As the Populist Moment for the Left Closes, Odds Look Grim for DiEM25’s Transnational Populism

by Benjamin De Cleen, Benjamin Moffitt, Panos Panayotu and Yannis Stavrakakis

The 7 July parliamentary elections in Greece saw SYRIZA of prime minister Alexis Tsipras lose against the right-wing New Democracy. SYRIZA’s loss has been interpreted by some as the end of left-wing populism and a return to normality in Greece. In this piece we want to focus on a much smaller left-wing populist player on the lower end of the electoral scoreboard, for which participating in the Greek elections is part of a broader transnational strategy. Tsipras will most likely find himself on the opposition benches together with his former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who quit the SYRIZA government after Tsipras had accepted the harsh conditions for another bailout in 2015. Varoufakis’ MeRA25, the Greek wing of the transnational Democracy in Europe 2025 movement, scored 3,4% and will hold nine seats in the new parliament. After failing to secure a seat in the European Parliament during May’s elections this constitutes the first tangible success of the transnational populist DiEM25. What does this tell us about the potentials and limitations of a transnational populism on the left? And does MeRA25’s relative success in Greece really constitute a win for transnational populism?

Populism is often conflated with nationalism in popular and academic discussions, not in the least after the election of Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum. And many populist politics are indeed nationalist. This is obvious on the right, but we also see this on the left, albeit in a much more inclusive manner and focused on national sovereignty rather than identity. At the very least, most populist politics operate in a national context. But what happens when populism explicitly tries to decouple itself from nationalism and from the national context – and indeed, move into a transnational space?

In the last few years we have seen the development of a very interesting case of such ‘transnational populism’ unfolding: that of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). Launched in 2016 by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, DiEM25 has sought to construct a pro-European transnational left political project in the aftermath of the European debt crisis. It seeks to ‘democratise Europe’ via a transnational strategy that aims to construct a European ‘people’ against ‘the elite’ – in short, attempting a novel form of transnational populism. This raises intriguing questions about the potentials of populism beyond the usual setting of the nation-state. Indeed, the formation of the transnational DiEM25 was a response to the failure of the left-wing populist SYRIZA government to turn its national electoral success into real leverage against international creditors and institutions.

Yet how successful is DiEM25 in constructing such a transnational populist movement? Is DiEM25 a truly transnational populist movement or does it remain tethered to the national level? For our article published in Political Studies we first developed a discursive conceptualisation of populism and nationalism that offers a set of formal criteria to distinguish one from the other. We were particularly interested in the nodal point the two discourses offer (‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ as an underdog?); the subject positions they offer (member of ‘the nation’ as a community linked to a particular territory or member of ‘the people’ as an underdog?); what outsides these positions are constructed against (non-members of the nation or ‘the elite’?) and the orientation between the nodal point and those set outside these positions (is it a horizontal in/out relationship on the basis of national identity, or is it a vertical up/down relationship on the basis of hierarchy and power?)

We then undertook a qualitative content analysis of the movement’s manifestoes, speeches, press releases and published interviews with DiEM25 leaders (especially Varoufakis himself). We examined how DiEM25 constructs a supranational ‘elite’ as its enemy and how it aims to construct a ‘European people’ in opposition to that ‘elite’. Our analysis showed that DiEM25 can indeed be seen as a form of transnational populism, but also that its move towards the transnational is not total, and that the national remains crucial to its demands for democracy. This tension was clear in the way that DiEM25 oscillates between speaking in the name of ‘the people’ (which tend to be transnational) and in the name of ‘the peoples’ of Europe in plural (the separate ‘peoples’ of the different European nations). It is also apparent in how it set up national party wings in Greece and Germany and later also in a number of other countries to compete in the European elections, even if these national wings are presented as part and parcel of the transnational movement, and candidate lists are built transnationally (with Varoufakis, for example, running in Germany in the European elections).

In short, we found that DiEM25 wants to straddle both the transnational and national dimensions: as Varoufakis has noted, “we have already experienced how the blending together of Europeans across nations and political parties into one transnational organisation is producing ‘proof’ that, on top of our existing multiple identities, it is not only possible but also empowering to overlay a new one – a transnational identity of our own making: radical, anti-authoritarian, democratic Europeanism”. The national and transnational do not constitute a contradiction according to DiEM25 – they exist as moments of the same political hegemonic project.

Our analysis of DiEM25 also showed that populism does not have to be tied to nationalism or nativism, as is so often the case in academic and popular work on the topic. Indeed, DiEM25 is a case of left populism that is cosmopolitan and pro-refugee, running “let them in” and “stop the deal” campaigns (the latter supporting legal action against the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on asylum seekers), which explicitly support and welcome refugees and asylum seekers. Here DiEM25 sets itself against “the nationalist alternative [which] is to divide, to foster distrust leading to violence and perhaps to war”. DiEM25 does not advocate leaving the European Union, or a ‘Lexit’, but rather demands that the EU be democratized. And Varoufakis has argued that “a progressive international” is the only way “to counter the nationalist international that is gaining strength all over the world”, an analysis that motivated the formation of a Progressive International spearheaded by Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders.

Why should we care about (what looks like it could remain) a relatively marginal political movement? The Progressive International has not made much headway so far. The 2019 European elections also clearly showed the limitations of DiEM25’s strategies, with none of DiEM25’s national wings managing to elect a candidate into the European Parliament. In Denmark Alternativet (which adopted DiEM25’s Manifesto) scored 3.4%, in France Benoit Hamon’s DiEM25’s associated Générations scored 3.27%, MeRA25 scored 2,98% in Greece, LIVRE scored 1.8% in Portugal, RAZEM scored 1.2% in Poland, and Demokratie in Europa scored 0.3% in Germany.

Our argument is that the DiEM25 case may reflect a structural limit that all inclusionary populist forces in Europe are bound to face in their attempt to energize populist mobilization and policy application beyond the nation-state. Establishment forces already seem to be able to function at the transnational level, even through ad hoc institutions like the Eurogroup, in which the acceptable degrees of legitimacy and accountability are quite low and flexible, reflecting a pre-existing agreement on commonly accepted policies. Such a transnational coordination cannot simply be replicated by anti-establishment forces to the extent that resistance is still mostly framed at the level of national community. We show that the enjoyment and the defense of rights remains largely tied to the membership of a nation-state; and the discursive and affective investment of oppositional demands and identities also seems to remain largely attached to the nation-state. This shows that, yes, a transnational populism is possible not only in theory but also in practice, but such a transnational populist endeavor cannot simply escape the national level. And it reminds us that speaking in the name of a transnational people is one thing, but actually constructing such a people is another.

MeRA25 fared better in the recent Greek national elections, securing 3,4% of the vote and nine seats in the parliament. But what does this say about the potentials and limitations of transnational populism? As far as the transnational dimension goes, Greek law does not permit non-Greeks to run in elections. So, despite MeRA25’s embeddedness in the transnational DiEM25, none of the nine seats will be taken up by non-Greeks. DiEM25’s transnational ambitions bump into some very concrete limits posed by the national organization of democratic representation.

On the progressive populist end, things do not look much better. SYRIZA’s wins were partly thanks to its ability to build a broad coalition using a left-wing populist strategy against Greece’s international creditors (the troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) and against the ‘internal troika’ of traditional parties in Greece executing austerity measures (including New Democracy that won the most recent elections). That populist moment already partly ended with Tsipras’ acceptance of austerity measures in exchange for another round of bailout credit in 2015 – even if SYRIZA did win the national elections called after the acceptance of the bailout conditions (scoring 36,3%, just under 5% less than it scored on the 7th of July). Internationally, the disappointing scores of Podemos, La France Insoumise and others also indicate a retreat of left populist parties in other countries where there were high hopes for such actors not long ago. MeRA25’s running in the elections against SYRIZA goes against the populist joining of forces and seems to point to a further closing of the populist window and perhaps also a return to traditional in-fighting and division on the left. If the window for left-wing populists is closing on the national level – where such a populist strategy is far easier to develop and get traction - things do not bode well for the kind of transnational progressive populism DiEM25 advocates.

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This article is partly based on research published in Political Studies. An earlier version of this text appeared on the Political Studies Association’s blog, and was further developed here to reflect the results of the May 2019 European elections and the Greek elections of 7 July 2019.


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