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Plenary Panel 3: Democracy in Retreat: More Populism as the New Norm? (in partnership with the Open Society Foundations)

Plenary Panel 3: Democracy in Retreat: More Populism as the New Norm? (in partnership with the Open Society Foundations)

Discussion Points:

  • Rethinking populism – what do we mean when we say populism? Can it be utilized differently?

  • Can technocracy be defended? Brussels in the eyes of populists

  • EU-Balkans: how can the relationship be maintained in a time of estrangement?

  • Beyond the mainstream: future of political parties, who can reshape democracy and bring positive change in Europe? A policy in 140 characters: what is the impact of social networks on politics in the “post-truth” era?


The rise of right-wing political parties across Europe, but also the left-wing movements such as Syriza and Podemos, sparked the waste interest for the topic of populism, which reached its peak with Trump’s victory in November last year. The populist upheaval hasn’t lost its momentum, as evidenced by the waste support for Marine Le Pen at the French presidential election. Moreover, the populist leaders in Hungary and Turkey, Orban and Erdogan respectively, keep concentrating power in their hands, contrary to the basic principles of parliamentary democracy such as checks and balances. Some of their Balkan counterparts do not lag behind in autocratic tendencies, while, unfortunately, the EU often seems to turn a blind eye to such developments. Moreover, the current media and technological environment opens the possibility for social networks to be widely exploited by populists. The use of social networks by media-savvy populist politicians enables a form of direct identification between citizens and them.

Despite the topic of populism is being widely discussed in the media, political discourse, as well as in academia, there is no consensus on the meaning of the term. Various apprehensions of populism lead to different interpretations of the current political predicament. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify certain features of populism that constitute the core of this phenomenon, namely: a direct (unmediated by procedures and institutions) appeal to “the people” as a homogenous and “pure” entity; critique of the elites; and the rhetoric of identity that expresses the rejection of the foreign “other”. In the age of uncertainty, as the old world order is crumbling down, populist seek to exploit the already existing citizens’ fears – fear for security, fears of poverty, marginalization and further disempowerment. They transpose these legitimate fears into the discursive field of identity where it is much easier to manipulate fears and to appeal to emotions.

One of the major questions arising from the debates on populism is whether every mass movement that is critical of elites could be defined as populist, i.e. whether the left-wing movements such as Syriza and Podemos could be put in the same category with the right-wing populists. One suggestion for drawing the line between populist and other mass movements is the populist claim to a moral monopoly of representation of the “real people”, which implies illegitimacy of all their political contenders (Jan-Werner Müller). Other argue that, while a truly emancipatory politics is active, imposing and enforcing its vision, populism is always re-active, mobilizing masses by feeding fears of the external other (Žižek). Also, there are views that all anti-establishment movements are in a certain way populist, but that populism in itself is never enough to fuel a constructive political mobilization (Wodak).

Selected Readings:

Previous BSF Sessions on the Similar Topics:

2016 – Session 1: Democracy’s Responses to Populism and Internal Radicalization

2015 –  Session 4: Countering the Tide of Radicalization: In Search of a Comprehensive Response