Do populists get voters to the polls?

In Political Studies, Hertie School PhD grads Arndt Leininger and Maurits Meijers explore the assertion that populists might be good for democracy.

In 2017, the four-year-old Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) became the first far-right, populist party to ever win seats in Germany’s Bundestag – and also the parliament’s third largest party. Anti-immigration and anti-Europe, its platform is akin to far-right nationalist parties in other European countries, such as UKIP in the UK or the much older National Front (now rebranded as National Rally) in France. While the AfD lured voters from more established German parties, most of the new AfD voters had sat out previous elections, according to post-election research.

Populist electoral gains ­– especially on the far-right – are often described as a threat to liberal democracy, even though high voter participation is desirable in a healthy democratic system. As such parties have gained traction in Europe, some have observed that populist movements – both right and left – can mobilise voters, regardless of whether people cast their ballot for or against them. But until now, claims that they boost overall political participation have not been tested empirically.

In their paper, “Do Populist Parties Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from over 40 Years of Electoral History in 31 European Democracies”, published in June 2020 in Political Studies, two former Hertie School doctoral researchers, Maurits Meijers (PhD 2016) and Arndt Leininger (PhD 2017) explored this assertion.

The researchers used a dataset from 315 parliamentary elections in 31 Western and Eastern European democracies since the 1970s to examine developments in voter participation and the influence of populist parties. Their findings: in Central and Eastern Europe, populist parties have galvanised voters, especially in young democracies, but not in older, Western European democracies.

“At least in Western Europe, we didn't find any support,” says Meijers. “I think the normative implication is that there are maybe not so many benefits of populism, at least for liberal democracy.”

Populism is often seen as antithetical to a pluralist, representative democracy, as populists on both the left and the right conceive of politics as an us vs. them fight between a silent majority and a powerful elite. Left-wing populists see the elite as capitalist politicians who put their interests before those of the common people – in particular, workers. Far-right populists portray the oppressive elite as corrupt politicians with global ambitions. These populists often espouse ethnic concepts of “the people”, Leininger and Meijers say. They note that other scholars have shown that a right-wing populist presence in European politics often accompanies a decline in minority rights, while left-wing populism is associated with greater minority rights.

“Of course, you can argue that these parties or these politicians voice concerns that other parties don't, and in that sense, they are legitimate political actors. But in terms of whether it’s good for democracy, I think our findings are quite sobering,” Meijers says.

Coding, crunching and conclusions

For their assessment, Meijers and Leininger used election data going back to the 1970s for Western Europe and starting in the 1990s for the post-Cold War democracies in Eastern Europe.

“We looked at turnout figures and the supply of parties in these elections. Based on other people's research, we coded whether populist parties were present and whether they were left or right,” explains Leininger. “Then we looked at whether a populist party was on the ballot, whether it was for the first time, whether it was already present in parliament at the time of the election - the logic being it would have gotten more attention. We also looked at how voting changed from the prior election and how that correlated with turnout, controlling for a number of things and running a statistical model.”

What they discovered was that parliamentary representation was essential to increasing voter turnout – but only in the newer democracies in Eastern Europe. So where populist parties were already in parliament, voter turnout increased. This was not the case, however, in Western Europe.

“It's not sufficient to just be a populist party that’s competing,” says Leininger. “Parliamentary representation seems to be really key in terms of raising the party’s profile - and then it can have mobilising effects.” Their findings might have implications for new democracies in other parts of the world, but that would require further research, the authors say.

Next steps to better understanding the relationship between populism and voter turnout would be to look at differences among populist candidates themselves and turnout in regional or local levels, Meijers and Leininger say. The idea would be to help assess the impact of individual candidates on elections. In addition, they say more research is needed on whether higher turnout affects populist voting, in order to test the claim that populists can mobilise voters who have felt left behind.

The Hertie School connection

In some ways, their collaboration on  populist party influences began in 2012, when Leininger, now a Research Fellow in Political Sociology at the Freie Universität in Berlin, and Meijers, now an Assistant Professor for Comparative Politics at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, shared an office at the Hertie School while working on their PhDs. Leininger wrote his dissertation on direct democracy and representative government, Meijers on how Eurosceptic challenger parties affect mainstream party attitudes toward European integration.

“My research was strongly focused on radical parties, and in this case, populist parties. And Arndt’s background is very much in elections and who participates in them. We're both quantitative political scientists who have  done statistical modelling, so that made it a very natural collaboration,” said Meijers.

Both said the groundwork for the project was laid during their time in the Doctoral Programme. “There is a community of PhD researchers at the Hertie School, and during first two semesters you do a lot of coursework together, so that's really a different experience from the standard PhD in Germany where you are solitary researcher supervised by a professor,” says Leininger.

The programme is closely integrated into the Hertie School’s research structure. Students receive training in research design and methods and are linked to research colloquia where they work closely with faculty members. They can also be affiliated with one of the Hertie School’s Centres of Competence – research centres focusing on key policy challenges: digital governance, fundamental rights, international security, European governance, and in the future also sustainability.

“One of the strengths of the programme is that your colleagues are a big, diverse group of people and you remain friends with many of them afterwards,” says Meijers. “And with some of them you share research interests.”


Read the paper in Political Studies (open access).

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