crisis. In the latest issue of the party’s newspaper , Halla-aho showed restraint to the point of reproaching his own ranks: “Responsible opposition should not scoff at mistakes that could have happened to any government or score political points with unfounded promises.”

At the national level, the party is trying to patiently sit out the pandemic while holding to its key issues. Throughout the crisis, the central organization’s communications have mostly refrained from overt populist style in performing the crisis, while remaining consistent in demanding cuts of public spending on immigration, environmental protection, and high culture.

However, the leadership has not been able to contain all online communications that could be viewed as “irresponsible” during a health crisis. For example, one MP founded a Facebook page for disseminating information on Coronavirus, and the online community has been riddled with misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Bridging a Temporary Alliance

After the Finns Party’s new leadership was elected in 2017, the other government parties deemed the PS unfit as a coalition partner. Nothing significant has since changed ideologically or organizationally in the Finns Party, but the centre-right Coalition Party has started to change its line about governmental cooperation.

During the first year of the current government, the Coalition Party and the Finns Party increasingly appear to stand on common ground. The Finnish populist radical right and the Finnish centre-right are in the process of constructing a chain of equivalence, a shared front against the danger from the left.

The ideological glue for this alliance will be provided by the two parties’ shared demand for austerity.
After the imminent threat of the virus wanes and the bill of the crisis has to be paid, it is likely that the “spirit of the winter war” will be but a memory as the two main opposition parties join forces to attack the government for overspending.

As forming a right-wing government is no longer possible without the Finns Party, the inevitable tightening of the two parties’ ranks will make the Finnish center-right more open to nativist and authoritarian ideas. This cooperation will also cement the Finns Party’s ongoing shift to the economic right.

Tampere University: “How Populist Logic Functions in Contemporary Media”

Niko Hatakka (PiAP Finland focused Research Fellow) lectured on “How Populist Logic Functions in the Contemporary Media Environment” at a symposium organized by the Institute for Advanced Social Research at Tampere University, Finland on December 4-5, 2019.

The symposium brought together cross-disciplinary social scientists in discussion of populism as class, discourse, and affective formation. Workshops considered to what extent these dimensions are effective in distinguishing political varieties, forms, and limits of populism as an analytic category.

How Media Hybridity Makes Populism Fail as a Democratic Corrective

by Niko Hatakka (PiAP Finland focused Research Fellow) – this post initially appeared on EA Worldview

The hybridization of the media system affects populism as a political logic to the point that it makes it less likely to constitute a corrective for democracy.

Populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, or otherwise shockingly subversive, but the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. In media systems of the 21st century, the access to the public sphere has become more inclusive and horizontal. More people can get involved in defining how we should view the world. But what does that mean for the articulation of “the people” when anybody can speak or be perceived to speak in the name of “the people”?

If we want to understand the form and trajectory of populist mobilizations in the current media environment, we must connect different theoretical approaches used in populism research. The ideational, populism-as-style and political communication approaches explain “what populism is” and “how populism is done”. But into understand “what populism actually ends up doing”, we need to combine these approaches with something else.

Read the full academic article: “Populism in the Hybrid Media System”

A New Approach to Populist Political Communication

The so-called Laclaudian approach suggests that populism is a political logic of articulation, the process in which things get their meaning through language and acts of signification. When viewed as a political logic, populism is regarded as the unification of groups and individuals, hosting different kinds of political demands, to form imagined alliances – or chains of equivalence – that can eventually constitute “a people” that can strive to change the status quo.

This theory illuminates the discursive processes of how populist ideas are communicated and connected to particular political movements, the part where populism becomes flesh via the discursive articulation of “the people” and its relationship with “the elites”. This is why the approaches that regard populism as style and as communication are useful: there cannot be populist ideas without their discursive and context-specific construction.

But it is only when connected to the discursive theoretical approach that mainstream approaches can inform us as to what kinds of political forces are mobilized by populist messages in the media system.

Our heuristic models on the relationship between populism and media do not currently have that dynamism, for they are set in the age of traditional non-hybrid media. When it comes to the role of the internet for populism, the literature often ignores online communication or attributes to it an excessive responsibility for the rise of populist movements. Especially in the time of much discourse about “fake news” and “post truth”, there is a tendency to understand social media as a kind of mind-control-machinery.

These narratives simplistically represent populism as a technological phenomenon. Social media allow populist actors to emancipate themselves from the traditional media, but we have not updated our research and analysis on the idea of online media, not only as a means of bypassing gatekeepers, but as an integral part of the media system.

As an analytic starting point, I suggest that the diffusion of populist political communication in the hybrid media system can be understood as:

1) Media populism:

Mainstream media communicate populist ideas independently of political actors.

2) Populist communication bypassing gatekeepers:

Populists communicate populist ideas independently of the mainstream media.

3) Populist re-mediation of media content:

Media content is re-mediated by populists to communicate populist ideas.

4) Journalistic amplification of populist communication:

Mainstream media covers populist communication and simultaneously participates in its dissemination.

5) Civic amplification of populist communication:

Political opponents and activists discuss populist communication and simultaneously disseminate it via online and mainstream media;

6) Resistance backlash:

Feeding on the mainstream media’s and political opponents’ mediated criticism of populist political communication, populist communicators disseminate populist ideas and style.

So populist political communication should not only be understood as the transmission and diffusion of populist ideas but as a discursive struggle involving both proponents and opponents. The focus must be shifted from the contents and salience of mediated populist political communication itself, to how populist communication is transformed after several stages of interaction between the original message, the media system, and various publics.

Therefore, to understand how populist communication affects populist movements’ in terms of their form, trajectory, and chances of challenging hegemony, we have to look at how political organizations, journalists, and citizen activists interact with populist communication.

The hybridization of the media system affects not only what kind of populist ideas are being communicated and how they are spread, but also what kinds of movements will be mobilized by a populist logic. We must update our understanding of the role of the media in diffusing populist political communication to accommodate not only online communication but also reciprocal interactivity between different actors involved in the communication system. A distinction must be made between what populists are trying to communicate and what their communication actually articulates, after the communication has gone through a series of discursive negotiations in the public sphere.

Outcomes of a Hybrid Media for Populist Movements

By making the most controversial acts of populist communication more salient, the media system intensifies their political use. This can lead to their further normalization, especially because it is cost-effective for populist leaders to remain confrontational and openly hostile towards criticism. The logic of the contemporary media environment thus hinders the chances of populist movements becoming legitimate channels for the institutionalization of unmet societal demands, due to the mediated amplification of their least-appreciated elements.

Theoretically populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, but the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. And unless populist movements consolidate antagonism as a key feature in their communications, external and internal mediated scrutiny is likely to cripple them by starting to disintegrate their idea of “who the people are”. The outcome is that the populist logic is less likely to function as a corrective for democracy in the hybrid media system.