‘Syncretic’ Populism in Contemporary 21st Century European Politics

Syncretism, often referred to as “Catch-all Populism” in scholarly discussions, is a term characterizing political entities that position themselves at the ideological center with a flexible and broad ideological stance. Political groups identified as syncretic typically display a vague positioning along the traditional left-right political spectrum. Unlike more ideologically steadfast party families in Europe, such as Conservative and Social Democratic parties, syncretic or “catch-all” parties exhibit a notable ideological adaptability. This flexibility allows them to modify their stances over time on various issues, aiming to garner support from a broader electorate. Such parties are essentially seeking to maximize their voter base and electoral success within a competitive political marketplace.

Populism has emerged from a foundational dichotomy of “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” marking a stance of political morality and opposition. Scholars like Cas Mudde have described populism as an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism,” critiquing it for posing valid questions yet offering flawed solutions. This discourse particularly addresses the public’s disillusionment, pinpointing a “them” responsible for societal issues and advocating for a decisive shift from the existing political framework.

It’s crucial to understand the diversity within populism, which includes both populist radical right (PRR) and populist radical left (PRL) factions. These groups, while sharing a populist label, diverge significantly in focus. PRR parties often emphasize socio-cultural dimensions, such as immigration and nationalism, whereas PRL parties concentrate on socio-economic issues, advocating against inequality and capitalism. This academic focus highlights the challenge in categorizing populist parties strictly as right or left-wing due to their complex ideological components.

Case Studies of Syncretism

Identifying political parties purely as ‘populist’ or ‘anti-political establishment’ can be complicated. Two notable examples, the ANO 2011 party in the Czech Republic and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), illustrate the nuanced ideologies underpinning syncretic political entities.

The ANO Party of the Czech Republic

ANO 2011 emerged with the intent to combat systemic corruption, quickly becoming a significant force in Czech politics by the 2019 European Parliament Election. Advocating for anti-corruption measures, unemployment reduction, and infrastructure improvement, the ANO party has positioned itself as centrist with liberal, anti-establishment, and centre-right tendencies. Despite fluctuating Eurosceptic and pro-EU stances, ANO’s leadership asserts a business-like approach to governance, emphasizing efficiency over traditional government management. This approach, coupled with a nativist stance on immigration, exemplifies the party’s catch-all populism.

Italy’s Five Star Movement

Established in 2009, the M5S has been variously labeled populist, anti-establishment, and Eurosceptic, despite advocating policies often associated with the left, such as environmentalism and social welfare. The M5S emphasizes its status as a movement rather than a traditional party, with its foundational issues encapsulating public water, sustainable transport, development, internet access rights, and environmentalism. Despite its shifting immigration policy stance, the M5S embodies the ideological flexibility characteristic of syncretic politics.


The ANO and the Five Star Movement exemplify the phenomenon of syncretic, or catch-all, populism, blending centrist ideologies with a broad, adaptable policy approach. While this strategy has facilitated short-term electoral success, the absence of clear economic and socio-cultural policies may pose challenges. The reliance on strong leadership has also led to internal disputes, potentially undermining future electoral prospects. Thus, while syncretic politics offers a flexible approach to garnering support, its long-term efficacy remains uncertain.

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