The tensions of populism in power – Joan Miró

Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona

“One of the most controversial and under-researched aspects of populism is the question of how it develops once it finds itself in the power of state institutions. This is a controversial issue because populism tends to be an anti-institutional movement: populists discourses are based on the institution of an antagonistic division between ‘the people’ and ‘the unresponsive regime’ or ‘the established power’; in addition, they articulate their identities upon the non-satisfaction of popular demands by the current institutional framework; and finally, their objective is the radical subversion of the existing institutional system in order to adapt it to the interests of the ‘real, silent and excluded country’. How does a populist movement evolve once it finds itself in power? How is it possible for new populist forces to negotiate the strategy for opposition with the strategy for a new institutional order?

The contradictory relationship between populism and (democratic-liberal) institutions can be conceptually organized around four tensions or dilemmas facing a ruling populism: between being people (a part) and being State (the universality); between being government and being street protest/opposition; between favouring the democratic principle to the detriment of the liberal principle (in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the terms); and between promising an abrupt radical reconstruction of the existing institutional regime but having to manage the inherent resistance to change of institutions.

The case of the recent Catalan separatist push is interesting in this regard because it constitutes a case of a populist movement that, once in power, has not abandoned its objectives of radically changing the institutional regime (unlike for instance Syriza or Podemos, for instance) but has tried to accomplish them by all (peaceful) means, causing an unprecedented political crisis within the Spanish State.”

– Joan Miró, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona