Following the UK’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President, 2017 was billed as a year in which mainstream parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany could be overtaken by populist challengers in the shape of Geert Wilders’ PVV, Marine Le Pen’s Front National, and the AfD in Germany. Abel Bojar asks whether the PVV’s failure in the Netherlands and Macron’s victory in France signals the end of this populist trend.
Image credit: Tjebbe van Tijen (CC BY-ND 2.0)
As sighs of relief are heaved across the European establishment upon Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election, a wider question that arises is whether his victory can be seen as a lynchpin in a broader story. In other words, has the populist moment that European observers were so ready to proclaim in the wake of the EU’s migration crisis, the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s surprise victory across the Atlantic, come to an abrupt halt?
Clearly, less than a year after the tumultous events of 2015-16, it is too early to provide a definitive answer. Some signs, however, do point in a cheerful direction as far as Western and Southern Europe are concerned. Long seen as the most likely candidate to carry forward the populist tide, Geert Wilders’ PVV disappointed its supporters in March by coming a distant second behind its centre-right rival, the VVD.
Likewise, much has been said about Norbert Hofer’s narrow defeat in Austria’s recent presidential election last December. His party, one of the strongest of its kind in Europe, also seems to be experiencing a slight setback in most recent polls: while still the most popular party in the country by polling around 30%, it has slid about 5% since the beginning of the year and the incumbent centre-left SPÖ appears to be narrowing the gap. Other examples include the collapse in support for the Finns Party since last September and the more recent weakening of the German AfD, UKIP and if, for the sake of balance, one includes parties from the far-left of the spectrum, Syriza in Greece.
One can only speculate about the causes of this trend reversal if it amounts to one at all. According to the economic story, the Eurozone’s tepid recovery appears to be holding up, possibly ameliorating some of the economic grievences that led to the populist vote in the first place. Alternatively, the answer could lie in mainstream actors’ strategic (opportunistic?) positioning: by taking on board some of the far-right’s core messages in the domains of security and immigration, they have managed to appeal to some of their potential supporters. Though not so much in the French campaign, this sort of dynamic has been clearly discernible in the Dutch and the Austrian cases.
Finally, the populist moment may have set in motion its own countervailing dynamics: by highlighting the increasingly realistic threat of a disintegrating Europe and an unravelling of the NATO umbrella, it may have mobilised a crucial segment of centrist and risk-averse voters to turn towards the mainstream. Before electoral surveys emerge that allow researchers to adjudicate between these competing explanations, progressive forces can only hope that a trend reversal is indeed under way.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Abel Bojar – LSE European Institute / European University Institute
Abel Bojar is LSE Fellow in Political Economy of Europe at the LSE’s European Institute and a Research Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence.
Do those using the term “populist” understand how different audiences recieve discussions about “populism” ?
Do these commentators even agree on a definition of “populism”?
As someone who has campaigned with a mainstream Party for two decades, it seems that the “populism” has only been used widely very recently – and almost universally as a pejorative – thus saying more about the term’s users than those they are describing.
The Wikipaedia definition confirms my suspicion when it says:
” populists rarely call themselves “populists” and usually reject the term when it is applied to them”
The only widely agreed element is opposition to “establishment elites”.
While this may be a tad unfair to some worthy people …. do these commentators not realise that their critical slant against “populism” puts said commentators firmly in the elite’s camp – simultaneously re-inforcing the idea of “them and us” , “insiders versus outsiders” …. and quite probably increasing the number of people equating “populism” with “popular” – given that most people feel outside the establishment ?
You seem to have a habit of getting into rather pointless semantic debates about the words people use (and then claiming anyone who uses these awful words has been proven to be a biased, elitist, propagandist for the establishment). This really isn’t very sensible territory to keep staking out and I’m sure you can do a lot better.
The literature on the “rise of populism” goes back decades. It’s not a new phenomenon, it’s something that’s been talked about since the 1980s. If you want to read these discussions (and the endless debates about how the term is defined) you can start with Cas Mudde’s excellent work on it. But it doesn’t actually matter what you call the Front National, Trump, Podemos, Syriza, the FPO (and so on) in the context of this discussion. The question is whether the growth of these parties/individuals is actually continuing (as Farage, for instance, claims) or whether the failure of Wilders and Le Pen indicates it may have peaked.
It’s actually quite an interesting question with some evidence for both sides – a far more interesting undertaking, I might suggest, than jabbering away about academic bias.
Sorry, It’s not about semantics. (Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear)
People / Parties have always railed against the “establishment” – incl. campaigners within mainstream Parties.
My points are …
Why is it that criticism of the establishment is OK from some quarters but not others?
Worse is the sweeping dismissal by labelling “populist” that (almost) never defines what exactly is “wrong”.
i.e. “We the Commentator say that these people are “populist” and that’s all you need to know”.
How many policies of Wilders or Le Pen actually got explained in these news segments ?
My further point was that, this approach (dismissing as “populist”) may speak to “establishment insiders” because most non-politicos seem to conflate “populist” with “popular”..
If so, are such commentators and critics being counter-productive ?
Jules, I know exactly the point you’re trying to make. You made an almost identical point recently about the Front National (objecting to the term “far right” and claiming that its usage meant the author was biased against the party). The point I’m making is that you can call these parties whatever you like (this article isn’t a critique of them), the actual topic under discussion is whether they’re still in the ascendancy or declining.
Put simply, we’d be better served discussing the point of the article rather than going down the frankly quite silly knee-jerk response of calling authors out for bias simply because you don’t like a particular label. That’s especially the case when these labels are widely used by the media and their usage is therefore little more than common shorthand – e.g. the Front National is routinely referred to as “far right” even by organisations like the BBC. Anyone who uses that term isn’t displaying bias (or even making a point at all) they’re just using standard terminology. You might not like that terminology, but it says absolutely nothing about the author’s views on the topic and accusing everyone of bias on this basis is pretty nonsensical.
” these labels are widely used by the media”
Agreed – that the media use these labels widely … but they never explain why.
However the very clear subtext is “beyond the pale”.
“Anyone who uses that term isn’t displaying bias (or even making a point at all) they’re just using standard terminology.”
Who decides this “standard”?
If the subject themselves don’t decribe themselves as “far right”, “far left” or “populist” why should a media commentator?
Surely any commentator using a term not endorsed by the subject IS displaying bias?
The same organisations routinely report that someone from an identity group has been “offended” – just because that person says so.
Rarely does the media ignore/dismiss the claimed offence as over-reaction, a joke etc.
So we seem to have one rule for some and another for others.
Is that hypocrisy ?
FYI, the rare occasions that I have heard Le Pen, she seems to promote policies that are interventionist, anti-capitalist -policies that are usuallly described as “the left”
This is not “mere semantics” – but calling out people who taint anyone with a distinct view/policy that might be a bit “right” or “left” with the clear message that “right” is barely better than “far right” and “left” is barely better than “far left”.
i.e. the ONLY reasonable position is what the media define as “centre” (even when it isn’t)
all I hear are the sad whining of the sore loser who couldn’t get to rejoice at the political instability wrecked on its neighbours by fascists and populists of his own liking.
Brexit is a terrible demagoguery usurpation of reality which is now taking shape as a coup by extreme fright-wingers gobe ballistic