EU analysts say traditional parties should learn from populists

Italy's Five Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo, wants blockchain to be used in streamlining public services. [Shutterstock]

In the wake of Brexit and the growing dissatisfaction of European voters, populists are gaining ground across the continent. But experts don’t seem concerned, as they see the shake-up as a healthy sign of democracy.

“Traditional parties should learn from populists,” said Paolo Graziano, a professor of Political Science at the University of Padua, speaking at this year’s State of the Union conference, organised by the European University Institute in Florence.

“Citizens are asking for more coherence, more involvement and more caring about their everyday life,” he added, noting that social media is creating a new eagerness to get involved.

Even though party membership is dwindling in most countries, Europeans are interested in new forms of affiliation through social media and alternative political networks.

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Low-cost ideology

Calling it a low-cost ideology, Graziano explains that populists have filled the space left vacant by mainstream parties.

Voters have a growing sense that political parties and law-making are out of touch, but not that politics is irrelevant, echoes Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

Feeling left behind and not listened to by politicians, Europeans have had no difficulty in identifying with the simplistic messages coined by populists, analysts concur.

Although populism varies widely between the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, and the Front National in France, the pattern is the same.

“You have exclusionary populism on one hand and inclusionary populism on the other hand with Syriza and Podemos,” he stressed. “Grillo was able to succeed because he was providing an answer that other political parties were not capable of providing. Podemos did the same in Spain.”

Grillo, enraged by a series of corruption scandals, founded the Five Star Movement, which became a furious anti-establishment groundswell in just a few months. The former comedian refused to rely on the mainstream media, instead, using online meetups to gather an army of volunteers and his blog to communicate with followers.

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Convinced that populism will remain stable at around 30% in the short term, Graziano sees populism as a positive trend, as it offers an opportunity to change the way politicians engage with citizens.

“If we want to cope with populism, we need to unpack empirically not only the roots but also what is the evolving nature of these new forms of political party system(s),” he added.

Political communication has to evolve given the change in the way the Internet interacts with other parts of peoples’ lives.

Analysts point out the fact that online life is instant, transparent, easy and connected, while politics is often slow, laborious and secretive. Every day there are millions of conversations about political issues in digital spaces—Facebook, Twitter, blogs and videos. “But it is not easy to connect these new debates to formal political engagement,” said Grabbe.

Digital democracy

A research project by Grabbe and Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, has outlined a number of initiatives which could effectively improve the gap between mainstream politicians and voters.

Some MEPs are already warming up to the idea of crowdsourcing amendments on proposed legislation, said MEP Mercedes Bresso, in Florence.

“Parliament might add ways of linking the debates on certain amendments, not just as a flow from MEPs to citizens but also horizontally across and between citizens, just as they can as consumers on Amazon or Facebook,” added Grabbe.

The analysts concur that crowdsourcing amendments might not be realistic if citizens think that all their comments are going to be used, but it could be a way to collect data on the most relevant issues at stake.

Data dashboard and blockchain 

Grabbe and Bartlett propose creating a data dashboard that is freely available to all MEPs to better allow them to make sense of citizen priorities and cut through the volume of communications they receive.

They also urge MEPs to use blockchain technology to create decentralised digital public records, for example, such as EU spending records that would be easily accessible through a public database.

The beginnings of a new way of doing politics are out there. They just need to be mainstreamed. Graziano points at the French presidential elections. Emmanuel Macron has challenged the functioning of traditional parties by creating its own movement En Marche!, he said.

“It is the first time in the history of French politics where you have a candidate that comes before the party,” Graziano said noting it will create a new model of doing politics in a less traditional way, beyond left and right, as ‘personalism’ is on the rise.

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