Assya Kavrakova: Populists are skilled in exploiting fears

They connect to real concerns of people, but they aren't skilful enough in providing long-term, sustainable answers in terms of policies

Photo: Maria Koleva Assya Kavrakova

Citizens are quite aware of the strengths and weaknesses of populist parties. They are good communicators. On the other hand, they are unable to provide sustainable solutions. At the same time, there is a concern that, unfortunately, traditional and mainstream parties cannot provide those sustainable solutions either, unless they start innovating. This has been identified as a shortcoming of the traditional and mainstream parties and an area which is in need of bigger improvement, says Assya Kavrakova, Executive Director of the European Citizens Action Service (ECAS), in an interview with Europost.

- Ms Kavrakova, what provoked you to start exploring this topic of populism and conduct a study on it?

- ECAS is a European association, a non-profit organisation that is working in two focus areas - European rights and European democracy, and as part of the latter, we have a special pillar, which is 'Understanding Populism'. In this respect, for us it was an interesting opportunity to zoom into the non-metropolitan regions and to know more about the factors that are influencing citizens' choices in favour of populism in the eight non-metropolitan areas that we looked at. We also wanted to understand what kind of role civil society organisations are playing in those regions in order to counter populism. That is why we applied to deliver such a study for the European Economic and Social Committee. Currently, populism in Europe is at its highest level since the 1930s. The average populist vote in the EU Member States stands at 24%, up from 8.5% in 2000.

- Why were specifically regions in Austria, France, Italy and Poland chosen for your study?

- We selected the eight regions in the four countries depending on their different socio-economic characteristics. For each country, we choose one non-metropolitan area with a level of income, economic and social development below EU average, and one with a higher level. What is, however, very typical for all of those eight regions identified in Austria, France, Italy and Poland, is that they have been facing high populist share of votes by their citizens in the last either Parliamentary or Presidential elections. We also aimed to have a comprehensive overview of the situation and a representation through which we could project most of the same conclusions of the study to other EU Member States.

- Could you please say more about the methodology you used for the study?

- We kicked off the work on the study by undertaking intensive desk research, so we have gone through almost everything that had been published on the topic of populism, as well as, of course, familiarised ourselves with available data. We conducted two statistical analyses in order to establish the relationship between the socio-economic indicators and the populist voting patterns in the eight regions. We also conducted an exploratory citizen survey - we solicited the opinion of 660 citizens from the eight regions, who were so kind to share with us their preferences, as well as their motivation for their voting choices. We formed three focus groups, two of them in the two Austrian regions and one in the Drome region of France. We have also conducted 54 expert and CSO interviews, following a structured questionnaire, just because we wanted to understand more about the motivation and actually to be able to qualify the data, which we have collected through other statistical methods.

In order to go further and especially to establish the content of our surveys, we have also conducted a specific populist index of selected parties in Austria, France, Italy and Poland. So, in order to address and to answer the research objectives, we did quite a lot for six months.

- On what criteria did you label a party as populist?

- We did our research using as a starting point the definition of the influential scholar of populism Cas Mudde, who defined it as “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, 'the pure people' and 'the corrupt elite'”. He as well argues that “politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. Nonetheless, we didn't invent ourselves who the populist parties are. We have simply scored and rearranged them according to their assessment by the Chapel Hill Political Science Expert Survey. This is a study where experts are assessing the attitudes of national parties towards certain characteristics and behaviour. In this specific case, we were very interested to understand what exactly does it mean for those parties to be anti-elite, majoritarian, authoritarian, monocultural and Eurosceptic. In addition to that, we specifically paid attention, through the surveys and also through the focus groups and the interviews, to the additional role played by online disinformation, as well as the call for more direct democracy, which is displayed by those parties.

- What, according to your findings, are the strengths and weaknesses of populist parties?

- First, let's look at the interplay that socio-economic and cultural factors have in populism. Apparently, depending on the case, and each and every case is specific, some factors are stronger than others. The important thing here is that no factor alone causes populism. Rather, there is an interplay of factors, and this interplay produces different manifestations in the different regions, depending on their specificities. What is actually common for all the regions is that populists, in general, are very skilful in exploiting anxieties and fears. Some of the interviewees even shared with us that, from time to time, populists are very right in asking the right questions, just because they connect to real concerns of people, but they aren't skilful enough in order to provide long-term, sustainable answers in terms of policies.

The other interesting finding is that it's not only that factors of populism may vary across the different regions, but also they are quite different across the different social groups. For example, middle income groups usually fear loss of status, and this is the strongest factor, while in lower-income groups it is the more direct fear of loss of jobs and income.

So, this is the reason why also we see that in countries with relatively high standard of living, like in Austria, for example, still the cultural factors are those that are much more dominating than the economic factors in driving populism choices, and even the other way around, like in Poland, which is a country with a comparatively lower standard of living, still the cultural factors are the ones that are referred to by everyone as an expandatory mechanism for the populist vote, much more than the economic status.

- What about the situation with representative democracy?

- The socio-economic and cultural factors mingle and interplay with other, additional factors. The crisis of representative democracy is something which apparently has effect, everyone is referring to it. I mean, it is linked to the diminished trust in traditional parties and it explains why, and this is an overwhelming finding across the study, almost all citizens interviewed have declared a demand for direct democracy. This is interesting because, on the other hand, of course, the experts are very cautious. They warn us about all the possible shortcomings, especially following the example of Brexit, about applying methods of direct democracy, especially in societies that are not prepared for that. But it is very clear that voting every five years is not enough anymore in order to practice democracy, and there should be much more interactive and collaborative methods in between, in order to address this need on behalf of the citizens.

- How do the citizens assess the role of the mainstream parties in the context of the rise of populism?

- Citizens are quite aware of the strengths and weaknesses of populist parties. They are good communicators. On the other hand, they are unable to provide sustainable solutions. At the same time, there is a concern that, unfortunately, traditional and mainstream parties cannot provide those sustainable solutions either, unless they start innovating. This has been identified as a shortcoming of the traditional and mainstream parties and an area which is in need of bigger improvement.

- How does disinformation work to boost populism?

- Online disinformation is definitely linked to the rise of populism, as populists are quite skilful in taking advantage of the social and online media in order to spread their messages. Euroscepticism is, of course, a typical aspect of populism because by default populists are anti-global, anti-European Union, mainly because of the fact that the EU displays everything that they are against, in a way. It represents solidarity, it represents unity, and this is something that Eurosceptic, populist movements are fighting against.

- What is the role of civil society in tackling populism?

- The picture is not rosy, in a general note. First, neither citizens nor CSOs are very knowledgeable about the term 'populism'. They perceive it as not clear, and they do not usually recognise it as a distinctive type of challenge.

What we have seen in all the regions is that, while there are civil society organisations that are service providers, in terms of mainly social services, very few of them are actually tackling and dealing with activities which have anything to do with online disinformation, calls for direct democracy and spreading the European values. We have conducted a special mapping of civil society organisations in those regions, and the percentage of those who are involved by mission in related activities as the ones who potentially can counter populism, is very, very negligible.

What comes out of this study is really the need for support for civil society in the non-metropolitan regions, if we want it to play a role in, if not tackling, at least facing the challenges of populism. There is a need to support civil society not only in terms of funding and know-how and knowledge, but also in terms of developing cooperation in order to come up with more encompassing and comprehensive initiatives in tackling populism, and to develop definite links across borders.

- What are your recommendations in this respect?

- There are the 10 recommendations that the study has ended up with. They can be grouped as follows: Raise awareness in terms of developing a knowledge base on “populism” to inform a tailored approach to tackling its roots and manifestations, foster EU communication and engagement and invest in formal and informal civic education.

Engage citizens in-between elections through restoring the public sphere of dialogue and discussion, complementing representative democracy with collaborative elements of participatory democracy and provoking traditional parties to innovate and seek new solutions to citizens' concerns exploited by populists. Last but not least: support civil society at local level, tackle online disinformation at all levels and boost internationalisation and Europeanisation through exchanges - horizontal, vertical and multi-stakeholder involving non-metropolitan areas.

- How do the Polish regions differ from the others in the study?

- There are two particular features, which are very, very specific to Poland. In Poland, unlike anywhere else, populism has been identified as a challenge to democracy itself, because it challenges the fundamentals of democracy. That is not the case in any of the other three countries studied. And at the same time, there is a naturally limiting factor to the populist spread, at least in influence and impact, which is the very high public support for the European Union membership in Poland. This is perceived as a constraint against the attacks of the populist parties against the EU.

Concerning the recommendations for Poland, while some of them are in line with the general recommendations, there are a couple which I have underlined as specific for Poland, namely that the EU should take a stronger stance in defending democracy in Poland, specifically. This is very much linked to ensuring independent judiciary and media, they have to be sustained at all cost, and local CSOs should be supported through direct EU funding because, otherwise, their funds are shrinking by the day.


Assya Kavrakova is the Executive Director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), an international non-profit organisation, based in Brussels with 28 years of experience in empowering citizens to exercise their rights. She has a Master's degree in Law and a Master's degree in European integration from St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia. She is the author of the Bulgarian chapter of the reports “TV across Europe: Regulation, Policy, Independence 2005” and “TV across Europe: Follow-up reports 2008” - of the OSI EU Monitoring and Advocacy Programme. Recently Assya Kavrakova co-authored the study “Societies outside Metropolises: the role of civil society organisations in facing populism”, commissioned by the Diversity Group of the European Economic and Social Committee and carried out by ECAS.

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