ANU research identifies key factor behind the global rise in populism

18 January 2018

New research from The Australian National University (ANU) has found that a decay in trust in political parties and a breakdown of the networks that link them to voters is behind the global rise of populist politicians.

The research, by political scientist and Head of the ANU Department of Political and Social Change Dr Paul Kenny, has been published in a new book to be launched on Thursday titled Populism and Patronage.

Dr Kenny said his research has found populism is a genuine threat to democracy, and is set to continue its rise for the foreseeable future.

"This rise of populism globally is something to worry about," Dr Kenny said. "It is bad for democracy, bad for press freedom, bad for civil rights, bad for the rule of law."

Populist politics has seen a remarkable rise in the past decade, with proponents such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte coming to power in 2016, and US President Donald Trump in 2017.

Dr Kenny said the problem with populist leaders is that the lack of deep ties through parties to voters allows them to concentrate their power.

"Because populists tend to be unattached from political parties, there's nothing to discipline their behaviour once they get into office," he said.

"They're free to personalise power in their own office, and this frees them of checks and balances on their authority.

"This type of arbitrary power edges towards what we would call an authoritarian rule or dictatorship."

The research found the rise of populist politics is due to the decline of the networks that support democratic political parties in large parts of the world.

"The way political parties work in most of the world is through 'patronage networks'," he said.

"You have a party in power in a nation's capital, they distribute wealth to Governors or Mayors, who in turn distribute goods and services to cities and villages. You create a pyramid type of structure.

"My research found when that network breaks, national leaders no longer have the ability to distribute patronage down the chain.

"This is how political parties fragment which leaves the door open to populists to come to power."

Dr Kenny said he expects these trends to continue across the globe.

"The prospects aren't good for the traditional political party, they are now probably one of the least trusted institutions in most democracies," he said.

"This bodes poorly for democracy, and means the prospect of seeing more populists in the future is likely."

Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond has been published by the Oxford University Press.