Recapping Populism – A victory for democracy?

We end the year with an analysis of elections in the countries where populism was high on the agenda. For years, populism dominated minds of citizens and representatives alike. What has 2017 taught us about populism? Did the people defeat populism in their national elections? Whereas at the start of 2017, there was no positive outlook for democracy in Europe, throughout the year, centrist and leftist parties seemed to gain ground, at least in Western Europe. 2017 is marked by elections in the Netherlands, France, Austria and Germany.

The Netherlands: holding populism at bay?

The Dutch were the first to go to the ballots. Before elections, polls showed an increase in support for the populist right-wing Eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV). On March 15, Dutch citizens decided on whether to retain their support for the conservative- liberal incumbent ruling party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) or to go for a different turn. Fears arose when polls showed that the PVV became a strong contender to the VVD. Election day showed one of the highest voter turnout in years: 81.9% of eligible Dutch citizens went to the ballots. The incumbent ruling party remained the largest with a 21.29% share. Though this shows a decisive win for the VVD, the populist PVV became the second largest party, with 13.06% of the votes. The composition of the Dutch government allowed for the option to keep the populists out of the ruling coalition, even though the Dutch citizens show great support for it. The largest party, however, composes the ruling coalition and after seven months finally formed a government. The PVV was downgraded to the opposition.

France: a blow to populism

A month after the Dutch elections had taken place, the French were summoned to the ballots for the first round of the legislative elections. Similar to the Netherlands, there were fears from centrists and leftists that populists could come to power. The circumstances under which the elections took place were of decisive importance. France had been terrorized the past months and years by a series of terrorist attacks. This fueled great support for populists as these attacks were carried out by Frenchmen with an Arab background. Marine le Pen of National Front (Front National) and Emanuel Macron of En Marche! continued to the second round of the presidential elections on May 7. As in the Dutch case, voter turnout was again significant: 74.56% of eligible voters went to the ballots. Though polls showed that Le Pen was a favorable presidential candidate, Macron won decisively with 66.1% of the votes. As in the Netherlands, populists did not get a chance to govern.

Austria: far-right

Austria’s turn to vote for the legislative elections was in October of this year. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) had been gaining significant support over the course of its existence since 1956 and was close to delivering the country’s President in the latest presidential elections. In other Member States, there was a fear that there was a significant reality that the FPÖ would win a majority of the votes or otherwise the votes would go to the conservative centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) led by Sebastian Kurz. FPÖ specifically has populist viewpoints and a very mixed past, with a former SS officer being the party’s first leader. A turn to the right in Austria would mean more than just a neoliberal approach to economics with these two parties on the rise. As in the other cases, high voter turnouts were apparent: 80.0% of eligible voters went to the ballots. Whereas the Dutch and French seemed to have learnt from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Austria’s citizens favored a more right-wing turn. Kurz’s ÖVP gained the majority of votes and he became the Austrian Chancellor at the age of 31. He formed a coalition with the populist FPÖ and the previous incumbent largest party SPÖ now constituted the opposition. The FPÖ came in third, only losing its second place due to a massive SPÖ win in Vienna, and the Greens did not manage to get into the parliament. Recent studies show that the Austrian electorate focussed on the topics of unemployment, crime, terrorism and immigration. The conservative ÖVP and the populist FPÖ managed to position themselves in voters’ minds as the leading voices on these topics and secured the most right-wing government in Austria since the Second World War.

Germany: unprecedented situation

In September of 2017 German citizens went to the ballots. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) were the populists to watch. With its Islamophobic and even Neo-Nazi tendencies this party could pose a significant threat to German democracy. In the September elections, Merkel’s CDU remained the largest party, albeit it enjoyed the lowest percentage of electoral support since 1949. Similar to Austria, previously popular parties, such as the social democrats (SDP), had to crash in order for populist parties to rise. The AfD managed to enter the Bundestag and it marked the first nationalist party in the parliament since WWII. Although previously the AfD had not been able to ensure a spot in the Bundestag, it now became the third largest party. Regardless of this significant victory, internal power struggles in the party persist. Chairwoman Frauke Petry resigned in April because she was unable to converge around some of the extremist statements made by members of the party. Just after she won a seat in the Bundestag as an independent she completely cut all ties she had with the party. After the failure of the Jamaica coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the liberals (FDP), and the Green Party, the German political system was pushed to the edge. After all, AfD relied on ‘votes against’ the establishment as well. And these votes could be on the rise if the other parties failed to form a coalition. Currently, the SDP has changed its course and entered into negotiations about another grand coalition – something leader Martin Schulz had excluded earlier. A last, perhaps desperate, attempt to keep the AfD out.

The outlook for 2018

So where does this leave us now? One could argue that the rise of populist parties constitutes a victory for democracy. After all, democracy is built upon the fact that everyone should be able to voice their opinions through political parties. When a great share of people identify with a populist party it is a win for the diversity in the parliaments of democracy. However, one could also argue that these parties disregard all other existing democratic values that we hold dear, such as the opportunity for dialogue, the respect for all cultures, and the freedom of movement. It is too early to tell what parties such as AfD, PVV, and Front National will do exactly in their role as opposition parties. Nevertheless, based on the patterns of communication of these parties they will probably continue with their aggressive campaigning-like politics to become the largest voice in public debate. What is more interesting is how parties such as FPÖ will behave – as they are actually ruling a country. Populists parties in the opposition cannot be linked with a threat to democracy as such, but populist parties that govern a country have recently gained the limelight in European politics – and not because of their great preservation of democratic values.

Looking ahead in 2018 there are national elections in Hungary and local elections in Poland. These are two Member States that have been ruled by populist parties from which their democracies suffered severely. Freedom of speech and freedom of education have been markedly limited due to newly imposed legislation, the independent and monitoring function of the media has been compromised, and parts of the private sector have been corrupted in Hungary. Viktor Orbán is doing everything he can to limit the role of other parties and limit the opportunities they get to gain votes, corrupt the private sector to his advantage, limit the freedom of speech when it suits him best, and poison the independence of the judicial system.

Populism, the threat to democracy

The situation in Poland, with the Law and Justice (PiS) party in power, is not much better. Just a week ago, a massive overhaul of the country’s judicial system was announced, putting the Polish courts under control of PiS. Furthermore, President Andrzej Duda managed to gain control over the media and the European Commission has repeatedly warned him for the course he has set out.

Orbán controls the close to monopolist advertiser for his campaign, almost ensuring another win for his Fidesz party. Duda announced legal changes, making it harder for independent candidates backed by citizen committees to govern municipalities. This paves the way for a PiS win in the local elections of 2018. How the FPÖ will govern Austria is something only time can tell, but the track record of populists in Europe looks bad. On the one hand, wherever populists govern, democratic values seem to be eroding and democracy as such becomes threatened. On the other hand, populist parties seem to be defeated in the major countries of the European Union.


Author: Eva Durlinger

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