Populism is a ‘folk theory’ of government. But to use the word ‘theory’ would be an exaggeration and beautifying of reality; populism is rather quite an incoherent collection of thoughts, with formulations of what one is against rather than what one is for, usually in selected fields only. In some fields, there may be clearer formulations, but rarely in comprehensive and balanced forms. Such folksy thinking is particularly appealing to marginalised groups, often with less education and political expertise than what one would find in the established parties and democratic political ideologies.

Although I am generally sceptical of populist movements, I must also admit that such groups can take up important issues, neglected by the existing, mainstream parties. Donald Trump in America and, to some extent, Imran Khan in Pakistan, are populist politicians, and it is typical that they are protest politicians, who claim they will put ‘everything’ in order and restore greatness. American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, too, has some populist characteristics. But he bases his policy proposals more on expert analyses than on people’s sentiments alone, and that isn’t populism.

Few of us can quite get used to the possibility of seeing Donald Trump as president in USA – or Marine Le Pen in France, the leader of the ultra-conservative National Front party there. In Austria, though, many actually did imagine, and even wanted, the ultra-conservative populist Nobert Hofer as president. Sheer luck that it didn’t happen!

Alexander van der Bellen just managed to win the Austrian presidential election last Sunday, getting a few tens of thousands more votes, out of close to five million, than Nobert Hofer. It could just as well have swung the other way.

Van der Bellen on his side is a ‘semi-standard’ mainstream politician, earlier leading the Austrian Green Party, which also has some populist leaning, as any young party would have. Now, Van der Bellen must represent all Austrians and try to unify everyone from his environmentalist activists on the left and center, through traditional mainstream parties of the social democrats, the centrists and the traditional right, yes, and even all the right-wingers, who didn’t want him in the land’s top post. The right-wingers too must be included, but only a little of their policies. Yet, something must be done to include them in the mainstream political traditions, otherwise they could win the parliamentary elections coming in two years, and that is for parliament where the power lies rather than in the mostly ceremonial, yet, prestigious and indirectly influential presidential post.

The two other candidates in the Austrian presidential election this year were from the mainstream parties, one candidate to the left of centre, the Social Democratic Party, and one from the centre-right People’s Party. They both dropped out in the first round of the election, receiving just about eleven percent of the votes. In the wake, the Social Democratic Prime Minister was changed for another party colleague, thus admitting the party’s shortcomings in strategy and being out of touch with popular opinions.

For a few decades, Austria has had a major ultra-conservative, populist party, the Freedom Party (in Austria’s mother tongue German, ‘Freiheitliche Partei Österreihcs’, FPÖ); the first successful leader Jörg Haider gained large voter support and became a minister in a coalition government in 2000; and the Freedom Party has also been a government member after that. Haider passed away in a car accident in 2008, but the Freedom Party continued ‘fishing in troubled waters’, notably caused by economic recession, high influx of refugees and immigrants, and frustration with the establishment politicians. Well, the number of asylum seekers doesn’t matter; it is used as an excuse to keep away newcomers with darker skin, a typical opinion of a party of this kind, which simply wants to keep ‘Austria for Austrians’, recalling that when the Freedom Party was founded in 1956 it had many old Nazis and chequered sympathisers in its leadership and membership.

This time around, presidential candidate Norbert Hofer barely lost the presidential elections. He is a polished candidate, even said to be a sympathetic person, appealing to ultra-conservatives and many ordinary people who are disappointed with the traditional, perhaps a bit over-confident politicians who think they have the right to rule, feeling best to continue administering the modern welfare state in Austria.

Norbert Hofer also appealed to people in small-town and rural Austria, and in city segments, where many traditional and old-fashioned values are kept, albeit not being right-wing extremist. Many such voters would be worried about the fast changes taking place in our uncertain time, and they would find resonance in the simple, everyday talk of the Freedom Party leader and his party members.

One could say that many of the voters would not know much about politics, but that may be a bit arrogant of me to say. Yet, I still think so, and I also think that the same attitudes are a problem for the establishment parties; we think we know best and that if we explain well issues and values to the voters, they will have to agree with us, not noting that at the same time, there are the populists who seemingly listen more to ordinary people than the old party leaders do. Besides, many don’t quite understand what the professional, establishment politicians talk about in their correct and often complicated language and reasoning, based on studies and expert consultants’ advice.

The establishment politicians may well be right; indeed, they probably are right most of the time, but if the voters don’t get what they say, what points they make, and how they prioritise mainly to keep the status-quo, then the establishment politicians lose out. It becomes boring for many voters to listen to establishment politicians, and it takes some effort on the side of the voters to engage in and understand their political reasoning. Such voters look for something else then, something they think that can lead to real change based on simplistic and propagandistic analyses, sometimes, too, with hidden (or open) racial and other prejudices. Populist politics may sound different and strong for those who are not part of the old politicians’ world.

In Scandinavia, too, we reflect on – and worry about – the upcoming ultra-conservative populist parties. In Norway, such a party is a partner in the current conservative coalition government. They are on the right, sure, but they are not as extreme as the Austrians, indeed not the Sweden Democrats, who the other parties there don’t want to deal with at all; yet, they have about twenty percent of the voters behind them. In Denmark and Finland, the right-wing wind has blown for a long time.

A few days ago, Peter Wolodarski, editor-in-chief of Sweden’s most influential liberal-centrist newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, reflected on the political situation at home and the news from Austria. He said that we have in a nasty way accepted and become used to the possibility that anti-liberal forces can receive significant support in democratic elections. And, it seems, we are doing little to stop them. We don’t know how to do it, or maybe, many don’t want to do it?

If that is the case, we do indeed need a revival of the West’s democratic thinking and conscious values, and that means also the democratic thinking everywhere else in the world, since the West is still in most ways the custodian of democratic thinking and agenda. More than that, it means that many existing democratic achievements and the concept of democracy are under threat.

The way Europe has handled the immigration issues in the last years, make me worry. The West should have welcomed and been actively open for people who are uprooted and in dire need of help at home and abroad, not focus on the opposite, their own problems in receiving fleeing people. Now, even mainstream parties listen to the populists about migration and in other fields.

Let us do what we can to stop this trend wherever we are in the world. Let us stop and discredit the simplistic populist thoughts. And we should remember, too, that Austria and the rest of Europe have a great political social and cultural history, and there are still many good people believing in their proud democratic traditions. I believe that we will rise to the occasion and do what is needed for the future, after the current dithering and populist down-period. God help us if we don’t!