đź”® Populist radical-right parties are threatening international cooperation

Populist radical-right parties use rhetorical and coalitional strategies to proclaim and advance issue ownership over immigration. In government coalitions, they act strategically to upgrade their ownership and weaken constitutional arrangements. If successful, argues Motoshi Suzuki, these parties threaten liberal democracy and international cooperation

The three myths outlined by Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti suggest that the populist radical right behaves as if it were ordinary, non-extremist and innocuous to liberal democracy. It has an elusive political position and occasionally partners with mainstream parties to participate in government.

Zulianello and Guasti argue that by dispelling these myths, we can deepen our balanced understanding of the complex nature and political strength of the populist radical right.

Issue ownership as a source of political strength

Following these tenets, I argue that the populist radical right’s strategic move to strengthen its issue ownership poses a grave threat to liberal democracy as a foundation for international cooperation.

I base my argument on the general characteristics of the populist radical right which differentiate it from other political advocates. These are nativism, antiestablishmentism, and anti-constitutionalism. Exploiting these characteristics, the populist radical right engages in strategic behaviour. To fully understand its strategy, we must indeed dispel the three myths put forward by Zulianello and Guasti.

Populist radical right as a strategist

Bonnie Meguid and Kimberly Twist argue that small parties, including those from the populist radical right, develop policy programmes designed to work in shifting electoral and parliamentary environments. Their strategic behaviour takes shape in at least two ways.

First, using nativist rhetoric, populist radical-right parties establish issue ownership over immigration to make substantial electoral gains.

To maintain and improve this ownership, they then convince voters that they are indeed anti-immigration warriors.

Populists use nativist rhetoric to convince voters that they are anti-immigration warriors

One standard way to stem immigration flows is to advocate restrictive border controls. Another is to use foreign aid to promote economic growth and increase job opportunities, thereby encouraging potential migrants to stay in their home countries. 

However, as Hein de Haas argues, aid has become ineffective in controlling immigration. This is because aid-receiving governments misuse aid money and, indeed, send migrants to donor countries to lobby for yet more aid.

Consistent with this argument, populist radical-right parties in major donor countries have condemned the failure of aid to control immigration. We see this from the PVV in the Netherlands, the BZÖ in Austria, and the SVP in Switzerland. What, therefore, do these parties do with ineffective aid to defend their ownership of the immigration issue in government coalitions?

The populist radical right in coalition

I find that they do indeed pursue the coalitional strategies outlined by Meguid and Twist. Populist radical-right parties exploit issue proximity to align with ideologically proximate mainstream right parties in coalition governments. In partnership with mainstream parties, they execute policy programmes upon which both agree.

My research shows that aid ineffectiveness prompts radical-right parties to pursue a punitive strategy – reducing aid – to maintain ownership of migration as a political issue

This finding partially contradicts the findings of Sarah Blodgett Bermeo and David Leblang. They find that the populist radical right’s parliamentary strength leads to an increase in aid as a means to reduce immigrant inflows. Their study does not consider the possibility that aid ineffectiveness downgrades the radical right's issue ownership while in government. My research shows that aid ineffectiveness prompts these parties to pursue a punitive strategy to maintain issue ownership.

The threat to constitutions

As Mattia Zulianello observes, populist radical-right parties integrate into the mainstream in a controversial way. Repeated interactions with mainstream parties do not moderate their extreme rhetoric. Moderation would mean a loss of the characteristics that enable them to thrive. Yet, populist radical-right parties go even further. They aim to weaken the constitutional arrangements of checks and balances to expand the scope of their strategic behaviour.

My research shows that the populist radical right's effect on aid is greater under weak constitutional arrangements of unicameralism, non-federalism, and plebiscitary democracy than under strong arrangements of bicameralism, federalism, and judicial review. This means that populist radical-right parties have an incentive to weaken constitutional arrangements, to strengthen the impact on policy and their issue ownership.

Populist radical-right parties' effect on aid is greater under weak constitutions. By weakening constitutional arrangements, they thus strengthen their impact on policy

If populist radical-right parties act on this incentive, tension intensifies between democratic politics and constitutionalism, both of which underscore liberal democracy. On the one hand, populist radical-right parties favour democratic politics by encouraging a silent electorate to raise voices and broaden the ideological spectrum of electoral and parliamentary processes. On the other, they act to dilute constitutional arrangements, motivated by the imperative to upgrade their issue ownership. In so doing, they upset the delicate balance between democracy and liberalism.

The threat to international cooperation

A balanced liberal democracy provides a domestic foundation for international cooperation by promoting compliance with norms and treaties. This liberal-democratic ideal of internationalism was articulated in Immanuel Kant’s plan for perpetual peace and Jean Monnet’s proposal for a European Community. In their beliefs, international cooperation is an external reflection of liberal democracy.

However, the populist radical right disapproves of internationalism for being elitist and infringing upon the will of the people. As Giovanni Capoccia and Vlad Surdea-Hernea argue, the rise of the populist radical right undermines international cooperation on peace, climate change, and development.

One case in point is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategic, albeit temporary, attempt to block Sweden’s entry into NATO. Another is former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Both sought to uphold their ownership over security and growth at home, at the expense of international cooperation.

Populist radical-right parties punish the poor in immigrant-sending countries with aid cutbacks, to upgrade their ownership over immigration issues. The rise of the populist radical right, therefore, is not just a matter of domestic concern, but an international problem.

No.48 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the đź”® 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 Motoshi Suzuki
Motoshi Suzuki
Professor, Graduate School of Law, Kyoto University

Motoshi's principal research interest is political economy.

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