Populists in Government

Populist parties in government show high levels of resilience despite their policy failures. The inevitable reality check and the lack of success in implementing proposed policies does not seem to harm populist parties electorally. In our paper Populists in Government: Voter Defection and Party Resilience published in the Journal of Representation in January 2020, we examine the case of crisis-ridden Greece. To be more precise, we study under which conditions former voters for the populist government continue their electoral support despite policy failures. To that end, we analyze data collected immediately after the Greek federal elections held in September 2015.

Populistische Parteien in der Regierung zeigen trotz ihres politischen Versagens ein hohes Maß an Widerstandsfähigkeit. Die unvermeidliche Realitätsprüfung und der mangelnde Erfolg bei der Umsetzung der vorgeschlagenen Politik scheinen den populistischen Parteien bei den Wahlen nicht zu schaden. In unserem Paper Populists in Government: Voter Defection and Party Resilience, das im Januar 2020 im Journal of Representation veröffentlicht wurde, untersuchen wir den Fall des krisengeschüttelten Griechenlands. Genauer gesagt untersuchen wir, unter welchen Bedingungen ehemalige Wähler*innen bei den Wahlen ihre Unterstützung für die populistische Regierung trotz politischer Misserfolge fortsetzen. Zu diesem Zweck analysieren wir Daten, die unmittelbar nach den griechischen Parlamentswahlen vom September 2015 erhoben wurden.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.13

What we did

The lack of government responsiveness to their voters and the failure to deliver the promised electoral policies can electorally harm political parties. Against this assumption, electoral results from Greece from the year 2015 show that despite policy failures, the pronounced voter defection did not take place as over 68% of former SYRIZA voters continued to electorally support the populist government. Therefore, we ask ourselves the question when and why populist voters might stop their electoral support and what keeps voters with the populist government. To that end, we analyze data collected immediately after the Greek federal elections held in September 2015.

What we understand by populist parties

Populism is a complex construct that has many facets and is difficult to grasp. It has often been defined as a thin ideology (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013[1]; Stanley, 2008[2]). The unifying element of populist groups is the shared anti-elite attitude, which speaks against the political elites and in favor of the common people’s interests with little substantial content in itself but rather focused on forming an antagonizing position. In Greece, SYRIZA’s populist rhetoric was clearly a strategy to electorally win not only its own ideological voter base but also voters with ideological positions different from those of the left-wing party (Andreadis & Stavrakakis, 2017[3]).

What we expected to find

Voter-party congruence on dimensions such as the socioeconomic left-right dimension or the EU dimension can be one reason citizens chose to vote for a populist party. Like for any other government, if populist governments fail to deliver what they promised, citizens are expected to desert them. The representation link between voters and the government breaks and former populist voters might turn their back on the populist party and abandon them in case they perceive a policy failure.

H1: Voters of populist parties in government defect when they perceive a high ideological distance between themselves and the populist parties.

However, irrespectively of the ideological beliefs held by a voter, the populist link might also lead voters to renew their vote for the populist government, given that the government is believed to fight against the national and international political elites and on the behalf of ordinary people. As long as the electorate perceives the populist government as fighting for them, there are no incentives to defect.

H2: Voters supporting populist parties in government defect when they do not believe that the populist government fights for their cause.

A third possible scenario might be that voters feel represented on the populism dimension even if they are not actually represented with regard to the policy dimension. Those voters who support an initial set of policies proposed by the populist government before the election will have a higher probability of continuing their electoral support despite policy failures if they believe that that government fought for their interest.

H3: Voters of populist governments who supported the initial set of policies have a lower likelihood of defecting if they believe that the government fought for them.

What our results show

Our results are in line with the theoretical expectations. Firstly, voters who perceived a high ideological distance to SYRIZA on the left-right and the EU dimension had a higher probability of defecting from the government to vote for non-populist parties. Secondly, believing that Tsipras put only very minimal effort into the negotiations shows the most critical effect. It means that voters defect to other parties when they do not believe that the populist government fought for their cause. Thirdly, for those individuals who supported an initial set of policies promised by the populist government, there is a difference in their probability of remaining loyal to SYRIZA depending on how they evaluate the party’s effort in international negotiations. Those voters who believed that Tsipras made an effort have a probability of 48.8% of being loyal to SYRIZA, while those who believed that he did not make an effort only have a probability of only 26.8% of remaining loyal.

To put it in a nutshell, our findings advance our knowledge of populist parties in government by analyzing voter defections using Greece as a case study. We find that voter defection happens more often when voters do not believe their party fought for them. As a result, this study presents a new type of representation based on the feeling of being represented rather than actual policy congruence between voters and parties. Being viewed as combating the common enemy is a sufficient condition for populist parties to ‘keep their promises’ and ‘represent the people’.

Original paper: Katsanidou, A., & Reinl, A.-K. (2020). Populists in Government: Voter Defection and Party Resilience. Representation, 1–18. Online first: https://doi.org/10.1080/00344893.2019.1700153

[1] Mudde, C., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2013). Populism (vol. 1; M. Freeden & M. Stears, Eds.). doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199585977.013.0026

[2] Stanley, B. (2008). The thin ideology of populism. Journal of Political Ideologies, 13(1), 95–110.

[3] Andreadis, I., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2017). European populist parties in government: How well are voters represented? Evidence from Greece. Swiss Political Science Review, 23(4), 485–508. doi:10.1111/spsr.12255

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