Traditional, ruling parties are built on a bell-curve model – building the critical mass of support on the centre-right and centre-left, with diminishing support on the extremities. Populist parties, in contrast, work on a U-shaped model – garnering critical mass of support on the far-right (usually nationalistic and foreign affairs) and the far-left (usually economic and social). In Europe, this translates into extreme right-wing positions on European and immigration issues, coupled with extreme left-wing positions on the economy and social issues.
The problem with running against populist parties is that their positions are – by definition – well, quite popular.
Several centre-right and centre-left parties have attempted breaking hard right/ hard left to compete with, and sometimes outflank, the populists. This can manifest itself either on immigration issues by the centre-right, or on economic issues by the centre-left, but rarely on both simultaneously. We are currently witnessing this play out in France, without much success. Those who have chosen to ignore the new emerging threat have done so to their own detriment.
And voters across the continent have proven over the past couple of years that they’re not afraid to elect populists – see Syriza in Greece, M5S in Italy and PODEMOS in Spain. So how can traditional centre-right or centre-left parties hope to beat populists? Two recent examples may help answer the question:
In July 2015, Poland’s ruling party, Civic Platform (PO) invited my team to carry out a wave of public opinion research in anticipation of October polls. Our role was to provide the party with a fresh, outsiders’ perspective of the race and challenge the campaign’s preconceived notions – a devil’s advocate if you will. At the time, PO was trailing by upwards of 10 per cent behind the populist Law and Order Party (PiS), with anti-establishment, former rock star Pavol Kukiz breathing down their neck in competition for second place.
The party was still reeling from a scandal involving leaked audio recordings of conversations amongst the party’s senior politicians dining in Warsaw’s most expensive restaurants. The recordings exposed an elitist party leadership, out of touch with its electorate and utterly contemptuous to its voters’ everyday struggles.
Despite the Prime Minister’s public apology and a handful of high-level resignations, we found that the underlying sentiment of disconnect from voters and elitism stuck to the party. The party was very much in need of an act of redemption. We wanted the party to embrace the scandal and use it as a catalyst to drive change and reform. We wanted the party to go back to basics, to reconnect with its voters.
We proposed a cheeky campaign to address the scandal titled ‘You Listened To Us. Now We Listen To You, For A Change.’ The campaign comprised a country-wide network of pop-up coffee shops, in which we would prompt citizens to discuss their everyday struggles and their honest views on the government. The electoral campaign would feature the Prime Minister and other senior candidates confronted by the harsh critique. At a later stage, the party would curate content from citizens’ input to revamp the party’s policies and electoral programme.
We also made a second recomm-endation. Since neither party had an absolute majority, Kukiz would be a necessary member of any coalition. The only question remaining was whether it will be a PiS-Kukiz or a PO-Kukiz coalition. We urged PO to publicly guarantee that Kukiz will be a part of their coalition government. Thus, to stop a PiS-Kukiz coalition, Kukiz voters must vote strategically and consolidate on one big party – PO – and they still get their man in.
Ultimately, however, unable or unwilling to adopt a humble approach, the party rejected our recommendations and ran a rather unapologetic – some might say quite arrogant – scare campaign, and lost by a landslide.
The 2015 elections in Israel offered another approach. One of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign was that right-wing voters adopted a ‘package deal’ mentality: since the right-wing bloc as a whole was sure to win, they allowed themselves the luxury of voting for a smaller right-wing of their choice and still get Netanyahu as PM.
In this case, I served as Campaign Manager for Netanyahu. At the outset, we devised a contingency plan aimed at reversing this package deal: to push right-wing voters to consolidate their vote on the largest centre-right party, while we in turn guaranteed to form a coalition with the smaller like-minded parties, rather than a national-unity coalition with the largest centre-left party. However, as we had learned from our research, this message was highly dependent on the race coming down to the wire.
96 hours before election day we found ourselves trailing by 5 per cent. At this point, the natural instinct of every candidate and campaign is to re-assure and positively motivate its voters. Instead, we decided to pull the trigger on the Reverse Packaging plan. In the last 96 hours, PM Netanyahu gave over 40 interviews, aggressively telling voters we were going to LOSE. This triggered a massive, last-minute rally by right-wing voters and an 11 per cent shift for the party, resulting in a surprise landslide victory.
The two case studies above don’t offer a magic bullet for defeating populists, but they can teach us an important lesson in how to go about it.
In day-to-day politics, traditional ruling parties are kings of compromise, yet they view election campaigns through a winner-takes-all prism. In an election campaign, traditional ruling parties sell themselves as a one-stop-shop for all the country’s problems. The party knows how to run the economy, health, education, law enforcement, foreign relations – it has an answer for everything, and this is reflected in its campaigns. There is strong resistance, pre-election, to give any credence to other parties, lest voters turn to them. Of course, in any parliamentary democracy this changes the day after elections, when it’s time to form coalitions and get down to the business of governing.
Populist parties, on the other hand, rarely purport to offer multiple answers to multiple problems. In the Netherlands, PVV’s only issues are Muslim Immigration and Euroscepticism. In Greece, Syriza’s only issue was the bailout. Even their own voters recognise they have limited scope. Had Civic Platform given Mr Kukiz the old bear hug, it would have conceded its own failures and gone a long way towards achieving the redemption that is so desperately needed. Mr Netanyahu knew better, and thus secured his fourth term in office.