No. 32




Democratic functions of populism

14 December 2015


RiTo No. 32, 2015

  • Alar Kilp

    Alar Kilp

    Lecturer in comparative politics, University of Tartu

The article discusses the role of populism in transition to democracy and in the performance of consolidated liberal democracies.

It starts with an outline of the results of the content analysis conducted by Praxis Center for Policy Studies that identifid the most populist messages presented by political parties during the electoral campaign of 2015 parliamentary elections. According to the study, populist messages were used by all parliamentary parties and by four extra-parliamentary parties. The author concludes that the use of populist messages has become a general feature of electoral campaigns and a means employed by virtually all competing parties.

In their use of populist messages, the Estonian political parties are not exceptional, because the gap between populism and anti-populism has become more visible and important in the party systems of Europe and the whole world.

The key features that characterize populism are: opposition with the social and political elite; representation of the will, hopes, perceptions and fears of the people; representation of the people as a homogeneous and unitary actor; perception of crisis. Several other features that describe populism, such as promotion of direct democracy, simplifying of messages, and emotional, passionate and direct communication with the electorate, are either used by parties of other ideological families or characterise the general type of communication between the political parties and the electorate.

Populist democracy embodies the core ideology of democracy – government for the people and by the people. Populist conceptions of democracy are indispensable in transition to democracy as well as in consolidated liberal democracy, where populism corrects, limits and balances the elitism of representative democracy, balances the liberal protection of individuals and minorities with the emphasis on the rights of majority, and provides a shared basis for the competition of values, interests and ideologies characteristic of the pluralist conception of democracy.

Full article in Estonian