The Straits Times says

Cause for jitters over Euro populism

The electoral gains of the far right in Austria have revived the issue of whether Europeans are on a rejectionist path after Brexit. In the French presidential election, Mr Emmanuel Macron was narrowly beaten by far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round but managed to bounce back in the second. The Netherlands heaved a sigh of relief when the resurgent anti-Islam Party for Freedom was beaten to second place. Even Germany's long-reigning Dr Angela Merkel, once seen as a safe political bet, is now in a weakened position and has to cobble together a coalition in order to rule. She has to contend with the rise of the far-right AfD, known for its anti-Muslim rants.

Populist parties are already partners in several European governments, and wield power in Poland. Hungary is also in the grip of a far-right, anti-immigrant group, the Fidesz party, which is said to be increasingly autocratic in its efforts to undermine basic principles of liberal democracy.

Some might attribute the decline of the moderate centre to proportional representation systems in Europe, which tend to give rise to splinter parties and weaken governability. Even in distant New Zealand - which has such a system - a populist anti-immigration party, New Zealand First, played the role of the kingmaker after a stalemate at the polls and denied the previous ruling party, which had the highest share of the vote, the chance to form the government. It is true that the system is associated with various ills, like allowing a minor group to act as power broker and lord over competing major parties. But one could also find faults with majoritarian systems - like the habit of manipulating constituency boundaries.

The more critical issue is how moderate groups in power fail to address the concerns of those left behind by globalisation. The latter feel their voices are not being taken into account when discussions are framed by the Establishment - for example, in right versus wrong terms - and consequently offer no real choices to ordinary citizens. Further, there is a sense that meritocratic elites focus on their own interests, and as this group "has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted", noted New York Times columnist David Brooks with reference to American society. In Europe too, many feel their nations are moving away from them, as jobs are imperilled and identity is threatened by the migrant crisis - seen now as the Achilles' heel of the European Union. These are the voters who are drawn to the stark simplicity and merciless resolve of populism: Austria first, Islam does not belong in Germany.

Europe once stood for integration, openness, free flows of trade and shared cosmopolitan values. Anti-establishment populism rolls back the clock and pits people against each other. This is the peril the world should take note of in tracking the ideological change afoot in Europe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Cause for jitters over Euro populism'. Print Edition | Subscribe