Populist parties in Europe: From the margins to the mainstream

THOMAS THIELEMANS
LANDER DANIËLS – ILLUSTRATIONS

In a climate of lacklustre economic growth, unemployment and growing Islamophobia, populist and radical parties have been surging in popularity in many European nations, gaining legislative seats, enjoying the legitimacy endowed by ministerial offices, and striding the corridors of government power. Meanwhile, centre-left social democrats and centre-right traditional parties who have dominated national politics for many years are struggling to win elections. This trend has left Europe’s traditional parties and their more centrist leaders scrambling to survive — and in some cases tacking toward people they once considered extremists in order to do so.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

1. Introduction

As the European leaders came together in Bratislava mid-September 2016 at an informal summit intended to map a new path for the EU in the wake of Brexit, the mood was sombre. At issue was the future of the EU’s so-called four freedoms – the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. Meeting in the Slovak capital with the British conspicuously absent, the 27 other EU members unveiled a six-month “road map” of measures designed to restore public confidence in Europe’s ailing common project. But with anti-establishment sentiment rising, politicians do not regard trade as a vote winner. Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, shattered the facade of unity as soon as the meeting ended, underscoring how divided the bloc remains after years of economic crisis, a record influx of migrants and a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

Against this background, it is not a surprise that after decades at the margins of political life, European populist and radical parties are making a political comeback across the continent. These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it.[1]

As a result, parties such as France’s Front National and Germany’s anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland have established a clear presence in a diverse array of established democracies and entered coalition governments.

This development has occurred in both predominately Catholic and Protestant societies, in Nordic and Mediterranean Europe, as well as in liberal Norway and conservative Switzerland, in Western Europe and in Anglo-American democracies.[2]

In other countries – particularly the nations of southern Europe, which, with memories of fascism and dictatorship still very much alive, have proved reluctant to flirt with right-wing extremism – it is the far left that is advancing. While populists on the far right rail against migrants, their cousins on the far left join them in blaming globalisation for economic ills.

2. Populism

The agrarian Populist (or People’s) Party in the 1890s in the United States is often mentioned as the origin of what we call populism today. The party challenged the established two party system with its critique of the moneyed interests and ended up merging with, and somewhat transforming, the Democratic Party.[3]

In modern Europe, populist movements stoke public anxieties and resurgent nationalism by lashing out against the surge in refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, while portraying Brussels, the capital of Europe, as a bastion of the political establishment out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. These parties are poised to transform the European political landscape – either by winning elections or simply by pulling a besieged political centre so far in its direction that its ideas become the new normal.

According to Jagers and Walgrave populism always refers to the people and justifies its actions by appealing to and identifying with the people.
It is rooted in anti-elite feelings; and it considers the people as a monolithic group without internal differences except for some very specific categories who are subject to an exclusion strategy. Together, these three elements define populism”.[4]

Positions of mainstream and radical populist parties can vary substantially, especially on the nationalist side: from anti-establishment to neo-fascist, nationalist to anti-austerity, authoritarian to populist, libertarian to Catholic ultra-conservative. They are so varied that they cannot feasibly be grouped under the same label.

As Krastev has noted, “(t)he result is a new type of politics where the main structural conflict is not between the Left and the Right or between reformers and conservatives. The real clash is between elites that are becoming more suspicious of democracy and the angry publics that are becoming more hostile to liberalism.”[5]

Populism is seen as both a reaction to, and a product of, the growing distance between citizens and their institutions of governance, whether that is at state or European level. The frustration and disillusionment of ever-growing groups of Europeans is mostly caused by the behaviour of the European political elites, who, when their lofty ideals are confronted with concrete problems, quickly abandon their moral high ground and hide behind the alleged preferences of the populations.[6]

As a result, the EU’s compromise machine is increasingly perceived as an institutionalised grand coalition between the centre-left and the centre-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.

In a bid to shore up European support amid populist gains, Mario Draghi, Donald Tusk and Christine Lagarde, three leading EU voices of economic liberalism, issued late September 2016 separate pleas to address the plight of those “left behind” by globalisation or risk a political backslash that could roll back competition and open markets. These interventions underline the degree of worry among EU policymakers about protectionism, populism and anti-establishment currents coursing through democratic politics.[7]

Populist parties share a distrust of those they perceive as elite policy-makers and a desire to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions.

The rise of populism could have far-reaching consequences for trade and economic policy-making and the existing trade and broader economic architectures, as illustrated by the on-off talks over the European Union’s comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) with Canada. Some critics argue that the dominant Socialists in the Wallonian government used the issue to reinforce their position against hard-left rivals.

At member state level, populists blame the politicians of traditional parties of catering to unknown interests at the expense of their own people, and of inefficacy in a rapidly changing world.

Populists play on fear and demagoguery instead of engaging in constructive dialogue to help improve public life. They try to claim the mantle of democratic participation, while posing a most pressing and difficult challenge to democratic institutions.[8]

Added to these factors are rising fears of insecurity and less tangible threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist attacks, organised crime and uncontrolled immigration. Furthermore, the economic crisis, the constraints of Eurozone membership and economic fears about the cost of globalisation have opened up space for anti-establishment parties, mainly on the conservative nationalist right, to eat deeply into social democracy’s core electorate.

WESTERN EUROPE

In Western Europe, there are several new right-wing populist actors who have begun to change the political landscapes and who, while in opposition and with limited electoral support, have influenced sitting governments’ policies.

AUSTRIA

The Austrian presidential election opened a new chapter in the story of European populism. There, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party candidate who ran as an independent, prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far right head of state by narrowly defeating Norbert Hofer, the leader of Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), one of Europe’s longest-established nationalist movements.[9] The centre-right and centre-left parties barely polled 10% each.

A rerun of the presidential election was postponed after the adhesive seals on postal votes were found to have come unstuck. The rerun, which was ordered after complaints of anomalies in the counting of postal votes from the FPÖ, had been due to take place on 2 October. It will now be held on 4 December.[10]

France

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is experiencing steadily rising popularity as the country prepares for national elections next year. Ms Le Pen is expected to pull strongly in 2017, pushing socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. The party regularly issues statements lambasting the Élysée for its “huge disinterest” in France’s “industrial jewels”.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

The FN has built much of its success over the past two years on an effort to win over working class voters. Nationwide, about 45% of blue-collar workers and 38% of unemployed people or youngsters looking for their first job say they are planning to vote for Ms Le Pen. These voters are disillusioned by the traditional left but attracted by others offering a break with the status quo.[11]

In an effort to create more jobs, Mr Hollande shifted towards the political centre over the past years by embracing supply side reform. But this has incurred the anger of the left.

The horrific Bastille Day attack on Nice, in which a Tunisian delivery driver killed 84 people when he drove a heavy lorry at full-speed into a crowd watching fireworks, will be a defining concern in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The Front National, which has accused the political class of failing to protect France, has already seen an increase in membership applications since the attack. Its key issues of security, immigration and national identity will dominate the debate.

Germany

In Germany, populist forces shook Europe’s pillar of stability, as an unprecedented defeat for Ms Merkel’s conservatives signalled more political tumult across Europe. For the first time in post-war history, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finished behind a populist challenger to their political right in a regional election.

In the immediate aftermath, she urged politicians across the house to rein in the hostile tone of the debate over refugees and said traditional parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right. Later that month, Ms Merkel was forced to change tack over her open-door approach to refugees after the CDU suffered another defeat in the Berlin regional elections.[12]

Although Ms Merkel successfully weathered crisis after crisis and contained conflicts by pragmatic compromise rather than dramatic intervention, the recent German election shows that that even in a state like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, largely insulated from the refugee crisis, many European voters do not at present have sufficient confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the current issues.

Feeding off widespread discontent over immigration, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 at the height of Greek debt crisis. Frauke Petry and co-founder Bernd Lucke, an academic, transformed it from a small Eurosceptic party into the country’s most powerful anti-immigrant force. Its performance in the regional elections mid-March 2016 was the best by any populist right-wing movement since 1945. That said, the AfD attracted only 24 per cent of the vote, which is far less than France’s Front National gets in its strongholds.

Italy

In Italy, recession, austerity and the migration crisis have strained Rome’s ties with Brussels, triggering criticism from the government of Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, and forcing him to adopt a much more confrontational tone in his dealings with Brussels.

Like many other Mediterranean countries, Italy is on the frontline of the migration crisis and Mr Renzi has faced political heat from the right-wing opposition, such as the Northern League party, which says he is not being aggressive enough in attempts to stop the flow of migration or deport undocumented migrants. Led by Matteo Salvini, the party is now challenging Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for dominance of Italy’s right.

While Italy’s youth unemployment dropped under Mr Renzi’s government, many Italian youngsters channel their discontent by supporting the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds softer positions on immigration and the euro. The party adopts hard-line Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions designed to appeal to a right-wing audience across Italy. In the summer of 2016, the party scored major victories by winning mayoral elections in Turin and, more important, in the capital, Rome.

For the government of Mr Renzi, the landslide victory of M5S could not come at a worse time. Italy has been grappling with its troubled banks, whose problems have dominated the news all summer and have provoked worries of a major bank failure.

Another dominant issue in Italian politics will be the high-stakes referendum on constitutional reform set for 4 December, which could determine the fate of Mr Renzi.

The purpose of the referendum is to make the country more stable and easier to govern. The measures proposed by Mr Renzi would slash the power of the Senate, reduce the number of lawmakers and give the central government greater control over infrastructure projects than regional bodies.

Much like Brexit in the UK, this referendum is increasingly being seen as a way for Italians to air their general discontent with the establishment, in large part because Mr Renzi swore that he would leave politics if the referendum did not go his way. If he loses his gamble, the results of the referendum could have vast consequences for Italy and the whole of Europe. A defeat could potentially open the door to a new national election that could see the M5S push the ruling party out of power.[13]

The fear is that a No vote could plunge Italy back into a period of instability and embolden the country’s growing Eurosceptic parties. In such a scenario, it is not out of the question that Italy could end up exiting the EU or the euro.[14]

Central and Eastern Europe

In this part of Europe, people by and large do not feel represented by political parties. First of all, substantial parts of the leadership of post-communist political parties have participated in institutionalised corruption. Secondly, all of the parties have advocated the neoliberal capitalism most people have come to see as a political and economic system that makes their lives worse.[15]

In these post-communist EU member states a vulgar version of populism emerged, represented by new political leaders such as the Czech president Miloš Zeman, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. In Slovakia, a neo-Nazi party made an electoral breakthrough by gaining 14 seats in the 150-strong parliament. These right-wing leaders are hostile to immigrants, while critics say the governments of these countries are also rewriting national laws to undermine democratic checks and balances.[16]

Early October 2016, almost all Hungarians who voted in the referendum rejected EU quotas for the resettlement of refugees. Mr Orbán’s aim in the referendum was to demonstrate that his brand of nationalism commands the enthusiastic support of Hungarian society. However, only forty per cent of those eligible voted, well below the fifty per cent threshold required to make the result legally valid, frustrating Mr Orbán’s hopes of a clear victory with which to challenge Brussels.

Academic criticism

High profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’. While other authors claim to believe that the success and threat of radical right parties is exaggerated in the mass media, there is no doubt that far right parties have become a (and perhaps the) main political actor in some European countries.

“The success of populist parties in Europe is very problematic”, says Stefaan Rummens, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the KU LEUVEN. “These political groups indicate a deeper problem within our democracy. Both the symptom itself as the root causes are very serious and both (the symptom and the cause) must be addressed”

“I’m convinced that the root causes of populism is the rapid rise of the (neoliberal) technocracy which has gradually shrunk the power of traditional politics. As a result, traditional politicians at the national level lack the necessary tools for political decision-making. Basically, today’s socio-economic policies are determined on the European level rather than at the national level. European policymaking has become the preserve of technocrats and, also, it does not offer the possibility of a democratic opposition that could voice a different European policy. As such, public discontent against traditional political parties has risen, and at the same time there is a growing consensus for anti-establishment protest movements with populist undertone.”

Rummens also argues that populism as a ‘symptom’ should be dealt with by imposing a ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy. “These groups often defend extremist (and undemocratic) ideas and should therefore be excluded from power. Meanwhile, the populist voter itself must indeed be taken seriously and must be addressed respectively. Our response should not be based on the (often) extremist proposals of the parties, but rather by reforming our democratic system so that once again it can truly meet the demands and the needs of the voter. This is, however, not an easy task. First of all, the extent of technocracy has to be reduced. Also, our elected politicians must regain some power over the socio-economic policy decision-making. As mentioned in my book, this will only be possible if we democratise the European Union itself. Europe is still primarily an economic project that, by liberalising the market, has severely put pressure on a number of social benefits. A strong, democratic Europe should be able to give its citizens the feeling that they can rely on the EU for social and economic protection.”

“As long as the root causes of populism (the ‘symptom’) have not been removed, its success will only continue to increase. The problem and the danger of populist parties have been underestimated for many years”.[17]

Also Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, argues that the tragedy of European politics today is a polarisation between technocracy and populism.“Populists, when in power, will always pretend that they are merely implementing what the people have told them to do, rendering any opposition by definition. Technocrats claim that they merely bow to necessities; hence any opposition is plainly irrational. Neither really takes responsibility for political decisions.”[18]

In short, populism and technocracy are two sides of the current crisis of European democracy. The separation between the forum of political decision‐making (reduced to mere administration) and the place of mobilisation causes populist and ideological turbulence.

Social scientists Giorgos Katsambeki and Yannis Stavrakakis argue that, ultimately, it would be more beneficial to critically engage with both populism and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity.

CONCLUSION

Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism in Europe: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma. The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorise any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.

Too many commentators have underestimated the depth of discontent, as happened in Britain before the EU referendum. The task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity.


[1] Sasha Polakow-Suransky (01.11.2016). “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/the-ruthlessly-effective-rebranding-of-europes-new-far-right).

[2] Pippa Norris (2006). “Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market”, Massachusetts: Harvard University.

[3] Thomas Greven (05.2016). “The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and the United States: A Comparative Perspective”, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[4] Jan Jagers and Stefaan Walgrave (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46 (3), pp. 319-346.

[5] Krastev, I. (2007). “The populist movement”

[6] Mudde, C. (2016). “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe”. Routledge.

[7] Claire Jones and Alex Barker (14.09.2016). “Draghi makes appeal for those ‘left behind’”. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8]Hedwig Giusto, David Kitching and Stefano Rizzo (2013). The Changing Faces of Populism. Systemic Challengers in Europe and the U.S. Lexington Books.

[9] Ralph Atkins (23.04.2016). “Austria’s main parties face electoral rout”, Financial Times, p. 4.

[10] Kate Connolly (12.09.2016). “Austrian presidential election postponed due to faulty glue”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/austria-presidential-election-rerun-to-be-postponed-faulty-glue-ballot-papers).

[11] Gérard Courtois and Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon (26.09.2016). “Sarkozy rattrape Juppé, Macron bouscule le paysage politique avant la présidentielle”, (Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2016/09/26/sarkozy-rattrape-juppe-macron-bouscule-le-paysage-politique_5003430_4854003.html#kAoq9JQdvQLcgcfi.99).

[12] Philip Oltermann (05.09.2016). “Angela Merkel’s crown slips after party’s local election defeat” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/05/angela-merkel-germany-mecklenberg-vorpommern-election-analysis).

[13] Stephanie Kirchgaessner (6.08.2016). “Will Italy be Europe’s next casualty as Renzi risks all on referendum?” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/06/matteo-renzi-italy-referendum-banks-brexit).

[14] James Politi (17.03.2016). “How Italy fell out of love with the EU”, Financial Times, p. 7.

[15] Jakub Patočka (15.09.2016). “Miloš Zeman makes Nigel Farage look like a nice guy. It’s even worse than that” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/15/milos-zeman-czech-republic-president-populists-post-communist).

[16] Jim Yardley (24.06.2016). “Populist Anger Upends Politics on Both Sides of the Atlantic” (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/25/world/europe/brexit-eu-politics.html).

[17] Stefan Rummens, (personal communication, 12.09.2016).

[18] Jan-Werner Müller (05.10.2016). “Genuine political choice provides the best antidote to populism”. Financial Times: p. 15.