70th Political Studies Association International Conference

Edinburgh, Scotland

April 6-8, 2020

Organized by Dr Daniele Albertazzi

“The Survival of the Mass Party? Discussing party organisation Among Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) in Europe”

This panel will present the results of the first phase of 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).

The papers consider well-established populist radical right parties, focusing on their organisations and the power relations between different levels within them. They address questions such as the following, explaining why organization matters to an understanding of populism today:

  • How are populist radical right parties organised 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 organizations to which they belong?
  • What do these analyses say about the success of different forms of party organisation in Europe today?

Chair: Daniele Albertazzi, University of Birmingham
Discussant: Antonella Seddone, University of Turin


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

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

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

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


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.

In addition to the panel, Daniele Albertazzi and Stijn Van Kessel will present another paper on the conference panel “Why Do Populists Succeed?”

The Survival of the Mass Party: Centralization, Rootedness, and Control Among Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) in Europe

The 20th century saw the rise of political parties characterized by large memberships organised in local branches. While it is now widely assumed that the era of these “mass parties” is over, several PRR parties are holding on to this organization model: they are present on the ground, focus on shaping people’s identities, and seek to involve members in a variety of activities.

Drawing on Phase 1 of a new comparative research project focusing on populist party organisation in Western Europe, this paper maps the formal and informal organizational structures of four PRR parties: the League in Italy, the Flemish Interest in Belgium, the Finns Party, and the Swiss People’s Party.

Through an analysis of party literature (websites, manifestos, and statutes), secondary sources and interviews with key informants, we compare these parties’ institutional structures, and degrees of centralization. We will show to what extent personalization and centralization have helped manage organizational tensions and changes of leadership, and how party elites have reinforced their own power through formal organizational structures and informal influence.

As a provisional conclusion, we offer some reflection on the role of the leader and the importance of an efficient party organisation in populist parties today.