This is not a good time for political parties, especially those with traditional orientations. Gone are the times in the older democracies when one could count on two major parties – one social democratic, the other more to the right of center – dominating the political scene.
In the new democracies of the postcommunist world, such two-party systems never came into being. Nowadays the two largest parties can rarely hope to muster two-thirds of the popular vote. Not infrequently they have to form a “grand coalition.” The rest of the vote is split many ways – unless a political force emerges to cut right through the old party structures by arousing popular nationalist or socialist sentiments, or a combination of the two.
The decline of parties reflects the decline of class. The old proletariat and the old bourgeoisie are gone. Instead we see what has sometimes been called a “levelled-in middle-class society,” albeit one with an important elite of the super-rich at one end and an underclass at the other.
The very structure of society has come to be shaky. There are no social groups on which lasting organizations can be built. People are, in a sense, socially homeless. This means that their interests vary as situations change. It also means that they no longer find a political home in parties, but react to situations, to vague moods, and above all to appeals to sentiments, if not resentments.
This is the condition in which populists thrive. In some cases, they are individuals like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (and other Latin American leaders) or Italy’s ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Mostly they enter the political scene from the fringes but manage to form a highly personalized grouping, like Jörg Haider and his Austrian Freedom Party, Jean-Marie LePen and his French Nationalists, Andrzej Lepper and his Polish Peasant Party, or Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Direction in Slovakia. Many other names could be added to the list.
The list tells us two things. One is that a surprising number of populist leaders have managed to get themselves into power in recent years. Their success reflects the electorate’s uncertainties and, increasingly, the perceived injustices of globalization, as well as the fear of many about minorities, immigrants, and foreigners in general.
These populists promise solutions that dispense with the habits and norms of moderation, notably with centrist democratic policies and an internationalism that seeks to promote peace and prosperity. One sometimes wonders whether we are experiencing not so much the end of history as the end of enlightened history, perhaps of the enlightenment itself.
But another look at the list of populists tells us something else as well: most of them do not last. As long as they accept elections and election results, they may be gone almost as quickly as they arrived. It does not take long for voters to discover that the promises of populists were empty. Once in power, they simply make for bad government. Taking two recent European examples, Poles and Slovaks will likely soon realize that their new populist governments do more harm than good to the people and their country.
To be sure, this is not much of a consolation. For one thing, some populist leaders may not accept the result of the next elections. It took Silvio Berlusconi quite a while to admit that he had lost. Beyond that, populist episodes are signs of an underlying instability that neither serves national progress nor contributes to international order. Austria paid a price for its Haider interlude, and France did not exactly benefit from the runoff between President Jacques Chirac and Le Pen in the last Presidential election.
Is there a remedy? Political parties have had a bad press in recent years, and there are good reasons for this. Still, they do fulfill a useful function by bundling interests and issues, thereby providing an element of stability in the political system.
Existing parties urgently need to recapture the support of citizens. To succeed requires programmatic clarity, organizational honesty, and an understanding of the concerns of societies that have lost their traditional structures. Those structures are gone forever, but a liberal-democratic order cannot succeed through situational politics built on popular resentments. It requires a sense of the medium term and a commitment to rational debate of issues, for one tradition that can be revived – that of enlightened thinking – is the most important of all.