Authoritarian Populism Index.

The Authoritarian Populism Index is developed by Timbro.

Timbro is the leading free market think tank in the Nordic countries. Our mission is to promote and disseminate ideas supporting the principles of free markets, free enterprise, individual liberty and a free society. Timbro was founded in 1978 by Sture Eskilsson and the Swedish Employers’ Association, a precursor to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.  Since 2003, Timbro is financed by the Swedish Free Enterprise Foundation.


International outreach and translation supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Atlas Network.

understanding populism

Understanding populism

It may seem challenging to discuss populist parties in a meaningful way, as the term is often applied inconsistently and with various connotations, often wielded as an invective. However, there is consensus among scholars that parties classified as populists share certain features. Scholars differ when it comes to labels, definitions, and theoretical frameworks but are in agreement on the existence of populist parties.


This is not solely a theoretical point. If you read through the various country profiles in this report you will likely encounter a sense of saturation, as similar examples, arguments, and characteristics recur in the descriptions of many parties. 


The first common characteristic is that such parties thrive primarily on a conflict narrative that pits the people against the elite. This sets them apart from parties that have leveraged from other divides such as urban–rural, labour–capital, church–state, or centre–periphery. Margaret Canovan famously notes that populist movements, whether on the left or the right, assume the existence of a singular ‘people’ who have been marginalised by those in power – corrupt politicians and an unrepresentative elite. Populist parties, therefore, present themselves as the authentic voice of the people, positioning themselves as defenders of the people against an elite establishment.


This worldview is reflected in an often harsh and uncompromising anti-elite rhetoric that portrays the elite as being corrupt and controlled by hidden interests – globalism, capitalism, and, in the case of right-wing populists, multiculturalism, and so on. It is also firmly rooted in a nationalist idea of who constitutes the people and, consequently, who constitutes the out-group that threatens the in-group. For right-wing populists, this conflict is existential. Therefore, when Sweden Democrats (SD) leader, Jimmie Åkesson, refers to his supporters as ‘Friends of Sweden’, or when the Vox party leader, Santiago Abascal, refers to his opponents as ‘anti-Spain’, the premise behind both is the same – namely, some belong to the nation and some are enemies of the nation, with the latter including cultural Marxists, globalists, liberals, foreigners, and minorities.


Populism is thus both a matter of ideology and communication. References to the true will of the people, common sense, and xenophobic stereotypes are effective communication tools and also reflect the ideological world of populism. This idea-driven content is what distinguishes populist parties from non-populist ones. While non-populist parties may adopt populist communication tactics at times, they do not embrace the fundamental idea that ‘the elite’ is inherently at odds with ‘the people’. Therefore, understanding populism requires looking beyond its surface manifestations and examining its underlying ideological foundations.


Populism, in these senses, can be combined with various positions and stances on other issues. In this report, the most relevant populist parties in contemporary European politics are classified along four dimensions: economic issues, social and cultural issues, European Union–related (EU) matters, and democratic credibility.


In most democracies, views on economic issues are crucial for positioning parties on the left–right spectrum. Parties advocating for a larger state, higher taxes, greater redistribution of wealth, and increased state ownership are placed on the left. Parties aiming to reduce the size of the state, lower taxes, privatise public property, and implement market solutions are placed on the right. However, with regard to populist parties, this precept describes them only partially. Herein, views on immigration and national identity are crucial, meaning that populist parties opposed to immigration are usually classified as right-wing populists regardless of their stance on economic issues.


The variation among populist parties in terms of economic views is significant. While some still acknowledge the traditional left–right spectrum, others see it as a distraction from the true conflict: one between the elite and the people.


Of the 60 major parties outlined in the report, 18 are classified as right-wing and 25 as left-wing. In practice, this means that all parties commonly referred to as left-wing populist also have a clear left-wing economic policy, while those labelled as right-wing populist are divided between a clear right-wing policy and a centrist one.


In February 2024, The Economist featured a modified Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat on its cover page, symbolising not only America, but also Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and several other countries aspiring to become ‘great again’ under the umbrella of a ‘global anti-globalist alliance’ (or GAGA). The leading article highlights how contrary the principles of the national-conservative parties are to modern market-friendly conservatism. They distrust markets and big corporations and dislike free trade and international cooperation but have a strong belief in the power of the state as a tool to achieve their own visions. They often show scant respect for public institutions and the rule of law and are willing to manipulate them to serve their own purposes.


It is crucial to emphasise such distinctions, especially as the intellectual leaders of the national conservative movement make claims to the legacy of Thatcher and Reagan. However, it is not just the ideals that differ. Today’s national-conservative parties are also expensive for their home countries. A research study published at the end of 2023 examined the economic effects of populist parties in power. The consequences were significant: 15 years of populist rule lower a nation’s per capita GDP by 10 per cent compared to non-populist rule.


The economic outcomes of embracing right-wing populism are often overlooked. While much attention has been paid to these movements based on their origins and immigration policies, their economic policy programmes have rarely been scrutinised or taken seriously. To an extent, this approach is understandable. Populist parties rarely prioritise economic issues. Historically, there have been some exceptions – such as Mogens Glistrup’s Progress Party in 1970s Denmark, and the Swedish New Democracy in the early 1990s, both of which started as protest parties against high taxes and bureaucracy – but in contemporary times, immigration and EU opposition have always taken precedence.


This does not mean that economic policies are unimportant. There is no clear pattern, but, overall, there is a noticeable leftward tilt, even more so in recent years. Right-wing populists and their voters want tax cuts, but not at the expense of deteriorating welfare. They want to reduce public spending, but only for immigrants, minorities, or supranational organisations. They have a fundamentally protectionist view of trade and international economics. Moreover, over time, several of these parties have moved from the right to the left. The SD partly goes against the trend; in economic matters, it is further to the right today than it was ten years ago, although it is clear that it still stands considerably to the left of the ruling centre-right parties.


While the materially based left–right conflict has been a feature of all European democracies, conflicts around cultural values have gained varying levels of traction across the continent. Over time, however, this dimension has gained importance, and it is precisely these issues that are at the centre of the ongoing so-called culture wars. Populist parties are central actors in this context: they have prioritised these issues, benefitted from them, and successfully managed to shift the entire political landscape.


Of the 60 major parties outlined in the report, only eleven are classified as progressive on social issues. 17 of the parties are classified as moderate and 32 as conservative. In practice, this means that almost all parties commonly referred to as right-wing populist also have a clear conservative policy on social issues, while those labelled as left-wing populist are divided between progressives, moderates and even conservatives.


It goes without saying that the nationalist parties tend to prioritise nationalism above all. Even though opposition to immigration may be what attracts many voters, the main goal of these parties is to maintain ethnic and cultural homogeneity. That is why, for the past thirty years, Hungarian nationalists have encouraged the immigration of ethnic Hungarians. Similarly, Vox encourages immigration to Spain from Latin America. Whether these parties believe in the possibility of the assimilation they claim to demand can be called into question. This is not to say that other arguments against immigration lack significance: economic arguments and concerns about crime and social tensions are compelling. Nevertheless, a more existential threat persists regardless of how successful immigrants are in integrating into the labour market.


Based on the same ideological motivations, nationalist parties are also opposed to ethnic minority rights. Resistance to identity politics – and, more recently, to the so-called ‘woke’ movement – has been strongly mobilising. Left-wing populist parties are more divided on these issues. For some, anti-racism, wokeism, and minority rights have been critical ideological projects with considerable mobilising potential. Other parties, or factions within parties, have made a different assessment and sought to reduce conflict with nationalist parties on cultural issues. This has led to intense internal struggles within left-wing radical parties in countries such as Sweden and Germany.


The family is a cornerstone of conservative ideology, and it is hardly surprising that national conservative parties have embraced the traditional view of the family. Many of these parties have their origins in what can best be described as reactionary political projects. The French populist tradition – from which both Poujadism and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front originate – is a good example of this. It is a conservatism deeply rooted in an era when women had not entered the workforce, homosexuals were in the closet, and European empires ruled the world – that is, a world and society based on natural and conservative hierarchies.


Although the strength of these attitudes has waned today, the ideological legacy persists in parts, albeit with differences along regional and national lines. For example, populists in northern Europe are comparatively liberal in their views on gender equality, abortion, and same-sex relationships. In contrast, populists in southern and eastern Europe maintain a more conservative outlook.


Populist parties also have varying attitudes towards religion. Left-wing populist parties almost always share the secularist ideals that have been dominant within leftist radical movements, with their outlook often bordering on hostility towards religion. Many nationalist parties, especially in southern and eastern Europe, tend to ally with the churches of the majority population while sharply criticising other religions, particularly Islam. Scandinavian and northern European populist parties are more divided, and often within the parties themselves, some factions want to emphasise their Christian heritage, whereas others are more generally critical of religion.


For Europe’s nationalists, the EU used to be the root of most problems. Any election manifesto or policy document from any European nationalist party from any year invariably contains ideologically driven criticism of the EU. For nationalists, the nation-state is the only legitimate arena for exercising power – supranationalism is inherently incompatible with the sovereignty of nations. Therefore, ‘Europeanisation’ was considered as detestable as globalisation, and opposition to the EU has also been a winning formula. Alongside the migration issue, no other issue has had as much mobilising significance for nationalist, far-right, and right-wing populist parties alike as the EU.


But there are signs that things are beginning to change. While opposition to the EU has always been the centrepiece, there has been an underlying shift in Eurosceptic parties’ view of Europe, making the 2024 European Parliament elections more interesting than they have been in a long time. Few parties advocate for an immediate withdrawal from the EU. For example, the SD no longer pushes for withdrawal. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni has surprised many with a consistently EU-positive stance during her time as prime minister. Marine Le Pen – who once during her collaboration with Wilders was eager to be called ‘Madame Frexit’ – abandoned the promise of a referendum on withdrawal from the Union upon losing the presidential election in 2017. When she met voters five years later, she promised that France would remain an EU member even if she became president.


Of the 60 major parties outlined in the report, only 22 are classified as hard eurosceptics. 29 parties are classified as soft eurosceptics, while nine are categorised as pro-European. 


Perhaps we are seeing the contours of a new divide in European politics. These parties increasingly assume the role of defenders of a common European culture, identity, and way of life. This shift is not solely tactical, forced by Brexit and Putin. It is also ideological. Previously, hostility towards the EU was motivated by the perception that Brussels threatened national distinctiveness. Now, these parties are propagating the idea that the EU is governed by a cosmopolitan elite that is selling out European culture. This Euroscepticism, in contrast to the earlier anti-EU stance, is motivated by a new-found love for Europe. In this narrative, Europe is defined in opposition to Turkey, Islam, the Middle East, North Africa, and –since February 2022, perhaps again – Russia. The European way of life is perceived to be threatened by these external forces. In such an existential struggle, the transition to a more pragmatic view of the EU is a means to foster the narrative about a clash of civilisations in Europe.


The relationship between populism and democracy is complex and subject to various interpretations. While some view populism as a negative force and even a threat to democracy, others argue that it is an integral part of democracy, and represents a vital tension between the elite and the electorate.


However, while populist parties by definition are anti-establishment, they are not necessarily anti-democratic. Political scientist Takis S. Pappas proposed the concept of “democratic illiberalism” to define contemporary populism. This perspective acknowledges the majority’s right to make decisions but rejects liberal constraints on political power. As political scientist Cas Mudde noted in his now classic study,  populism can thus serve as an alternative to non-democratic forms of liberalism. In its best form, populism can act as a corrective for a political elite that fails to adhere to democratic principles.


Many see populism as inherently incompatible with liberal democracy. By definition, populism subscribes to the notion of a general will and a homogeneous nation. This stands in contradiction to the pluralistic nature of liberal democracies. Therefore, for example, political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues that populism always poses a threat to democracy and that the two are incompatible. One must choose whether one is a democrat or a populist. In a review article in The Oxford Handbook of Populism (2017), Stefan Rummens argues that although populism certainly can be seen as a symptom of flawed democracy, it does not follow that populism itself is the remedy. Rummens points out that those who embrace the democratic potential of populism usually assume that liberal democracy itself is a paradox because, for these people, liberal democracy inherently contains a tension between the supposedly opposing forces of popular will (democracy) and rights (liberalism). But this interpretation is far from clear, Rummens reminds us. Instead, liberal democracy must be regarded as a unified system. Rummens summarises: ‘Populism, in the sense of “pure popular will,” is not a constitutive part of liberal democracy but is an ideology fundamentally opposed to its values and procedures.’


Others have argued that populism still serves a function. Democracies always give rise to elites, and this inevitable elitism needs to be balanced. Therefore, reminders that established parties have voters to represent and thus need to anchor their choices can be helpful. In this sense, populism can be said to serve as a corrective, a necessary restorer when the democratic elite loses its footing. A recent study demonstrates that voters’ satisfaction with how democracy functions has increased after right-wing populist parties have been included in governments in several European countries. Of course, it is primarily the party’s sympathisers who become more positive, while a corresponding dissatisfaction from opponents is not as prominent. There is also some evidence to suggest that populist parties have contributed to increased voter turnouts by mobilising voters who otherwise would have abstained from voting.


In its annual report on the state of democracy, the Economist argues that “the representation of right-wing parties such as the Sweden Democrats or the Finns party in government is not in itself detrimental to democracy; indeed the exclusion of such parties that have the support of large sections of the electorate could be construed as anti-democratic”.


It is still too early to predict the long-term effects of populist successes in Europe, as there have been only a few prolonged government collaborations involving populist parties. Many of these collaborations have been short-lived because of the difficulties populist parties face in compromising with established parties. Additionally, in cases where populist parties have been part of coalition governments, they have typically held only a few ministerial positions, making assessing their overall impact on policy challenging.


The narrative of a threat to liberal democracy is justified based on the parties’ ideological roots. Still, at least in western Europe, there are no signs yet that authoritarian populism has weakened any of the democracies. In eastern Europe, however, the conditions are different since nationalism is mainstream in public debate and populism is impossible to understand beyond a context of deep corruption.


A 2016 study by political scientists Tjitske Akkerman, Sarah L. de Lange, and Matthijs Rooduijn argues that right-wing populist parties tend not to compromise on their core issues, such as immigration and multiculturalism. This conclusion aligns with the fact that many of these parties associate strongly with only one or two key policy areas. However, the overall impact of populist parties in government is complex: while they generally adhere to democratic norms and fulfil their coalition agreements, they often maintain their populist rhetoric and do not significantly broaden their policy repertoire.


The difference between authoritarian and non-authoritarian ideologies is crucial. However, even non-authoritarian populists have a democratic perspective that deviates from the mainstream in most countries. Authoritarian populism lacks interest in, and sometimes patience for, constitutional rule of law. Anton Pelinka defines populism as “… a general protest against the checks and balances introduced to prevent ‘the people’s direct rule'”, and political scientist Tjitsjke Akkerman concludes that populist parties are “activists with respect to the law.” The late chairman of the previously successful Polish populist party Samoobrona, Andrzej Lepper, succinctly formulated this view on democracy: “If the law works against people and generally accepted notions of legality, then it isn’t law. The only thing to do is to break it for the sake of the majority”.


Hence, populists prefer fewer obstacles in the democratic process to allow temporary majorities to legislate and enforce new laws. Mechanisms to slow down the procedure are seen as hindrances for the majority. Collectively, the people take priority over individuals or minority groups. According to Cas Mudde, right-wing populists, as soon as they reach power, practice the ideal of “…an extreme form of majoritarian democracy, in which minority rights can exist only as long as they have majority support”. This also means that courts shouldn’t be allowed to veto legislation, which explains the frequent conflicts between authoritarian populists in power and constitutional courts. 


Of the 60 major parties outlined in the report, 18 are classified as having a high democratic credibility, 22 are classified as medium and 20 as having a low democratic credibility. 


However, there are two countries where the effects of populist successes are well documented. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s national-conservative party, Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance, has been the dominant governing party since 2010, while in Poland, the national-conservative party PiS was the leading governing party in 2005–2007 and then again in 2015–2023. Both countries have witnessed setbacks to democracy: electoral laws have been changed to disadvantage the opposition, media independence has been curtailed, the mission and composition of constitutional courts have been altered to favour the government, academic freedom has been threatened, foreign organisations have been undermined, and the rights of women and minorities have been curtailed. At times, they have both been threatened with sanctions from Brussels and have rapidly declined in independent democracy assessments.


However, it is unclear how representative the developments in Hungary and Poland are of the rest of Europe, particularly western Europe. Neither Poland nor Hungary was a stable democracy that happened to fall into the hands of unscrupulous demagogues. The totality of Poland’s democratic experiences before 1989 was limited to a few years in the 1920s, while Hungary remained an authoritarian state throughout the interwar period. Even in the first years after the fall of communism, the dividing line between an authoritarian and a libertarian right was evident, as was the tension between nationalism and liberalism. Moreover, in both countries, electoral successes have been facilitated by a corrupt left still associated with communist dictatorships.


Throughout European history, parliamentary bodies have included parties that oppose the democratic system in which they operate. “However, there is a crucial qualitative distinction between the authoritarian right and libertarian right: the former explicitly reject democracy and its governing structures, whereas the latter seek to undermine democratic rules from within the system. Therefore, it remains a vital task to try to identify the dividing line between authoritarianism and populism, although this could be challenging.