"Actions speak louder than words". Do left-wing and right-wing populists vote alike in parliament?on 31 March 2014
Tom Louwerse and Simon Otjes
Populism has been a popular topic in political science: explaining their success, their followers, influence on other parties, and government participation have been among the many aspects of populism that have been studied. But what is populism? Contrary to the way the term is "thrown around without abandon" in the public debate, scholars usually define populist parties in terms of their reference to the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’. Studies of this, what has been dubbed ‘thin populist ideology’, often focus on populists’ rhetoric and their policy platform. But what about their behaviour: can we isolate a distinct ‘populist’ way these parties behave in parliamentary votes?
Of course, one would not expect that all populist parties behave exactly the same. Populism is a thin ideology: it is an idea about how democracy should function and not an all-encompassing political ideology. Therefore, populism can be combined with other ideas, both left-wing (e.g. re-structuring of the capitalist economy) and right-wing (e.g. anti-immigrant policies). If there are certain core features to populism, however, we would expect that populist parties are more likely to vote similarly on these issues. At the very least, populist parties should vote more alike on ‘populist issues’, such as how democracy functions, than on other matters.
Two populist parties
The Dutch parliament is unique in Western Europe for the presence of both a left-wing and a right-wing populist party at the same time. The right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) started as a split-off party from the right-wing liberal VVD, when Geert Wilders left that party in 2004. This party is most easily described as populists for its references to the pure and uncorrupted people and opposition to ‘the political elite’. On the left, the Socialist Party (SP) has been characterized as populist since it won parliamentary representation for the first time in 1994. While some have pointed out that, in more recent years, the party has become less populist, in particular less opposed to ‘the’ elite but rather against the incumbent parties, it still displays a degree of anti-elitism also in its most recent election manifestos.
We studied populist parties’ parliamentary voting behaviour on resolutions, amendments and bills between 2004 and 2010. During this period both PVV and SP were in opposition, thus the divide between government and opposition parties cannot influence the patterns we find.
Based on the definition of populism, we argue that populist parties should agree on issues relating to democratic reform as well as European integration. We also included migration and immigration in our analysis, because we think this a good example of an issue that is exclusive to radical right-wing populism rather than populism itself.
Not the same
In many respects SP and PVV are very different parties, which is reflected in their voting behaviour. The SP has a strong left-wing profile, while the PVV is oriented at the political right, especially in terms of crime and migration. Therefore we did not expect to see a very high overall degree of matching parliamentary voting behaviour. SP and PVV voted alike in only 44% of the cases. For your comparison: SP had an 80% match with another left-wing party, the Greens. PVV voted the same as the right-wing liberal VVD in 70% of the cases. Thus, the left-right divide seems to be the dominant factor in the parties’ parliamentary voting behaviour.
On issues that should relate to the core of populism, such as direct democracy reforms, the two populist parties show a somewhat higher degree of concurrent voting. Still, this is not really a sign of a populist effect as almost all parties vote more alike on this issue. Agreement on bureaucracy and civil servants are somewhat higher yet, although this does not exceed 60%.
On the European Union and the degree to which the EU should be strengthened the SP and PVV show a higher degree of agreement, almost 70%. On this issue the traditional left-right ordering of parties does not apply and voting behaviour is structured along a pro- versus anti-European Union dimension instead. The two populist parties are the most anti-European parties in parliament.
Migration and integration
Some authors see the exclusion of 'others' such as migrants, as a part of populism, but in the Dutch case there is little to support this. Instead, immigration and integration of foreigners are among the topics that the two parties least agree on. The PVV has a distinctive anti-Islam agenda and is very wary of immigration in general. At the same time the SP, despite some reservations regarding the effect of multiculturalism on Dutch society, votes with the left-wing parties in parliament on this issue. Therefore, we conclude that exclusionism, if to be linked to populism at all, is a characteristic of radical-right wing populism rather than populism in general.
The parliamentary behaviour of left-wing and right-wing populist parties in the Netherlands is, therefore, quite distinct. Even on issues which can be linked to populism, there is only a moderate degree of agreement among the left-wing and right-wing populists. Of course, patterns in parliamentary cooperation might differ between countries. The general point is, however, that the actual behaviour of populist parties depends much more on other things than just their populist nature.
Tom Louwerse is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Simon Otjes is Researcher at the Documentation Centre Dutch Political Parties, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. The full article on which this post is based is available at: Otjes, S. & Louwerse, T. (published online 2013) ‘Populists in Parliament: Comparing Left-Wing andRight-Wing Populism in the Netherlands’, Political Studies, doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12089.
Image: Sammy Six, CC BY 2.0