Populists Are Not Taking Over Europe — But They’re Not Leaving Either

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epa05949125 French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen delivers a speech after being defeated in the second round of the French presidential elections at the Chalet du Lac in Paris, France, 07 May 2017. French presidential election candidate for the 'En Marche!' (Onwards!) political movement, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the final round of France's presidential election, with exit polls indicating that Macron is leading with approximately 65 per cent of the vote. EPA/IAN LANGSDON

Daniele Albertazzi writes for The Birmingham Perspective:


The political developments of the last year have inspired a flurry of articles and analyses on the future of populism in Europe. However, too often the deployment of “populism” is inconsistent, loose, and undefined, and the commentary tends to be characterized by unfounded claims about either the populists’ alleged successes or their impending demise.

Populism is not the attempt to put forward “popular” proposals, nor is it about appealing to emotions during campaigns — otherwise every politician should by default be called a “populist” and the term would become useless. The essence of populism is not necessarily overpromising.

Whether we conceive of populism as a “thin”, simplistic ideology attaching itself to other ideologies (for instance, socialism and nationalism), or “just” a rhetorical style, its core argument is that the people — depicted as virtuous and homogeneous — are always pitted against a set of elites, who are depriving the people of everything they own from their material wealth to their very identity. The core of populism is its anti-establishment rhetoric and anti-elitism.

Following the events leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, it may be understandable to find so many commentators buying into a narrative where Europe is on the verge of being “swept” by a populist tide. This narrative often reveals the Anglo-centric perspective of its proponents, as it is predicated on an understanding of political competition whereby only two or three actors can have a go at forming the government, usually on their own.

But the majority of European electoral systems have strong elements of proportionality. In several — for instance, France, Germany, Belgium, and, more recently, the Netherlands — mainstream parties find it very difficult to engage in forms of collaboration with their populist competitors, so the picture on our continent seems more nuanced. This does not mean, as some commentators have concluded after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election, that populism must now have “peaked”, let alone that it is on the way out. Assertions of this kind are not substantiated by the electoral data, nor indeed by a simple consideration of how often populists have been included in governing coalitions in recent years.

European populist parties have quite simply seen their vote share increase steadily and consistently since the 1970s. Even the recent and much-discussed “defeats” that populists are alleged to have suffered in the Netherlands, France, and Austria were very honourable. Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom increased its tally of seats in the Dutch ballot, the Austrian Norbert Gerwald Hofer came very close to the Presidency with 46% of the vote, and Marine Le Pen attracted a much higher vote share than her father ever did when attempting to capture France’s highest office.

All the signs are that populists have a realistic hope to go on being included in government coalitions in several countries. This has happened on numerous occasions in the recent past, and shrinking support for moderate parties militates in favour of populists remaining “coalitionable”.

In countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Hungary, Poland, and others, this has happened fairly recently — and in Denmark and the Netherlands populists have provided essential external support to executives. In many European countries it is the populist parties that are now the most seasoned and durable parties, sometimes benefiting from very rooted and efficient organisations. In other words, they are not “new” challengers but quite the opposite.

The time has come to take populists seriously as builders of organizations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power. Their success may be far from inevitable, but they are definitely here to stay.

Marine Le Pen speaks after her defeat in the second round of the French Presidential elections, May 2017 (Ian Langsdon/EPA

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