🔮 Populism beyond methodological nationalism

Mari-Liis Jakobson encourages scholars to pay attention to transnational populism. Populist politicians can reach beyond national borders and capture voters who may otherwise fly under the radar

A number of myths and assumptions surround populism. These myths are often taken uncritically, not just by journalists, political pundits and the general public, but also by scholars who have reflected less over populism's defining features.

In addition to the three myths Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti point out, another, relating to the relationship of populism and nationalism, needs further exploration. As Zulianello and Guasti rightfully argue, it is wrong to presume that all populists are nationalists ideologically. Some of them construct ‘the people’ in a clearly post-national manner, inclusive of groups with various national, ethnic or racial backgrounds.

However, populism also spans beyond the national container in other ways. For instance, it reaches out to expat voters and adopts campaign strategies from populists in other countries.

Opening the container

Populism studies seem to suffer from what migration scholars call methodological nationalism. This refers to the assumption that the nation-state-society construct is a natural container. As political scientists, we tend to take the nation-states as essential categories and units of analysis. When studying populists’ electoral campaigns, we focus predominantly on how they attempt to woo domestic publics. When looking at party organisations, analysis is typically limited to the national level, followed by the local one, and sometimes supra-national levels such as, inter alia, Europarties. Yet research shows clearly that populists’ activities span much further and wider.

Enticing the vote from abroad

Several populist parties have discovered that citizens who live abroad either permanently or short-term but have a right to vote in their origin-country elections, can be an important supporter base. Although turnout levels among such voters are typically low, some populist messages have resonated well with this electoral segment. The enfranchisement of expat voters means this is a segment that has been growing globally.

Populists have discovered an important supporter base among citizens who live abroad but have a right to vote in their origin-country elections

Surprisingly enough, there are many examples of this type of interaction. For example, there was near-unanimous support for Fidesz among the Hungarian diaspora in the Pannonian Basin region. Similarly, the AKP in Turkey, led by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, enjoys even higher support among the Turkish diaspora in Western Europe than it does at home. And under the charismatic leadership of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's left-wing populist APAIS enjoyed high support among Ecuadorian emigrants in Spain. The Estonian populist radical-right EKRE, which has branches in Finland, Sweden, and the United States, is the most popular party among Estonians registered abroad. And Romania's AUR party is proof that EKRE is not the only populist radical-right party to successfully mobilise emigrants.

Not just electoral engineering

What is the secret of these parties' success? In the Hungarian case, and to certain extent in Turkey, high support among expat voters is the result of careful electoral engineering and campaigning. The Hungarian diaspora in the Pannonian Basin was enfranchised by the Orbán-led government following the 2011 constitutional referendum. Diasporas tend to favour the political forces that gave them electoral rights. Furthermore, power-holders like the AKP can use their diaspora policy tools to attract Turkish expat support. But building a transnational party organisation with branches abroad can also boost a party's chances of success. My study on the Finnish branch of EKRE, with Tõnis Saarts and Leif Kalev, shows this clearly.

However, this is not the whole story. There is also a populist aspect to such parties' popularity. To achieve popularity among expats, the populist must construct ‘the people’ and ‘the antagonist’ in an appealing manner.

My research with Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero and Inci Öykü Yener-Roderburg shows how transnationally successful populist parties construct the concept of a transnational ‘people’. They weave in the emigration or immigration story of expat voters, and activate their related grievances. For instance, the AKP appeals mainly to former guest workers and their descendants. It portrays them as members of a noble Turkish people who have through history been nomadic, but who have suffered discrimination at the hands of host states.

To achieve popularity among expats, the populist must construct ‘the people’ and ‘the antagonist’ in an appealing manner

APAIS and EKRE, meanwhile, construct ‘the people’ as emigrants who have been forced abroad by the poor economic management of their home country's government, enabling them to cast emigrants as the victims of ruling elites. This transnational construction of 'the people' can also play well with domestic voters. In Hungary, for example, enfranchisement of the diaspora increased support for Orbán's Fidesz among domestic voters.

Why might migrants support populism?

As my quantitative study with Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero shows, migrants are, on average, less likely than domestic voters to vote for populists. But support for populists varies markedly across different migratory spaces. Thus, we can safely say that some groups of migrants are more susceptible to populist messaging than others.

Support for populist parties is likely to be higher among migrants who don't feel in control of their lives

Following socio-psychological explanations for the populist vote, support for populist parties is likely to be higher among migrants who don't feel in control of their lives. This feeling is not uncommon among migrants, who are often at the mercy of complex migration or bureaucratic networks. Such feelings of helplessness can be amplified in situations where the migrant has been forced to leave their home country. Migrants might also feel like the underdog when they sense the host society is treating them unfairly. Populist discourse is capable of actualising these grievances.

Other arenas for populism’s transnationalisation

Of course, it is not just the voter base or the populist organisation itself that we should consider outside the nation-state container. As previous research shows, populist radical-right master frames and images span nation-state and language borders. This is especially true online. Transnational Twitter networks can sustain transnational learning and can influence party development. But while the technology is new, the process itself is age-old. Throughout history, populists from both the left and the right have maintained thriving networks and learned from one another.

16th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 over the coming weeks and months 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 Mari-Liis Jakobson
Mari-Liis Jakobson
Associate Professor of Political Sociology, School of Governance, Law and Society, Tallinn University

Mari-Liis has a background in political communication and in citizenship and migration studies.

She most enjoys doing research on where the two meet: migrant political agency, public perceptions of migration, diaspora policies and politics, transnational populism.

She tweets @JakobsonML

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