Populism in Europe: Can the New Left Defeat it?

Just published on Impakter:



Trump is the face of populism in America and the midterms have shown that a Democratic “blue wave” could stop and even defeat it. How about populism in Europe? After the traditional parties on the left collapsed and the center right à la Emmanuel Macron is stalling, political winds are turning. A New Left is rising, as recent elections in Germany have shown. Can this New Left defeat populism?

The next elections for the European Parliament in May 2019 will be the first big test for the New Left, with Europe as the prize. If populists win, the European Union and the dream of a United Europe will be badly broken as a retrograde “Europe of Nations” is installed. If the New Left wins, Europe will come out strengthened but it will have to undergo deep structural reform to bring its institutions closer to the people - and away from the private corporate interests that hold it hostage now.

The full extent of the growth of populism in Europe was  revealed this week in groundbreaking research conducted by the UK Guardian with inputs from leading political scientists and covering national elections in 31 European countries over two decades.

The findings are striking and show that populist votes have tripled since 1998, with one in four Europeans voting populist:


Credit: U.K. Guardian (screenshot)
Twenty years ago, populists were rarely in government: Only 12.5 million Europeans lived in countries where at least one cabinet member was a populist. Today the figure has jumped to 172 million. Note, as shown in the graph above, the research counts equally populist parties on the right, left and middle, but the “irresistible rise of the far right and populism”, as many UK Guardian readers have commented, is the crux of the matter. Far right populists have nearly tripled their votes, from less than 5 percent in 1998 to some 14 percent in 2018.

The rise of extreme right populism has been accompanied by a deep crisis in center-left parties that have suffered a sharp drop in support in several countries across Europe, notably in Germany when the German Social Democrats retreated in the 2017 German federal elections; in France when the Socialist Party collapsed in the French presidential and legislative elections in 2017; likewise in Italy with the Democratic Party (PD) going to a historic minimum in Italy in 2018.

Center-left parties are currently part of only six EU governments out of the 28 member states, notably in Spain with Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) who came to power in May 2018. However the PSOE is not the “New Left”. Founded in 1879, it is the oldest party in Spain and, historically, the one most often in power (most recently from 2004 to 2011 under Zapatero). Moreover Sanchez has a very thin margin (only 84 seats over 350) that constrains his ability to steer policies. Most analysts don’t expect him to finish his mandate (it ends in July 2020). As of now his government is “blocked” on the budget issue and new elections are probable.

Why Populism is Successful

There are four reasons:
  1. Populist politicians are able to convince their audiences that they do not belong to the hated traditional political system, that they are not part of the establishment, of the “corrupt elite”; Trump famously succeeded in convincing his fan base that he could bring his businessman’s savvy to government (“the art of the deal”) even though, as a real estate tycoon,  he is clearly an oligarch, part of the “corrupt elite”; 
  2. They focus on simple issues that people feel are close to them, threatening their personal well-being, like migrants taking their jobs and splurging on public services or China flooding the market with cheap goods; both are presented as sources of “unfair” competition and the cause of destruction of employment in manufacture;
  3. They are masters at stirring up emotions, a winning technique to drive voters to the polls as Trump amply demonstrated in the US midterms, cynically causing fear and anger with fake news about a supposed migrant invasion, a “caravan” threatening the southern border;
  4. They have been helped by the rise in social media over the past two decades; as noted by Claudia Alvares, professor at Lusofonia University Lisbon, “social media are very permeable to the easy spread of emotion”; they are also very permeable to cyber war techniques by the Russians and voter manipulations; the Cambridge Analytica scandal that affected millions of Americans on Facebook is proof.
Populism is on the march everywhere in Europe, notably in Eastern Europe where democracies are new. What is more surprising is to see populists leaders win power in West European countries where nobody expected them to be that successful:
  1. In Italy, right-wing and left-wing populism came to power together, in May 2018, a historical first and an unlikely alliance, built on the 17 percent won by Matteo Salvini’s extreme right League and the 33 percent won by Luigi Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement;
  2. In Sweden, this summer when the Sweden Democrats,  a populist far-right anti-immigration party founded in 1988, with Nazi roots, had its best-ever results:
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Featured image creditjeangui111


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