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DKK 7.5 million for research into democratic self-defence

Tore Vincents Olsen and his international colleagues have received DKK 7.5 million from the Carlsberg Foundation to explore how European democracies may defend themselves against pressure from populist parties.

[Translate to English:] Tore Vincents Olsen
[Translate to English:] Lektor Tore Vincents Olsen ser frem arbejdet med det nye projekt “Populism and Democratic Defence in Europe”, som vil løbe over de næste fire år. Foto: Ingrid Fossum


Left and right-wing populism is threatening European democracy. A new research project headed by Tore Vincents Olsen, associate professor of political science at Aarhus BSS, aims to explore how liberal democracy may defend itself, and whether the national and supranational initiatives to protect democracy are effective and normatively legitimate.

“A typical question is whether or not it falls within the scope of democracy to curtail the rights of specific parties and citizens simply because these parties or citizens stand in contrast to liberal democracy. Are we not curtailing their democratic rights illegitimately? In some countries, parties have been prohibited for being unconstitutional or racist, but there are other, less drastic, means of intervention. In the new research project, we wish to explore these means and whether or not they can be defended based on the principles of liberal democracy,” says Tore Vincents Olsen.

These means could be legal initiatives such as prohibiting parties or withdrawing their party funding. They could also be political such as involving parties in collaborations or excluding them, or they could be cultural such as educating people in citizenship. Socio-economic initiatives are also an option. Here a country would take a long-term approach towards avoiding social and economic conditions that would make people support extremist parties. This approach, however, falls outside the scope of this project.

“We are dealing with a rather novel research field with a limited amount of knowledge of what works and what does not. This is also quite a complex matter as it will be difficult to uncover the actual causes and effects. Parties might be invited to join a government with the ulterior motive of moderating them. However if a moderation effect does occur, this may be caused by other factors. We really look forward to exploring this complexity,” says Olsen. ”The complexity also covers normative questions such as: Which initiatives against populism can we defend based on our liberal-democratic principles? And what role does their effectiveness, be it strong or weak, play in this connection?”

The researchers will study left and right-wing parties in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain. Poland and Hungary are causes of particular concern in the EU, where members are currently carefully deliberating how to bring these two countries back on track. For example, the Hungarian right-wing party Fidesz has weakened the independence of the national courts, changed the country’s judiciary, amended the constitution and introduced a number of cardinal laws that can only be changed with a two-thirds majority thus limiting the possibility of a future democratic majority to change Fidesz’s policies.

“Fidesz has elevated their policies to an almost constitutional level. They have also made sure that the courts are controlled by people who are loyal to Fidesz. Thus we are seeing a number of initiatives that are problematic from a liberal-democratic perspective,” says Olsen.

The project, which is entitled “Populism and Democratic Defence in Europe”, will run over four years. In the project, Olsen is joined by Fabio Wolkenstein, assistant professor of political science at Aarhus BSS, and by colleagues from the universities in Roskilde (Denmark), Lund (Sweden) and Warsaw and Wroc?aw (Poland).

“Naturally, we are delighted with the grant from the Carlsberg Foundation. We are particularly happy that they have chosen to support our unique combination of empirical research and political theory,” says Olsen.