The rise in support for right-wing populist parties is one of the dominant political themes and concerns of the last couple of decades. Experts have offered a number of different explanations on the origins of this support, focusing, for example, on the causal relation with economic hardship. This method has been put forward across the board, but has found particular resonance when applied to a case such as Greece, where the two rounds of elections in 2012 led to a highly fragmented political system and saw unprecedented results for Golden Dawn (on the extremes of the right) and Syriza (on the extremes of the left).
Another related explanation points to the rancour of the ‘losers’ of modernisation (not exclusively in economic terms) against a disconnected, unaccountable elite. Finally, explanations attribute populist success to increasing opposition to immigration and to Euroscepticism. It is widely assumed that support for the FN in France, the PVV in the Netherlands, Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, and most populist parties can be explained through similar variables and factors, many of which hold at their heart the frustration and also anger of young men who are living in increasingly challenging conditions.
Yet in other parts of Europe, much further north, we find a distinctive type of populism.
In Finland, the True Finns – or The Finns as they prefer to be called – went from 4.1% of the vote in 2007 to nearly 20% in 2011. The True Finn phenomenon reveals that -to understand both the parties and supporters- it’s important to move beyond generic headlines about immigration, Europe or elites and take into account cultural and institutional elements that crucially shape the actual thinking and positions of such voters.
This is an important distinction. It isn’t an argument about cultural differences and cultural chasms which may well play a role, but rather an argument about the way in which political culture over time will shape support for these parties, even when the pressures of globalisation and economic recession look generic. The reasons for support, if they are to be addressed effectively, need to be evaluated, understood and responded to, in ways that are appropriate to each context. This means that one explanation does not fit all. This is what Counterpoint’s new pamphlet, “Recapturing the Reluctant Radical”, launched last Monday, seeks to emphasise.
In our pamphlet, we aim to explain how right-wing populist parties emerge from and reflect varying cultural, social, and historical contexts. As part of a three-year project on populist support in Europe, this pamphlet argues that the hidden wiring of cultures –myths, narratives and beliefs- has led to country-specific paths of populism, which require more nuanced analyses. On the other hand, we disaggregate the supporters of populist parties – particularly for France, the Netherlands and Finland – into two main categories: those who are committed to the parties and constitute the core support; and those who reluctantly –and often despite feelings of shame – vote for them, in part as a result of their disenchantment with mainstream politics. The latter group, referred to as the reluctant radicals, are the main focus of our work.
Through quantitative analysis of electoral survey data we researched what attitudes and behaviours drive support for populism, drawing a comprehensive portrait of who they are and where they live. We chose our case studies for maximum contrast, and our results indeed show that there are striking differences between countries. Our report explores how gender, age, occupation, levels of education, and social capital can predict reluctant radicals’ support. But equally important for us are the emotions of these voters: their feelings of nostalgia, alienation, disconnection, shame or even pride.
A Finnish style shake-up
Through our data analysis and conversations with local experts, we confirmed that a focus on cultural and social context helps us understand the rise of populist parties. Finland is an interesting case; drawn mainly from the ranks of social democratic voters: middle-aged, male and mostly impervious to issues related to immigration, the True Finn voter has been a hugely misrepresented and misunderstood political creature. This can only be addressed through a combination of electoral analysis and culturally sensitive interpretation. At which point a very particular voter appears.
Compared to Southern Europe, the effects of the Eurozone crisis have been lighter in Finland, where immigration is also almost non-existent. The World Bank classifies it as a high income country with high standards of living – the GDP for 2011 was 266.1 billion USD, and the average person earns 24 958 USD a year, more than the OECD average of 22 387 USD a year- and a strong welfare state. Moreover, 82% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, higher than the OECD average of 74%. Finland also has strict immigration policies. This is not to say that there are no concerns about the Eurozone crisis – in particular the bailing out of Southern European countries. In this light, the success of the True Finns in 2011 is undoubtedly puzzling.
The answer to this puzzle is twofold. First, these votes are about shaking a deeply entrenched and institutionalised form of consensus politics, in which mainstream parties govern from the centre but with a well-established set of compromise agreements. Those who vote for the True Finns are strongly driven by a desire to change the party system and the formation of government. The aim is to throw a spanner in the well-oiled works – not really for the purpose of changing policy, but rather to change the way in which policy is made and decisions are arrived at.
For example, the Finnish National Election Study for 2011 confirms that the most common reason why respondents voted for the True Finns was to generate change. A lack of trust in Europe as yet another disconnected and opaque ‘consensus generating’ machine, as well as a marked preference for referendums in the case of important national decisions, are two further strong markers of True Finn support. Indeed, unlike Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, when Timo Soini -leader of the True Finns- was invited to join the governing coalition he declined, knowing that his support and credibility depended on remaining untainted by the system.
Second, the True Finns are also in great part a response to the break-neck speed of change in Finland that has been seen over the last few decades – far more so than most other European countries – as the Finnish economy has transitioned from a predominantly agrarian set of industries to one that is redefined and dominated by new technologies and service design. Combined with progressive developments in gender equality, this, we noted, has led to a feeling of alienation particularly acute amongst middle-aged men.
Our primary research supports this thesis: we find, for instance, that the reluctant True Finns voters tend to be middle-aged and tend to think that male MPs would be better than female MPs at working on economic and immigration policy. But we also find support through other expert analysis, including Timo Toivonen’s ecological analysis of True Finns support, which shows a correlation between support for the True Finns and areas where alienation from the structural developments in Finnish society is likely to be particularly high (i.e. areas with high levels of people in manufacturing and construction). The recent increased support for the True Finns therefore highlights a crisis of both modernity and masculinity.
In summary, the Finnish case suggests that support for populism and extremism can emerge from very different roots and that an understanding of these roots is key to formulating effective policies that will attract the voters back to voting for mainstream parties. There is no doubt that the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece is of great political concern – but as Matthew Goodwin has noted it comes as something of an exception and it would be unwise to apply the same explanation across the rest of Europe. Our study teaches us that cultural context, understood as the influence of the hidden institutional and cultural wiring, matters. Put in other words, the tools that are needed to respond to populism are shaped heavily by the specific national context.