Hold the parade, the populist threat remains
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.