(global?) constitutional populism

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Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Kaczynski’s Poland, Duterte’s Philippines, Zuma’s South Africa, the Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro … there is a litany of alleged populist victories across the globe since around 2010.

In understanding why this should be of concern to thoughtful people everywhere, calling these examples of ‘populism’ may be more confusing than illuminating as each case is different, and displays various aspects and intensities of ‘populism’, and ‘populism’ itself is a concept which is vague and contested, even among those who spend a lot of time thinking about such things.

So one part of our project is seeking to identify the explanatory and normative value of that term when it is properly defined and calibrated.

We think it matters in part because this now appears as a global phenomenon, but – when looked at from outside the melee of the 24 hour news cycle and instant memes of social media – these developments also seems to have certain common characteristics.  To us, this tends to suggest that populism in these diverse places is worth studying as a distinctive and connected occurrence in contemporary constitutionalism.

Our focus in the project is on what we call ‘constitutional populism’ and the disquieting characteristics that such regimes seem to share.

Adam Czarnota, Martin Krygier, Wojciech Sadurski

We have several reasons for thinking this way.

First, in all these cases there are distinctive, if contradictory, relationships between the new populism and democracy.  New populist regimes seek and enjoy strong – often, clearly majoritarian – societal support, rather than being authoritarian oppressive regimes of traditional sorts that make democratic will-formation impossible. They claim to usher in ‘real’ democracy, governing in the name of the ‘real’ people of their country. Many people and some scholars find the claim in principle plausible; others reject it and warn of the populism’s threats to democracy, but nevertheless acknowledge that populism might be born of democracy as we now see it practiced, if ultimately incompatible with it.

Second, all these phenomena resulted from, or in power quickly resorted to, the weakening or dismantling of legal and constitutional checks upon executive and/or legislative powers.

Third, these assaults on legal constraints typically take constitutional or pseudo-constitutional forms; the law is not ignored, but used – and in that very use, often abused.

Fourth, when in power, most of these populist movements seek not only to weaken and/or dismantle constraints upon the executive but also to distort  democratic rules of the game, including the character of competitive elections.

So our project gives its attention to the latter three, which we see as the most important, and the most disquieting, characteristics of what we call ‘constitutional populism’ – the effective weakening and/or removal of legal and constitutional (largely, liberal) restraints upon:

  • the exercise of democratically mandated power,
  • the canonical guarantees of the rule of law, and
  • guarantees of electoral competitiveness.

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