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IEA - UK ranked second least authoritarian populist country in Europe, finds new index

Hungary, Italy, and Greece demonstrate the danger of embracing populist policies Hungary, Italy, and Greece demonstrate the danger of embracing populist policies

  • A new authoritarian populism index ranks the UK at 30 out of 31 European countries, with support for authoritarian or populist parties reaching just 2.9% at the last general election.
  • The average support for left- and right-wing parties advocating authoritarian or populist ideologies across Europe stands at 26.9%, a historic high but no growth since 2019.
  • Surging immigration has fuelled support for right-wing authoritarianism and populism, while the radical left faces a steady decline.
  • Hungary, Italy, France, Greece, and Poland have the highest support for populist parties in Europe and provide warnings about embracing populist policies.

The UK has largely resisted the populist tide that has engulfed Europe over recent decades, according to a new index that compares support at elections for populist parties across the continent since 1945.

The Authoritarian Populism Index, published by TIMBRO and the European Policy Information Center (EPICENTER) of which the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs is a member, finds that the United Kingdom comes second last (30 of 31) in support for authoritarian or populist political parties. The support for authoritarian or populist parties reached just 2.9% at the last general election, significantly behind the European average (26.9%).

However, populism remains a significant risk for the United Kingdom as concerns increase regarding immigration, culture, and housing. The Index, which analyses support at elections between 1945 and 2023 across Europe, does not include the upsurge in support for Reform UK in recent polling. Reform UK is categorised as a populist party but not authoritarian or far-right.

The Index highlights how European populist governments have undermined democracy, human rights, and implemented damaging economic policies.

Hungary, governed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing populist Fidesz Party, comes at the top of the ranking. The Eastern European nation has come to epitomise illiberal democracy through Orban’s efforts to centralise power, dilute constitutional checks and balances and limit press freedom. Hungary’s populist economic policies have also backfired, with price controls failing to tackle post-Covid inflation while causing artificial shortages of essential goods.

A left-wing populist government ruled Greece between 2015 and 2019 for all but one month. During their time in government, the Syriza Party “showed a lack of respect for democracy and freedom of expression” by imposing state regulation of the media, according to the report. Poland’s recently defeated right-wing populist government, led by the Law and Justice Party, similarly sought to centralise power and limit freedom of expression.

Adam Bartha, Head of International Outreach at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

“The United Kingdom has demonstrated relatively low levels of support for fringe authoritarian and populist parties at elections, particularly compared to other European countries. The first-past-the-post electoral system makes it particularly difficult for third parties with these views. 

“Nevertheless, there remains a risk of an established party being hijacked by authoritarian populists or a third party rising up to take the mantle. The UK’s stagnating economy, lack of opportunities for young people, and rising debate about immigration and cultural issues could create a fertile ground for populist uprisings on the left and right.”

Andreas Johansson Heinö, Publishing Director of Timbro and author of the report, said:

“The new normal in Europe is to have an authoritarian populist party in the top three most popular parties in almost every country. The popularity of these parties often translates into political power, as the majority of European democracies have experienced populist parties in government.

“Populist parties are inherently anti-establishment movements and united by their resistance to the political elites in their respective countries, but are otherwise a very diverse group of parties, including regarding their democratic credibility. Therefore, while the data show Europe-wide trends, each party has to be judged on its own merits.

“Populism is more left-leaning today than it was twenty years ago, particularly concerning economic policy. This is evident both when it comes to a more protectionist view on trade policy and a staunch defence of a large and redistributive welfare state.

“There are also tendencies towards shifts in views on the EU within populist parties. While these parties remain much more Eurosceptic than others, fewer advocate for withdrawal from the union, and several parties have moved towards a more pragmatic approach.”

Notes to Editors

Read a copy of the Authoritarian Populism Index [PDF] or visit the website.

  • The Index was compiled by TIMBRO, the Swedish member think tank of the European Policy Information Center (EPICENTER), of which the free market think tank Institute of Economic Affairs is the British member.
  • First published in 2016, subsequent editions in 2017 and 2019 garnered extensive media coverage across Europe and are widely utilised by academic researchers. This fourth edition has been updated, revised, and expanded to cover 31 countries, spanning every election from 1945 to 2023.
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