The Path to Populism: Personalizing Political Parties

The Path to Populism: Personalizing Political Parties
The Path to Populism: Personalizing Political Parties

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Taranu Andrei1

1 Political Science Faculty, National School on Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest (ROMANIA) Email: ataranu@gmail.com



After the Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President of USA the problem of the theory of political parties became once again on the agenda. The modern political system is rooted in the political fight of the ideological and organized parties. But the contemporary situation seems to be the end of this situation. The appearance of what we call Post-Democracy and Right Wing Populism drive the political parties into a totally new situation: the post-democratic parties (as PODEMOS, SYRIZA, etc.) are rooted direct into the society, became parties without apparatus and with fluid leaders. On contrast the populist movements are leader based parties, being totally influenced by the behavior and the declarations of the leader. But both of this parties are not very clearly ideological, being more catch all parties. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people. On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short’, as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation’. The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. Our article wants to discuss the issues at their heart. For this we want to tickle the classic political parties theory and to observe if this theory is still suitable for this new political era.


Political Parties Theory and Definitions and the Reality in Central Eastern Europe

Classical theories of political parties try to explain parties as some organizations whose functions are to organize and political prepare the society, having also the interest of governing on behalf of a social group, whose political representative they became. Through the idea of an organization, the political party should be a structural entity, in which its members are not personalized, acting only on behalf of the idea they support.

Therefore, the essential definition of political parties [1]:

a) The continuity of the organization. This is what would be called “sustainable organization”, an organization whose political life expectancy would exceed its in-office leaders. This criterion allows the differentiation of political parties in the true sense from the cliques of personal factions which do not usually survive their founders, but also from the “ad-hoc organisms”, whose existence ceases once these achieve their goals. This is the primordial requisite of transforming an organization into a political

b) the national character of the organization. It’s about a well structured and established “organization” which has varied relationships with the national It’s unconceivable for a party to do not have ramifications throughout the country, not being able to address the whole national community and to do not have a collective ambition. This does not mean that there are formations which do not have or have few local and regional ramifications and whose public perception is due to the regular and active presence of a parliamentary group or of some of their leaders in the public media. The criterion seems to radically exclude the parties that present “nationalist” or “regionalist” slogans, leaning on a limited territorial basis.

c) the desire to exercise The party is an organization whose national and local leaders want to take and exercise power, not only to influence it. This criterion is decisive and allows a distinction between the political party which has as a goal to participate in power (legislative parties), or to destroy it (revolutionary parties), and the pressure group, whose purpose is to influence the power detainers for the achievement of their own private interests.

d) the seek for popular support. The fourth element in a party’s activity is engaging in electoral competition, in order to measure the real and influence it has among the citizens, and to gain quantifiable popular support for it to be able to take a power position. This criterion allows us to distinguish the club parties, reflection societies, intellectual laboratories from the all the other forms of association. [1, pp. 49].

Paradoxically, populist parties, those who declare themselves the expression of the people deceived by classical parties, are the most personalized parties and, at a large scale, identify the leaders’ frustrations with the mass voters’ frustrations. What we propose is rather an exercise of political analysis of the reasons for which this happens. From the US to Hungary, and from Poland to Italy, we are witnessing an extremely interesting phenomenon: old parties tend to personalize, and the new parties give up on being so systemically organized, subjecting to a charismatic leader who considers to be sufficient in order to take alone the major political decisions of the party. The question which arises is: are we witnessing the birth of new types of parties, or do we prepare for the return of classical parties in a new form?

Luciano Cavalli refers to two types of democracy, the «democracy with leader» type (or with «personalized leadership») and the «headless democracy» or party-led type.

A leader is, by definition, a person, which is why, as a political player, their personality (or charisma) affects the whole process, setting itself «on the one hand, against subjective collectives like parties, and on the other against any collegiate configuration of authority» [2].

In the early 1990s, Central and Eastern Europe entered a new era of democratic development and transition to the market economy (the formula for globalist capitalism). But except Hungary, which had the most relaxed communist regime since 1956 and the easiest transition to democracy, all other former communist states confronted the issue of political leadership. Most political parties emerged immediately after the anti-communist revolutions had a personalized leadership – even individualized

– formed either from among those who had prominent figures of dissolution – Waclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Lech Walesa in Poland – either successors of the communist party – such as Ion Iliescu In Romania or Jeliu Jelev in Bulgaria.

The personalization of political parties in the CEE region was a normal thing, given the model inherited from the Communist Party, a party that from the very beginning identified itself with the leader, although a close structure of secondary bureaucrats who managed the party's destiny was formed around him. Thus, although the democratic and Western democracies were desirable, the first political parties in the CEE proved to be, through their organizational structure, much more dependent of the model of the Communist Party than they had imagined. This is because these societies were quite socially homogeneous in the 1990s and the ideological criteria were still quite unclear to most citizens. For the vast majority of the citizens of the former communist states, the separation from the past seemed to be a pressing necessity, but this was rather symbolically accomplished, but through counterweight rather than through the understanding of the party phenomenon [3].

The communist parties had a well-structured organizational structure (Fig. 1), with political bodied going down to the lowest level in the society, in order to spread the ideology and to implement the political decisions of the single party.

  Immagine rimossa.

Fig. 1 Communist Parties Structure [4, pp. 138]



Thus, although the symbolic role of the Leader was immense, his power was rather bureaucratic – especially towards the end of the period – his decisions being implemented (or not) by the state bureaucracy, more than the party’s bureaucracy [3]. In fact, the party bureaucracy tends to become state-like, often having more administrative and political functions.

The successor parties of the Communist one will take over these structures at organizational level, often keeping the lower echelons of administrative levels. But, even the new parties – self proclaimed anti-communists, or the ones which legitimate in anticommunism – will recall similar party organizational models, and often even to people belonging to the former communist parties structures [5, pp. 31]. This is why, as we will observe, the majority of the parties which originate in the 90’s, or which build their legitimacy on the communism-anticommunism cleavage, tend to transform over time into apparatus-type parties1, whose formal leader is strongly framed by the party’s peak activists, and often replaced for errors or once the power is lost: PSD in Romania, which after 2004 absorbs its charismatic leader (Ion Iliescu), and changes 3 of its party leaders; the Hungarian Socialist Party, which since 1989 will have nine leaders, including Gyula Horn or Ferenc Gyurcsani – with high potential as charismatic leaders; or the Bulgarian Socialist Party that has changed four leaders (of which one is now the President of Bulgaria, Gheorghi Parvanov).


Western Political Parties after the 1990

At the same time, Western European parties reached maturity and somewhat surpassed the left- right cleavage. And this was because during the Cold War this cleavage was the dominant cleavage for the European political model. For this reason, the party systems, apparently multiparty system in the vast majority of Western States, tends to transform into a bi-party system. The most relevant example is the French one, where due to changes in the political paradigm, the ideological two-party system becomes a rule. The successful election of Francois Mitterand in 1981, due to the left-wing parties’ coalition around the French Socialist Party and the first accession to power of the lefties after 1938, will determine the left wing parties to rally around the Socialist Party, until the Jospin period (1997-2002), although they formally remained separated. On the right sphere, this happened earlier, during the Mitterand-Chirac cohabitation period. Thus, until 2007, the ideological blocks become independent political forces, which act in coalitions as genuine political parties. Of course, the French model seems to be a two-and-a-half-party system, as the National Front – for a long time a marginal party – is not invited to join any political coalition.

On the contrary, the two and a half party systems (especially Germany) are forced (due to reunification of this country) to quickly adopt a multiparty system, which, due to the same cleavage, turns into an apparent two-party system. The alliance between the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party (left) on one hand, and the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic party (right wing), leads, as in France, to the appearance of some real political blocs on the left-right cleavage.

Looking at the difference between two party and multi-party systems, Downs [7, pp. 115] presents an interesting theory. Downs claims that while parties in a multi-party system will try to difference from each other’s ideology, the parties in a two-party system will try to adjust and move closer to each other’s ideology. For a party in a two-party system, it will be rational to seek more votes by making the political platform vague and ambiguous [7, p.115].

Moreover, western parties turn much earlier into apparatus-parties, as headless democracy (Cavalli) or collegial leadership parties. Thus, the membership of their members is lesser for political reasons, and more for administrative ones. The political leaders are dependent on the party’s structures in order to gain votes, and their members are attracted in central and local administration for their capacity to attract votes and to make possible the accession to power.

As Muller and Strom show in their famous paper “Policy, Office or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe Make Hard Decision?” [8], the parties in Western Europe were forced to build a prodigious political infrastructure in order to attract votes (Fig. 2), as – as we have seen above – these have almost completely lost their innovative capacity of differencing from one another (Fig. 3).

The authors consider that classical parties are based on a simple political recipe – also suggested by Max Weber [9, pp. 23] – to provide administrative posts to political activists if they cast votes from citizens, and when they are in power – alone or in Coalition – to produce public policies that activists in political positions implement. But because the political parties are lacking a political program, because of no ideological difference, parties have become incapable of being policy seekers; the triangle of forces has narrowed to a straight line: parties have become voting seekers to provide offices for their activists (office-seekers). And with this, they have become relatively similar to the CEE parties which, as we have seen, relied on office-seeking organizations almost from the very beginning.

Hence it appears, perhaps, the prospect of bringing “competent people” into politics, although the professional competence is irrelevant politically. But office seekers or activists who do not have a significant political relevance in the organization (which is a voting seeker) are trying to build a parallel legitimacy, that of the professional or the technocrat.

Immagine rimossa.

Fig. 2 The institutional framework of interparty competition in parliamentary democracies. Note: t and t1 denote successive electoral terms [8, p. 20]

Immagine rimossa.

Fig. 3 Range of feasible party behaviours [8, p. 13]

We believe that once the political system based on the vote-seeking vs. office seeking, without a clear ideological project, clearly led to the emergence of parties we declare as populist and anti- system. Some – such as the National Front in France already existed, but they had a nationalistic extremist orientation that did not bring significant electoral input. The emergence of the Marine Le Pen, the founders’ daughter, who was later dismissed from the party, also meant a complete change in the public discourse, based on the critique of the ossified political system, with less references to race and nationality (but not to religion).

Other populist parties emerged just as a reaction to the increasingly noticeable rupture between mainstream political parties and the society. As we know from David Easton [10, pp. S32], the political system is a system and, like any other system, tends to maintain balance (Fig. 4). Or if the balance has deteriorated as the output had decreased, i.e., public policy adoption, the support level has fallen, while political and social expectations remained the same.

Immagine rimossa.

 Fig. 4 Political System [10, pp. S32]


The Rise of Populist Parties were favoured by the lack of political innovation of Main Stream Parties

Populist parties have emerged as a reaction to this change in the attitude of mainstream parties, who felt they would not have another political competitor outside the system. In fact, as Cas Mudde shows, the original populist movements even declared that they are “besides the people (considered innocent) against the corrupt elites” who “highjack the political life of society”, “taking prisoner the democracy through party bureaucracy” [11, p.28].

Being anti-system parties and at the same time regarded as eccentric to political life, populist parties have positioned themselves on an axis voting seeking – policy seeking parties, not having the opportunity to offer political posts to a political clientele. Thus, taking over and provoking an anti- corruption speech (both economic and political at the same time), this type of party self-propelled as an expression of a pure popular will, which was long ago deceived by mainstream political parties.

The original populist discourse was initially marginal - but with the economic crisis, it seems to have become a dominant discourse that mixes different ideologies, responding to as many political needs, assuming a healing role, that of repairing the wounds of social groups that seem to have been forgotten and left behind by mainstream parties. Therefore, apparently, populism seems to be different from state to state and from society to society. And yet, there is a sum of common elements

– both technical and ideological – that make populism a growing pan-European movement.

First, populist parties fall into the category of political movements rather than party movements2 [14]. And that’s why most populist parties are Leader’s parties. Populist leaders are (or wish to be) charismatic and expressions of the popular will. That is why their aim is to be permanently in the elections, searching for all the electoral campaigns, when they are in power generating referendums, relying on the will of the people (the case of Erdogan, Bǎsescu, etc.), and when in opposition seeking elections, including anticipated elections. Thus, we can say that populist leaders are crisis leaders, seeking the crisis and provoking it whenever they have the opportunity.

Due to the re-emergence of Leaders’ parties in Western Europe but also in the CEE, the issue of personalizing parties’ politics has become a widespread problem for political analysis. We have, we have to say, two types of personalization – the singular leaders, who form support parties, but whose personality often replaces both the doctrine and the organization. Leaders such as Geert Wilders or Bepe Grillo have gathered around their personality, parties that become challenger parties for mainstream streams. But often, the ideas and perspectives of these leaders are contradictory between them, denoting catch-all moves. Supporting parties for these personalities are inherently factionalist parties, and although they often obtain impressive scores in the elections, they fail to maintain the same trend from one election cycle to the other.

The second personalization is that of figures built in tandem with the party – leaders who become first party leaders and then leaders of the masses: Marine le Pen, Victor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Robert Fico, etc. This kind of leadership has a much longer political life, preserving the trend and the pace from one electoral cycle to another. As Ian MacAllister [15] shows, this phenomenon is dependent on both party organizations and the media as a whole, but also on social networks. Populist parties build a symbolic image in the leader and deliver it to the media market to journalists who are more capable of presenting personal and tabloid media than values and programmatic principles.

Thus, leaders like Trudeau in Canada and Tony Blair in Britain, at the beginning of the mandate sold their image as young and open people just like actors in sitcoms or advertisers. Behind them, the party returns to the classic voting-office-policy triangle transforming the image of the leader into legitimacy.

This is not the case for the political leaders of eccentric parties, whose image is confused with the party, but the party cannot offer jobs in exchange for the vote, such as the classical parties do, and the promised public policies often seem unrealistic or contradictory to reality. Under these circumstances, leaders such as Marine le Pen (National Front) or Frauke Petry (Alternative fur Deutschland) are forced to use shocking attitudes or statements to attract and preserve their voters. The parties behind them – according to MacAllister [15] – turn into resonance boxes of their leader’s statements, sometimes thickening the details to the extreme. According to Gabriela Tanasescu, this is also due to a globalization of the American type of campaign, which leads to the president-like elections [16].

The media and campaign organizers often tend to apply the same political recipes to different types of elections and to different political regimes. Parties in the CEE which are parliamentary regimes, such as Hungary or Slovakia, get to a point where they market their party leaders (who become prime ministers with indirect legitimacy, if they get the majority in Parliament), such as the presidents of the United States elected by popular vote. “Political priming is consistently important in presidential systems, since the exclusive focus on president provides electronic media with the greatest opportunity to evaluate presidential performance across a wide range of issues, domestic and international. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the research on priming in the presidential systems comes from the United States. Priming also takes place in parliamentary systems, focusing on the prime minister, but evaluating Prime ministerial performance becomes more difficult if there is one or more opposition leaders whose performance must also be taken into account by the public. The extreme case is a multiparty system where there are several political leaders, and in these instances the media must provide a distinct message about the performance of each” [17].

Thus, appears what Zuccarini [18] calls: the media oriented leadership. The leaders, being forced to communicate very much with the media, and through media with the voters, build their entire political mission in relation to what the media demands and less with what the party demands. The pressure the media places on politicians and vice versa, often transforms media channels into party structures, becoming a part of the voting-seeking function of political parties (Fig. 5).

Immagine rimossa.Fig. 5 “If we try to map these two aspects on a Cartesian diagram we can clearly see where the different leaders lie between our two observation points (see matrix below). Along the vertical axis, we can see the dichotomy that emerges when a strong party structure gives way to a personal party based on the leader’s charisma.” [18, pp. 8]



In conclusion, we are witnessing a great change of political parties which are under a double pressure – both from the society and the media – and the expression of this pressure are the populist parties or movements. These transformed only in vote-seeking parties, offering an extremely high output towards the society, in searching for support, but in fact, accepting little input and few of the demands from the society. This shows us that the political parties are preparing (or already do) to consider themselves as the expression of the entire society, and not for just a part of it.


1. For the concept of “apparatus party” see Carles Boix [6, pp. 515].

2. The talk about parties vs. populist movements is vast. Interestingly, populist parties in power act like political parties, but when in opposition, position themselves as political movements. See the case of PiS in Poland [11] or FIDESZ and Jobbik in Hungary [12].



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18. Zuccarini, M. (2011). The Leader’s party, The Personalization of Italian Political parties. 6th ECPR General Conference, University of Iceland, Reykjavik 25-27 August 2011, pp. 1-19. Retrieved from https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/8011e196-9c2a-4815-8c7f-369bdf52f193.pdf, accessed on April, 2017.