The elections of March 15th in The Netherlands officially opened the long season of electoral consultations scheduled in many EU Member States this year. As populist candidates have gained considerable momentum after Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S., the spectre of a further shock to the system is hunting continental Europe as well.
In the Netherlands, many have cheered the defeat of the anti-system, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-EU and anti-Euro party of Geert Wilders, in what has been characterised as the first electoral test for European populism. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that, even though Mr Rutte has secured his re-election, his party lost eight seats compared to the 2012 elections while Mr Wilders gained five more than on the last consultation. This closing of the gap should concern many: the increasing support for populist actors and the widespread shift to the right of mainstream politics, proves how right-wing populists are dominating public debate and influencing other parties’ agenda and priorities.
In France, despite polls seem to confirm that the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, would lose in the second turn to her opponent Emmanuel Macron, tensions are still high. Born as an openly racist, anti-Semitic and extremist party, the FN has been widely re-branded by Mme Le Pen, who has successfully toned down the radical rhetoric of her father and founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen. With its shift to Euroskepticism, fierce opposition to multiculturalism and furious anti-Islam stands, the FN has now broadened its electoral base and attracted a wide variety of supporters. Marine Le Pen has succeeded in what has been labelled a dédiabolisation (“un-demonization”), that is to say, a normalisation of the party’s image.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, following a referendum defeat to which he had tied his own political office, it is still unclear when Italy will hold general elections. In this political fermentation, the Five Stars Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo, is set to become one of the largest forces emerging from the next election. Building on Italians’ increasing disillusionment and frustration with politics, the party takes a pure populist stand by voicing to tear down the establishment in the name and with the help of ordinary citizens, whose honesty and popular wisdom will be enough to run the country against the failure of expertise and professionalism.
Even though no particular concern about a potential populist drift surrounds Germany’s September election, the country has its own brand new anti-establishment and illiberal opponent. Alternative fur Deutschland, formally founded in 2013, has caught the public’s attention for its fast-growing platform of supporters. The party has indeed performed well in the last regional elections and is expected to enter the Parliament this September. It would be the first time after WWII that far-right representatives secure seats in the national electoral body of the country.
Regardless of what the final electoral results will be, these populist actors are already producing considerable long-term effects on the electorate’s political culture. First of all, they have compromised public debates with their often-extremist arguments. As I argued in a previous article, political debates in Europe have taken quite of a toxic approach and the populist ideology holds its fair share of responsibility. Its shouted attacks against liberal values in the name of an inhibited rule of the majority, are challenging the way citizens look and think of politics, and are definitely bounded to the raising intolerance, and xenophobia we are experiencing at national and local levels. Moreover, populism’s anti-systemic discourse is pushing mistrust towards institutions, catalysing anger towards the ruling class and causing further disaffection with politics, indeed an emotional mix with significant dangerous potential.
The Dutch election has been the first test for Europe’s capacity to stop or mitigate raising support for populist parties, but a long series of challenges still lie ahead.
Image source: Amanda Wood