Understanding Populism And The Far Right In The European Elections

2017 has been a year of many European elections, and they just keep on coming. A week ago it was the Czech Republic and the week before that Austria. How to make sense of these constant developments? This article has compiled a non-exhaustive list of suggestions.

Not everyone is a populist

It has become commonplace to refer to every slightly eccentric politician from a small country as the new “European Trump”. While the Dutch Geert Wilders at least had the funny hair to qualify, calling the billionaire Andrej Babiš “the Czech Trump” only worked for about five minutes, before his victory speech, which sounded awfully positive on NATO and the EU, revealed the flaws in that analogy.

Indeed, populism seems to be the new Zeitgeist, and every election cycle brings news of the “rise of populism”. And yet, it becomes hard to see the forest for the populists. The first thing to remember is that not every far-right party is populist, not every populist is a member of the far-right, and not every loud anti-establishment rant is textbook populism.

The political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as an ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, “the people” (which is inherently pure) and “the elite” (which is always corrupt). This concept needn’t be identified with the right (there are populists on the left as well). However, far-right parties have developed their own brand of populism as a renewal strategy since the 1970s to redefine their relationship to democracy.

Some of the parties that are still active today, particularly the French Front national and the Austrian FPÖ, grew from the old extreme-right, with links to the authoritarianism of Austria’s National Socialism or France’s Vichyism. Yet in post-war Western Europe, the only way to survive was to accept certain elements of the democratic game. These parties reinvented themselves by accepting the idea of elections for the sake of gaining legitimacy from a “people”, which they defined as a homogeneous ethnic community. This is the point where the populism of the far-right unites with nativism and their focus on limiting the rights of minority groups.

The last wave of elections showed both populism and nativism, but not always from the same parties. In the Czech Republic, Babiš built his campaign on elite-bashing and anti-establishment populism. Yet as a Slovak whose mastery of Czech is patchy at times, Czech nationalism is not his main cup of tea. The story of the Austrian elections is less about the good results of the far-right populist FPÖ than the turn to nativism by the conservative – and not populist – ÖVP with its young leader, Sebastian Kurz.

Crying “populism” in both elections is misleading at best. While Babiš’s style raises enough causes for concern when thinking about the erosion of democratic norms, it does not illustrate any “rise of the far-right”. On the other hand, Kurz’s willingness to embrace the FPÖ’s nativism shows where the populist far-right can succeed without actually taking power, as traditional parties adopt their nativist agenda without the populist style.

It’s not only about the far-right

In every case, the success of the far-right was not the whole story. The results of the far-right are only one component in two other, possibly bigger stories. The first is the continued collapse of the traditional socio-democratic Left. All over the continent, parties that used to monopolise up to roughly half the electorate are now reduced to increased marginality. Simultaneously, where the election system makes it possible, voting becomes fragmented.

Indeed, fragmentation is now the name of the game, and what it reflects is a turn to identity-based voting rather than for large blocs. In some cases, like in the Netherlands, parliaments that used to be controlled by two main parties have now become the jousting arenas of many smaller ones. In others, like France, the same budding fragmentation, which was visible in the results of the first round of the presidential elections, is curbed by a voting system that eventually creates “winner takes it all” scenarios. While this fragmentation demonstrates voters’ tiredness of traditional parties, it also shows that they are ready to experiment with new affiliations.

Far-right parties have so far capitalised on these two developments and have established themselves as parliamentary forces that are probably here to stay.

But elections aren’t everything

And yet, elections are but a moment in time. Sentiments expressed by voters at one point reflect a complex set of decisions, and momentums can change. For the far-right, this means that election successes may present a bigger challenge than articles about the “rise of the far-right” may suggest.

Far-right parties have always been unstable coalitions of competing egos and agendas. While populism has provided these parties the respectability they desired and identity politics have enabled them to capture a diversity of disgruntled voters, they now struggle to establish themselves as more than just protest parties.

In France and Germany, these struggles became all too visible after the elections. In France, Marine Le Pen is struggling to maintain control over her party as she fired her number two and abandoned the party’s commitment to Frexit. In Germany, on the day after the AfD’s election success, the party’s co-chair Frauke Petry resigned in protest against the rest of the leadership and attracted further desertions.

On the other hand, the Austrian FPÖ shows far-right populists can establish themselves as “respectable” parties of government through disciplined leadership that capitalises on other factors. Even without the so-called “refugee crisis”, the FPÖ has been able to pillory governments of “grand coalitions” between the two main parties and claim established parties were “all the same”.

Ultimately, to understand where Europe is going, it is not enough to succumb to the temptation of alarmist outrage at the success of the parties of the far-right, but to realise they are a part of long-term processes. The far-right did not begin with Trump, and today’s populisms emerge from local and national contexts with changing electorates in increasingly fragmented societies. Other parties must take note and react without pandering to the lowest common nativist denominator.