con la colaboración de
Leszek Szymanski (Efe)

Back to the family. How right-wing populism redesigns social policies

Guglielmo Meardi

9 mins - 6 de Junio de 2022, 07:44

In the last thirty years, rightwing populist parties have grown almost everywhere in Europe, and in the last ten have entered government coalitions with increased frequency. If while in opposition these parties tended to focus on identity issues (in particular, migration) and could remain intentionally ambiguous on the socio-economic ones, once in government they have to take some concrete decisions and offer more than simple anti-foreign rhetoric. The salience of immigration is inherently volatile (and declining in the last couple of years), and above all it is by now clear that making life difficult for migrants by itself does not provide any material improvement to native voters. Hence, if they want to take government positions and be re-elected, these parties need to get their hands dirty with the 'quiet politics' of social and employment policies.

In some cases (Netherlands, Denmark, Austria) populist rightwing parties have only ruled in coalitions with traditional conservative parties, which have shaped the main economic orientation of government action. In these cases, the populist influence on substantial policy-making has been minor, limited to introducing elements of 'welfare chauvinism' and prioritising pension expenditure over 'social investment' policies, given that their electorate tends to be more elderly and male. But we can now observe the action of these parties in situations where their hands are not tied by traditional parties. In Hungary (since 2010) and Poland (since 2015) Fidesz and PiS have ruled with absolute majorities, while Lega ruled in Italy in 2018-19 in coalition with another populist party (difficult to place on the Right-Left continuum), the Five Star Movement. 

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The cases of Poland and Italy are particularly interesting: two countries with different political and economic trajectories, but with one strong similarity: the endurance of a strong Catholic tradition and of familist values, which are reflected in a specific welfare constellation that relies heavily on the unpaid care work provided by women. The two countries are in the top four positions among EU countries in terms of employment gap between men and women, in terms of share of adult children living with their parents, in terms of self-employment (often a form a family business) and in terms of age bias towards the elderly in social expenditure. In the years before PiS and Lega came to power, there had been some attempts at recalibrating the Polish and Italian welfare states, by shifting investment and protection towards the younger generations and with policies supporting female employment. This trend was, on most issues, interrupted or even reversed by PiS and Lega.

It has to be added that both Poland and Italy ended up with populist governments after years of marketisation policies in the labour market and the welfare state. Centre-left parties had been prominent contributors to those marketisation policies, which left a strong popular demand for more social protection unmet by traditional parties. PiS and Lega (as well as the Five Star Movement) exploited this to their advantage. In the previous decade, both parties had a more liberal outlook on socio-economic issues, and had campaigned on small-state and low-tax manifestos. From 2015 in Poland, and 2018 in Italy, social issues came to the front.  Pensions made it to the second item in the Lega 2018 manifesto (before immigration), while the 2019 PiS manifesto was titled A Polish welfare state model

These were not empty campaigning words. Both PiS and Lega increased social expenditure once in power –in the Italian case much less, given the short duration of the M5S-Lega government, but this was still significant as it was achieved in a short time and against the strong criticism of Eurozone institutions that demanded a commitment to deficit reduction. But what kind of social policy did they introduce? Besides some differences (mostly referable to the input from M5S in Italy), there are two strong similarities between the policies of the PiS government and those of the Lega-M5S: pension policy and family policy.

In the case of pensions, both Lega and PiS quickly reversed reforms that had been passed by previous government to postpone the retirement age. This in itself is a counter-shift from social investment to social protection, but more specifically the counter-reforms restored earlier retirement opportunities for women. In Poland, PiS lowered the retirement age from 67 to 65 for men and to 60 for women (which, within a defined contributions system, involves much lower pensions for most women). In Italy, Lega (which within the coalition held the responsibility for pension reform through deputy labour minister Claudio Durigon) reduced the retirement age from 67 to 62 (subject to 38 contribution years), but it also renewed and consolidated the so-called woman option scheme allowing women to retire earlier. It also proposed advantages for women's pensions in relation to the number of children, but this point was not passed within the short duration of that government. In both cases, a lower retirement age for women was explicitly advocated with reference to the important role that grandmothers play in families and in particular in childcare.

There are also interesting parallels at the intersection of family and social policies. The flagship new policy of PiS was the so-called “500+”: a generous, initially means-tested child benefit of 500PLN (ca 120€) for every child from the second on. In 2019, this was made universal and extended to first children. The popularity of this policy, which radically reduced the historical social problem of child poverty, was instrumental to PiS re-election in 2019, to the point that even opposition parties, which had previously criticised the measure as too expensive, stopped opposing it.

Moreover, the start of compulsory education was raised from 6 to 7 years of age, thereby extending the duration of family responsibility for children for many families. In Italy, Lega introduced policies that were less generous but went in the same direction. It increased natality benefits by 20%, while abolishing a baby sitter bonus that helped women to combine work with childcare. It also proposed new child benefits of 100-300€, but these were not approved by the coalition party. 

These specific family policies were clearly in the direction of promoting the maternity role of women even at the risk of hampering their role in the labour market. In practice, the generous 500+ policy did not lower women employment in Poland, as it had been feared, not did it increase the birth rate, as it had been promised. The shift in the orientation of social policy with regard to women was however to stay, even if in part compensated by other policies, such as investment in pre-school childcare in Poland.
These socio-economic policies are ideologically aligned with other family and reproductive policies. The PiS government restricted the right of abortion, was vocally anti-LGBT and eliminated most of sex education from school curricula. Lega, being in coalition with a culturally very different party, did not have the power for similar measures but its Minister for families was outspokenly against abortion and LGBT rights, and tried to modify divorce law in a pro-men direction.

The importance of social policies, which accounted for the largest new public expenditures both in Poland and Italy, show that rightwing populist parties take socio-economic issues strategically once in government. They fill, in a paternalist, traditionalist way, the demand for social protection that has emerged after years of privatisation, austerity and precarisation. More specifically, Lega and PiS used pension and child-benefit policies as instruments to massively enlarge their target electorate beyond the traditional right-wing anti-migration one: in particular, Lega (previously only campaigning in the North) reached to the poorer electorate of Southern Italy, while PiS mobilised the previously non-voting rural population. Lega in 2018 and PiS in 2015 made huge inroads in these demographic groups, characterised by both stronger social needs and more traditional values.

With them, the idea of natalism and family safety nets solving at once the demographic, migration, and social security problems may resonate, even if there is no actual sign that such policies can halt the demographic decline of their countries, or respond to the aspirations and needs of the younger generations.

Such policy activism is feasible in countries where Catholic traditionalism (distinct from the more politically balanced official one), or similar conservative values, are entrenched. The populist Aleksandar Vučič eagerly followed a similar orientation building on Orthodox traditionalism, while in more secular Hungary, Fidesz introduced some familistic policies, and attacked the gender ideology culturally, but without any expensive new social policy. In Spain and Portugal, Vox and Chega may try to imitate Lega and PiS' programmes if they get close to government. By contrast, in north-western Europe, where the traditional, multi-generation family has been declining for longer, and traditional Catholicism does not have similar tractions, populist right-wing parties will probably look at different sources of inspiration, from nationalism and authoritarianism to protestant work ethics. In all cases, though, rightwing populist parties are redefining the social agenda, and the Left would be advised to pay attention.
(Here, the Spanish version)

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