Populist rule is highly negative for democracy, says Blair think tank

PUBLISHED: 14:00 27 December 2018 | UPDATED: 14:00 27 December 2018

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Rule by "populist" politicians like Donald Trump and Hungary's Viktor Orban has a "highly negative" effect on national political systems, Tony Blair's think tank has warned.

The report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that populist leaders stay in post for longer and are less likely to leave office after free and fair elections than other democratically elected politicians.

Populists are more likely either to be forced to resign or be impeached or to stay in office for 10 years or more, said the report by Jordan Kyle and Yascha Mounk.

While in office, they are more likely to introduce changes to extend their term or weaken checks on their power and more likely to curtail freedom of the press and harm democratic institutions.

The report drew on earlier analysis by the institute which found that, while populists come from various points on the traditional left-right political spectrum, they are united by the claim that they are the voice of the "true people" of a country whose interests are under attack by elites and outsiders.

Using this definition, they identified 46 populist leaders to have held office in democratic countries between 1990 and 2018, including Trump, Orban, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro and Italy's coalition of the Five Star Movement and the League.

No UK political leaders were identified as populists in the report.

Tracing recent political history, the new report found that:

- Only 34% of populist leaders leave office after free and fair elections or because they respect term limits. Some 23% are forced to resign or are impeached;

- On average, populist leaders stay in office twice as long as democratically elected leaders who are not populist. Of those taking office since 1990, 30% are still in power;

- Overall, 23% of populists cause significant democratic "backsliding", compared to 6% of non-populist, democratically elected leaders;

- Over 50% of populist leaders amend or rewrite the country's constitution;

- Around 40% are indicted on corruption charges;

- Populist rule is associated with a 7% decline in press freedom, an 8% fall in civil liberties and a 13% decrease in political rights.

The report found that only about half of non-populist governments survive three years in office, compared to 80% of populists.

And populists are almost five times more likely than their non-populist rivals to hold on to power for more than 10 years, with more than a one-in-four chance of continuing to run their country for more than a decade, compared to 6% for non-populists.

Mr Mounk said: "Populists now rule in the four biggest democracies in the world - India, Brazil, Indonesia and the United States.

"Some social scientists believe that this puts democratic institutions in serious risk. Others respond that populism can be a positive force by helping to hold elites accountable. In this paper, we develop an empirically grounded answer to this crucial question for the first time.

"What we find is very concerning. Populist governments are much more likely to damage democratic institutions, to precipitate constitutional crises, to suppress individual rights, and to ratchet up corruption.

"Until now, we didn't have the empirical basis to assess just how bad populism is for democracy. From now on, it simply is no longer credible to pretend that populist governments do not pose a serious threat to democratic institutions."

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