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Populism As A Challenge To Democracy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 5493 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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The end of cold war gave rise to a new dimension in contemporary governance; the rise of populism or right wing populist movement which has now become one unifying factor binding Western, Eastern and Northern Europe as they embark on anti immigration policies. Commencing from the 1980s, the link between populism and democracy has been and is widely discussed and debated in literature, given rise to thousands of articles, books, editorials to name a few. This paper focuses on this relation by examining populism in light of a challenge to democracy as well as an integral part of democracy. In this regard, I have defined the two terms in the preliminary sections and have also tried to relate the two terms and have come to the conclusion that, the relationship between the two terms is too ambiguous. In section two, I have used the review of literature to demonstrate that Populism is an integral part of democracy, in the same way; I have demonstrated that populism is a challenge to democracy. To uphold this last claim, I have used the case of the True Finns Populist Party to prove this point. However, it is worthy to note that, populism in itself is contextual and does not have any fix values and if it works in the Finnish case as a challenge to democracy, it does not entail that it will work as such elsewhere because judging from the reviews, populism can be an integral as well as a challenge to democracy.

Key words; Populism, challenge, democracy

Section one


The end of cold war gave rise to a new dimension in contemporary governance; the rise of populism or right wing populist movement which has now become one unifying factor binding Western, Eastern and Northern Europe as they embark on anti immigration policies. Commencing from the 1980s, the link between populism and democracy has been and is widely discussed and debated in literature, given rise to thousands of articles, books, editorials to name a few. This paper focuses on this relation by examining populism in light of a challenge to democracy as well as an integral part of democracy. As noted by Pasquino (2005:8), it is common for people to draw conclusions on the intimate connection between populism and democracy but on the other end, an “inherent tension” that is hardly examined also exists between populism and democracy. To him, this connection between the two concepts is established easily due to the fact that both concepts make reference to one thing ‘the people’. Most important is the fact that both concepts point to the significance of the people.

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More so, the famous definition of democracy offered by Abraham Lincoln which refers to democracy as “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” implies that there cannot be democracy unless people have the power. This further entails from a populist view that, an increase in power regardless of the means is a signal of an increase in the value of democracy. In this regard, it is argued, this can only be closer to reality if the definition of people’s sovereignty is made with reference to the most valuable constitutive elements of a democratic state which in this case refers to the intensity and importance of political competition, the scale of information and involvement of citizens voters, the possibility of alteration in offices and the flexibility and simplicity of the structures and mechanisms of accountability that characterized the political arena.

Never the less, the populist would not only reject more-or-less completely all political intermediation structures between the leader and the people, but it is only their very definition of the people that generate political and analytical problems. To this effect, Pasquino (2005:9) further notes that, frequently, numerous plausible definitions are equated to “the people”. He then outline three of such definitions with the first one found in most constitutions including the U S constitutional preamble which state states (“we the people of the united states ….”) . This signifies that, the citizens are the people, endowed with the power of sovereignty, rights and duties, which must be exercised within the confines and forms codified in the constitution itself. This constitutes the lone definition that ties with democracy. In this case, it refutes the concept of people as “undifferentiated mass of individuals” as often conceived by the populist. Secondly, is the definition of people as a nation, not limited to citizens with same right but include those who have the same blood, tradition, history and who share the same territory. This definition does not seem compatible with the democratic viewpoint as it is considered exclusionary, pushed to the extreme as often made intentionally by populist. The third and final definition of the people focuses on a class observation of society. Here you have the most popular sector of the society. This constitute “the people”, those relegated to the back ground, those who labor and make every effort to survive, those who are subjugated by the elites, where you have the organization and establishment of groups such as parties, trade unions. This definition marks the emergence of right and left wing populism. However, the three definitions does not only serve to justify the ambiguity that characterize the people and populism but also justify the equally ambiguous relationship between populism and democracy, making it complex to clarify and therefore, potentially unfavorable to democracy.

Several definitions have been offered of populism. Some of which can be found in the reviews of Ionescu and Gellner (1969);, Canovan (1981); and Taggart (2002). Most if not all of these definitions stress the power, the value, the role and the decisiveness of the people. Not with standing, the core of the issue further lies in the recognition and specification of the means and methods through which the people may act that will enable them to succeed in exercising their powers. However, worthy to note is the fact that, a lot of ambiguity surrounds the relationship between democracy and populism amongst many authors. Never the less, the overriding view as noted by Tarchi (2003) is that, the goal of populist is not to terminate or put an end to democracy. Rather, the ideas of populists are not that incompatible and are not necessarily anti democratic. On the other hand, it is argued that, in practice, populism has challenged existing, though weak democratic regimes or has generally worked where democracy is absent. More so, some populist disregard not just ‘real’ democratic regimes but question the very essence of democracy. To them, elections are useless as they may be manipulated and the ‘true’ will of the people may never be revealed. Such populist would want to terminate existing democracy as it is supposedly corrupted and ruined with the intension of building an advanced populist democracy Pasquino (2005).

Taking in to consideration all of these, one would see that, only an empirical thorough exploration of the ideology and reality of populist movement can tender an acceptable answer to the question of whether populism is a challenge or an integral part of democracy. Not with standing, the case of the Finnish True Finns Populist Party would convince this author to refute the statement that populism is an integral part of democracy.

1.2 Research question and objectives

Based on the issues raised in the preliminary notes, this paper seeks to determine if populism is a challenge or an integral part of democracy. The paper thus examines populism and democracy as two concepts that correlate. Specifically, the paper uses the case of the True Finns Populist Party to refute the claim that populism is an integral part of democracy. This paper is principally a desk research. Related literature is reviewed on the rationale of the study and evidence is sought to validate and sustain these reviews from the analysis and reactions of the True Finns Populist Party in Finland.

Section two; Conceptual definitions and related reviews

2.1 Democracy;

According to Canovan (1999), democratic definitions are highly contentious and present-day theorists tend to retreat from discussions of popular power. This is because; many authors consider democracy as an illusive concept. However, Elgstrom and Hyden, proposed a definition of democracy as “a system of government with the following attributes: (a) There are institutions and procedures through which citizens can express effective preferences about alternative policies at the national level and there are institutionalized constraints on the exercise of power by the executive (competition); (b) There exists inclusive suffrage and a right of participation in the selection of national leaders and policies (inclusiveness/participation)” (UN 2006:6). For the purpose of this paper, I will share the democratic definition proposed by Pasquino (2005). According to him, a regime is considered democratic once there is a periodical electoral and political contestation among teams of political elites and when this contestation is decided by the voters. This definition is further supported by Schumpeter (1942:269) who states that “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”.

In line with view, it can be summarized that, present-day democracies is a combination of precise definitions which takes into account citizens’ rights, not leaving out the rights of associations which are often transform into the creation of political parties and also with the existence of representative government institutions.

This sought of definition falls in line with Riker’s view of populism where he notes that “the essence of populism is this pair of proposition: 1. what people as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy, 2. the people are free when their wishes are law” (Riker 1982:238). He further adds that “populist institutions depend on the elimination of constitutional restrains” also that, “the populist interpretation of voting justifies this elimination” (:249). This takes us further to the meanings associated with populism.

2.2 Populism; what is it?

Before I proceed to give an operational definition of populism within which this synthesis is situated, I think it is important I acknowledge the fact that, it would be awkward to provide an overly precise definition of populism because, as a concept, it has no ‘one-size-fits-all’ definition and in most cases, what we have is a contextual definition or (what authors call ‘common meanings’), as it is in itself a multi-dimensional concept that has over time, carried very different meanings as its application is diverse and varies across countries and historical time. To this effect, Howard (2000) notes that, specific ideologies, organizational structures and strategies of populist movement do not confirm to a single pattern or form. Definitely, what differentiates populist movements is the fact that their appeals are not necessarily programmatic, logical or consistent but somewhat all encompassing. However, if I am to proceed with the use of this term, then I assume it is necessary I commence with setting out as plainly as possible what connotations and meanings I associate with its usage (Clarke 2002). This is especially for me as I relate populism and democracy in present day democratic societies. In this regard and for the purposes of discussion in the following sections, this synthesis adopts a working definition of populism as “an appeal to ‘the people’ against both the establish structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society” (Canovan 1999:3). As noted by Canovan, populist movement are ‘the people and not of the system’ and involves a sort of rebellion against the established structures of power in the name of ‘the people’. This usually entails an attack on the established parties within the democratic system as well as the elite’s values. In this regard, it is different from social movements in that, it challenges not just the established power holders but also the values of the elites. As such, populist animus is aimed not merely at the economic and political establishments but also at opinion formers in the media and academy.

Canovan further notes that, situating populism in this structural sense can give rise to different contents which varies according to the establishment it is mobilizing against. For instance, if it has to do with economic policies, populist with a hegemonic dedication to high taxation to finance a charitable welfare state in one country may clinch to an economic liberation agenda while elsewhere, populist may be mobilizing in opposition to free market hegemony by requesting for more state provision and protectionism. This does not however, entail as it claimed at times that, populist are confused or somewhat unprincipled rather, their reaction to power structure is what makes them populist. This also up holds the fact that populist values are contextual, varying according to the dominant political discourse in each context and also on the nature of the elites in each context. In this same vein, while the political culture of elites in modern western democratic countries is firmly imbued with liberal ideals of individualism, multiculturalism, internationalism, the belief in progress and permissiveness, populism entails more-or-less opposition to these and can sometimes amount to a somewhat logical alternative world view.

Furthermore, populism is not just a mere reaction in opposition to the structures of power but is also an appeal to an authority that has recognition. Populist based their claim of legitimacy on grounds that they speak for ‘the people’ and thereby represents the peoples’ interest (popular power) which to them is not base on class distinctions. An idea that insinuates full democracy. In this same vein, Canovan notes that, appeals of populist to the people are typically contained in a mode that is ‘democratic’ in the logic of being intended at ordinary people. Their claims are based on popular doubts of bureaucratic slangs and politicians’ indirectness. Populists advocate are based on directness and simplicity. To this effect, they distrust mystifications and adore transparency. Populists therefore seek for direct democracy. This takes us to our next discussion.

2.3 Is Populism a challenge or an integral part of democracy?

As noted by Canovan (1999), populist represents the peoples’ sovereignty and strive to rally the people against establish power structures and holders as well as against opinion initiators. In this regard, they appeal to the grass roots which in a way seem democratic. More so, popular initiatives and referendums are referred to within the reviews of political science world wide as ‘direct democracy’ and even though definitions of democracy are extremely controversial and present day theorists retreat from discussions of popular power, the fact that democracy centers on the idea of popular sovereignty and popular decisions cannot be disputed.

Papadopoulous (2002:45) also notes that “many of the terms of populism are easily familiar to …. the theories of participatory democracy that emerged out of the radical movements of the 1960s and have dominated philosophical discussions of the subject since then”. In this same line of thought, Arditi (2003:7) also articulates that, populism is an indication of democracy. According to him, populism is an internal aspect of the democratic structure that also determines the boundary of the system and prevents its closure. This is because as Papadopoulous (2000:47) adds that, democracy entails that citizens view points are represented without biases. Populist only employ techniques of ‘immediate democracy’ (referendum, limited mandates, recall) as a consequence of the fact that there is no guarantee that once elected in office, the powers that be will not continue to sustain this profile. Populism is thus an integral part of democracy which might as well be instigated by “broken promises of democracy” which might include amongst others, the confinement of democracy to constricted political spheres and the deficiency of it not being able to spill over into other social arenas for instance the economy, poor results of democracy in the area of the citizen to name a few.

In this respect, Muddle (2004:547) further notes that, populists do not necessarily challenge or oppose democracy. He uses the case of the Social Credit Movement in Canada to up hold this view by illustrating how this group demanded for a larger technocratic regime. He states that, the people only stated in their view that, “the people should be consulted about the broad parameters of policy while the experts should produce the mechanisms to bring this policy about”. This only implies that, experts rather that alter or ignore the wish of the people should just guarantee that their wishes are implemented in the best way possible. Not with standing these claims and justifications, populism is still viewed as dangerous to democracy (Canovan 1999). This goes to support the main argument in this paper which states that populism is a challenge to democracy.

2.4 Populism as a challenge to democracy

According to Canovan (1999), democracy as it is known refers to liberal democracy and that populism poses a threat to democracy because it is illiberal. This is because political parties constitute the main actors in liberal democracy and this constitutes the source of criticism for the populist who have anti-party sentiments. Populist therefore challenge liberal democracy by upholding the argument that political parties distort the bond between leaders and supporters, create fake partition within the ‘homogenous people’ and place their own interest over that of the people. Mudde (2004) further notes that, as the reformist that populist are, they do not only resist the established parties but somewhat call for a novel kind of party which they portray in a kind of populist anti-party sentiment as opposed to extremist anti-party sentiments.

Moreover, the inevitable gap that exist between populism and democracy in terms of promise and performance, ideal and reality makes democracy vulnerable to challenges from populists. An ideal democratic society that will somewhat meet the expectations of populists is what the populist want but this ideal democracy is something that is difficult to achieve and democratic practices cannot keep up to it. To Canovan the roots of populism should be traced to the tension inherent in democracy specifically between its redemptive and its pragmatic aspects so that populism is viewed as “a shadow cast by democracy itself” (1999:2-3).

Populist defined democracy as noted by Papadopoulous (2000:47), as “facets which conceal autocracies dominated by the oligarchic interest of corrupt elites”. This claim is supported by Mudde (2004) who states that nowadays, the gap between the elites and the people has become wider than it was before the 1990s. This is justified by the fact contemporary democracy has a variety of tendencies such as monopolization of political activities, public financing of parties, collaboration of government and opposition to name a few which have reinforce the division of political class from its basis. This goes further to support Canovan argument that “we cannot afford to brush these claims aside” and this has further enhance populist challenge to democracy.

More so, another area which faces hostility from populists has been the idea and institution of constitutional democracy. Populists detest and challenge constitutional democracy. This is however, due to change in the power structure. This is because, before the 1990s, democracy was viewed as consisting only of the peoples’ sovereignty which was however, a delusion that existed all through the 19th and 20th century. Contemporary democracy has evolved to include regimes that merge the “the rule of the people with the rule of law”. Constitutionalism, “the development of counter weights to the unbalance supremacy of the people” developed swiftly in Europe, persuaded by the American model after the 2nd world war. As a consequence the main focus of European democracies shifted to constitutional courts, enforceable human rights, the territorial and functional division of power and the autonomy of central banks. More so, victorious waves of constitutionalism connected closely to the market became progressively more regulated by “independent authorities. These raised antagonistic views from the populists who claim that “all legislative power belongs to the people or parliament and hence legislative power should not be divided”. To them, “balancing power through non- elected judges for instance is therefore contrary to populist principles” (Akkerman 2003: 155). This has somewhat reinforce the radical populist challenge to democracy.

The argument in this paper has been on whether populism is a challenge or an integral part of democracy. My view point in this paper has been stated early as I affirm that populism is a challenge and not an integral part of democracy. In the subsequent section, I use the case of the Finnish True Finns Populist party to further illustrate the populist challenge to democracy.

Section III Case Study; True Finns Populist Party

3.1 Back ground and justifications

As noted by Setala (2010), Finland had its independence in 1917 while the foundation of the Finnish party system took place in the 20th century. Interestingly, we still have representation of such parties in the Finnish parliament today with the exception of a few. Since then, Finland had witness three important political cleavages with the first one centered on the linguistic partition between the Swedish speaking minority and the Finnish speaking majority, the second on the socio-economic partition between bourgeoisies and land owners and between urban and rural workers, while the third political cleavage had to do with the partition between urban areas and outsized sparsely populated rural areas principally in the East and in the North. Setala (2010) further notes that, the first coalition government which was between the agrarian and the social democrat was founded in 1937 and today, all combinations of the three major parties are likely government coalitions.

Conversely, as confirmed by several studies, democracy as a regime receives high-level of support from Finnish citizens. This is confirmed by world value survey report (2003) which records that 91% of Finnish partially or totally agree with the statement ” I agree with the statement that democracy is the best form of government” (Setala 2010:68). Also, the ESS result of 2004 amongst 22 European countries, records Finland as the second highest country with satisfaction in democracy after Denmark. However, other research studies such as that of (CSES 2001-2004) have recorded otherwise with Finland scoring less than its Nordic counterparts.

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Traditionally, public institutions and parliament enjoy a lot of trust from the Finns but the past couple of years have witnessed a decline in trust in the parliament and politicians as a result of a large scale campaign foreign scandal which led to a number of criminal investigations related to leading political figures. This has enormous effects on Finnish democracy and as a result Finland was pushed to the sixth position on the list of least corrupt countries by transparency international 2009.

Also, external political efficacy; “which measures citizens belief in the responsiveness of political systems to people’s political preferences and actions” have been on a decline in Finland. This decline is never the less attributed to the fact that;

Finns seems to have developed the feeling that, they have limited capacity in the determination of their own destiny as they rely mostly on decisions arrived at by powerful international political players, (historically revolving around Sweden, Russia and Germany).

The Finns are anti-EU. They hold the EU responsible for the absence of accountability due to their supra-national policy making as it has unavoidable reinforce the role of executive government and restrain the scope of democratic accountability, limiting the capacity of both the general public and the parliament to place checks and balances on the acts of the government.

Another reason lies in the strategies of coalition and party completion in Finland. Today, a coalition between two of the three main parties is required by governments and as a result, the main parties visibly are reluctant to state their oppositions on contested issues in order to appeal to impending coalition parties. Somewhat, their differences are played in electoral campaigns.

Personalization of politics defined as “a system of proportional representation with open list” is employed in Finland where voters vote for the candidate on a specific party list and not just one party (Setala 2010).

All these have contributed or given rise to the creation, development and success of the lone True Finns Populist Party which has taking advantage to these to challenge democracy In Finland

3.2 True Finns Populist Party (the Finnish version of populism).

I will begin by stating that the Finnish version of populism constitutes a real challenge to democracy which stands in accordance with the view that populism is a challenge to democracy. However, despite the fact that Finnish populism has featured under different parties’ political canopies, the roots of the True Finns Populist Party could be traced to 1950 when the Finnish Rural Party headed by Veikko Vennamo came into existence as a movement protesting in opposition to structural changes affecting life. After its dissolution in the early 70s, the True Finns emerged from the remnants of this rural party under the leadership of Timo Soini who consider populism in his own words as ‘an instrument for the people to express their own will and to bypass bureaucratic experts and elites’ the True Finns have over time constructed their mechanism at grass root level across the entire country (Arter, 2010).

The performance of the True Finns in the political arena over the past years has been fluctuating decreasing and at times registering success and progressing. Since its evolution, Anti establishmentarianism and anti elitism have been at the center of it protest. That notwithstanding, it ideas are based on a rhetorical construction of a homogenous or idealized people with common values and life style. Its anti establishment stance has attracted attention as well as its criticism of economic, political and academic elites coupled with the notion of democratic idealism and its promises of popular sovereignty to marginalize groups . Other accompanying factors have been the True Finns distinctive populist style. They have a charismatic party leader whose life style, language and values portray populism (Arter, 2010).

The rise and success of the True Finns could however be traced to the European parliamentary elections where the leader and party chairman of the True Finns got elected with a landslide victory. Many reasons account for this. Most of which have been elaborated upon in section 3.1 above and they include amongst others, his anti EU sentiments and his protestation to Finnish involvement in the international rescue plan which was supported by the social democrats gave him an edge over the others, his anti immigration waves, the ongoing campaign finance scandal as already seen above all contributed to his success.

However, the greatest challenge to Finnish democracy was yet to come. This finally came on Sunday the 17th April 2012 when Finland witnessed a transformation in its political history where the Anti immigration and True Finns Populist Party emerged victorious. This was a real challenge to democracy judging from the factors that account for the victory. Such factors include amongst others

“The Finnish election system favors strong candidates and voters are keen on supporting voting based on personality. This has favored the populist candidates. Many of the Finnish parliamentary members are sportsmen and -women that have become politicians after their active career. Many artists and even beauty queens and an MTV video-dj are sitting in the Finnish parliament. They’ve even been ministers.

The gap between the well-educated and successful Innovation Finland and the scared and the often unemployed Isolation Finland has got wider. The established parties have failed to explain the dynamics of the global economy and to convince the poor and uneducated groups that isolation will not be good for them nor for the country. The Social Democratic Party and True Finns have succeeded in seizing the political power that is built on the fear of being an outsider.

Finland has a history of being an outsider most of its time as an independent state. There is still some suspiciousness after the WW II when the country fought all alone against the huge enemy USSR and the promised help from west never arrived. The time of Finlandization i.e. adjusting the domestic politics after the Soviet threat did not make this feeling weaker.

The Finnish governments have been formed across the political field in spite of political dividing lines and this has lead to a reaction that all the politicians are the same. The True Finns have taken advantage of this dissatisfaction and have established themselves as an opponent to this arrangement and want to represent the “true”Finland.

The most discussed issue in the suffrage were the bailouts for Portugal and other cash-strapped members of the eurozone. The True finns are strongly against the bailouts and the voters must have agreed. This will make the 17-member eurozone nervous where bailout funds require unanimous approval.

The party is against immigration and according to the polls, half of the Finnish population is negative to ease immigration regulation. It’s strange that this has become such an issue, the biggest non-European migrant group is as small as 6,592 persons.

Finland does not have a tradition of discussing the democracy and human rights as a political issue. This is a big difference to the neighboring countries Sweden and Norway”.

I would not over emphasize the challenges these posed to democracy in Finland. This takes us to our next section in this paper.

Section Four; Discussions and Conclusion

4.1 Discussions

Most of the points outline as reasons for the land slide victory of the True Finns and their challenge to democracy has already been elaborated upon in the reviews. Most of which confirm to what we saw in the related reviews as factors that constitute a thread to democracy and also account for the populists challenge to democracy. For instance, the idea of voting based on personality and not party is an anti liberal idea, the idea of not discussing human right as political issues, its anti immigration stance, opposition to bail out are all anti constitutional ideas which serve as challenges to democracy.

4.2 Conclusion

This paper has been on populism and democracy and the purpose of the paper has been to determine whether populism is a challenge or an integral part of democracy? In this regard, I have defined the two terms in the preliminary sections and have also tried to relate the two terms and have come to the conclusion that, the relationship between the two terms is too ambiguous. In section two, I have used the review of literature to demonstrate that Populism is an integral part of democracy, in the same way; I have demonstrated that populism is a challenge to democracy. To uphold this last claim


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