Rise of populist parties in Europe

Voters deserting mainstream political parties amid unemployment and globalisation woes

Despite mainstream governments adopting tougher border controls to limit numbers of asylum-
seekers, voters have turned to far-right populist parties, and the anti-establishment tide in Europe seems set to continue.
Despite mainstream governments adopting tougher border controls to limit numbers of asylum- seekers, voters have turned to far-right populist parties, and the anti-establishment tide in Europe seems set to continue. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The front runner in the presidential election in Austria has claimed that only one in five migrants entering his country is a "real refugee" and has predicted that his central European state will soon seal its borders to newcomers.

Mr Norbert Hofer, who drew 35 per cent of the popular vote in the first round of Austria's ballots last week, seems best-placed to secure the presidency in a second round of voting scheduled for May 22.

In theory, that should not matter much, since the position of the Austrian head of state is largely ceremonial. Nevertheless, Europe's attention is fixed on Mr Hofer, for he is the candidate of a far-right political movement, and his election could herald a more fundamental shift throughout Europe away from mainstream moderate parties and towards fringe populist movements.

A 45-year-old aircraft engineer who narrowly survived a plane crash in 2003, Mr Hofer has dedicated his entire public life to the Freedom Party, an Austrian nationalist movement which was established during the 1950s by right-wingers and former Nazi party members, and which until fairly recently was considered unelectable.

But Mr Hofer beat all expectations by winning a third more than the presidential candidates of the mainstream centre-left Socialist and the centre-right People's Party, the two movements which have dominated Austrian politics since the country regained its independence after the end of World War II. He now goes ahead to the second and decisive round of voting next month and stands a high chance of winning the presidency - an astonishing turnaround for a hitherto- minor party.

All opinion polls indicate that Mr Hofer owes his outstanding performance to his decision to make opposition to immigration the centrepiece of his electoral campaign. He benefited from popular discontent with Austria's political establishment, which initially allied itself with the open-door policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in neighbouring Germany before instituting tough border controls and declaring an upper limit on how many asylum applicants Austria would accept.

The authorities' about-face did nothing to endear the government to a substantial number of ordinary Austrian voters, who appear persuaded by Mr Hofer's much simpler pledge to "put Austria first" by just stopping immigration altogether.

The Austrian vote was greeted with jubilation by other populist movements in Europe, which hope to emulate Mr Hofer's performance. Dr Frauke Petry, head of the populist Alternative for Germany party, hailed Mr Hofer's "superb landslide victory". Dutch anti-Islamic leader Geert Wilders called the Austrian election results "fantastic". And French populist leader Marine Le Pen said Austria's vote was "an indication of the way that history is pointing".

Governments in Europe hope that with a deal between the European Union and Turkey to seal the continent's outer frontiers now working, the migration pressure will ease, and the topic will no longer be so politically divisive. But it would be a mistake to assume that the success of populist parties is only due to immigration questions.

Throughout Europe, electorates are deserting in droves established mainstream political parties which seem to offer no answer to the problems of growing unemployment and the pressures of free trade and globalisation.

The populist parties' electorate is composed of young, uneducated white males, precisely the segment of the population which is negatively affected by globalisation. A generation ago, many of these young European males would have hoped to benefit from government-funded employment schemes, which would have at least offered them some prospect of earning a living.

Today, however, most of the unskilled jobs are scooped up by migrants from Eastern Europe and further afield, and government employment schemes are no longer affordable.

Mr Hofer was adroit in capturing the loyalty of this constituency. And so is Ms Le Pen in France; she is now by far the country's most popular politician, and is guaranteed to do as well as Mr Hofer when France embarks on its own two-stage presidential election next year.

Leading European politicians assume that the tide may yet turn by simply opposing extremist parties. German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is now openly calling upon Austrians to unite in order to defeat Mr Hofer at next month's ballot. And similar alliances are being forged in France to prevent Ms Le Pen's rise.

But even if the populist Austrian politician fails to be elected as the country's president next month, the anti-establishment tide in Europe seems set to continue. None of Europe's mainstream politicians seems to be able to address the fundamental reasons for this popular revolt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Rise of populist parties in Europe'. Subscribe