The number of populist leaders around the world has fallen to a 20-year low after a series of victories for progressives and centrists over the past year, according to analysis from the Tony Blair Institute showing the number of people living under populist rule has fallen by 800 million in two years.
The research claims 2023 could be an equally decisive year for populism, with critical elections in Turkey and Poland. Those two elections could see two of the most influential populist governments in the world fall, although that may still require divided opposition parties in both countries to form clearer coalition programs than they have managed so far.
Of the populists who lost power, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Slovenia’s Janez Janša were defeated in relatively close elections in 2022, while Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was limited to one term in office and could not run for re-election. In Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was driven out of office by protests.
The report says 1.7 billion people were living under a populist leader at the start of 2023, compared with 2.5 billion in 2020. It says that populism on both left and right is defined by two claims – that a country’s “true people” are locked into a moral conflict with “outsiders” and, second, that nothing should constrain the will of the “true people”.
Much of the decline in populism has occurred in Latin America, notably with the defeat of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the report said, but also with the election of a generation of moderate leftists across Latin America that have “disavowed populist rhetoric and focused on progressive economic and social rights rather than the populist left’s historic focus on industrial nationalisation”.
The report also notes that in the US midterm elections, a majority of candidates endorsed by Donald Trump who espoused rightwing nationalism and conspiracy theories failed to be elected and underperformed against moderates.
“After having defeated several moderate Republicans in swing-state primary elections, the Trump candidates then lost most of these races in November, costing the Republicans control of the Senate and several governorships. Most notably, they lost every state-level election for offices involving election administration in swing states,” the report said.
“While Congress blocked Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, US voters blocked his followers’ efforts to administer future ones in 2022.” But the report warns that this defeat of Trumpist rejection of democracy may not signal the long-term defeat of cultural populism across the US.
The report broadly defines populism in three categories: cultural populism, which has a rightwing ethno-nationalist appeal; socioeconomic populism, which appeals to those on the left; and anti-establishment populism, which focuses on targeting elites.
It says cultural populism still has major sway in US politics, regardless of the defeat of Trump-endorsed candidates and doubts over the prospects of the former president in 2024, pointing to the views of Ron DeSantis, likely to be another key contender. “Even if Trump loses, cultural populism is likely to remain strong within the Republican party,” it says.
The report – Repel and Rebuild: Expanding the Playbook Against Populism – claims the remaining examples of populist governments around the world (seven out of 11) almost entirely comprise rightwing cultural populists, as opposed to economic or anti-establishment populists.
But cultural populist governments have struggled to form effective governments, especially when faced by economic challenges or complex issues such as Covid, the report claims, pointing out that four fell from power in 2022 – in Brazil, the Philippines, Slovenia and Sri Lanka.
The report, however, warns strongly against premature claims of populism’s defeat, pointing out that in 2022 populists were part of election-winning coalitions in Italy, Israel and Sweden. Marine Le Pen was defeated by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, but her party did well in the legislative elections.
In the UK, the Conservative party is likely to face a challenge from the populist rightwing party Reform UK, which has vowed to put up candidates against all parties rather than continue with Ukip’s 2019 pact not to stand against Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
While Richard Tice’s party is unlikely to win a seat in the next election, it is polling at about 8% of votes, and the bulk of these would come from disgruntled Conservative voters. It could have greater success if Nigel Farage, who led Ukip and the Brexit party to much wider prominence, becomes more involved.
The institute argues that anti-populist mainstream parties may have to recognize they need a different anti-populist playbook when they are in power from the one used by mainstream parties when the populists are in power.
It says mainstream parties should have a clear, substantive political agenda of their own and not focus on negative campaigning against populist challengers, since populist challengers will always argue that their core issues are under-addressed by mainstream politics. The report says mainstream parties must realize voters are increasingly tired of rhetorical excess that ignores the problems a country faces.
The report’s author, Brett Meyer, said it showed a trend towards progressive centrism in a number of countries. “Centrists continued to roll back the frontiers of populism in 2022, with the number of populists in power down to a 20-year low,” he said.
“This is in large part down to the success of progressive centrism over populism across the Americas as progressive center-left leaders replaced the old, populist left. Populism also suffered a significant blow in the US midterms.”
But the fate of populism may turn this year on elections in Poland and Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is in grave jeopardy. “By the end of 2022, Turkey had the deepest negative interest rates in the world when adjusted for inflation and the lira was the worst performer in emerging markets relative to the dollar,” the report said, warning that the Turkish president was willing to talk up conflicts with Greece or the Kurds to excite nationalist support.