Pop­ulist tsunami threat­ens Europe main­stream

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Back in May, when Don­ald’s Trump’s vic­tory in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion seemed the re­motest of pos­si­bil­i­ties, a se­nior Euro­pean of­fi­cial took to Twit­ter be­fore a G7 sum­mit in Tokyo to warn of a “hor­ror sce­nario”. Imag­ine, mused the of­fi­cial, if in­stead of Barack Obama, Fran­cois Hol­lande, David Cameron and Mat­teo Renzi, next year’s meet­ing of the club of rich na­tions in­cluded Trump, Marine Le Pen, Boris John­son and Beppe Grillo.

A month af­ter Martin Sel­mayr, the head of Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker’s cabi­net made the com­ment, Bri­tain shocked the world by vot­ing to leave the Euro­pean Union. Cameron stepped down as prime min­is­ter and John­son - the for­mer Lon­don mayor who helped swing Bri­tons be­hind Brexit - be­came for­eign min­is­ter.

Now, with Trump’s tri­umph over his Demo­cratic ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton, the pop­ulist tsunami that seemed out­landish a few months ago is be­com­ing re­al­ity, and the con­se­quences for Europe’s own po­lit­i­cal land­scape are po­ten­tially huge. In 2017, voters in the Nether­lands, France and Ger­many - and pos­si­bly in Italy and Bri­tain too - will vote in elec­tions that could be col­ored by the tri­umphs of Trump and Brexit, and the toxic pol­i­tics that drove those cam­paigns.

The lessons will not be lost on con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s pop­ulist par­ties, who hailed Trump’s vic­tory on Wed­nes­day as a body blow for the po­lit­i­cal main­stream. “Pol­i­tics will never be the same,” said Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Free­dom Party. “What hap­pened in Amer­ica can hap­pen in Europe and the Nether­lands as well.” French Na­tional Front founder JeanMarie Le Pen was sim­i­larly ebul­lient. “To­day the United States, to­mor­row France,” Le Pen, the fa­ther of the party’s leader Marine Le Pen, tweeted.

Daniela Sch­warzer, di­rec­tor of re­search at the Ger­man Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions (DGAP), said Trump’s bare-fisted tac­tics against his op­po­nents and the me­dia pro­vided a model for pop­ulist Euro­pean par­ties that have ex­er­cised com­par­a­tive re­straint on a con­ti­nent that still re­mem­bers World War Two. “The bro­ken ta­boos, the ex­tent of po­lit­i­cal con­flict, the ag­gres­sion that we’ve seen from Trump, this can widen the scope of what be­comes think­able in our own po­lit­i­cal cul­ture,” Sch­warzer said.

Huge In­flu­ence

Early next month, Aus­tri­ans will vote in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that could see Nor­bert Hofer of the Free­dom Party be­come the first far-right head of state to be freely elected in western Europe since 1945. On the same day, a con­sti­tu­tional re­form ref­er­en­dum on which Prime Min­is­ter Renzi has staked his fu­ture could up­set the po­lit­i­cal or­der in Italy, push­ing Grillo’s left-wing 5-Star move­ment closer to the reins of power. “An epoch has gone up in flames,” Grillo said. “The real dem­a­gogues are the press, in­tel­lec­tu­als, who are an­chored to a world that no longer ex­ists.”

Right-wing na­tion­al­ists are al­ready run­ning gov­ern­ments in Poland and Hun­gary. In western Europe, the like­li­hood of a Trump fig­ure tak­ing power seems re­mote for now. In Europe’s par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies, tra­di­tional par­ties from the right and left have set aside his­tor­i­cal ri­val­ries, band­ing to­gether to keep out the pop­ulists.

But the les­son from the Brexit vote is that par­ties do not have to be in govern­ment to shape the po­lit­i­cal de­bate, said Tina Ford­ham, chief global po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst at Citi. She cited the anti-EU UK In­de­pen­dence Party which has just one seat in the West­min­ster par­lia­ment.

“UKIP did poorly in the last elec­tion but had a huge amount in­flu­ence over the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic in Bri­tain,” Ford­ham said. “The com­bi­na­tion of the Brexit cam­paign and Trump have ab­so­lutely changed the way cam­paigns are run.”

UKIP leader Nigel Farage hailed Trump’s vic­tory on Wed­nes­day as a “su­per­sized Brexit”. As new po­lit­i­cal move­ments emerge, tra­di­tional par­ties will find it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to form coali­tions and hold them to­gether. In Spain, in­cum­bent Mar­i­ano Ra­joy was re­turned to power last week but only af­ter two in­con­clu­sive elec­tions in which voters fled his con­ser­va­tives and their tra­di­tional ri­val on the left, the So­cial­ists, for two new par­ties, Pode­mos and Ci­u­dadanos.

Af­ter 10 months of po­lit­i­cal limbo, Ra­joy finds him­self atop a mi­nor­ity govern­ment that is ex­pected to strug­gle to pass laws, im­ple­ment re­forms and plug holes in Spain’s pub­lic fi­nances. The virus of po­lit­i­cal fragility could spread next year from Spain to the Nether­lands, where Wilders’s Free­dom Party is neck-and-neck in opin­ion polls with Prime Min­is­ter Mark Rutte’s lib­er­als. For Rutte to stay in power af­ter the elec­tion in March, he may be forced to con­sider novel, less-sta­ble coali­tion op­tions with an ar­ray of smaller par­ties, in­clud­ing the Greens. In France, which has a pres­i­den­tial sys­tem, the chances of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Na­tional Front, emerg­ing vic­to­ri­ous are seen as slim.

The odds-on fa­vorite to win the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion next spring is Alain Juppe, a 71-year-old cen­trist with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in govern­ment who has tapped into a yearn­ing for re­spon­si­ble lead­er­ship af­ter a decade of dis­ap­point­ment from Fran­cois Hol­lande and Ni­co­las Sarkozy.

But in a sign of Le Pen’s strength, polls show she will win more sup­port than any other politi­cian in the first round of the elec­tion. Even if she loses the sec­ond round run-off, as polls sug­gest, her per­for­mance is likely to be seen as a water­shed mo­ment for con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s far-right. It could give her a pow­er­ful plat­form from which to fight the re­forms that Juppe and his con­ser­va­tive ri­vals for the pres­i­dency are promis­ing.

In Ger­many, where voters go to the polls next au­tumn, far­right par­ties have strug­gled to gain a foothold in the post-war era be­cause of the dark his­tory of the Nazis, but that too is chang­ing. Just three years old, the anti-im­mi­grant Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD), has be­come a force at the na­tional level, un­set­tling Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s con­ser­va­tives, who have been pun­ished in a se­ries of re­gional votes be­cause of her wel­com­ing pol­icy to­wards refugees.

Merkel could an­nounce as early as next month that she plans to run for a fourth term, and if she does run, cur­rent polls sug­gest she would win.

But she would do so as a di­min­ished fig­ure in a coun­try that is per­haps more di­vided than at any time in the post-war era. Even Merkel’s con­ser­va­tive sis­ter party, the Bavar­ian Chris­tian So­cial Union, has re­fused to en­dorse her. — Reuters

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