Launch of the Proposed Global Agenda for the Renewal of Representation

Populism isn’t just a threat to democracy – it may also be an opportunity, if we can work out how to harness it. That’s why  REPRESENT co-hosted a conference in Brussels in June 2018, bringing together leaders form a variety of backgrounds to discuss how democratic institutions can respond to the threats and opportunities created by populism in a way that ensures the sustainability of democracy in the long term.  During the discussions, a consensus emerged among conference participants that the best response to populism is not to attack it. Instead, efforts should be made to improve the quality, transparency and functioning of democratic institutions, which would, in turn, address the underlying drivers of populism. This should include investments in the renewal of representative mechanisms and institutions.

To this end, REPRESENT, along with our conference co-hosts — International IDEA, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), and the Netherlands Institute for Multi-party Democracy (NIMD) — have distilled a Proposed Global Agenda for the Renewal of Representation, based on the conference discussions. This Global Agenda is designed to focus attention on the constructive and concrete steps that different actors can take to respond to populism by strengthening democracy, in both established democracies and countries where democracy is less deeply entrenched.

Together with our co-hosts, we invite actors at the global, regional, national and sub-national levels to respond to the Agenda by taking necessary actions to invest in the renewal of representation and the strengthening of democracy.

Download the Proposed Global Agenda.

Hear more about the proposals from some leading experts (via the International IDEA website):

Blog: Populism – A Matter of Representation, Context and Communication


Esmeralda Bon, a doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, reflect on key themes from REPRESENT’s recent conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism. Esmeralda’s research focuses on public opinion and contemporary political communication strategies in the UK.


The REPRESENT conference was an occasion for the necessary reflection and debate on the causes, circumstances and consequences of populism. Attention was paid to the notion of populism in relation to representative democracy, citizen discontent and the potential for increased engagement, by citizens and civil society organisations alike.


Google Trends confirms: ‘populism’ is popular, with a peak in January 2017 and an ongoing increased interest since mid-2016. But what characterises populism? In my opinion, it concerns an ideology, albeit thin, which revolves around communicating about and with ‘the people’.

Populism trends

At this conference, however, the emphasis was on the link between democracy and populism. Populism was specifically discussed in relation to case studies (such as democracy and populism in MENA (Storm) and the use of ban practices in Europe (Bourne)) and from a plethora of different perspectives. Its context-dependency was acknowledged, with respect to aspects such as the culture, society and political system concerned. Furthermore, reflections were given on the perception of populism as a problem: is populism oppositional to democracy, a disease or even an epidemic, that needs to be controlled? As pointed out by Capelos, could this view of populism itself be problematic, potentially preventing us from objectively figuring out why populist discourse appeals and what role it plays in the democratic process?

Populism and Democracy

Whilst focusing on the influence of democracy as a system, speakers also discussed the means it could offer for understanding and potentially halting populism, considering representation and different forms of democracy. Here it was again concluded that context matters (Cheeseman & Dodsworth). There is not a one-size-fits-all solution or treatment for protecting democracy and combating the negative influences that populism may have. Additionally, it was determined that stimulating civil society activity and citizen engagement could be helpful, not least to enhance representation, but also to create a sense of empowerment (e.g. Martin-Rozumilowicz).

This empowerment of citizens and improved perception of responsiveness and representation by politicians would mitigate both the discontent of citizens and the appeal of populism. As a result, political trust, political efficacy, and the perceived credibility of political actors would be positively affected. These are crucial for representative democracy to work, especially now that we find ourselves in an age of ‘post-truth politics’, where fake news and political falsehoods seem omnipresent. This discussion is, therefore, both timely and particularly important. At the same time, this discussion is also invaluable for understanding the ‘content’ of populism itself.

Populist content

As mentioned, this conference considered the role of populism in democracy: the causes, circumstances and consequences. Consequently, examples of populism and populist behaviour largely concentrated on specific acts (e.g. corruption). However, besides acts, populism is still an ideology reflected in the communication with citizens. It is this populist content, these manifestations of populism, which can be identified and measured. Insights subsequently gained could complement existing findings and aid our understanding of the contemporary appeal of populism, the opportunities for empowerment and issues with representation. In short, whilst a study of the context – the ‘meta’ – provides a necessary frame, a complementary analysis of the actual communicated content – ‘the micro’ – will allow us to further paint a picture.


Photo: Panel debate at REPRESENT’s conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, 26-27 April 2018.

Blog: Engagement as the “cure” for populism


Anna Silander, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations reflects on REPRESENT’s recent conference. Anna’s research focuses on the evolution of right-wing populist parties in Europe.


On 26-27 April, I attended the first international conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, by the Research Centre for the Study of Parties and Democracy, REPRESENT, a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham. The two days in Birmingham with thought-provoking presentations, offered a PhD student working on right-wing populism, a prestigious chance to sit back and soak up the knowledge.

The conference that brought together academics, policy-makers and practitioners had a tone of optimism as we heard how populism can produce good. Danielle Resnick’s presentation on Africa showcased how populist leaders have succeeded in motivating voters and opposition parties, disturbing the traditional parties, and improving the lives of the poor. The last point was similarly mentioned by Nic Cheeseman and Susan Dodsworth who also highlighted how populist leaders can overcome ethnic and religious divisions in countries where that has thus far seemed hopeless.

Due to the increasing interest on populism and the lack of one commonly agreed definition, there is a danger that it, as an answer, is made to fit too many questions and problems on various fields. Although, the term is still somewhat debated, there are features of it that cannot be. When listening to Paul Taggart it was evident that one was listening to a scholar who has been publishing on the subject since 1995. He spoke about the dislike populism has towards politics, its unpolitical nature in a political world. And how the phenomenon views politics as war where winning the enemy must be absolute, resulting in their surrender. Paradoxically, defeat can also be a victory, depending how it is played to the audience.

According to Taggart, the virtuous and unified people, led by their messiah-like leaders, are the people of the heartland. This Tolkienish imagined community is sentimentally driven from the past, a place free of dirty, corrupting politics. Taggart’s description of populism and its people highlights the divisions in the society, since the people is not an all-encompassing term, and the entry to the heartland is not open for all. Those who are part of the in-group know who does and who does not belong, even if the criteria are blurred and difficult to put into words. It also stresses the troubles representative liberal democracy currently faces. How to challenge a perspective that embraces simple but exciting conspiracy theories with destabilising politics, portraying opposition as evil?

For most presenters the answer was engagement. Dan Lawes, from YouthPoliticsUK, and Professor Philippe C. Schmitter, from the European University Institute, who shared the win from Thursday evening’s public event where they had three minutes to pitch their solution to populism, both saw young people’s engagement in politics essential.

Populism forces liberal democracies to look in the mirror and engage in debates the established parties have avoided. It is not the illness but a symptom, asserted Fernando Casal Bértoa and José Rama Camaño. They stressed how populism has exposed there is something wrong with representative democracies, to which there are no quick-fix cures but the road to recovery is long and, possibly, unpleasant.

The features of populism further deepen the divisions already separating societies. Consequently, the cure cannot alienate or ridicule those in the electorate who feel their concerns are finally taken seriously, reinforcing the importance of engagement.

Photo: Audience members at REPRESENT’s conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, 26-27 April 2018.

Seminar: The drivers of party system institutionalization in Africa’s young democracies

On May 3, Dr. Edalina Rodrigues Sanches from the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon presented her research at a REPRESENT seminar in Nottingham (co-hosted by the Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Economic and Political Research).

Edalina discussed her recent book, Party Systems in Young Democracies: Varieties of Institutionalization in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For those that missed the seminar, you can download an audio recording here.

Photo: Frelimo party rally, Mozambique. By Adrien Barbier via Flickr. Used under creative commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

You can “fix” populism in three minutes, right?

At our public event on 26 April, we challenged ten leading academics, politicians, activists and practitioners to pitch their big idea for “fixing” populism… in three minutes. Some challenged the premise that populism was a problem that needed fixing, some looked for deeper causes and some put forward innovative options for renewing political institutions. All are worth listening to! With that in mind, here are links to recordings of the full line up.


And the winner is…

At our public event, one thing became clear: If you want to “fix” populism, you have get youth engaged in politics.

After ten leading academics, politicians, activists and practitioners pitched their big ideas about how to respond to populism, the result of the audience vote was a tie! Our two winning pitches had something in common – both emphasised that engaging youth in politics is essential if response to populism are to be effective.

Click through the following links to listen to the winning pitches:

Dan Lawes, YouthPoliticsUK: Modernise our democracy before populism does it for us.

Professor Philippe C. Schmitter, European University Institute: Universal Citizenship

POPULISM: Can we fix it?

A public event, open to all.

On April 26, 2018, from 17:30 to 19:00, at the Aston Webb Main Lecture Theatre,  University of Birmingham

The recent electoral success of populist candidates in developed and developing countries has triggered a surge in concern about populism, the state of democracy, and the future of political parties. At this public event, leading academics, politicians, activists and practitioners will offer up their ‘big idea’ for responding to populism in a series of three-minute pitches, with the audience selecting the winning idea. Join us to debate whether we can – or should – ‘fix’ populism. 

Speakers will include:

  • Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, International Development Department at the University of Birmingham
  • Tereza Capelos, Senior Lecturer in Political Psychology and Deputy Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham
  • The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell, Member of Parliament for the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield
  • Miriam Lexmann, Director of the EU Office of the International Republican Institute
  • Philippe C. Schmitter, Emeritus Professor, European University Institute
  • Hilary Wainwright, Sociologist, political activists and co-editor of Red Pepper
  • Dan Lawes, Founder & Editor, YouthPolitics UK
  • Keboitse Machangana, Director of Global Programmes, International IDEA
  • Anthony Smith, CEO of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy
  • Edin Elgsaether, Knowledge and Innovation Advisor, Netherlands Institute for Multi-party Democracy
  • Matt Qvortrup, Chair of Applied Political Science, Coventry University


Photo credit: Paste-up street art, Berlin. Photo by Dr Case. Original image here. Used under creative commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

REPRESENT to host conference: Political Parties in the Age of Populism

On April 26-27, REPRESENT will host a conference, Political Parties in the Age of Populism, at the University of Birmingham. The conference will examine the challenges populism poses to traditional political parties, the opportunities it might create for new forms of political participation, and the implications of both for efforts to promote democracy overseas.

A distinctive feature of this conference will be its emphasis on building bridges between academics conducting research on these themes, and policy-makers and practitioners confronting these problems in the field. Speakers will include representatives from organisations such as International IDEA, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Full details of the conference, including the schedule, are available in this document.

Those interested in attending the conference should contact Susan Dodsworth by email ( to RSVP as soon as possible, as spaces are limited.

Photo credit: Democracy, by Thomas Hawk. Original image here. Used under creative commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

New summer school on political parties and democracy

Organised under the auspices of the Standing Group on Central East European Politics and with the support of the Standing Group on Political Parties of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), the inaugural Summer School on Political Parties and Democracy will bring together an international team of academics and practitioners to train and instruct a group of 20 MA/PhD researchers, practitioners and civil society leaders.

The summer school will be sponsored by the European Consortium for Political Research, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, together with REPRESENT.

Full details are available here.

Photo credit: Political posters in Ukraine, taken by the Congress of local and regional authorities mission to observe pre-term local elections on 25 May 2014. Original image here. Used under creative commons (CC BY-ND 2.0).