Global Affairs

Surprise, Europe elections may rebuff populists

The continent's populist movements differ - lumping them together makes them seem bigger than they are.

LONDON • For most of those following European affairs, pessimism now seems the only form of realism.

Europe is, supposedly, constantly tottering on the brink of financial bankruptcy. And, with general elections due this year in key countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and perhaps Italy, the "old continent" also seems ripe for a wholesale takeover by populist, extreme-right politicians, seething with racial hatred and bent on reviving old nationalist disputes. It is now fashionable to compare Europe's condition to that of the 1930s, a period that led to the rise of fascism and World War II.

But although Europe's challenges are serious and should never be underestimated, neither should anyone underestimate the continent's robustness and resilience. For Europe's political landscape is nowhere near as discouraging as it is currently perceived. Indeed, far from confirming and strengthening the onward march of populism, this could be the year when Europe rebuffs racist and nationalist politicians.

At first glance, Europe's prospects don't seem encouraging. Ms Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of France's National Front, has just kicked off her bid to win the French presidency with all the populist flourish that propelled Mr Donald Trump to the White House. She promises "to restore freedom" to France, if she wins May's elections, with a 144-point governance plan, which includes a British-style referendum on leaving the European Union "with its inept directives and millions of immigrants". The crowds love her: Wherever she goes, she is greeted by chants of "this is our country", and opinion polls indicate she is leading the list of French presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, the general elections in the Netherlands due next month offer the same painfully familiar narrative of a hitherto fringe movement poised to smash the old established order. The far-right Party for Freedom led by populist leader Geert Wilders, who, with his peroxide-dyed hair has earned the moniker of the "most famous bleach-blond since Marilyn Monroe", is far ahead in polls; his claim that "there is no such thing as 'moderate Islam'" appears to have attracted the support of at least a third of the electorate.

There is also Italy, a country that seems determined to maintain its record of forming a new government each year. It may also hold general elections, and the top performing party there is the Five Stars Movement, led by Mr Beppe Grillo, a former comedian with a criminal record for manslaughter who goes by the name of the "Clown Prince" and whose speciality is to mouth obscenities for no apparent reason - he once called a distinguished 94-year-old Italian Nobel Prize laureate an "old whore". His antics are entirely unamusing, but they seem acceptable to one in four of Italian voters who supported him in the previous elections, and one in three who, according to opinion polls, may do so if ballots are held again this year.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

And then, there is Germany, Europe's biggest nation-state, with a Constitution explicitly designed to prevent the meteoric rise of such populists. But even there, the Alternative for Germany, a nationalist, anti-immigrant movement, is projected to get up to 12 per cent of the vote - an astonishingly high figure for a party only recently created. And when one adds a similar share of the vote the German communists may get, the result could be that up to a quarter of German voters opt for the extreme left and extreme right when the ballots take place in September - an unprecedented result that can only be compared, ominously, to the 1920s.

Furthermore, Europe's political predicament may actually be even worse. Opinion polls usually underestimate support for extreme politicians, either because voters don't want to admit in public how they will cast their ballots, or because the "don't knows" in opinion polls ultimately tend to opt disproportionately for populist candidates.

COLLAPSING FROM WITHIN

More importantly, we are witnessing an apparently unstoppable decline in the dominance of all established European political formations of either the mainstream left or right. Germany's two main parties used to control up to 75 per cent of the seats in the country's parliaments, in which, a total of only three parties were represented. But the same two parties would be lucky to have 60 per cent of the seats in a parliament this year, which will accommodate no less than seven parties.

The same has happened in Spain, Britain and Italy, and the same is predicted to happen in the Netherlands, where even if the two parties get together, they would be too feeble to form a government on their own. So, Europe's problem is not only how to deal with the rise of populists, but the fact that its entire existing political system is now collapsing from within, rather like a badly baked French souffle.  

Given such grim facts, why should one remain an optimist about the old continent? For plenty of different, and often ignored, reasons.

First, Europe's populist movements are not all alike. They all share opposition to immigrants and hostility to foreigners, particularly those of the Muslim faith. They all emphasise national pride, re-imposition of border controls, hostility to the EU and demands for a more equal distribution of wealth and power. And very often they are run, Trump-style, by wealthy individuals who are nowhere near the "common man" whom they claim to represent.

Still, the differences between Europe's various populist movements are more important than their similarities. France's Marine Le Pen and her National Front threaten a return to trade protectionism and promise that, if she comes to power, they would repudiate most of France's debts, generating what would be the world's biggest financial default. But British, German and Dutch populists believe in market economies and free trade, and claim that these can flourish in a nationalist environment. Their views about the role of the state also vary markedly; lumping all of Europe's populists together makes them bigger than they really are.

ANTIDOTE TO POPULISM?

And although they appear to lead in opinion polls, the structure of electoral systems ensures that very few of these extreme politicians will actually gain power. Even if Mr Wilders gets the biggest number of parliamentary seats in the Netherlands next month, that won't put him in the prime minister's seat, a position reserved for the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in a ruling coalition.

The Dutch political establishment is determined to keep Mr Geert Wilders away from government, in a marked departure from the situation in the US or Britain, where mainstream conservatives ultimately co-opted populists. The same applies in Germany, where the biggest surprise may be if, in their desire to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel, the mainstream Socialists agree to form a coalition government that includes the far-left communists. But even then, it is inconceivable that the far-right Alternative would be considered as an alternative by anyone.

Then there is France, where a two-rounds presidential electoral system ensures that, while Ms Le Pen will make it past the first round, she looks set to be defeated by almost anyone who stands against her in the second round. If Ms Le Pen loses her presidential bid - as now seems very likely - she will have nothing left to show for her efforts. In the subsequent French presidential elections, which also take place this year, her National Front won't perform well because the British-style first-past-the-post system based on constituencies also does not favour her party.

It is also forgotten - even by some savvy international financial investors - that Europe's economies are also perking up. The euro zone economies have now posted 14 consecutive quarters of growth, and unemployment rates have now returned to single digits. Last year, overall growth in the euro zone was 1.7 per cent, outpacing that of the US, which recorded a 1.6 per cent growth. President Trump vowed to make America great again; the Europeans are making Europe great again without the fanfare.

Better still, the man who currently has the highest chances of actually winning the French presidential elections is Mr Emmanuel Macron, an outsider who is campaigning as an independent. Like Mr Trump, he is wealthy and well-connected. Like Mr Trump, he puts himself forward as an anti-establishment candidate. But unlike Mr Trump, he pledges to improve and reform, rather than smash the system, by including rather than excluding people.

In short, Europe is not merely capable of halting the tidal wave of populism, but may also end up providing an antidote to the phenomenon, in the shape of a French anti-establishment politician who articulates the frustrations of the people, but channels these to more productive venues. Optimism may well become Europe's new reality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Surprise, Europe elections may rebuff populists'. Print Edition | Subscribe