Hold the pa­rade, the pop­ulist threat re­mains

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

At one point not long be­fore elec­tions in Hol­land, it looked as if far-right Dutch politi­cian Geert Wilders’ Dutch Free­dom Party might de­feat Mark Rutte’s Party for Free­dom and Democ­racy. Wilders promised to ban the Qur’an, close Dutch bor­ders, pay Mus­lims to leave the coun­try, put a tax on hi­jab-wear­ing Mus­lim women and pull his coun­try from the EU. With Wilders’ sig­nif­i­cant de­feat, sighs of re­lief could be heard across Europe, and to a lesser ex­tent in North Amer­ica.

But, wait, the skep­tics said. Hol­land was one thing. The big test will be France, with Marine Le Pen’s Na­tional Front. As we now know, Euro­pean pop­ulism lost that bat­tle as well, with Le Pen get­ting just 34 per cent of the vote com­pared to Em­manuel Macron, who won with 66 per cent.

Now can we say this sort of base pop­ulism, rooted in in­tol­er­ance, big­otry and iso­la­tion­ism, has been stopped in its tracks? Can we re­lax?

In a word, no. To sug­gest the tide has sud­denly been turned is naïve. Yes, Le Pen didn’t live up to her own expectations, or those of pop­ulists in France and around the world. Her ex­treme poli­cies — an im­mi­gra­tion cut from 200,000 a year to 10,000, an end to gay mar­riage and adop­tion, strip­ping the EU of all bor­der con­trols and re­strict­ing free­dom of move­ment and rene­go­ti­at­ing EU treaties — fright­ened off enough French vot­ers. But a dis­turb­ing num­ber didn’t go vote for Macron. They didn’t vote at all.

Le Pen im­proved her party’s stand­ing with the sup­port of about a third of France’s vot­ers. She is guar­an­teed a se­ri­ous role in the new French gover­nance model. In Hol­land, Wilders shows no sign of go­ing away, in spite of his de­feat. Across Europe and around the world, the far-right pop­ulist move­ment has lost some mo­men­tum, but it’s far from beaten or even stalled.

The con­di­tions that led to Wilders and Le Pen’s growth in sup­port re­main. Just as they do in Amer­ica. Great swaths of the pop­u­la­tion feel left be­hind, un­heard and for­got­ten. The pos­i­tives of glob­al­iza­tion and in­te­gra­tion aren’t be­ing felt by too many. Tech­nol­ogy is dis­plac­ing mil­lions. The gap be­tween poverty and af­flu­ence is get­ting wider, not nar­rower. Youth un­em­ploy­ment is a global crisis.

Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers around the world stand ready to take ad­van­tage of that sit­u­a­tion, just like Don­ald Trump did. Wilders and Le Pen were too ex­treme this time. Le Pen talks of re­fram­ing and pos­si­bly even re­nam­ing her party. And given her track record of suc­cess and Wilders’ longevity and de­ter­mi­na­tion, they will no doubt be back, and new ex­trem­ist voices will rise, as well.

Un­til cen­trist lead­ers make a sus­tained ef­fort to un­der­stand and act on what got us here and what needs to change, we haven’t heard the last of this. It’s not time to cel­e­brate, at least not yet.

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