Updated: Jul 1
It is very easy to search the bad bits of populism and to criticize it, and some populist parties are even considered a threat to democracy. But, just like anything else in the world, populism also comes with some good sides. One good side to populism is the increase in voter turnout, that has been a problem in most countries. In this article, I will be exploring if it does, in fact, increase voter turnout.
Populism is a political approach to voters that tells the population that their needs are not being met with the political elite and, therefore, a change needs to be seen. They then present themselves as the change the voter needs to improve his/her life.
A major problem in most western countries is a lack of enthusiasm for elections which results in a very low turnout. The low turnout can not only be explained by the said lack of enthusiasm, obviously, it is also explained by many other factors that I am not going in to deep on that matter. What is presented today in many journal articles is that populism is not the answer to increase election turnout, but it does help elections achieve a higher turnout. Populist parties help because they put ‘complicated’ political terms in easier terms, thus making politics feel more accessible and, with that, it moves people towards that party’s political message.
My question is, how can populist parties have helped anything if we still are facing low turnouts whilst populist parties have been around for a long time? I have then decided to do my own research to understand if it is really a benefit. My research is limited to the European Union (including the United Kingdom). The parties that have been used in this study are relevant populist parties in the European Union, left, centre or right, and that their political approach strives with the appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. The only parties to I have defined to be relevant with parties that have one or more seats in parliament.
The first step is to gauge the voter turnout at each country’s most recent election each country had. We can identify in the graph below that in the European Union there is a very big difference between Germany, which is very close to 100%, and Slovakia that does by less than 2% surpasses the 40% barrier.
The next metric that will be useful to understand the last graph is to know when were populist parties founded. The graph below. It also shows which countries have relevant populist parties. Some of these countries even have more than one relevant populist party. We can also clearly see a spike in the creation of populist parties after 2011. 2011 marks the debt crisis in the European Union. This feeling of revolt might have been triggered by the crisis.
The graph below shows you the percentage of the vote that was attributed to populist parties in the last election. What we can take from this graph is that the more mature parties, get a bigger share of the vote compared to those that were created after the spike of 2011. An example of this is the Left Bloc in Portugal that is currently the 3rd main party in its country, while the newer party is only the 7th main. Other examples of this can be the Polish PiS and the Polish Kukiz’15. PiS is the Government while the Kukiz’15 is still a very small party.
I have saved the best for last. This last graph shows the percentage change in the first elections from when these populist parties won their first seat. I have not done this statistic for their first year running for elections but rather for the first election in which they won a seat, because my understanding is that when parties are too small, their likelihood of winning seats is considerably
smaller because they have fewer resources.
We can see change in every single country. Now, it is important to understand that the changes cannot be entirely attributed to the party, neither up, nor down. It is, however, interesting that the sum of all the changes adds up to a minus 22,62. It is a very big change and it goes against the findings of other studies.
It is, however, very important to say again that this is only focused on the European Union countries (plus the United Kingdom) and in the countries that have a relevant populist party. I have defined relevant with parties that have one or more seats in parliament.
So, to conclude, would I be saying that populist parties have no use in society? No. That is certainty not what I am advocating for. However, I am forced to conclude that populist parties in the European Union no meaningful effect on in voter turnout in their first year seated.