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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 9: Exclusionary Populism in Western Europe in the 1990s and Beyond: A Threat to Democracy and Civil Rights?

6 Jan 2005

  • Author(s): Hans-Georg Betz


Since the late 1980s, a new breed of right-wing parties and movements has gained momentum in a number of liberal democracies, particularly—but not exclusively—in Europe. Among the most successful of these parties have been the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party), Fremskrittspartiet (Norwegian Progress Party), Freiheitliche Partei Österreich (Austrian Freedom Party) and the Front National (National Front) in France.

Several characteristics distinguish these parties and movements from the more traditional parties: reliance on charismatic leadership; the pursuit of a populist strategy of political marketing with a pronounced customer orientation; and the appeal to and mobilization of popular anxieties, prejudices and resentments, the main target of which has been the political establishment.

They espouse an ideology that is best described as a type of exclusionary populism. The core of this political doctrine consists of a restrictive notion of citizenship, which holds that genuine democracy is based on a culturally, if not ethnically, homogeneous community; that only long-standing citizens are full members of civil society; and that society’s benefits should only accrue to those who have made a substantial contribution to it. In its more extreme cases, exclusionary populism has taken the form of cultural nativism which, rather than promoting notions of ethno-cultural superiority, aims at the protection of cultural identity and idiosyncratic values and ways of life against alien intrusion.

There are several reasons for their political success: widespread popular disaffection and disenchantment with the established political parties, politicians and the political process in general; diffuse feelings of anxiety in the face of rapid and profound change associated with globalization; and a general unease with respect to the cultural challenges posed by non-European immigrants. While unwanted by the majority of Europeans, such immigrants are increasingly needed to compensate for falling birth rates, prevent labour shortages, and provide some of the funds necessary to pay for the welfare state.

The author finds that it is unlikely that the appeal of right-wing parties will significantly diminish in the foreseeable future. Their success represents a serious challenge to liberal democracy. Whether or not it will become a genuine threat to democracy will ultimately depend on the strength of the democratic institutions and political culture that Europe has developed during the past 50 years.

Hans-Georg Betz was, at the time of writing, associate professor of political science at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies of York University in Toronto, Canada.

Order ICCPP 9 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).