Populists in Power Around the World

Populists in Power Around the World

Several women hold up signs with slogans reading "Keep America Great" and "Promises Made. Promises Kept".

Populists in Power Around the World


52 min read

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump hold up signs during a campaign rally for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and other Tennessee Republican candidates at the McKenzie Arena November 4, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Populism is dramatically shifting the global political landscape. This report defines populism and identifies its global prevalence by introducing a global database “Populists in Power: 1990–2018”.

Populism contains two primary claims:

  • A country’s ‘true people’ are locked into conflict with outsiders, including establishment elites.
  • Nothing should constrain the will of the true people.

Although populism always shares these two essential claims, it can take on widely varying forms across contexts. This report identifies three types of populism, distinguished by how populist leaders frame the conflict between the ‘true people’ and outsiders:

  • Cultural populism claims that the true people are the native members of the nation-state, and outsiders can include immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites. Cultural populism tends to emphasise religious traditionalism, law and order, sovereignty, and painting migrants as enemies.
  • Socio-economic populism claims that the true people are honest, hard-working members of the working class, and outsiders can include big business, capital owners and actors perceived as propping up an international capitalist system.
  • Anti-establishment populism paints the true people as hard-working victims of a state run by special interests and outsiders as political elites. Although all forms of populism rail against political elites, anti-establishment populism distinguishes itself by focusing on establishment elites as the primary enemy of the people and does not sow as many intra-society divisions.

The report identifies 46 populist leaders or political parties that have held executive office across 33 countries between 1990 and today. It finds that:

  • Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased a remarkable fivefold, from four to 20. This includes countries not only in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe—where populism has traditionally been most prevalent—but also in Asia and in Western Europe.
  • Whereas populism was once found primarily in emerging democracies, populists are increasingly gaining power in systemically important countries.
  • Anti-establishment populism was once most prevalent, but cultural populism is now the commonest form of populism across the globe.



Watershed political events in recent years—the election of President Donald Trump in the United States (US), the Brexit vote, the electoral success of Italy’s Five Star Movement, Brazil’s sudden lurch to the right with the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, the doubling of support for populist parties across Europe—have brought the word “populism” out of the annals of academic journals and into the headlines.1Martin Eiermann, Yascha Mounk and Limor Gultchin, European Populism: Trends, Threats, and Future Prospects, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 29 December 2017, https://institute.global/insight/renewing-centre/european-populism-trends-threats-and-future-prospects. Yet, it is a slippery concept that is too often used pejoratively to describe politics that those in the mainstream do not like.

This report is the beginning of a series on populists in power that seeks to build a systematic understanding of the long-term effects of populism on politics, economics and international affairs. Understanding populism—and its effects—is central to combating its appeal. To build this understanding across a wide range of social, economic and political contexts, a global accounting is needed of when and where populists have been in power. To do so, we have built the first global database of populists in power.

This series begins from the understanding that populism often arises from serious and legitimate concerns about the quality of institutions and political representation in countries. Thus, a global accounting of populists in power is by no means an accounting of bad leaders. By contrast, populism’s appeal is often based on real concerns about the failure of mainstream parties to address issues that citizens are worried about and the failure of institutions to deliver policy outcomes that matter to citizens. Populism can also arise in contexts of profound economic failures, where economic systems do require disruptive transformation to deliver broad-based growth.

It is often lamented that populism threatens to destroy independent and objective institutions that are essential to well-functioning democracies.2Sheri Berman, “Populism Is a Problem: Elite Technocrats Aren’t the Solution”, Foreign Policy, 20 December 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/12/20/populism-is-a-problem-elitist-technocrats-arent-the-solution/. Yet all too often, by the time populism arises, these institutions—like the media, the judiciary and independent governmental agencies—have long not been working as promised. Populists break onto the scene by pointing to these flaws in the established political system—flaws that mainstream parties may have been sweeping under the carpet for years—and promising far-reaching solutions. Raising political questions that have been too long depoliticised and promising institutional reforms are necessary and important initiatives that political leaders should undertake. The problem with populists is that they raise these issues as a means of riling their base and dividing societies. The solutions they promise, however, are fantasies, characterised by vague ideas and unfulfillable promises.

Moving towards a systematic understanding of populism requires laying aside questions of whether populism itself is good or bad, and instead examining where it exists and what range of political, social and economic outcomes have been associated with it across different contexts. A cursory glance at populists around the world reveals that these outcomes are highly varied. Some populists rise to power in countries with long histories of social exclusion and use their popular appeal—and a strongman governing style—to point the way to more inclusive societies. Others rise to power and dismantle democratic checks and balances and ruthlessly subjugate any opposition from the get-go. Others still thwart independent institutions and democratic processes but deliver economic growth. These outcomes—and how and why countries get there—are the subjects of subsequent publications in this series.

This first report has a more modest goal: to define populism from a global perspective and identify some of its key trends since 1990. Only with a clear and systematic understanding of the phenomenon can political leaders begin to offer meaningful and credible alternatives to populism.

Reaching this clear and systematic understanding, however, is easier said than done. Even among the community of populism experts, there are disagreements about how to define populism and which actors qualify as populists. This report puts forward a simple definition of populism and relies on a wealth of academic and expert knowledge to identify cases of populism around the world, seeking to cover those cases on which there is the most consensus. Yet, any effort that did not acknowledge significant difficulty and uncertainty in such an endeavour would be insincere.

Populists are united by two fundamental claims: the ‘true people’ are locked into a conflict with outsiders; and nothing should constrain the will of the true people of a country. Rather than seeing politics as a battleground between different policy positions, populists attribute a singular common good to the people: a policy goal that cannot be debated based on evidence but that derives from the common sense of the people. This common good, populists argue, should be the aim of politics. The nation’s establishment elites are part of a corrupt and self-serving cartel that does not represent the interests of the true people and is indifferent to this common good. Anti-establishment politics is thus a core characteristic of populism. Therefore, populism emphasises a direct connection with its supporters, unmediated by political parties, civil-society groups or the media.

Beyond these two unifying claims, populists vary substantially in how they define the essential social conflict. In recent debates, populism is often equated with nativism, an ideology “which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the nation-state”, in the words of political scientist Cas Mudde.3Cas Mudde, “The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy”, West European Politics 33, no. 6 (2010): 1173. It is easy to see why populism and nativism are so often confounded: in Europe, most populist parties (74 out of 102) are nativist as well as populist.4Eiermann, Mounk and Gultchin, European Populism.

Yet seen globally, populism does not always rely on cultural appeals. Populism can also be based on socio-economic arguments, which seek to divide citizens according to economic classes rather than culture, or on standard anti-establishment appeals, which emphasise purging bureaucracies of anti-regime elements. These widely diverse political leaders are part of a worldwide revolt against status quo arrangements and institutions.

Relying on the extensive scientific literature on populism, this report identifies 46 populist leaders or political parties that have held executive office across 33 countries between 1990 and today. The rise in global populism over this period is remarkable. Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased fivefold, from four to 20. This includes countries not only in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe—where populism has traditionally been most prevalent—but also in Asia and in Western Europe.

Most striking is the rise of populism in large and systemically important countries. Where populism in power was once the purview of newly emerging democracies, populism is now in power in strong democracies like the US, Italy and India. Considering the dramatic uptick in the populist vote share, it should perhaps be no surprise that populist candidates are beginning to gain power as well.5Ibid.

The Trouble With Defining Populism

The Trouble With Defining Populism

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s long-serving president, has expanded the rights of indigenous farmers to grow coca. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ outspoken president, has unleashed a brutal war on drugs, ordering police to kill suspected drug dealers. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time prime minister and resurgent political kingmaker, reshaped the Italian media law to increase the share of the national media market that an individual can hold, enabling him to retain control of Italy’s national television media market.6“Berlusconi tightens media grip”, CNN, 2 December 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/12/02/italy.media.law.reut/. Thaksin Shinawatra, the first elected leader in Thailand’s history to complete a full four-year term in office, rolled out the 30-baht scheme, which provided subsidised healthcare to all Thai citizens at a cost of only 30 baht (less than $1) per visit.7Joel Sawat Selway, “Electoral Reform and Public Policy Outcomes in Thailand: The Politics of the 30-Baht Health Scheme”, World Politics 63, no. 1 (2011): 165–202. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, has outlawed the use of the term “Polish death camps” and claimed that refugees carry “parasites”.8“Polish death camps”, Washington Post, 31 January 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/polish-death-camps/2018/01/31/13c4dcd6-05e4-11e8-8777-2a059f168dd2_story.html?utm_term=.811bb0759303.

These wide-ranging leaders are often grouped together under the term “populism”. What makes these highly varied leaders populists? If one term can describe such a broad set of leaders, does it mean anything at all? This report sets forth to define populism, relying on a deep body of scholarship on the topic that, like populism itself, has been rapidly expanding over the past 20 years.9For an excellent review on the many ways that populism has been defined in the scientific literature, see Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski, “Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda”, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Working Paper no. 13-0004, Harvard University, 2013.

The term “populism” was first used to describe specific 19th-century political movements. The first was the agrarian movement in the US in the 1890s that eventually became the People’s Party. The movement was formed to oppose the demonetisation of silver and championed scepticism of railways, banks and political elites. They adopted the moniker “Populists” from the Latin populus (the people), and their message was to “get rid of ‘the plutocrats, the aristocrats, and all the other rats’, install the people in power, and all would be well”.10Quotations in original. Margaret Canovan, “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy”, Political Studies 47, no. 1 (March 1999): 12.

The second movement attached early on to the term populism was the Russian Narodnichestvo of the 1860s and 1870s, a movement of revolutionary students and intellectuals who idealised rural peasants and believed that they should form the basis of a revolution to overturn tsarist rule.11On the history of populism, see, for example: John Allcock, “Populism: A Brief Biography”, Sociology 5, no. 3 (1971): 371–387; Margaret Canovan, “Trust the People!”; Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016), chapter 2; Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy, “Populism: An Overview of the Concept and the State of the Art”, in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Paul Taggart, Populism (Birmingham: Open University Press, 2000). These movements were parallel—despite vast differences in context—in their belief that power belonged with agrarian workers rather than with the urban elite.

It was not until the 1950s that populism came into broader use. It became attached to phenomena as varied as political movements supporting charismatic leaders in Latin America (for example, Juan Perón in Argentina or Getúlio Vargas in Brazil), military coups in Africa championing social revolution (such as Jerry Rawlings in Ghana) and McCarthyism in the US.12See Danielle Resnick, “Populism in Africa”, in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). A prominent theme in this early literature was to see populism as a reaction to modernisation. Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading modernisation theorist, explained populism as a political expression of the anxieties and anger of those wishing to return to a simpler, premodern life.13Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1963).

One reason that the concept is so difficult to pin down is that the adherents of other isms—like liberalism, communism or socialism—usually proclaim themselves as liberals, communists or socialists. Populists, by contrast, beyond the People’s Party mentioned above, rarely call themselves populists.14Margaret Canovan, Populism (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981). Thus, it is almost always journalists, scholars and other actors outside the movements themselves who label phenomena as populist. Too often, the label is hurled at political opponents rather than used to carefully compare and understand political movements.

Despite these difficulties, recent scholarship on populism has made considerable progress in clearly identifying features of populism that can be compared across a wide variety of countries and contexts. In 2004, Mudde set out a definition of populism that laid the groundwork for careful, broad analysis on the topic.15Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 542–563. He argued that populism is a “thin ideology” with two components: the idea of a pure people pitted against a corrupt elite; and the belief that politics should be an expression of the will of the people.

Whereas “thick ideologies” like communism have a vision for how politics, the economy and society should be organised, populism does not. For example, populism advocates overturning the political establishment but lacks a ready answer for what should replace it. Mudde contrasted populism with pluralism, which accepts the legitimacy of many different groups in society. Because populism lacks a specific view on how politics, the economy and society should be organised, it can be combined with a variety of different policies and ideologies, including both right- and left-wing variants. Indeed, part of populism’s continued relevance over time and across countries is its changeability across contexts.16Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Exclusionary vs Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America”, Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–174.

Yet, most modern-day campaigns claim to be running against existing elites, and all democratically elected politicians would claim, to some extent, to represent the will of the people. Are all those who criticise the status quo populists? The next chapter puts the definition of populism into practice.

Two Essential Features of Populism

Two Essential Features of Populism

While populism has no economic or social doctrine, it does, in the words of political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, have a “set of distinct claims and . . . an inner logic”.17Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 10. Populism has two essential features. First, it holds that the people are locked into conflict with outsiders. Second, it claims that nothing should constrain the will of the true people.

Insiders vs. Outsiders

Populism draws an unbridgeable divide between the people and outsiders. The people are depicted as “morally decent . . . economically struggling, hard-working, family-oriented, plain-spoken, and endowed with common sense”, in the words of sociologist Rogers Brubaker.18Rogers Brubaker, “Why Populism?”, Theory and Society 46, no. 5 (2017): 357–385. The people are defined in opposition to outsiders, who allegedly do not belong to the moral and hard-working true people. While many studies of populism define the essential social conflict as between the people and the elite, this report uses the more general term “outsiders”, because populists as often stoke divisions between marginalised communities as between marginalised communities and elite.

From there, populists attribute a singular common good to the people: a policy goal that cannot be debated based on evidence but that derives from the common sense of the people.19For further discussion, see Müller, What is Populism?, 25–32. This general will of the people, populists argue, is not represented by the cartel of self-serving establishment elites who guard status quo politics.

There are three main strategies that populists use to stoke this insider-outsider division:

  1. a political style in which populists identify with insiders;
  2. an effort to define and delegitimise outsiders; and
  3. a rhetoric of crisis that elevates the conflict between insiders and outsiders to a matter of national urgency.

Identifying With the True People Through Political Style

Populists build themselves up as an embodiment of the true people. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, for example, used ¡Chávez es Pueblo! (Chávez is the people!) as a slogan.20“¡Chávez es Pueblo! ¡Chávez somos millones, tú también eres Chávez!”, Comando Carabobo, YouTube video, 9 July 2012, accessed 26 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4sdk7Zyaa8. Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s populist president from 1990 to 2000, campaigned using the slogan Fujimori, presidente como usted (Fujimori, a president like you).21“CAMBIO 90, propagance política”, roemi77, YouTube video, 23 March 2008, accessed 26 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=13&v=ZWg-x5FIou0. As the embodiments of the true people, populists claim to have the full support of the people. Even though they do not win 100 per cent of the votes, they claim 100 per cent of the votes of the true, moral people—the only members of the political community that they characterise as legitimate.

Part of claiming to embody the true people involves a particular political style.22Indeed, political scientist Benjamin Moffitt defines populism itself as a political style. See Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016). Often, this means decrying political correctness (which populists associate with elites), eschewing expert knowledge and idealising the wisdom of common citizens.23Robert Barr, “Populists, Outsiders, and Anti-Establishment Politics”, Party Politics 15, no. 1 (2009): 29–48; Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, chapter 3. Bad-manners politics—swearing, political incorrectness and, in general, rejecting the typical rigid language of technocratic politics—is also common.24Canovan calls this “tabloid-style” populism; see Canovan, “Trust the People!”. More generally, populist movements try to connect with the culture of ordinariness.25Rafal Pankowski, The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots (London: Routledge, 2010), 6.

Defining and Delegitimising Outsiders

The people and their general will are defined in relation to outsiders. Outsider status is targeted primarily at elites. The elites can include not only mainstream politicians and business leaders but also a cultural elite—cosmopolitans whose sense of identity is seen as unconstrained by borders and condescending towards the ways of life of the true people. The elite class is painted as part of a self-serving cartel that controls the apparatus of the state, including mainstream political parties and the bureaucracy.

Outsiders can also include immigrants, refugees, racial or religious minorities and criminals. Populists often explicitly affiliate these others with the elite. For example, they may argue that elites opened the borders to immigration, which threatens the well-being of the people. In this sense, populism can exclude both the elite and marginalised communities in the same breath. Populism is defined not by who is targeted by the politics of anger and resentment, but by the fact that populists draw the line between insiders and outsiders in the first place.

Those excluded from populists’ notion of the true and moral people are painted as illegitimate members of the political community. Former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage’s statement on the June 2016 Brexit vote illustrates this dividing line clearly: by declaring it a “victory for the real people”, he implicitly said that the 48 per cent of British citizens who voted to remain in the European Union (EU) are somehow less real members of the people.26“Nigel Farage: Arch-eurosceptic and Brexit ‘puppet master’”, CNN, 15 July 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/24/europe/eu-referendum-nigel-farage/index.html. This is what makes populism fundamentally anti-pluralist. By defining the people—and delegitimising the status of those outside this boundary—populists throw into question one of the most fundamental prerequisites of democracy itself: agreement on who can legitimately participate in politics.

The rhetorical division between the people and outsiders is a powerful political tool. It enables populists to tap into the politics of anger and resentment, and to activate citizens’ fears about losing status in their own societies. Populists rarely create social cleavages from scratch. Rather, they exploit and stoke social cleavages that have often been simmering under the surface of politics for many years. What is more, populists dramatise social divisions as threats to the nation and elevate them to a matter of national urgency.

Performing a Crisis

Populists dramatise social divisions by using a rhetoric of crisis.27See Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, chapter 7; Benjamin Moffitt, “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism”, Government and Opposition 50, no. 2 (2015): 189–217. They first identify a particular failure. The failures vary: they could be the threat that immigrant communities pose to national unity and culture, the threat drug users or criminals pose to national safety, or the threat that cheap imported goods pose to national jobs and production. Populists are adept at linking failures in one policy area to failures in another, making them appear part of a broad and systematic chain of unfulfilled demands.28Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005). For example, populists may link elites’ failure to address public concerns about immigration with their failure to address people’s worries about crime, and connect that with concerns about welfare targeting. By doing so, they make the crisis feel both widespread and urgent.

Common to many of the crises identified by populists is a sense that the political elites across all mainstream political parties have conspired to depoliticise an important policy question that should be subject to public scrutiny. Political scientist Yascha Mounk terms this phenomenon “rights without democracy”: citizens may have the right to vote, but for many issues that they care about, the issue is not even considered in the realm of public debate but is a matter for technocrats.29Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018). In some countries, mainstream political parties have come to a cross-party consensus, for example, about openness to trade, openness to immigration or EU accession; and opposition to these significant policies has no vehicle for representation.

The fundamental crisis, then, is one of political representation: by taking important policy issues off the table, elites fail to represent the people. Elevating these policy questions to crisis involves a process Brubaker terms antagonistic repoliticisation: “the claim to reassert democratic political control over domains of life that are seen, plausibly enough, as having been depoliticized and de-democratized, that is, removed from the realm of democratic decision-making”.30Brubaker, “Why Populism?”. See also Margaret Canovan, “Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy”, in Democracies and the Populist Challenge, ed. Yves Meny and Yves Surel (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 25–44.

Populists lay the blame for the crisis at the feet of the political class that failed to protect the people. They also group in other outsiders who are the targets of their exclusionary politics as beneficiaries of the crisis. For example, populist anti-immigration parties present national unity as an urgent crisis that must be addressed. While they blame political elites from mainstream parties for open immigration policies—and for denying the general will of the true people—they blame immigrant communities for benefiting too much from living in their countries, such as by allegedly profiting from welfare policies.

Performing a national crisis helps populists fully divide the people from the others. Even if societal divisions long preceded the rise of populism, the rhetoric of crisis elevates the task of solving these divisions to a matter of national urgency. This provides the backdrop for populists to present themselves as having the answer to the crisis and for the argument that strong leadership is needed to address it.

Nothing Should Constrain the Will of the People

Once populists have defined the people and outsiders (and how outsiders imperil the nation), they claim that nothing should constrain the will of the true people. This claim provides a basis for the arguments that only the strong leadership of a populist leader can extract the nation from crisis and that nothing should stand between populists and their base.

Strong Leadership

As defining a crisis helps populists rhetorically divide the people from outsiders, so crisis also provides the pretext for strong and unconstrained leadership, unfettered by inconvenient institutions like other branches of government. If ‘undemocratic’ political institutions are to blame for the crisis in the first place, why should populists accept the constraints that those institutions impose to solve it? This provides important justification for undermining and discrediting mainstream political parties, civil-society organisations and the media.

It is easy to see, then, how populism can come into conflict with liberal democracy. Independent institutions, like the judiciary, play an essential role in safeguarding fundamental rights; to do so, they must remain independent from politics. Yet, this independence also means that they can make decisions that run counter to popular opinion. Populist movements cast these independent institutions as an assault on the sovereignty of the people. Ultimately, the question of how populism shapes democracy is an empirical one, but it is hard to deny that populism puts democracy under strain.

The actual policies that populists present to address crisis are typically simplistic and gloss over the many complexities of policymaking. The solutions are less about having a convincing answer to a real challenge than about convincing supporters that, unlike the establishment elite, populists see and acknowledge the crisis and that their strong leadership alone can fix it. Once populists have defined a national crisis, these intermediary institutions become obstacles that stand in the way of solving the crisis, things to be bulldozed over in the name of getting things done.31Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, 206.

Given that strong leadership is needed, populists position themselves as the sole saviours of the people from crisis. To do so, populists often portray themselves as the heroic embodiments of important historical figures, fulfilling national destinies and carrying the mantles of history. In Latin America, Chávez styled himself as the contemporary incarnation of the revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Former Argentine Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner claim to be the modern Juan and Eva Perón, carrying out the Peronist legacy and leading the Peronist party. In Europe, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski compared himself with Alexander the Great. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is more forceful, portraying himself as the Jesus Christ of Italian politics, the one sacrificing himself for the whole.32David Willey, “Berlusconi Says ‘I Am Like Jesus’”, BBC News, 13 February 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4707368.stm.  By portraying themselves as the heirs of these important national figures, populists can gain support by benefiting from the emotional appeal of historical leaders.33Caitlin Andrews-Lee, “The Revival of Charisma: Experimental Evidence from Argentina and Venezuela”, Comparative Political Studies, forthcoming.

Direct Connection With the People

For populists, actors and institutions that typically mediate the connection between politicians and voters—such as the media, political parties and civil-society organisations—thwart the will of the people to serve special interests. Instead, populists emphasise direct and unmediated forms of communication with their supporters. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has himself interviewed on the radio every Friday to maintain this direction connection to the people. Similarly, Chávez hosted Aló Presidente, a television show in which ordinary citizens could call in to talk to the president about their concerns. Social media has also become a powerful populist tool by enabling a direct connection between the people and their voice.

Thus, rather than connecting to voters through a policy platform and political parties, populists tend to reach voters in a much more personalistic way. This is quite different from pluralism, which emphasises civil-society groups as the key link between citizens and the state. In a nonpopulist democratic setting, political parties are typically responsible for selecting candidates and debating a policy platform. There is little scope for them to do so in a populist framework. Populism allows a single answer to who should represent the people and, similarly, little room for debate about policy ideas. Political compromise becomes antithetical to populist politics: not only are political opponents viewed as less legitimate members of the political community, but compromise is also painted as a betrayal of the will of the people.

Populists do sometimes create and use political organisations. Whereas some populist leaders have direct and unmediated linkages with their followers, others build dense party or civil-society organisations to structure and discipline followers. Some populists, such as Bolivia’s Morales, rise onto the political scene as the leaders of social movements. More personalistic populism relies on what political scientist Kenneth Roberts terms “direct, noninstitutionalised, and unmediated relationships with unorganised followers”, while populists rising from social movements build organisations in civil society, positioning themselves as the leaders of these organisations.34Kenneth Roberts, “Populism, Political Conflict, and Grass-Roots Organization in Latin America”, Comparative Politics 38, no. 2 (January 2006): 127.

Yet, populist movements are not like other, nonpopulist social movements in at least one key respect: the allegiance of the rank and file to the movement centres on the leader, and the masses have little means of establishing any political autonomy from him or her.35See Nicos Mouzelis, “On the Concept of Populism: Populist and Clientelist Modes of Incorporation in Semiperipheral Polities”, Politics & Society 14, no. 3 (1985): 329–348. Alternatively, populists can organise their own political parties or co-opt the structures of existing parties to rally their base.

The key is that populists attack and delegitimise any possible opposition to their rule. Thus, populists are not universally against institutions. According to Müller, they “only oppose those institutions that, in their view, fail to produce the . . . correct political outcomes”—that is, those outcomes that favour the populist.36Müller, What Is Populism?, 61.

Putting It All Together

In sum, populism is the combination of two claims: the people are locked into conflict with outsiders; and nothing should constrain the will of the true people. Populism can be identified according to the prevalence of these two claims. This minimal definition of populism is appealing because it enables the phenomenon to be examined across a wide range of countries and contexts. It also does not link populism with any particular set of social or economic policies or any specific constituency. Populists may construct different types of ‘us vs. them’ conflicts depending on the political context. The following chapter lays out three main types of populism.

Types of Populism

Types of Populism

Populism varies according to the portrayal of which actors in society belong to the pure people and which to the outsiders. Populism manifests itself so differently across contexts that it is hard to think about its effects on political institutions without taking these variations into account. There are three broad ways of demarcating the people and the elite, frequently used by populist candidates and parties: cultural, socio-economic and anti-establishment. These types of populism are distinguished by how political elites use populist discourse to sow divisions (see table 1).

Table 1: Three Ways That Populists Frame ‘Us vs. Them’ Conflict

  Cultural Populism Socio-Economic Populism Anti-Establishment Populism
The people ‘Native’ members of the nation-state Hard-working, honest members of the working class, which may transcend national boundaries Hard-working, honest victims of a state run by special interests
The others Non-natives, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, cosmopolitan elites Big business, capital owners, foreign or ‘imperial’ forces that prop up an international capitalist system Political elites who represent the prior regime
Key themes Emphasis on religious traditionalism, law and order, national sovereignty, migrants as enemies Anti-capitalism, working-class solidarity, foreign business interests as enemies, often joined with anti-Americanism Purging the state from corruption, strong leadership to promote reforms#

So, for example, populists who invoke cultural populism define the main crisis facing the nation as a cultural one: outsiders and cosmopolitan elites threaten the cultural continuity of the native nation-state. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the supporters of cultural populism are motivated wholly by cultural concerns. Concerns about declining economic status can raise the effectiveness of cultural appeals.37Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall, “The Politics of Social Status: Economic and Cultural Roots of the Populist Right”, British Journal of Sociology 68, no. S1 (2017): S57–S84.

Similarly, supporters of socio-economic populism may be motivated equally by concerns about cultural exclusion and by economic anxieties. Nonetheless, cultural and socio-economic populism differ in how populist leaders frame the key crisis facing the nation and the key divisions between the people and outsiders. Some populists combine elements of all three forms of populism, weaving together cultural crises with economic ones and using both to justify purging the establishment. Likewise, some populist voters are motivated by multiple perceived problems and do not view populist leaders solely through an economic, cultural or anti-establishment lens.

This analysis attempts to classify populists based on the primary crisis that they emphasise. However, like classifying populism itself, cleanly dividing between the categories is an imperfect exercise.

Cultural Populism

The central element that distinguishes cultural populism from other forms of populism is its emphasis on race, ethnicity, religion and/or identity. Cultural populists claim that only members of a native group belong to the true people and that new entrants or cultural outsiders pose a threat to the nation-state.38See Cas Mudde, The Populist Radical Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Thus, cultural populist parties often have issue ownership in their countries over immigration and over debates, ethnic diversity and identity politics.39Tarik Abou-Chadi, “Niche Party Success and Mainstream Party Policy Shifts—How Green and Radical Right Parties Differ in Their Impact”, British Journal of Political Science 46, no. 2 (April 2016): 417–436.

Those defined as outsiders can include members of mainstream political parties who, by agreeing across party lines on the overall openness of the country to immigration (even if they disagree on levels) or on EU accession, have removed immigration as an important point of policy debate. For cultural populists, outsiders also include cultural elites tied to cosmopolitanism and to opening borders and culture to outsiders. Emphasis on culture does not necessarily coincide with traditionally conservative economic policy. (For this reason, the traditional right and left labels are not used here, as nativism can be combined with left-wing economic policy and inclusionary populism can be combined with conservative economic policy.)

This type of populism could include everything from anti-immigrant manifestations in Europe and North America to Islamic populism in Turkey and Indonesia. Cultural populism also includes law-and-order populism, in which criminals are cast as the primary enemies of the people who are threatening the character of the country, such as is being seen with the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in the Philippines.

Socio-Economic Populism

Socio-economic populism does not constitute a specific package of economic policies, but rather paints the central ‘us vs. them’ conflict as between economic classes. Among socio-economic populists, there is a reverence for the common worker. The pure people belong to a specific social class, which is not necessarily constrained by national borders. For example, socio-economic populists may see working classes in neighbouring countries as natural allies.

The corrupt elites can include big businesses, capital owners, state elites, and foreign forces and international institutions that prop up an international capitalist system. In general, socio-economic populists strongly resist foreign influence in domestic markets. In some manifestations, socio-economic populism can have an ethnic dimension. However, the ethnic dimension is inclusionary rather than exclusionary: in contrast to cultural populism, which is based on the idea that some should be excluded from the people, socio-economic populism may advocate the inclusion of previously marginalised ethnic groups as core members of the working class.

Anti-Establishment Populism

Although all forms of populism tend to be anti-establishment, this form of populism is different from both cultural and socio-economic populism in that the conflict is primarily with establishment elites rather than with any specific ethnic or social group. In cultural populism, establishment elites are implicated primarily through their role in enabling too much cultural openness; in socio-economic populism, establishment elites are implicated mainly through their role in empowering economic elite and foreign interests.

For anti-establishment populists, the pure people are the honest, hard-working citizens who are preyed on by an elite-run state that serves special interests, and these elites are the primary enemy of the people. Thus, anti-establishment populism often emphasises ridding the state of corruption and purging prior regime loyalists. Because anti-establishment populism focuses on political elites as the enemy, it can in some cases be less socially divisive than either cultural or socio-economic populism, which, in addition to casting political elites as the enemy, also paint members of society as outsiders. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a prime example: when he discussed “normal Italians”, he meant everybody who was not part of the political elite and was not particularly negative about immigrants or other marginalised communities.40Matthijs Rooduijn, “The nucleus of populism: In search of the lowest common denominator”, Government and Opposition 49, no. 4 (2014): 573–599.

This variant of populism has often been wedded to an economic affiliation with market liberalism. Although it may seem an odd combination at first blush, there is significant history, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, of fusing populism with market liberalism.41See Kurt Weyland, “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe”, Comparative Politics 31, no. 4 (1999): 379–401.

Cases of Populism in Power

Populism in Power

This project aims to build a systematic understanding of how populists govern, including how they reshape state institutions, how they may or may not erode the quality of liberal democracy, and the economic policies that they implement. To understand these questions across a wide range of social, economic and political contexts, a global accounting of populism in power is necessary.

To make the project cross-regional, the focus of this project is on both leaders and parties that can be classified as populist. While parliamentary systems tend to give precedence to political parties, presidential systems favour individual leaders. This analysis focuses on populist parties and leaders who attained executive office in at least minimally democratic countries between 1990 and 2016.42Only countries with a score of at least 6—the traditional cutoff for measuring democracy—on the Polity IV index are included. Venezuela is a bit of an odd case. When Hugo Chávez attained office in 1999, Venezuela was a democracy. By the time he died in office in 2013, Venezuela had backslid into autocracy. However, we include the Maduro regime in the database as it is really one long spell of populism in the country. For the Polity IV database, see http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html. This includes only those populists who reached the presidency or prime ministership (or the equivalent executive office), and not those who governed as minority partners in a coalition government.43H.E. Goemans, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Giacomo Chiozza, “Introducing Archigos: A Data Set of Political Leaders”, Journal of Peace Research 46, no. 2 (2009): 269–283. Specifically, we used the Archigos database of political leaders, which identifies the effective leader of every country in every year going back to 1875.  

Requiring that countries have attained a certain level of democracy to be included leaves off many instances of populism that have risen in semi-democratic or authoritarian settings. This omits, for example, many cases of African and Middle Eastern populism. Similarly, requiring that the populist leader or party has attained the highest executive office ignores many instances where populism has been highly influential yet has never risen to the level of controlling the executive branch. Yulia Tymoshenko is such an example. Prime minister of Ukraine in 2005 and again from 2007 to 2010, she clearly exhibited a populist style, yet the prime minister is not considered the political leader in Ukraine’s semi-presidential system. In this sense, the database conservatively undercounts the global incidence and influence of populism.

Classifying particular parties and leaders as populist is a fraught exercise, due to the many disagreements on the definition of populism and the fact that populism is hardly a binary phenomenon that is either fully present or fully absent. Some leaders may be readily identifiable as full-blown populists, yet many sit on the boundary. Moreover, to the extent that populism is a political strategy that can be adopted in different degrees by different actors over time (rather than a strict political doctrine that actors either subscribe to or not), the presence or absence of populism is a matter of degree that can vary over time.

Given the difficulty of this exercise, a reasonable place to start is the extensive scientific literature on populism and the deep well of subject matter and case-study expertise that can be found there. Even though the literature famously disagrees on the exact definition of populism, there is, according to political scientist Benjamin Moffitt, “at least some (mild) consensus regarding the actual cases of actors that are usually called ‘populist’”.44Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, 41. This can be seen in the fact that scholars of populism tend to reference the same set of cases over and over.

Using a process described in detail in the appendix, we developed a list of the cases of populism around the world on which there is the most consensus among regional and populism experts (see table 2). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first global database on populist leaders in power.45Several have developed databases for populists in power focusing on Latin America; see Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, “Friend or Foe? Testing the Influence of Populism on Democratic Quality in Latin America”, Political Studies 64, no. 4 (2016): 872–889; Saskia Pauline Ruth, “Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America”, Political Studies, forthcoming. Moffitt (2016) has developed a cross-regional list of populists, although his aim was not to create a comprehensive list of all populists who have attained executive office around the world. Because it is the first, it is bound to be imperfect. We plan to continue to interact with experts both to update the database over time and to come to new understandings about historical cases of populism worldwide. Despite the difficulty of the exercise, it is worthwhile to move beyond sensationalist claims about populism and towards a systematic and comparative understanding of populism in power.

Table 2: Populists in Power, 1990–2018

Country Leader or Party Years in Office Type of Populism
Argentina Carlos Menem 1989–1999 Anti-establishment
Argentina Néstor Kirchner 2003–2007 Socio-economic
Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 2007–2015 Socio-economic
Belarus Alexander Lukashenko 1994– Anti-establishment
Bolivia Evo Morales 2006– Socio-economic
Brazil Fernando Collor de Mello 1990–1992 Anti-establishment
Bulgaria Boyko Borisov 2009–2013,
Czech Republic Miloš Zeman 1998–2002 Anti-establishment
Czech Republic Andrej Babiš 2017– Anti-establishment
Ecuador Abdalá Bucaram 1996–1997 Socio-economic
Ecuador Lucio Gutiérrez 2003–2005 Socio-economic
Ecuador Rafael Correa 2007–2017 Socio-economic
Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili 2004–2007,
Greece Syriza 2015– Socio-economic
Hungary Viktor Orbán 1998–2002,
India Narendra Modi 2014– Cultural
Indonesia Joko Widodo 2014– Anti-establishment
Israel Benjamin Netanyahu 1996–1999,
Italy Silvio Berlusconi 1994–1995,
Italy Five Star Movement/League coalition 2018– Anti-establishment
Japan Junichiro Koizumi 2001–2006 Anti-establishment
Macedonia Nikola Gruevski 2006–2016 Cultural
Nicaragua Daniel Ortega 2007– Socio-economic
Paraguay Fernando Lugo 2008–2012 Socio-economic
Peru Alberto Fujimori 1990–2000 Anti-establishment
Philippines Joseph Estrada 1998–2001 Anti-establishment
Philippines Rodrigo Duterte 2016– Cultural
Poland Lech Walesa 1990–1995 Anti-establishment
Poland Law and Justice party 2005–2010,
Romania Traian Basescu 2004–2014 Anti-establishment
Russia Vladimir Putin 2000– Cultural
Serbia Aleksandar Vucic 2014–2017,
Slovakia Vladimír Meciar 1990–1998 Cultural
Slovakia Robert Fico 2006–2010,
South Africa Jacob Zuma 2009–2018 Socio-economic
Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa 2005–2015,
Taiwan Chen Shui-bian 2000–2008 Anti-establishment
Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra 2001–2006 Socio-economic
Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra 2011–2014 Socio-economic
Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan 2003– Cultural
United States Donald Trump 2017– Cultural
Venezuela Rafael Caldera 1994–1999 Anti-establishment
Venezuela Hugo Chávez 1999–2013 Socio-economic
Venezuela Nicolás Maduro 2013– Socio-economic
Zambia Michael Sata 2011–2014 Socio-economic
Populism Trends

In all, there are 46 populist leaders or political parties that have held executive office across 33 countries between 1990 and today. During this period, populists in power peaked between 2010 and 2014, and again in 2018, when 20 populist leaders held executive office (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Number of Countries With Populism in Power, 1990–2018

The rise in global populism over this period is remarkable. Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased fivefold, from four to 20. This includes countries not only in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe, where populism has traditionally been most prevalent, but also in Asia and in Western Europe.

Most striking is the rise of populism in large and systemically important countries. Whereas populism in power was once the purview of newly emerging democracies, populism is now in power in strong democracies like the US, Italy and India. Considering the dramatic uptick in the populist vote share, it should perhaps be no surprise that populist candidates are beginning to gain power as well.46See Eiermann, Mounk and Gultchin, European Populism.

While there has been a relatively steady number of anti-establishment populists in power over time, the numbers of both cultural and socio-economic populists have grown dramatically (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Types of Populism in Power, 1990–2018

Cultural Populism

In contrast to socio-economic populism, which peaked in 2011–2012, cultural populism has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. It is now by far the most prevalent form of populism in power. Whereas anti-establishment and socio-economic populism tend to punch up—towards the political establishment, ruling classes and/or economic elites—cultural populism distinguishes itself by punching both up and down. While railing against the political establishment, cultural populists also target outside forces in society that they perceive as a threat to the people. This can include immigrants, refugees, ethnic and religious minorities, and criminals.

At least three distinct types of cultural populism are on the rise. First, nativist populism has been particularly successful across Europe. A central aspect of this form of cultural populism is welfare chauvinism: these populists argue that the welfare state cannot simultaneously support natives and non-natives and thus must focus on natives first. Nativist populists such as Orbán go further, arguing that Hungary’s goal should be ethnic homogeneity, effectively turning Jews, Roma and other minorities into second-class citizens.

A second form of cultural populism has been majoritarianism—the idea that a 51 per cent or higher share of the popular vote entitles the winner to rule without interference from institutions like the judiciary or a free press. In this case, anyone who is not politically loyal to the leader or party is an outsider, a less legitimate member of the political community. Taking on an ethnic dimension can render majoritarianism particularly pernicious, as it provides the justification for ethnic-majority groups to rule over minority groups without the need to ensure equal rights and protections. The fall from majoritarianism into autocracy can be swift and complete. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin fall into this category. Ethnic majoritarianism has also been prominent across South Asia and Africa.

Thirdly, cultural populism includes those rising on the basis of law-and-order appeals. In these cases, outsiders are criminals, drug users or other wrongdoers. Law-and-order populism plays on citizens’ anxieties about safety and desires for punitive politics.47John Pratt, Penal Populism (London: Routledge, 2007). This form of populism tends to promote punitive short-term solutions to multifaceted problems, often at the expense of human rights. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is a prominent example of a populist rising to power through law-and-order rhetoric.48Nicole Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35, no. 3 (2016): 91–109.

Some cultural populists combine elements of nativism, law-and-order rhetoric and majoritarianism.

Socio-Economic Populism

Socio-economic populism crested in 2011–2012, coinciding with the leftist turn in Latin America. Latin American politics was once dominated by right-leaning politicians such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Argentina’s Carlos Menem; by 2010 the political scene was populated by left-wing politicians such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

Many socio-economic populists have been remarkably resilient in holding power. Chávez ruled for 15 years before dying in office; his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, then assumed control and has held power for the past five years. Correa stayed in office for ten years, and Morales for 12 (and counting). Although these leaders have restricted political competition to varying extents, making it more difficult to launch effective opposition, there is evidence that they have remained remarkably popular, winning election after election throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

A unifying characteristic of socio-economic populism has been bringing previously excluded segments of society into politics for the first time. Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a prime example. He divided Thai society between the grass-roots, nonprivileged rural population—who had never before been incorporated into Thai politics—and the elite aristocracy, royalists and urban middle classes. Morales is another example: he organised and activated Bolivia’s indigenous, rural farming population. However, it is important not to overlook the authoritarianism that can underlie socio-economic populism. Despite progressive rhetoric about political inclusions, socio-economic populists often severely restrict political competition, undermine political parties, and dismantle checks and balances.

It is surprising that socio-economic populism has not been more successful in the wake of the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. (Greece’s Syriza party is an exception.) Instead, socio-economic populism has tapered off in recent years. Nor has socio-economic populism been particularly successful in the countries hardest hit by the crisis. Rather, the rise of socio-economic populism preceded the financial crisis and was concentrated primarily in countries doing relatively well economically, especially in Latin America. Economic good times may create the fiscal space for statist and redistributive political projects, opening up opportunities for socio-economic populism.49Karen Remmer, “The Rise of Leftist-Populist Governance in Latin America: The Roots of Electoral Change”, Comparative Political Studies 45, no. 8 (2012): 947–972.

Although socio-economic populists have not been as successful in gaining control over governments in recent years as might be expected, left-wing populist parties are nonetheless shaping elections. Politicians like France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran (and lost) in the first round of that country’s 2017 presidential election, and parties like Germany’s The Left have been particularly effective at winning over younger voters.50“A French Campaign Waged Online Adds a Wild Card to the Election”, New York Times, 22 April 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/22/world/europe/france-election-jean-luc-melenchon-web.html; Slawomir Sierakowski, “The End of Germany’s Two-Party System”, Project Syndicate, 23 October 2018, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/end-of-german-two-party-rule-by-slawomir-sierakowski-2018-10. Given that political commentators often argue that the only way to effectively combat the rise of right-wing populism is with left-wing populism, in the future political systems may careen between right- and left-wing variants of populism.51Dan Kaufman, “Progressive Populism Can Save Us From Trump”, New York Times, 7 July 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/07/opinion/sunday/progressive-populism-wisconsin-trump.html; Chantal Mouffe, “Populists Are on the Rise but This Can Be a Moment for Progressives Too”, Guardian, 10 September 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/populists-rise-progressives-radical-right.

Anti-Establishment Populism

Although the prevalence of anti-establishment populism has remained fairly constant over time, its nature has changed quite a bit since the 1990s. Then, anti-establishment populists belonged largely to what political scientist Kurt Weyland called “neoliberal populism”.52See Weyland, “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe”. In this variant, which included leaders such as Menem, Fujimori and Poland’s Lech Walesa, politicians combined political populism with economic liberalism. These seemingly disparate phenomena can actually go well together, as both populism and structural adjustment emphasise concentrated executive power and share an adversarial relationship with organised civil-society groups, as well as with bureaucrats, whom both accuse of serving special interests. For this style of populism, anti-establishment politics was directed against proponents of state intervention; populists promise to save their countries through market reforms. The charisma of populist leaders helped generate public support for tough economic reforms.

The alliance between populism and economic liberalism can only be short lived, however. Market participants and economic technocrats do not like the vagaries of populist politics. Populists, in turn, resist budget austerity and the discipline required to attract international investment.

Today’s anti-establishment populism, by contrast, is much more likely to be against market liberalism and government austerity. This reflects the fact that status quo policies have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. In the early 1990s, many countries were embarking on market liberalisation for the first time; today countries are more likely to be dealing with the effects of years of openness and austerity. Anti-establishment politics, then, are directed at the political establishment complicit in an economy that does not deliver for the people.

Contemporary anti-establishment populism also adopts anti-corruption campaigns. Reforming bureaucracy and increasing transparency in government are often central pillars. Italy’s Five Star Movement is an archetypal example of contemporary anti-establishment populism.

Western, Southern and Northern Europe: Not in Power, Yet

To date, populist parties in Western, Southern and Northern Europe have been less numerous and less powerful than in other parts of the world.53Eiermann, Mounk and Gultchin, European Populism. For now, populist parties hold governmental responsibility in Italy, with the formation of the Government of Change coalition composed of the Five Star Movement and the League, and in Greece, with the victory of the Syriza party in the 2015 legislative election and the subsequent governing alliance between Syriza and the right-wing populist party the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

One reason that populists have not yet assumed power over the government across much of Europe is that it can be more difficult for outsider candidates to gain outright control in parliamentary systems than in presidential ones. The direct elections in presidential systems allow easier entry for charismatic outsider candidates who can forge direct connections with the people. Donald Trump, for example, was able to reach the US presidency in his first run for public office, in 2016, a feat that took him less than 17 months to accomplish. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, populist parties typically have to compete in many elections over many years to rise to the position of appointing a prime minister. Even if populist parties can win the largest share of seats, they often have to form a coalition government, which requires finding other parties willing to ally with them.

Despite the fact that parliamentary systems may be more resilient to the rise of populist parties to executive office than presidential systems are, the increasing popularity of populist parties across Europe means that they will factor more and more into coalition politics. Already, the presence of populist parties on the political scene is making it harder for coalitions to gain a governing majority on either the centre-left or the centre-right. If moderate parties across the centre-right and centre-left join together to form cordons sanitaires to keep populists out of power, this looks to the supporters of populist parties like an establishment conspiracy to keep them out of power at all costs, potentially fanning the flames of populist appeal.

Even though populists have not yet attained power across much of Europe, they can still wield significant influence. One need only look at the role of UKIP in forcing the June 2016 referendum on British membership in the EU to see that populist parties can exert tremendous influence over policy while commanding only a 13 per cent vote share.54“Election 2015”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2015/results.

Eastern and Central Europe and Post-Soviet Eurasia: Strong and Steady Populism

Eastern and Central Europe and post-Soviet Eurasia have long been a stronghold for populist politics (see figure 5). In 2018, populists have held power in eight countries: Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Serbia and Slovakia. For the most part, populism in this region manifests itself as cultural populism, with parties like Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland peddling an exclusionary form of nationalism. However, this region was not always dominated by cultural populism. Throughout the 1990s, anti-establishment populism was the norm. Leaders like Poland’s Walesa rose by railing against the Communist Party and forming the region’s first ever non-Communist government.

Figure 5: Populists in Power in Eastern and Central Europe and Post-Soviet Eurasia, 1990–2018

Political scientist Ben Stanley has argued that these two forms of populism have prevailed across Eastern and Central Europe and post-Soviet Eurasia.55For a thorough treatment of populism in Central and Eastern Europe, see Ben Stanley, “Populism in Central and Eastern Europe”, in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Part of the appeal of populism in the region, he contends, stems from the fact that transitions to democracy in the region were elite-led projects. On the one hand, the collapse of one-party systems and communist state structures allows for the revival of historic ethnic rivalries, which cultural populists could exploit to rally support. On the other hand, the long history of repression and one-party rule fosters political cynicism and anti-party attitudes, which anti-establishment populists could use to further an ‘insider vs. outsider’ narrative against establishment elites who participated in communist regimes. Each of these forms of populism has held sway across the region, although cultural populism has been gaining ground in recent years.   

The risks of populism in power are readily apparent across Eastern and Central Europe and post-Soviet Eurasia. Hungary’s Orbán is a prime example, who has weakened the judiciary and formed new governing bodies, filling them with Fidesz loyalists.

The Americas: Populism Falling Out of Favour?

Populism has been an important political force in Latin America since at least the 1930s, with figures such as Argentina’s Juan and Eva Perón and Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas dominating the political landscape. By the 1990s, populism had evolved significantly from its earliest manifestations that emphasised redistributive social policies, implementing domestic industry protections and eschewing foreign-aligned elites. In the 1990s, populists such as Peru’s Fujimori and Argentina’s Menem were elected after failures of import-substitution industrialisation policies and catastrophically high inflation.

These anti-establishment populists vilified establishment political parties for having abandoned the needs and interests of the common people, who were suffering under high inflation and poor economic prospects. As the establishment of the era had pursued nationalistic economic policies, anti-establishment populists moved against these policies, which, they argued, served special interests and elites. Instead, they privatised previously state-owned industries, opened their economies to trade and implemented austerity policies. At first, these policies received widespread popular support, reaching 72–77 per cent approval in Argentina and 50–60 per cent approval in Peru, as inflation in Argentina fell from 3,079 per cent in 1989 to 8 per cent in 1994 and in Peru from 7,650 per cent in 1990 to under 40 per cent in 1993.56Weyland, “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe”, 396; Carlos de la Torre, “Populism in Latin America”, in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

By the mid-2000s, populism was taking a new form across the continent and growing in prevalence (see figure 6). With neoliberal economic policies out of favour and a commodity boom filling government coffers with new-found resources, a new populist agenda emphasised the working class against foreign economic interests, including against foreign investors and international financial institutions. Rather than rising off of the back of economic crisis, like the earlier wave of anti-establishment populism, this wave of socio-economic populism rose from economic good times. The commodity boom enabled fiscal largesse that funded big patronage projects and buttressed populists’ political popularity. The number and fiscal resources of socio-economic populists across Latin America reinforced their staying power: Chávez in particular played an active role in supporting other populists across the region, both rhetorically and economically.

Figure 6: Populists in Power in the Americas, 1990–2018

Socio-economic populism across Latin America, however, has faced some recent defeats. After ten years in power in Ecuador, the populist party led by Rafael Correa, PAIS Alliance, won in 2017, yet his successor, Lenín Moreno, broke with Correa, empowered institutions of accountability to pursue corruption charges under the Correa regime, and held and won a referendum to prevent Correa from running for re-election.57Carlos de la Torre, “The Perils of Populist Succession in Ecuador”, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 26 February 2018, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-perils-populist-succession-ecuador. In Argentina, centrist Mauricio Macri defeated Cristina Kirchner’s hand-picked successor in 2015. Thus, the number of populists in power has begun to tick downward in recent years, giving the impression that the populist agenda is running out of steam after more than a decade in ascendancy.

However, 2018 and 2019 promise to be decisive years for the region. Venezuela, ruled under the iron fist of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is in economic and social freefall. It is hard to imagine a democratically elected centrist regime rising to replace a regime that has long since abandoned democratic principles. Yet, the populist agenda of stoking anger with no policy solutions may begin to lose any remaining popular appeal as citizens continue to suffer a lack of basic needs under the Maduro regime. After 20 years in power, authoritarian populism may eventually fall in Venezuela.

At the same time, populists are on the rise in two of the region’s most significant countries. Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a long-time socio-economic populist, will, when inaugurated in 2019, provide a contemporary example of what socio-economic populism can deliver without the unlimited largesse of commodity booms to back it up. He is already taking steps to curb corruption in government and laying out an agenda that promises to make Mexico’s budget reach the poor. In Brazil, meanwhile, cultural rather than socio-economic populism is on the rise. Far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro swept the October 2018 election. Bolsonaro is providing a frightening model of how cultural populism may play out (and win) in the region.

Asia: 40 Per Cent of Asia’s Population Governed by Populists

Populism has manifested itself quite differently in Asia from in other regions. Reflecting the fact that almost all studies of populism have focused on Europe and Latin America, even the definition of populism does not easily suit the Asian context, and it is difficult to neatly classify the cases into the types of populism identified in other parts of the world. A study that specifically examines and compares cases of populism across Asia would be an important contribution.

Despite these difficulties, some key trends in populism across Asia can be drawn out. Historically, inclusionary populism has been more prevalent in the region than exclusionary forms. Primarily, this has meant anti-establishment populism in which leaders have defined the ‘us vs. them’ conflict in terms of the hard-working, common people against establishment elites. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi blamed bureaucrats and pork-barrel politicians for undercutting the economic well-being of the people. What distinguishes this from anti-establishment populism in other regions is that this is a more specific case against a fairly well-defined group, as compared with populists in other regions who may include a bigger and more amorphous group of outsiders.58Olli Hellmann, “Populism in East Asia”, in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

However, as in other regions, cultural populism is on the rise in Asia as well. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has relied on nationalist and religious appeals to whip up popularity, while in the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte uses law-and-order rhetoric. Of course, to say that both Modi and Duterte are employing a strategy of cultural populism does not imply that they govern similarly. While Modi has been active in pushing through long-needed economic reforms, Duterte is endorsing extrajudicial killings.

What is most notable when considering populism across Asia is the number of countries of systemic importance that are now governed by populists. Between India, Indonesia and the Philippines, 40 per cent of Asia’s population is now governed by populist leaders. Moreover, populist strategies promise to weigh heavily in 2019 with upcoming elections in India and Indonesia.



Populism is on the rise globally, with cultural populism gaining the most steam. How will this trend shape the politics, economics and societies of the future? On the one hand, many populists are using positions of power to weaken democratic norms and institutions that are needed to safeguard liberal democracies over the long term. On the other hand, some populists seem to be delivering economic boosts; at the very least, markets are not yet reacting strongly to the populist age.

Moreover, populism rarely rises within healthy political systems. Populist movements around the world are revolting against a status quo system that they view as fundamentally flawed and having failed to benefit the people. Developing a credible political response in the age of populism will mean taking the concerns that gave rise to populism seriously. The next publications in this series will tackle these questions directly.

Appendix: Methodology

Appendix: Methodology

This appendix details how we developed the “Populists in Power: 1990–2018” database. To identify leaders associated with populism, we developed a three-step process. First, we identified the following 66 leading academic journals in political science, sociology and area studies that commonly publish articles on populism, as well as the new Oxford Handbook of Populism:

Administrative Science Quarterly
African Affairs
African Journal of Political Science
American Journal of Political Science
American Journal of Sociology
American Political Science Review
American Politics Research
American Sociological Review
Annual Review of Political Science
Annual Review of Sociology
Asian Survey
British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
British Journal of Political Science
China Quarterly
Comparative Political Studies
Comparative Politics
Conflict Management and Peace Science
Electoral Studies
European Journal of International Relations
European Journal of Political Research
European Sociological Review
European Union Politics
Gender and Society
Government and Opposition
International Interactions
International Journal of Middle East Studies
International Organization
International Political Science Review
International Security
International Studies Quarterly
Journal of Asian Studies
Journal of Conflict Resolution
Journal of Contemporary Asia
Journal of Democracy
Journal of European Integration
Journal of European Public Policy
Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization
Journal of Modern African Studies
Journal of Peace Research
Journal of Politics
Journal of Public Administration Research
Journal of Theoretical Politics
Latin American Politics and Society
Latin American Research Review
Legislative Studies Quarterly
Middle Eastern Studies
Party Politics
Political Analysis
Political Behavior
Political Geography
Political Research Quarterly
Political Science Quarterly
Politics and Society
Post Soviet Affairs
Public Administration
Public Opinion Quarterly
Quarterly Journal of Political Science
Review of African Political Economy
Security Studies
Socio-Economic Review
Studies in Comparative International Development
The Oxford Handbook of Populism
Western European Politics
World Development
World Politics

From these sources, we queried all articles containing the keyword “populist” or “populism” in their title or abstract and scanned the texts using natural language processing technology that can identify names. These names emerged as the potential list of populist leaders.

Second, from this potential list, we carefully read each source to ensure that we included only those with substantive discussion of why the leader in question qualified as populist. Using the definition of populism outlined above, we reviewed the sources for each case to verify that the leader in question met both of the elements of the definition of populism set out in this report.

Third, we sent the list of potential populist leaders that emerged from this exercise to several populism experts, to verify both whether the leaders from their region of expertise met their understanding of populism and whether there were any additional leaders whom we may have missed. To investigate these additional leaders, we often reached beyond the initial list of leading academic journals and books to other peer-reviewed specialist journals and case-specific academic books. In short, for every potential case of populism that emerged either from our initial text searches or from our consultations with experts, we consulted as many credible sources as possible to ascertain whether the case in question met our definition of populism.

Below, we include the final list of references that we used to verify consensus on whether the leader or party in question employs populism as a political strategy. For cases of populism before 2014, we tried to obtain a minimum of three peer-reviewed sources for each case. Because of the long lead times in the peer-review process, we did not apply as stringent a criterion for leaders who entered office after 2014. We plan to update the database as we continue to consult with experts and as our understandings of populism evolve over time.

Case Study References

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Aytac, S. Erdem, and Ziya Onis. “Varieties of populism in a changing global context: the divergent paths of Erdogan and Kirchnerismo.” Comparative Politics 47, no. 1 (2014): 41–59.

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Curato, Nicole. “Flirting with authoritarian fantasies? Rodrigo Duterte and the new terms of Philippine populism.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, no. 1 (2018): 142–153.

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We thank Louise Paulsen, Andrew Bennett, George Elliott, Maxwell Simon and Selena Zhao for excellent research assistance. Caitlin Andrews-Lee, Hadas Aron and Yascha Mounk have provided invaluable feedback.

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