(anti?) constitutional populism

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As recently as 1991, when Samuel Huntington investigated what he called the ‘third wave’ of democratization, the term ‘populism’ figured just twice in the index.

… an important – perhaps the most important – global political development of the late twentieth century: the transition of some thirty countries from nondemocratic to democratic political systems …

Samuel P. Huntington The Third Wave

The tide has turned, however, in many third wave countries: in eastern and western Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, populist parties have recently challenged traditional ones, and in several countries they have overwhelmed them.

Contemporary waves of populism thus have taken many people by surprise, particularly since they so soon follow that much-lauded triumph, as it seemed, of third wave democracies, in some of the places where they had seemed to have gained their greatest successes.

So it seems everyone is talking about “populism” – the general media has long since picked up on the theme.  But, to update The Communist Manifesto: a spectre is indeed haunting the world, but not the spectre of communism nor of democracy, but of potentially anti-constitutional populism.

From what we can see, the new populisms have distinctive relationships with, and elements of, democracy not shared by traditional authoritarian regimes – and yet, unlike the forms of democracy within which many of them were spawned, they are relentlessly hostile to liberal values, practices, and institutional constraints.

In particular – and unlike earlier populisms – when in power the new populists engage closely if not warmly with law,  principles of the rule of law and liberal constitutionalism. They do not merely reject or ignore these domains, but maintain relations with these things that are at once exploitative and commonly  hostile, even subversive, but always revisionist.

Occasionally, however, populists in power pay a lip service to seemingly liberal constitutional guarantees and institutions (constitutional courts; freedom of assembly) while subverting their original meaning in order to serve the populist order.

It is those engagements that our project seeks to understand.  More specifically, we seek to understand the deliberate erosions of constitutional values that have taken place in some of the most prominent of these new democracies around the world, but not just there – this may now constitute a global phenomenon.