🔮 Do European left-wing populists in government become more moderate?

Jan Philipp Thomeczek argues that European left-wing populist parties become more moderate as a consequence of their participation in government. Here, he draws on recent examples from Spain, Greece, and Germany

The inclusion-moderation thesis

The so-called ‘inclusion-moderation thesis’ postulates that including radical parties in government could moderate their radical rhetoric. The literature identifies two main mechanisms behind inclusion-moderation. Firstly, from the perspective of parties as vote maximisers, the spatial competition focuses on the political centre. Therefore, including radical parties in the electoral competition can force them to focus more closely on the centre. Secondly, participating in government coalitions will pressure those parties to compromise and distance themselves from radical positions. This highlights the underlying ‘optimism’ of inclusion-moderation regarding the transformative power of democratic systems.

Mixed empirical evidence exists for the claim that populists decrease their populist rhetoric when in power. However, two factors make generalising findings difficult. Firstly, researchers have focused on case studies that differ in many respects. In Poland (PiS) and Hungary (Fidesz), populist parties have had an absolute majority for years. In both cases, they have radicalised rather than moderated. However, a more common pattern for populists in Europe is that they join coalition governments.

How do left-wing populist parties, which adhere to a combination of populist ideas with core ideas of the radical left, behave in government?

Secondly, while some researchers focus on short-term campaign effects, others analyse broader shifts over broader periods such as years or decades. Thirdly, many researchers focus on right-wing populist parties only. This raises the question: how do left-wing populist parties, which adhere to a combination of populist ideas with core ideas of the radical left, behave in government?

Left-wing populist parties in government in Greece

In the Greek elections of January 2015, Syriza, a left-wing populist party founded as an electoral alliance in 2004, rose to power and formed a coalition with right-wing populist ANEL. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, became prime minister. The financial crisis rendered the initial government phase controversial. Greece's bailout conditions by the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF were put to a referendum vote in July 2015. Eventually, the voters rejected the bailout proposal, but the referendum strongly polarised the Greek population. The referendum campaign was a crucial driver for populism in Greece.

Greece, however, depended on loans. It settled another bailout agreement mere days after the referendum. In the aftermath of that decision, MPs from Syriza’s radical wing refused to vote for stricter austerity measures. Tsipras announced his resignation, and snap elections were announced for September. Surprisingly, Syriza received the most votes in that election. The party experienced minor losses compared with the previous elections and continued to govern. Radical Syriza MPs opposed to Tsipras founded a new party, Popular Unity, but failed to pass the 3% threshold. Consequently, the new Syriza parliamentary group was more moderate, because the radical wing opposed to the austerity measures had left the party.

Left-wing populist parties in government in Spain

In Spain, left-wing populist Podemos, which campaigned within the Unidas Podemos electoral coalition, joined the government as a junior partner of the Pedro Sanchez minority government in 2020. The Spanish Social Democrats, PSOE, led the government. Podemos was founded as a radical-left populist party following the economic crisis and evolved from the anti-corruption M-15 protests.

Evidence indicates that Podemos moderated its populist rhetoric after it became part of the Spanish government

A recent study finds evidence that while Podemos moderated itself and accepted the constitutional constraints of Spanish democracy before joining the government, PSOE moved to the left. Therefore, it seems that both partners moved ideologically closer to each other. Moreover, evidence indicates that Podemos moderated its populist rhetoric after it became part of the Spanish government. Indeed, Popu-List has classified Podemos as non-populist from 2019 onwards. Nevertheless, research is still ongoing, as Podemos only entered the Spanish government around four years ago and left the government after the 2023 elections last year.

Germany’s left-wing populist Die Linke: governing at the state level

Besides Syriza and Podemos, Germany’s Die Linke is among the most successful left-wing populist parties. Die Linke was founded as the result of a merger of the East-German PDS and the predominantly West-German WASG almost 20 years ago. PDS embodied core populist ideas and often framed them against the backdrop of the East-West divide. The party pitted the West German economic elite against the East German people. However, some researchers have raised doubts about the classification of Die Linke as populist, largely because it is an exceptionally heterogeneous party with moderate and radical wings. Although the party was never part of any national government, there is some evidence for the inclusion-moderation thesis at the state level.

Die Linke tends to use more populist rhetoric in the German states where the party is in opposition

My research shows that Die Linke tends to use more populist rhetoric in the German states where the party is in opposition. Currently, Die Linke is part of the state government in three states and has government experience in two additional states. We still do not know, however, whether this is a causal effect. Moderation could also be a pre-condition – rather than an effect – of joining the government.

Left-wing populists: moderate in power, radical in opposition?

Podemos, Syriza and Die Linke indicate that European left-wing populist parties can, at least in some respects, become moderate through government inclusion. However, in other regions, like Latin America, some left-wing populists have started a process of democratic backsliding, as seen in Venezuela. Therefore, we need to be careful with generalising the argument of left-wing populist moderation in government in non-parliamentary systems outside Europe.

One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion is the comparison with populist radical-right parties in government. Here, the evidence for the moderation of the populist radical left is much clearer. The radicalisation of PiS and Fidesz may be related to their de facto one-party government status, as discussed above. Neither, however, have we seen long-term moderation from parties in coalitions such as Lega in Italy, the Austrian FPÖ or the Swiss People's Party.

No.81 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Jan Philipp Thomeczek
Jan Philipp Thomeczek
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Potsdam

Jan Philipp earned his PhD at the University of Münster in 2023.

In his research, he focuses on various manifestations of populism, primarily populist rhetoric and populist parties, but also on parties, elections and ideologies in a broader perspective.

He tweets @jpthomeczek

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