*POSTPONED: Due to the ongoing SARS-COV-2/Covid-19 public health emergency the 26th IPSA World Congress has been postponed until 2021 *

26th IPSA World Congress

Lisbon, Portugal

July 25–29, 2020

Populisms Old and New

This panel compares well-established and seasoned populist parties with newer ones, focusing on party organisation and power relations between different levels within parties. It brings together researchers working on the ESRC-funded comparative research project “The Survival of the Mass Party: Evaluating Activism and Participation Among Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) in Europe” (ES/R011540/1), with colleagues from around the world.

The panel addresses questions which matter to an understanding of populism today:

  • How are populist parties organized in Europe today?
  • Can we detect a uniform trend towards centralization and concentration of powers in the hands of a leader?
  • How does internal democracy work within these parties, and what chances do members have to affect the strategy and direction of the organisations they belong to?

Chair: Daniele Albertazzi, University of Birmingham
Discussant: Reinhard Heinisch, University of Salzburg


Mattia Zulianello, University of Birmingham: Restructuring a Mainstream Populist Party: The New Organisational Course of the Lega under Salvini’s Leadership

Judith Sijstermans, University of Birmingham: Populist Leadership in Times of Decline and Growth: Influence and Organisational Control among Elites in the Vlaams Belang

Adrian Favero, University of Birmingham: Assessing Efforts of Centralisation and Internal Coherence in Populist Parties: The Case of the Swiss People’s Party

Niko Hattaka, University of Birmingham — Populist Logic in the Hybrid Media System: How the Finns Party Became An Organizational Vehicle for the Finnish Radical Right

Caterina Froio, Sciences Po, CEE and Pietro Castelli Gattinara, University of Oslo: The Organization of Movement-Parties on the Far Right — CasaPound Italia

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Wayne State University and Tim Haughton, University of Birmingham: New Parties, Old Challenges — Organizing for Enduring Success in Central and Eastern Europe


Mattia Zulianello — Restructuring a Mainstream Populist Party: The New Organisational Course of the Lega under Salvini’s Leadership

The exit of the founding leader is often seen as a swan song for a populist party. By focusing on the case of Salvini’s Lega, this paper argues otherwise, highlighting the ability of populist parties to convert a potential serious liability into a major strategic asset.

From its inception until 2012, the Lega was led by Umberto Bossi who, around his charismatic leadership, developed a highly centralised and hierarchical structure. Bossi eventually resigned as party leader in 2012, and after a transitional phase, Matteo Salvini took the reins of the party and quickly revitalized its electoral fortunes.

Focusing on party documents (websites, manifestos, and statutes) as well as secondary sources, I argue that while the ideological and programmatic restructuring into a nativist and nationalist direction under Salvini at the expense of regionalism has been the key for the recent exploits of the Lega, such a restructuring would have been impossible without the new organizational course set by the new leader.

While the “old” Lega was never a party totally dependent on Bossi, the unprecedented personalization and centralization under Salvini has provided the new leader with the room of maneuver to develop a new identity and a new strategic course at the national level. Members do not have real chances to affect Salvini’s policy and strategy, but the relationship between the leader and regional representatives in the North now resembles a functional division of labor, with the latter still championing regional autonomy to satisfy the historical constituency of the Lega.

More generally, this paper highlights the decisive importance of the agentic skills of a new leader to implement a new organizational course that is consistent with a new ideological and programmatic direction to recover the (declining) fortunes of a populist party.

Judith Sijstermans — Populist Leadership in Times of Decline and Growth: Influence and Organisational Control among Elites in the Vlaams Belang

The role of the leader and wider party executive has been paramount in Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and its predecessor the Vlaams Blok (referred to collectively as the VB).

This role is reinforced by the geographical concentration around Antwerp. Frank Vanhecke was leader of the VB for 12 years (1996-2008); he embodied a compromise between the anti-immigrant and Flemish nationalist wings of the party. Successors Bruno Valkeniers (2008-12) and Gerolf Annemans (2012-14) were less successful, electorally and organizationally.

In the context of decline, the party professionalization of the 1990s ended. Ideological tensions within the party, previously managed by a division of labor among key leaders, re-emerged. Organizationally, party members pushed back against a leadership which was seen as distant from the base. In this context, Tom Van Grieken, emerging from the party’s youth wing, became VB’s leader and presided over the party’s surge in the 2019 Belgian elections.

This paper explores to what extent Vlaams Belang elites, through decline and now growth, have managed organizational tensions and centralized control over the party. I use secondary literature and party documents (brochures, websites, manifestos, and organisational rules) to review the VB’s organizational development and describe current organizational structures.

I argue that Vlaams Belang elites, as a result of internal tensions, have reinforced their power through formal organizational structures and informal influence. The party’s recent electoral success only reinforces these patterns by: (1) fostering members’ acceptance of leaders’ control and (2) providing prospects for elite tensions due to party growth.

This analysis provides a timely update to our understanding of the party in the light of the 2019 election and Van Grieken’s leadership. It also reflects on wider scholarly discussions around the role of the leader in populist political parties and the difficulties that populist parties face in times of growth and electoral success.

Adrian Favero — Assessing Efforts of Centralisation and Internal Coherence in Populist Parties: The Case of the Swiss People’s Party

Since its foundation in 1971, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has increased its territorial extensiveness and organisational intensiveness. Powerful politicians such as Christoph Blocher pushed towards more centralization and uniformity, but the party’s national organisation is still weak compared to that of other European populist parties.

This paper analyses the dynamics of the SVP’s organizational development and asks how the SVP manages centralization and internal cohesion within the Swiss political system.

While the SVP leadership tried to contain attempts of cantonal branches to deviate from the party line, they also had to deal with canton-based autonomy. Centralization was increased by re-organizing the party’s national organs, but cantonal branches retain a high level of independence and sometimes disagree with the national organization.

These structural changes in the SVP have also been conducive to the party’s internal coherence. Under Christoph Blocher’s leadership, the SVP focused on specific national key issues such as immigration and European integration. But cantonal branches and certain strata of the SVP’s electorate did not always approve of Blocher’s political command and his strong commitment to a core ideology.

To analyse these organizational mechanisms, I evaluate secondary literature and party documents (brochures, websites, manifestos, etc.), building a description of where the SVP stands today in terms of centralization and coherence. I also include an organizational chart mapping the SVP’s structure at national and cantonal levels, and the relationships between them.

I argue that no other party in Switzerland has increased its territorial extensiveness, intensiveness, and centralization to a similar extent. However, the dominance of the SVP’s central leadership could increasingly evoke tensions with cantonal branches. Comparing developments of centralization and cohesion with that of other European populist parties, the SVP’s national organisation is arguably still less powerful and its recent success is mostly owed to Blocher’s charismatic leadership and financial support.

Niko Hattaka — Populist Logic in the Hybrid Media System: How the Finns Party Became An Organizational Vehicle for the Finnish Radical Right

The Finns Party’s path from its center-leftist anti-establishment populist origins to a full-blown populist radical right party has intertwined with forms of far right online activism dubbed as the Finnish “immigration skeptical movement”.

The party’s ability to carve out a firm position in the Finnish parliamentary system has been partly based on the mediated discursive appropriation of “immigration sceptic” demands as part of the party’s chain of equivalence. I claim that this appropriation has taken place not only through use of shared “immigration sceptical” terminology and the provision of candidacies for “immigration sceptics”, but also through the interactive journalistic and civic amplification of these discursive elements in the media system, crystallizing radical right demands as core elements of the Finns Party’s collective identity and public image.

The Internet’s increasingly prevalent role in the interactive circulation of information in society has affected how populist ideas are communicated and the responses to them in the public sphere. I argue that hybridization of the media system has affected populist logic in such a way that populist parties tend to gravitate towards becoming normalizing agents for reciprocal antagonism and anti-pluralism.

Out of the heterogeneous populist political communication emancipated by online counter-publics, it is likely that its least-appreciated elements will become the defining characteristic of affiliated organizational vehicles in mainstream publics. This likely leads either to the disintegration of populist movements’ chains of equivalence or to the further consolidation of confrontational antagonism as the movement’s core discursive element. Therefore, populism as a political logic of articulation functions in the hybrid media system in a way that encourages populist organizational vehicles with loose identification requirements to gravitate towards exclusionary populism.

Caterina Froio and Pietro Castelli Gattinara — The Organization of Movement-Parties on the Far Right: CasaPound Italia

Today’s far-right politics is not limited to the success of populist radical-right parties and to the mobilization of grassroots movements. Groups like CasaPound Italia (CPI) invest in both the protest and electoral arena to acquire societal relevance.

How is CPI organized internally? Building on the literature on political parties as organizations and social movements, this paper presents CPI’s internal configuration based on evidence from online data, open participant observation, and face-to-face interviews with activists and high-ranking officials.

The paper discusses how strategic choices concerning group organization have allowed CPI to gather the financial, human, and symbolic resources that have ensured its survival and expansion. We present the formal hierarchical structure of CPI, focusing on its territorial and thematic organization. We then analyze how CPI copes with the problem of collective choice, and we present the rules governing leadership, personnel selection and internal decision-making. We consider recruitment, comparing group strategies and individual motivations to join the group with the modes of engagement with CPI, paying special attention to youth, women, and football fans.

We argue that the high profile currently enjoyed by CPI is due, at least to a certain extent, to its hybrid organizational configuration. Combining the features of political parties and social movements, the internal structure of CPI facilitates the recruitment and engagement of activists, as well as ensuring financial resources from different venues.

Kevin Deegan-Krause and Tim Haughton — New Parties, Old Challenges: Organizing for Enduring Success in Central and Eastern Europe

The past three decades have been turbulent times for Central and Eastern Europe. Many parties have deployed populist appeals to great effect, propelling them to electoral success and sometimes into office.

All too often, this has not heralded long-term success. Many parties have lived fast, but died young. Nonetheless, several others have endured despite being battered by the winds associated with the processes of democratization, marketization, state-building, integration into Western clubs, the Great Recession, and the Eurozone and migration crises.

Using region-wide databases and our findings from visits to more than 100 party offices in 11 countries, this paper shines a spotlight on different models of party organization and the role of the leader in determining long-term survival. We chart the organizational structures across the region: some parties opted for an extensive party organization with channels of participation for branches and individual members, but others plumped for a light organizational structure with the leader in a dominant position.

Particular attention is devoted to the case of Slovakia, evaluating the 2020 elections and the different models of party organization in factions labeled as populists and those which are not seen as populist. In light of a tumultuous decade in European politics and economics, we evaluate if the triumphs and tragedies of that election are consistent both with our findings — from research conducted a decade ago — on the links between party organizational structures and populist appeals, and with recent developments in Western Europe.