Ever since Brexit and Trump’s victory, the media has become flooded with stories about populism, even regarding opinions on whether support for populism is increasing or stalled in European elections.
Shortly afterwards, the media started focusing on apparent problems with electoral integrity. You probably remember when Trump claimed, repeatedly, that millions of votes were fraudulently cast for Clinton, which even led him to establish a commission on Electoral Integrity.
It has been suggested in studies that populists tend to increase the risk of electoral malpractice using three simple mechanisms: inflicting damage on the public’s trust of democratic processes, hindering international standards for electoral integrity, and finally conspiring with Russian interference in Western affairs.
Inflicting Damage on the Public’s Trust of Democratic Processes
For starters, populism is most likely to weaken the people’s trust and faith in the integrity of the electoral process. It has been noted that populists are well known for attacking “the establishment”.
These attacks fuel mistrust in the core institutions that make up liberal democracy. From parliaments, mainstream parties, the judiciary system and the media, to elections. Through the campaign and post-election, you might recall President Trump continuously claiming that the elections were rigged and that a majority of the voters did so illegally, so there was a massive case of fraud. He then called for a major investigation, as he referred to it.
Trump supporters that have a strong dislike for immigrants or are anti-government are highly likely to believe in electoral fraud. Populist leaders tend to obtain support from this mistrust of the elites, the media, legislative procedures and the court system. This makes people completely lose trust in the political institutions and ignites protest politics.
That doesn’t mean that support for the values of liberal democracy have already been weakened by populism since there is no evidence to back up this claim. However, it is likely to be damaged in the long-term, especially since faith in politicians, their parties and government are already low in many countries.
There are many ways that the public’s trust in the government agencies can be undermined by populism. During campaigns, populist candidates tend to create expectations so high that they are almost impossible to meet, which adds on to their followers’ disillusionment.
They also tend to promise drastic policies that end up dividing the voting population and contributing to social intolerance. You will see populist leaders making vague and grand promises that are catchy and easy to repeat, like “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Control”. These speeches are designed to magnify potential “outsider” threats and criticize those at the top, but they lack any form or detail.
If a populist leader ends up getting elected, they usually don’t have the political skills nor experience that is needed to implement their empty promises and guarantee the effective functioning of the government.
Their extreme positions also take a toll on their capacity to work with others across parties or require more compromise in order to follow through. In the long run, they end up disappointing their supporters, which hampers the public’s faith in government even more.
Hindering International Standards for Electoral Integrity
Populism also tends to use practices that violate the international standards set for electoral integrity and domestic laws. Worst case scenarios, they enforce their power through the use of fraud, corruption, disregard for human rights and restriction of party competition.
That’s why Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, both in Venezuela, had elections plagued by corruption and inappropriate use of the state’s resources, which triggered street protests. Venezuela currently ranks 118th in the Perception of Electoral Integrity index and is almost at the bottom of the international corruption index.
On Turkey’s constitutional referendum of 2017, President Erdogan was highly criticized since citizens were being imprisoned, the media was being manipulated and civil society organizations were being limited.
The same thing happened in Hungary, under Viktor Orban, where there are unfair electoral laws, and there was an uneven playing field for the 2014 elections. And since the election of these populist leaders, both countries (Turkey and Hungary) have gone down on the Corruption Perceptions Index.
These are problems that generate contentious elections where the opposition party appeals the results, there are mass protests and governance becomes unstable. These are very common in regimes that are hybrid between democratic and autocratic, so they have competitive elections but not the level playing field needed. These problems become bigger where presidential executives elected seem to “take all the power”.
Western democracies are no exception for these violations, where electoral and anti-corruption are being ignored during the campaign process. This systemic corruption is a perfect ground for populism to bloom, where leaders will claim to fight the problems while being a part of them.
Pauline Hanson and David Ettridge, in Australia, were sent to jail for taking electoral reimbursements. Meanwhile, in Austria, support for the far right party declined since many elected candidates resigned shortly after a grand corruption scandal which included bribery, insider information, nepotism, money laundering and more.
Marine Le Pen is under investigation for spending around 5 million euros on fake jobs, while the French Front National was actually sanctioned for misusing 340,000 euros in campaign funds.
Trump’s White House is not safe from these public ethics problems either: the absence of transparency with Trump’s tax returns as well as conflicts of interest between his business interests both at home and overseas. On top of that, Michael Flynn resigned over his Russian consultancy fees.
While it is true that corruption cases, malfeasance, and cohort capitalism are not exclusive to populism, populists are most likely to overstep the line through unethical behavior. In speeches, they tend to rail against the “corrupt elites” in order to gain support from estranged voters.
However, in practice, populists are shown to be more willing to break the law in order to gain power and increase their riches and supporters, taking back anti-corruption laws and even outright violating public life ethical standards.
Conspiring with Russian Interference
Last but not least, authoritarian regimes tend to actively seek ways to weaken the democratic forces overseas. The clearest proof of this involves Russia, which has been accused of putting its thumb on the electoral scale in order to favor populists.
One way is by supplying resources. Russia has been known to help fund populist parties such as when Marine Le Pen got a loan for 9 million euros out of a Russian bank back in 2014, and she later visited Putin looking for more support. The Dutch Freedom Party also worked with Putin’s United Russia party, through a cooperation agreement.
Other techniques include the use of propaganda, cyber attacks, and misinformation. The interference of Russia in elections in post-Soviet states has been suspected for a while now. Especially in the attempts to alter the contests and democratic forces in Ukraine.
The communities on intelligence and cyber security have reported active interference from Russia in Western elections, which includes the attack on the Bundestag in 2015, long before the breaches on the DNC computers, as well as hacking attempts of voter rolls in multiple states during the 2016 campaign.
Russian social media campaigns designed to misinform are aimed at weakening the support for moderate parties and boost the populist ones. They also tend to cast confusion regarding the democratic processes’ overall integrity.
The Trump administration continues to be surrounded by questions regarding Russian interference in the US presidential elections, which are currently under investigation. Meanwhile, in France, the culprits of the large hacking attack on Emmanuel Macron are still undetermined. Said attack released both fake and legit documents only days before the ballots were to be cast.
In the Western hemisphere, governments have tried to counter these attempts. For example, in the Netherlands, the government made the decision to count all paper ballots by hand and not use any counting software, alleging it was vulnerable to hacking.
Similarly, in Germany, intelligence is on alert for any Russian cyber espionage, fake news and disinformation campaigns after repeated attacks on the CDU/CSU. However, every year it keeps getting more difficult to maintain cybersecurity.
Even though populism can’t be held directly responsible for this Russian interference, they do need to speak out and denounce those acts in order to avoid being guilty by association. Investigators only got more suspicious when Trump casually dismissed the threats by stating the Russia thing with Trump was only a made-up story.
Thus, it’s necessary to gather evidence to help determine the impact said practices have. Populist candidates are definitely not the only ones participating in electoral malpractices but they do seem to be especially prone to increase the risks in free and fair elections.
They’re continuing to weaken and attack the public’s confidence in electoral integrity, its process, and all the democratic institutions. By the use of practices that violate international standards for electoral integrity, and allegedly colluding with authoritarian allies who want to interfere in foreign democratic affairs.
In this sense, Trump is not an exception, but rather a link on a larger chain. We still need to wait and see the best ways to address these challenges effectively in order to restore the public’s trust, safeguard democracy and strengthen electoral integrity.