How populists change parliaments

Aleksandra Maatsch & Eric Miklin

Populism is still considered to be one of the major contemporary challenges of the European Union. Although the phenomenon of populism has been studied from various angles, the literature has not yet provided a conclusive answer with respect to the basic question, namely the impact of populist parties in government on national parliamentary powers. More precisely, how does the presence of populist parties in the executive branch generate disempowerment, empowerment, or no change of national parliamentary core powers regarding law-making, scrutiny, and representation? Below we present the findings of a research project covering six EU member states. For the purpose of the study we have adopted a minimalist definition of populism drawing on two elements: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism.

This question does not only concern the relationship between specific types of executive and legislative actors, but also the DNA of representative democracy. It is about the resilience – or lack thereof – of our representative institutions. A decade ago, European populist parties predominantly occupied the benches of the opposition. Since then, many of them have entered governments as junior coalition partners (Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Latvia) or even as the major forces (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy). In this context, the question of how populist actors behave when they enter the government emerged. Do they accept the institutional status quo or challenge it? And if the latter, does their activity lead to disempowerment or, to the contrary, the empowerment of national parliaments?

Theoretically speaking, three scenarios are possible. Populism in government may (a) disempower national parliaments, (b) strengthen them or (c) change nothing. In the first scenario, there is quite substantial evidence demonstrating that many populist actors favor direct democracy over representative democracy, the latter being basically embodied by national parliaments. Beyond that, by claiming to pursue an alleged unitary will of the people and refusing to recognize a diversity of preferences and/or identities, populist actors position themselves in opposition to pluralism in general, as well as pluralistic institutions like (national) parliaments (e.g. Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017).

On the other end of the spectrum, the second scenario draws upon literature which suggests that populist actors could empower national parliaments at least regarding one of their core constitutional functions, specifically representation. In fact, earlier studies frequently explain that

the success of populist actors occurs because such parties fill a representational gap by becoming the voice of constituencies that, until then, had not felt adequately represented by mainstream parties

(e.g., Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012). As a result, the presence of populist actors in government could potentially help to close that gap by increasing the accountability of the executive. Populist governments may also strengthen the electoral link between government and voters by increasing public and media attention for discussions within parliament due to increased conflict with mainstream opposition parties.

Finally, the no-change scenario assumes that populist actors should by-and-large adjust to the mainstream ‘rules of the game’ when they enter government. Calls for direct democracy in opposition parties may be merely ‘cheap talk’ and the actual interest of (especially moderate) populist actors to change things may be limited in the first place. Further, studies have demonstrated that institutionalization plays a very important role (Hibbing 1988, Judge 2003, Kopecky 2001, Sieberer et al. 2014). Formal rules may prove difficult to change, and the longer populist actors have been socialized in a consolidated democracy, the more they may internalize certain institutional ‘rules of the game’and, when in power, they may well act according to them. 

There are obviously various contextual factors which make each of these scenarios more or less likely. The impact of populist actors in government should first depend on whether populists constitute a/the major force in government or merely a junior coalition partner. In the latter case, the impact is expected to be weaker. The second decisive element is the constitutional framework, providing national parliaments with either strong or weak formal competences, especially minority rights.

We can expect that institutional changes aiming at disempowering the executive are more likely in younger than older democracies.

With this in mind, we tested the three scenarios on six national parliaments (Hungary, Poland, Italy, Finland, Czech Republic, and Austria), varying with respect to the major explanatory factors. In order to examine whether populist parties in government make a difference, we examined two periods in each state: the legislative period before populist parties entered the government (T1) and the legislative period with populist parties in power (T2). Comparing both periods in each of the states we studied, we looked at national parliamentary formal powers and their de facto performance regarding law-making, scrutiny, and representation.

Evidently, the impact of populist parties in government follows either the “disempowerment” or “no-change” scenarios, and we have found little evidence for the “empowerment” scenario.

The presence of populist parties in government significantly disempowered national parliaments in Hungary, Poland, and Italy. In Finland, Czech Republic, and Austria, we found evidence for the “no-change” scenario.

In Hungary, the populist Fidesz party governs as a major party. Holding a constitutional majority allowed it to significantly change formal institutional powers and inter-institutional relations in the country. Other factors also facilitated the profound disempowerment of the parliament. Since Hungary entered the democratization path only in 1989, it can be counted as a rather young democracy and the constitution enacted after transition did not equip the parliament with strong prerogatives vis-à-vis the executive. In sum, these factors facilitated the process of parliamentary disempowerment, and the Hungarian parliament has suffered a massive weakening of its legislative powers and its powers of scrutiny under populist rule.

The extensive use of fast-track procedures or omnibus legislation has helped radically alter the legislative process, leaving little space for parliamentary deliberation and control.

While the Polish  national parliament has been equally disempowered, conditions differ to some extent when compared with Hungary, and the populist Law and Justice-led executive reached its aim by different means than the Fidesz government. Like Hungary, Poland is a rather young democracy with an institutionally weak parliament. However, the PiS has not reached a constitutional majority. Hence, the government accelerated the legislative process and weakened the capacity of parliament to control the government partly by introducing minor revisions to secondary legislation, but predominantly by revising the parliamentary practice and openly breaching conditional provisions.

In Italy, the erosion of parliamentary powers took place under different conditions. While the Italian parliament can also be considered as rather weak, Italy is a consolidated democracy and the populist government had been composed of two different populist parties (the 5 Star Movement and the Lega). As in Poland, there was no constitutional reform in Italy: the institutional change has been enacted within the existing legal framework, which has been re-interpreted or simply breached. Consequently, the government made an extensive use of (not always constitutional) provisions, accelerating the legislative process (fast-track measures) and limiting the role of parliament in the law-making process (decree-laws and omnibus legislation).

The three cases discussed above have pointed to one common feature: the existing institutional weakness of the parliament vis-à-vis the executive has facilitated the dismantling of representative democracy by populist actors. The case of Italy demonstrates that populist parties amplified negative practices which had already evolved in previous years. Yet, in contrast to Hungary and Poland, the disempowerment of the legislature in Italy has not generated a comparable systemic threat to democracy.

Among the three cases which show little to no changes, the Finnish Eduskunta during the populist Fins Party’s participation in government fits scenario three the best. Having entered the government in a coalition with two mainstream parties, the Fins brought new confrontational elements into parliament.

However, facing a very active chamber with strongly institutionalized norms in a country with a long democratic history, the party widely adjusted to mainstream behavior. No attempts or calls for institutional changes by the party were found, and even within existing rules hardly any differences regarding the behavior of individual ministers from populist and mainstream parties were reported.

The populist minority government of ANO 2011 in the Czech parliament shows how, even in a ‘young’ democracy, parliaments may prove to be resilient when equipped with strong formal powers and when populists in government lack an absolute majority in the chamber. Given its rather moderate ideological profile, ANO’s ambitions regarding procedural changes had been comparatively modest. Yet even these moderate attempts to rationalize and streamline the legislative process failed. Instead, success rates for governing bills dropped, and the average time needed for successful bills to pass parliament increased significantly. In addition, plenary discussions about laws increased – suggesting a slight increase in the government’s accountability in relation to parliament and the public.

A similar ‘positive’ effect was also found in Austria. Here, the first participation in government of the populist FPÖ as a junior partner in the early 2000’s indeed had a positive effect on the media coverage of parliamentary activities. Still, this accountability effect does not show up for the FPÖ’s second time in government, suggesting a process of habituation over time.

Our study demonstrates that the relationship between populist parties in government and national parliaments is complex. Maybe unsurprisingly,

our study found hardly any evidence of populist governments empowering national parliaments. Instead, we show that given certain conditions (young democracies, institutionally weak parliaments, and populists as a major governing force), populist parties are both willing and able to deliberately weaken or even disempower representative institutions.

Yet, there is also evidence demonstrating that representative democracies tend to be more resilient in older, consolidated democracies, in states where parliaments enjoy a strong, constitutionally granted standing vis-à-vis the executive, and where populists lack the power within government or the majority within parliament, so that to stay in office they must adapt to rather than change the ‘rules of the game.’

At the same time, our findings raise further questions regarding the interpretative framework of the analysis. First, some country-cases demonstrate that the first indices of disempowerment have manifested themselves before populist parties came to power, and that populists did not start but rather accelerated the process. Therefore, we likely need a broader period to study the process of parliamentary disempowerment. Second, they show how important it is to focus not only on legal changes but also on informal politics. In particular, Italian and Polish national parliaments were side-lined and disempowered without any constitutional reforms. Finally, the results of this study raise questions regarding the triggering factors. Populism seems to be too narrow to understand the “disempowerment” and “no-change” scenarios. The empirical evidence suggests that we need to broaden the explanatory framework to examine the impact of populist parties in the context of the democratic consolidation process in a specific state. Furthermore, as the cases of Hungary or Austria demonstrate, when theorizing the impact of populism in power on representative democracy, future studies should look beyond merely ideological or programmatic explanations. They should also consider the negative impact of corruption, clientelism, nepotism, and checks-and-balances in general, which are often linked to populist governments in parliamentary control.

In cooperation with Hannah Vos


Hibbing, J.R. (1988) Legislative Institutionalisation with Illustrations from the British House of Commons, American Journal of Political Science, 32:3, 681-712.

Judge, D. (2003) Legislative Institutionalisation: A Bent Analytical Arrow? Government and Opposition, 38:4, 497-516.

Kopecky, P. (2001) Parliaments in the Czech and Slovak Republics: Party Competition and Parliamentary Institutionalization (Aldershot: Ashgate). 

Maatsch, Aleksandra & Miklin, Eric (2021) Representative Democracy in Danger? The Impact of Populist Parties in Government on the Powers and Practices of National Parliaments, in: Parliamentary Affairs 74:4 (SPECIAL ISSUE)

Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017) Populism: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012) ‘The ambivalence of populism: threat and corrective for democracy’, Democratization 19, 184-208.

Sieberer, U., Meißner, P., Keh J.F. and Müller, W.C. (2016) Mapping and Explaining Parliamentary Rules Changes in Europe. A Research Program, in: Legislative Studies Quarterly 41(1): 61-88.


Aleksandra Maatsch holds the Chair in Social Sciences and Economics at the Willy Brandt Centre for German and European Studies, University of Wrocław. After completing her studies at the Central European University in Budapest (CEU), Aleksandra Maatsch acquired her PhD in political science from the University of Bremen in Germany (2011). She then worked at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPP-CSIC) in Madrid, at the University of Cambridge, the Max Planck Institute in Cologne and at the University of Cologne (interim Chair of European and Multilevel Politics). She specializes in comparative European politics and legislative studies. Her research has been published in various journals such as West European Politics, the Journal of Common Market Studies, and the Journal of European Public Policy.

Eric Miklin is Associate Professor of Austrian Politics in Comparative European Perspective in the Department of Political Science at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Miklin holds a Doctorate from the University of Vienna, Austria (2008). Prior to joining the University of Salzburg in 2010, Miklin was a postdoc researcher at the Free University Amsterdam from 2008 to 2010. From 2004-2010, he was a PhD fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, Austria. He specializes in comparative European politics and European integration with a special focus on national parliaments and parties. His research has been published in journals such as West European Politics, the Journal of European Public Policy, and the Journal of Common Market Studies.

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