‘Syncretic’ Populism in Contemporary 21st Century European Politics

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What is ‘Syncretism’?

‘Syncretism’, also known as “Catch-all Populism” in the academic literature, is an ambiguous term that has often been applied to political parties that are ideologically centrist and have a loose, flexible ideology.

‘Syncretic’ political parties often have ambiguous ideological stances on the left-right ideological dimension. Compared to other types of party families in Europe, such as Conservative and Social Democratic Parties that tend to compete on similar economic dimensions across time, “catch-all” parties tend to be ideologically flexible. Thus, they can shift their ideological positions over time on the same issue to attract greater support amongst a wider proportion of voters. Catch-all parties can be seen as voter-seeking parties within a business party model in order to gain the largest number of seats in elections.

Grounded on a sense of opposition between “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, populism has popped up and developed as a product of political morality and antagonism. Cas Mudde notes that populism can be seen as an “illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism.” Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser also outline how populism (particularly the right-wing variant) “asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers.” Contemporary populism appears to relate to citizens’ dissatisfaction, i.e. who is to blame (“them”), and how to force a decisive change to the political status quo.

It is important to briefly outline how populism is a broad church and has different variants that diverge according to: (a) populist radical right parties (PRR) and (b) populist radical left parties (PRL). Moreover, both right-wing and left-wing populism are demonstrated through diverse movements in today’s globalized world. PRR parties tend to focus much more on the socio-cultural issue dimension (i.e. immigration and nationalism).

In contrast, PRL parties tend to focus much more of their ideology on the socio-economic dimension (i.e. focusing on combatting inequality and injustices in society and at the same time voicing strong opposition to capitalism). Recent academic scholarship has also focused much more on PRR and PRL parties and their electoral success, compared to populist parties, in which scholars such as Mattia Zulianello note that they cannot neatly be classified and categorized as either right-wing or left-wing in their overall ideological components.

Key Cases

Defining political parties as ‘populist’ or ‘anti-political establishment’ is not always so clear cut. Two unique populist political parties, ANO 2011 (“Yes”) in Czech Republic and the Five Star Movement in Italy will be briefly analyzed in the following sections, to examine their core ideologies that underpin both political parties. Both cases cannot be neatly classified as either PRR or PRL, rather they can be seen as ‘syncretic’ or ideologically ambiguous political parties.

Czech Republic: The ANO Party

With the original goal of fighting against systemic corruption, ANO 2011 has grown from a ‘fringe’ party towards being one of the largest parties in the Czech Republic at the 2019 European Parliament Election. The ANO is a political movement aiming to get rid of the country’s corruption, alongside abolishing immunity for politicians, fighting unemployment and improving transportation infrastructure.

Priorities have also been set out for pension reform, defending the interests of the Czech Republic in a unifying Europe and reforming the state towards a balanced central government budget. Despite debates amongst politicians and political scientists, its co-founder and leader, Andrej Babiš has remarked that “ANO 2011 is a right-wing party with social empathy”. The party is also often ideologically placed in the centre with broadly liberal, anti-establishment and centre-right political themes. To an extent, this demonstrates a Catch-all form of populism.

Before the 2017 election campaign in the Czech Republic, the ANO adopted Eurosceptic stances but took a more pro-EU stance afterwards (i.e. arguably ‘flip-flopping’ on this key issue). Another proof of this ideological ambiguity that stretches across the party is the fact that Babiš (leader of the ANO) is the second richest man in the Czech Republic – with vast number of business assets. Babiš has often also remarked that the country should be run “like a business” and that government is a poor manager. In terms of immigration issues, the public discourse of the Czech ANO Government is aimed against foreign elements in the Czech Republic nation-state, against immigration in general, and at the same time has expressed the ideology of nativism – dividing the country’s people between ‘native’ Czechs and ‘non-native’ Eastern migrants.

Italy: The Five Star Movement (M5S)

Founded in 2009, two years earlier than ANO 2011, the M5S is variously considered populist, anti-political establishment, environmentalist, anti-globalist, and Eurosceptic, by a wide range of political commentators. The party has also been described as New Right and right-wing despite its promotion of policies usually advocated by the Italian left-wing, such as a citizen’s income and green-inspired policies.

In a similar manner to ANO 2011, members of the M5S stress that it is not a party but a “movement”, and it may not be classified as a ring-wing or left-wing one. Although having had difficulties drawing an agreement with other parties, the M5S eventually formed a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s PRR League in the March 2018 national parliamentary elections. This governing coalition however soon collapsed and, as of December 2019, the so-called “yellow and red” government supported by M5S and the centre left PD is still ongoing, though not without difficulties (both from an ideological and policy perspective).

The “five stars” refer to five key issues for the party, namely public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, rights to Internet access and environmentalism. Set up by a comedian and blogger (Beppe Grillo) alongside a web strategist (Gianroberto Casaleggio) with an emphasis on digital economy, the party holds a firm belief in creating a collective intelligence made possible by the Internet.

Another key feature of the movement is the so-called “zero-cost politics”, according to which politics must not become a career and way to make money. In addition, M5S’ ever-changing position on immigration (shifting back and forth between pro and anti-immigrant attitudes) also indicates its ambiguous attitude overall on the socio-cultural issue dimension of politics.

Summary

To summarize, both ANO and the Five Star Movement have demonstrated key features of syncretic (or ‘Catch-all’) populism. The ANO is now one of the main ruling parties in the Czech Republic. The M5S has also risen to become the largest individual political party in Italian politics in 2018, until its recent electoral decline in coalition government with the populist radical right Lega (League). M5S has largely governed in different coalitions, as is typical in contemporary Italian politics. They have largely combined core beliefs of Catch-all populism, namely being ideologically centrist, dispersed and flexible in their overall policies.

However, rather than being a success electorally in the long-term, arguably the M5S and ANO’s lack of clear policies on economic and socio-cultural based may come back to haunt them in the future. Both parties’ emphasis on strong leaders also means that internal party disputes are likely to open up in the coming future and may hinder them electorally. This has been seen most recently, with the case of M5S’s leader Luigi Di Maio recently stepping down. Thus, ideologically ambiguity may not be such a successful long-term political strategy for both parties in the coming future.

Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Comparative Politics and Global Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. See his profile here.

Lin Xu is a Master’s Student in Global Political Economy at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (SAR, China).

© James F. Downes and Lin Xu. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).