What democracies can learn from Greece’s failed populist experiment

Stathis Kalyvas writes: The abysmal incompetence of populists leads to the mistaken belief that their rule will end quickly. Although SYRIZA’s deafening failure looked certain to spell its political death, Tsipras engineered a snap election in September 2015, which he won easily. It was just too early for the stunned electorate to admit its mistake and turn back to the discredited mainstream parties. Through its complacency towards populist parties, the opposition placed itself at a marked disadvantage. By assuming that the populists’ inability to deliver on their promises would doom them, it ultimately helped them remain in power.

The lesson here is that voters often resist a return to mainstream parties once they have abandoned them. They also don’t like to be reminded that they were wrong to jump on the populist bandwagon in the first place. Rather, it is up to the non-populist parties, the fetid mainstream, to convince the electorate that they themselves have changed and are ready to offer credible solutions. In Greece, SYRIZA managed to reclaim power in September 2015, even after its policies failed, partly because it faced a tired, unreformed opposition. Only when the underdog Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a younger reformist, won New Democracy’s leadership, did this old, tired party gain political traction.

Paradoxically, this suggests that there’s nothing like a populist experiment to re-legitimize the mainstream. With their promises in tatters and their incompetence on full display, populist parties are eventually exposed. At this point, they face the choice to either go mainstream or disappear. Populism may well be a necessary, perhaps effective treatment for the belief that there are easy solutions to hard problems—for belief that one can escape reality. [Continue reading…]

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