Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
Where could populism possibly run to? Mars? Seriously, it’s going to stick around, as it has always done in democracies. Leaving aside the (only politically opportune) distinction between good and bad populism, the fact remains that some political groups will continue to try to exploit the dichotomy of the elite vs. the people. The question is how receptive electorates will be to it.
Here, two considerations come into play. One is about substance, the other about perceptions. The second may be the easier part: by reaching out to citizens, politicians can narrow the perceived gap between them (as part of the elite) and the people. Citizens, too, can and should play a role: by engaging on issues of their concern, they can open a middle ground and blur this often-imaginary dividing line. After all, agency creates trust.
As always, working on substance is much harder—especially when, across the board, citizens in Western democracies have never had it so good, while particular groups have lost out on the past two decades of globalization. Reducing existing inequalities requires real policy work, including hard-fought compromises over unavoidable trade-offs. Not shying away from those necessitates leadership, which in turn should build on citizen involvement.
Krzysztof Blusz and Paweł ZerkaVice president of WiseEuropa and Head of the Foreign Policy Program at WiseEuropa
As a binary reading of democracy—pitching the general will against the corrupt elite—populism will always be there. It will serve as a canvas and a disliked benchmark for a more complex view provided by liberal democrats, with all their checks and balances, knotty coalitions, and rotten compromises.
Thus, if centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidency on May 7 or the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) “disappoints” in the German parliamentary election in September, European leaders may still like to be cautious not to slip into complacency. The popularity of radical political slogans—be they based on economic or identity issues—has clearly won some minds and should be read carefully as a message.
That message may be about the need to diversify political offerings against the mainstream’s convergence to the center that has made it so vulnerable to extreme parties. Or it may be about rebuilding trust in the EU and the union’s legitimacy vis-à-visthe nation-states. Alternatively, it may be about rearranging the contours of the public debate in response to the technological revolution. In the meantime, the mainstream should resist a more convenient solution of accepting populist narratives as their own. That would translate into populism’s rise from within. A morbid prospect.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Not so fast. Political populism is a phenomenon that arises from underlying political, economic, social, and technological forces. Because these forces are not reversible overnight—and many are likely to become more prominent—populism will remain a normal fixture of politics in the West for some time.
The real question is whether the political center can continue to hold the line, as it did in the March 2017 Dutch parliamentary election and is likely to do in the second round of the French presidential election on May 7. The fact that around 40 percent of French voters opted for either a far-right or a far-left candidate is a warning sign. If mainstream politicians cannot address voters’ fears and frustrations about the future, that share may be even larger next time around.
At the same time, observers should be careful not to treat every election nowadays as a bellwether. All elections have particular circumstances. In France, the right-wing National Front’s platform has deep roots in French domestic politics and has been around for decades. Similarly, the debate in the UK on the country’s exit from the EU is quintessentially British. What is true across the board, however, is that the traditional left-right divide is an ever less useful lens for making sense of elections in the West.
Claudia ChwaliszConsultant at Populus and fellow at the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics
No, recent elections in Austria, the Netherlands, and France highlight that populism is still an important force to be reckoned with in Europe. When then far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the French presidential election in 2002, there was a massive protest and he won only 18 percent of the vote in the runoff—a far cry from power.
Recently, by contrast, a populist far-right candidate came within a whisker of winning the presidency in Austria: he was defeated in a second-round runoff by only a few points.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) has the second-largest number of seats in the parliament after the March 2017 election and will likely form the official opposition once a government is established. A new Euroskeptic and anti-establishment party, Forum for Democracy, also won seats for the first time.
In France, the right-wing National Front has reached a new high with the number of votes it has won in a presidential election: 7.7 million in the first round of the 2017 contest on April 23. This figure will be even higher in round two on May 7.
While populists may have become more mainstream, they are certainly not on the run. Populists will continue to win some elections and lose others, and they will put pressure on moderate parties to adopt their rhetoric and policies. French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron highlights that mainstream parties should not give in; not all political outsiders need to be populists to win.
Marta DassùEditor in chief of Aspenia and senior director for European affairs at the Aspen Institute
I would really like to reply “yes” and close the computer. But I can’t. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, which is calling for a referendum on the country’s membership of the eurozone, is polling as the largest political party for the next parliamentary election.
To defeat what is called populism, three ingredients are of the essence. French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron put together two of them. First is the ability to interpret the widespread desire for change. Macron is part of the elite; and yet he was able to turn himself into a sort of homo novus, superseding both the traditional Left and the traditional Right. Second is the courage to defend Europe and globalization without ambiguity while promoting reforms: this is a very important lesson for the rest of the continent’s political leaders. But then you need some sort of grand coalition able to produce results for those sectors of society that feel left behind. This is the third and key ingredient.
It will be seen whether Macron, should he succeed in becoming president on May 7, will be able to form this coalition in the French parliamentary election in June. Germany will follow a similar path in September. Pro-European grand coalitions versus anti-euro populists: this is what the dynamics on the old continent are going to look like. Italy is next in line.
Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Populism is not an ideology or a movement. It’s a political tactic used by irresponsible politicians marketing themselves as outsiders to mobilize “us” (the masses) against “them” (the elites) to grab power.
The outsider image is generally more fiction than reality. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has held high office since 2003. UK Foreign Secretary and Brexit champion Boris Johnson is as establishment as they come. U.S. President Donald Trump was elected thanks to the decision of the mainstream Republican Party to swallow its doubts and support him. France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen comes from an old political dynasty.
And in each of these cases, the mathematics was tight and the result close. Trump won because of the peculiarities of the U.S. Electoral College and Erdoğan by manipulating the poll. France’s Emmanuel Macron squeaked into first place in the first round of the country’s presidential election on April 23 ahead of extreme Left and extreme Right in a close four-horse race.
Macron’s success shows that mainstream politicians have become a bit luckier and smarter, but there is no room for complacency. Voters in Western democracies still seem hungry for simple slogans and great communicators—a lesson British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn is about to learn in the most painful fashion.
Martin EhlJournalist at the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny
Not at all. Only after a period of increased panic in Europe’s liberal camp has populism found its real shape, stable support, and solid foundations. From a long-term perspective, populists’ vote shares are increasing steadily in EU countries as traditional parties offer weak answers to recent problems. Centrist Emmanuel Macron’s win in the first round of the French presidential election on April 23 means another, more cultivated outsider has come into the house to restore order, and nobody knows what will happen next.
Central Europe (including Austria) and Italy could become bastions of populism. While the political mainstream adopts a growing number of solutions originally proposed by populists, it remains hard to build clearly pro-EU and liberal political forces. Populists are likely to strengthen their performance in upcoming elections in the Czech Republic and Austria and cement their powers in Poland and Hungary.
The impact of the French presidential and Dutch parliamentary elections in Central Europe is limited. Macron—partly a populist, partly a candidate of the establishment—won the first round with a positive, European message. Central European voters, meanwhile, are attracted more by traditional topics based on a fear of change and of outside influence—be it from Brussels or from waves of refugees.
Thomas GrevenPolitical scientist at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and independent political consultant and commentator
True, the EU might have narrowly escaped a knockout blow, although it won’t be known for sure until the second round of the French presidential election on May 7. And U.S. President Donald Trump, the populists’ shining star, looks—well, not exactly more presidential, but more like a regular (if clueless) politician, his constant tweeting notwithstanding.
But none of the issues that have given rise to right-wing populists and authoritarian nationalists has been resolved. Anger about neoliberal globalization’s obvious injustices and the overwhelming aspects of cultural modernization has not dissipated. Politicians in the EU will continue to use Brussels as a punching bag to deflect criticism of their own policies. Like Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, they will also cater at least somewhat to the populists’ xenophobia and Islamophobia to win elections.
In the foreseeable future, there will be no majority at the supranational level to address any of the problems underlying people’s anger and fears. That might leave governments—with or without populists—with no other option than to respond to nationalist and protectionist measures elsewhere in kind, leading to exactly the kind of competitive nationalism (perhaps even ethnically defined, if anti-immigration legislation is passed) that the populists desire.
István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society
The victory of Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the French presidential election on April 23 proved not only that another populist right-wing politician can be defeated in Europe after the parliamentary vote in the Netherlands on March 15 but also that the victor can come from the center of the political spectrum. Now there is evidence that a moderate democratic politician does not necessarily have to take on elements of populist identity politics to succeed. On the contrary: a clear pro-European campaign in favor of open society might bring together more supporters than the opposite offer of an inward-looking national community.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government introduced a so-called national consultation entitled Stop Brussels, and the national parliament approved a law targeting the Central European University and academic freedom and wants to stigmatize NGOs as foreign agents. The European Parliament is holding a plenary debate on Hungary on April 26, the European Commission will issue an opinion on the university law, and the center-right European People’s Party will discuss the ongoing problems caused by its Hungarian member organization, Fidesz.
The year 2017 will not become the “year of rebellion,” as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán prophesized. Yet, 2017 will be crucial for whether the EU institutions and member states are ready to isolate an illiberal, populist regime within the union.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
Populism is the most overused word in today’s political lexicon. The most populist parties after 1945 were the Communists, then the Greens. The EU and immigration are targets of choice for populist parties, as are globalization and the Bilderberg Group of transatlantic elites. Populist movements of the Left like Spain’s Podemos or Greece’s Syriza have been as strong as those of the Right like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Populists announce they represent the true interests of the people against the elite establishment and its ruling parties. Populists promise much but deliver little. The problem for populism is that when it succeeds, it becomes part of the establishment and the target for the next anti-elite populist demagogue.
In most cases, existing parties adopt populist ideas—many parties have become green, and the British Tories have adopted UKIP’s anti-European rhetoric. Extreme populism as embodied in Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump can win. Then comes a backlash. The military-judicial state in America is exerting counterpressure against Trump’s populism. The electoral wins for pro-EU forces in Austria, the Netherlands, and France followed the triumph of Brexit populism, which is mainly confined to England outside London. When she wins her populist election on June 8, UK Prime Minister Theresa May will have to swap populism for realism unless she wants to do lasting damage to Britain.
Cas MuddeAssociate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia
Let’s make one thing clear: populism was never going to defeat democracy in 2017. In fact, even in 2016, populism didn’t win a popular majority in either the UK or the United States. Britain’s vote to leave the EU was about much more than populism, as was the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote (as is too often forgotten).
But while populism wasn’t as dominant as was hyped in 2016, it isn’t as irrelevant or passé as is being pushed now. In the Netherlands’ parliamentary election in March, the populist radical Right equaled its record score of 2010, although it is now divided between the old Party for Freedom (PVV) and the new Forum for Democracy (FvD).
Meanwhile, France’s Marine Le Pen set a stunning new record for the more than four-decades-old far-right National Front. Sure, her father made the second round of the 2002 presidential election, but Jean-Marie did so with 16.9 percent of the vote, while Marine won 21.3 percent—4.4 points more. More strikingly, Marine received 2.9 million more votes than Jean-Marie, which means that 60 percent more French people voted for the current leader than for her father. In other words, populism is still growing, slowly but steadily.
Milan NičSenior fellow for Central Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
Such triumphalism is short term and delusional. Yes, the far Right suffered a beating in the first round of the presidential election in France, at a key turning point for the EU. But in Hungary under the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as well as in Greece, Poland, and some other EU countries, populists are not on the run but running the show. Even in France, if one looks closer, populist candidates together received almost half of the vote on April 23. The far-right National Front might still win the French parliamentary election in June.
Let’s not forget that Europe’s societies are still very polarized, with many tensions running high. This is still an age of populism that gives strong cards to charismatic leaders who thrive on conflict and manipulation of national identities shaken by powerful processes of globalization. Huge parts of electorates can be mobilized against the system and elites, which they feel have let them down. French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron showed that politicians can also mobilize with hope and perspective. After all, elections are about a choice: the key is to have a credible alternative that can connect with society, especially young people, and stand up to the populists.
If elected president on May 7, Macron will need to heal a bitterly divided country and, at the same time, implement unpopular reforms. The tide might turn against him. One persistent danger is the so-called mainstreaming of populism. Even if populists lose elections, it is important to what extent their agendas shape and, at times, dominate the politics of their country—be it Austria, France, or the Netherlands.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The failure of the Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders to become prime minister in March and the failure of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to lead the pack going into the second round of France’s presidential election on May 7 may sound reassuring to many European democrats who would like to think that abrasive populist leadership is on the decline. It is not. Populist leaders remain strong in the EU, whether they are in positions of power or breathing down the necks of those in office.
Indeed, it was comforting that the xenophobic and Islamophobic views of the Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) and the French National Front were not victorious on March 15 and April 23, respectively. Faced with the prospect of such populist leaders coming to power, European citizens tend to have protective reflexes. Yet even if not in power, both leaders will have the capacity to influence policies in their countries, if only by forcing the traditional center Right to adopt more conservative views and by polarizing society with fierce anti-establishment and nationalist narratives.
In Hungary, power is in the hands of populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, of the national conservative Fidesz party. In July 2014, Orbán openly favored the concept of an “illiberal state” for Hungary and considered countries such as China, Russia, and Turkey “successful” nations.
Alina PolyakovaDirector of research, Europe, and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council
It’s far too soon to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s success in the first round of the French presidential election on April 23 and the second-place finish for Geert Wilders’s right-wing party in the Netherlands on March 15 are certainly good news for pro-European democratic forces. But they also point to the significant gains far-right populists have made at the expense of the centrists.
In the Netherlands, Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) forced the center-right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to adopt the far Right’s talking points on immigration. That worked for Rutte, but the same strategy failed for France’s center-right presidential candidate François Fillon, who by the end of the campaign started to sound a lot like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, with calls for France to abandon the EU’s Schengen agreement on passport-free travel and institute strict immigration controls.
It is a worrisome sign of the times that observers rejoice when parties once considered unelectable come in second or just fail to clench the presidency, as was the case in Austria, while center-right parties are forced to go on the defensive and the center Left collapses. The far Right is not going away anytime soon—these parties have been in the political game for a long time and have proved resilient and capable of mobilizing electoral support. It’s time for the centrists to develop a real strategy.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, seems hopeful on Twitter: “French vote, Dutch vote, recent elections & polls in US: beginning to think evidence growing that populism in West may have crested.”
Indeed, should the centrist contender Emmanuel Macron be the next French president, it would mark a huge defeat for France’s nationalist insurgence. A product of the elite National School of Administration (ENA), a former Rothschild banker, and a former minister, Macron managed to cast himself as an outsider. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen, born into a political dynasty, and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent Socialist politician since 1976, practiced the same exploit—old warhorses painted as rebels.
Yet it is too soon to declare the nationalist hydra dead. Donald Trump is in the White House. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rule with tight fists. Over 40 percent of French voted for protectionism and antiglobalism, Left and Right, in the first round of the presidential election on April 23. The Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo still aims at victory in Italy. In the United States, the UK, and France, populists have slain or wounded old parties, but new leaders who can sing the songs of reason and openness may be successful in the future.
Joseph SternbergEditorial-page editor of the European edition of the Wall Street Journal
On the run? The opposite.
The term “populism” is misused as a slur that can apply either to dangerous nationalism and demagoguery or to any political movement that highlights the disconnect between a remote political class and voters’ real concerns. In the latter sense, populism is going mainstream. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won the March 2017 parliamentary election by co-opting elements of far-right leader Geert Wilders’s platform, especially on crime and immigration, that the mainstream had ignored for too long. France’s François Fillon attempted the same by strengthening the center-right Republicans’ tone on the assimilation of immigrants. This co-optation of populist themes by mainstream politicians is healthy in a responsive political system.
The worry is that the demagoguery isn’t on the run, either. France has avoided a second-round presidential election runoff between far Right and far Left, but Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon still took nearly half the vote between them in the first round on the strength of Euroskeptic, highly statist economic programs tinged with xenophobia. That means half of French voters still have economic or security concerns the mainstream isn’t addressing adequately. No matter what happens on May 7, Le Pen’s style of populism will persist, and perhaps grow, until mainstream candidates can prove their prescriptions are the right cure for the ills voters believe they suffer.
Tessa SzyszkowitzHistorian and journalist
Populism is not dead, but it is transforming. Extreme-right populist forces, the winners in 2016, are evolving into different identities in 2017. Here is a look at the example of the UK.
What happened to the populist Brexiteers since the June 2016 vote to leave the EU? Nigel Farage quit the leadership of his anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP); the party itself lost its only member of parliament, the Conservative convert Douglas Carswell; and UKIP stands to win zero seats in the general election on June 8. The party’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, will not even try to run for a seat and is campaigning instead for a burka ban to reposition UKIP as an anti-Islam party.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, absorbed the populism of the Conservative Brexiteers as she transformed from Euroskeptic Remainer to Mrs. Hard Brexit. She promises London bankers and strawberry pickers alike everything they want to hear and has failed to prepare her population for the economic consequences of Brexit. You can call this populist or simply reckless.
Such a stance certainly comes more easily to her than to the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who can be called the antithesis of populism. One lesson to learn: populism might not be the worst of all political diseases.
Ben TonraProfessor of international relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin
Populism is a substantive political phenomenon in need of detailed analysis and acknowledgment of its many complexities. The term itself is used and abused too frequently and often applied so widely (and badly) as to devalue its meaning.
However, what has been seen over the last forty years is the ongoing advance—across an increasing number of national political systems—of parties and movements that would previously have been dismissed as marginal extremists but that now seriously contend for presidencies, cabinet seats, and the chance to lead coalitions. The fact that such parties have suffered recent setbacks (or simply failed to fulfill their own extravagant expectations) in Australia, Austria, the Netherlands, or France can give little comfort.
As one international expert in the field, Duncan McDonnell, put it, “this is a LONG-TERM trend. It’s like stocks/climate change - values go up & down some years but the overall trend is fairly clear.” It is that trend that needs analysis, especially from those leading the so-called traditional political parties. Arguably, their failures have opened the political space for extremists, their fellow travelers, and their foreign patrons. Intellectually and politically, the cry must be “Aux armes, citoyens !” (“To arms, citizens!”).
Richard YoungsSenior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program
Populism is unlikely to adhere to any single, uniform trend. It is a diverse and varied phenomenon—indeed, the term is now often used rather too elastically. Although there are commonalities among populist parties, their respective fates hinge on the specificities of national politics. This means that some populist parties may continue to do well while others peak and start to lose support.
Over the last year and a half, much commentary has built populism up to be global politics’ most acute, all-encompassing challenge. Now, debate is moving to the other extreme of focusing on populism’s supposed demise. Both positions are likely to prove too stark and overstated.
In many parts of the world, populism is not on the run because it has not been on the march. Conversely, it would be risky to concoct a narrative of populism’s retreat based on the 2017 Dutch parliamentary and French presidential elections.
It is sobering that observers are now asking whether populism is on the run when extremist parties finish a strong second place rather than winning national elections. What is judged as success and failure for such parties has shifted radically.
Most fundamentally: nothing has yet emerged in terms of political or economic change that gets close to addressing populism’s causal drivers.