The recent German election essentially ends a year of political shifts and tension in the West over the strength of populist (often far-right) parties. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, political observers worried about the possibility of further shocks to the system, most notably regarding the strength of Marine Le Pen in France. While these fears have been proven to be exaggerated (and some might see cause for relief), I believe that populism remains a severe long-term threat to liberal democracy.
Before discussing the past year of elections in more detail, I must define what populism is and why it is so dangerous. Populist politics claim to speak for “the people” and against the “establishment”. Populism itself is not an ideology: it can be paired with far-right or far-left political parties, or even centrist ones. I use “populist” in general as a shorthand for the type of populist party that has gained traction or power in many Western countries: ultra-conservative parties that are often nationalist, protectionist, and anti-immigrant. Trump falls into this category, as well as France’s National Front, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfG), and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party. While these parties tend to have some affinity for authoritarianism, their true threat comes from their potential to create illiberal democracies. While still democratic, these regimes abandon liberal ideas such as limited government, freedom of speech, and checks and balances. Illiberal democracies are more likely to abuse power, start wars, and ignore human rights violations.
In general, the past decade has seen a worldwide democratic recession and a turn towards authoritarianism (exemplified by Russia and China). Therefore, the prospect that the West, birthplace of liberal democracy and its strongest bulwark, could begin to turn in an illiberal direction looked frightening but possible at the end of 2016. At first glance, election results show that these fears were exaggerated, although significant political change did occur across Europe.
In Austria in late 2016, a re-run election had Green leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeating an anti-immigrant, populist candidate for the second time, but by a wider margin.
In Dutch elections, Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom did worse than expected.
Centrist, pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron resoundingly defeated Marine Le Pen by almost two-to-one in a widely watched runoff election in France.
In Britain, a hung parliament embarrassed Theresa May, who was forced to make a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (a small Irish party) to maintain power after calling the election to increase her majority. The UK Independence Party, having lost most of its purpose after Brexit, in turn lost most of its support.
Finally, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats won the parliamentary elections in Germany, although the German parliament is now more fractured, and Merkel will find it more difficult to govern under the expected “Jamaica” coalition.
In total, populist parties have failed to gain power in Europe. This time last year, a future disintegration of the EU looked like a distinct possibility; now the EU is much stronger and more united. Additionally, the promises of Leave during the Brexit campaign have turned out to be a farce. Britain’s government has so far been blind to the true consequences of its self-inflicted wound: any form of Brexit that the EU will agree to will be bound to either cause severe economic pain or relinquish some of the “sovereignty” that Britain wants to regain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump governs only for his base (roughly 25-30 percent of voters) and is increasingly at odds with the Republican establishment. What looked like a hostile takeover of the GOP in November now looks like a deeply awkward and fruitless union that could balloon into civil war. Trump’s incompetence and childishness have meant that American institutions are performing relatively well, although gridlock in Congress and continued polarization threatens to turn off all but the most committed partisans. Continued lack of accomplishments runs the risk that polarization will continue in its brutal spiral and the rot at the heart of American politics will only grow. In any case, both Brexit and Trump no longer look quite like the scary populist earthquakes that they seemed at the time.
While the overall political outlook for the West now looks much more stable, the underlying tensions that caused populist parties to gain traction have not been resolved. Moreover, many results mentioned above also contain cause for caution. After all, Le Pen made it to the runoff in the first place, AfG performed better than expected and is the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in the post-war period, and Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to gain more seats, ensuring his control of the party for the foreseeable future.
A large amount of discontent with the status quo remains, both in Europe and in America. While some of this discontent comes from economic stagnation in the wake of the Great Recession (and economies that have become increasingly service-based and thus benefit certain regions and skill-sets disproportionately), much also stems from a rejection of multiculturalism and a backlash against policies that favor increased immigration and/or accepting refugees. These attitudes will be extremely difficult to reconcile with a political mainstream that, in most countries, remains committed to free trade, capitalism, and globalization.
I do not want to be alarmist. Liberal democracy remains strong in the West overall. Moreover, there is some evidence that populist far-right parties get a significant amount of their support from protest voters. For example, one poll showed that sixty percent of AfG voters did not support the party platform but voted for AfG to vote against the other parties. Protest voters, while disillusioned with their choices of mainstream political parties, will ultimately be easier to win back than a hardcore nationalist. But it would be a serious mistake to ignore or ostracize those who voted for populist parties or candidates. While leaders such as Merkel and Macron cannot compromise on the values of liberal democracy, they must reach out to these voters and truly listen to their concerns. Otherwise, the populist surge could return even stronger.
Photo credit Journalistenwatch, Creative Commons
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