Is the populist wave in Europe ebbing?
Two populist luminaries, who rode to power on waves of anti-elitism anger, have been ousted this year: Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard who was voted out of office in April, and the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš, a businessman who lost last month’s election and has been replaced by a university professor at the head of a coalition of parties.
Next April, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has had a decade of electoral success fighting the European Union over what he sees as its attempts to impose an internationalist world view on his country, faces a tough reelection battle against a now unified pro-EU opposition.
Orban is being shunned by the Biden administration and Hungary is the only European Union country not to be invited to next week’s U.S.-hosted Summit for Democracy, an exclusion American officials hope Hungary’s opposition parties can use to their electoral benefit.
The political tide is seemingly running against the populists in Central Europe and elsewhere on the continent, according to pollsters. They say support for populist sentiments in Europe has fallen sharply since the pandemic emerged.
A survey published last week by British pollster YouGov found populist support has declined in 10 European countries over the past three years, suggesting populism’s electoral appeal may have peaked. The populist tenet that the “will of the people should be the highest principle in a country’s politics” no longer resonates as forcefully as it did three years ago, YouGov found. In Poland, for example, 65% now agree with that statement as compared to 81% three years ago.
YouGov also says far fewer respondents think their countries are divided between ordinary people and “corrupt elites” who exploit them. Three years ago, 61% in France subscribed to that view but now only 49% do, and in Italy there has also been a notable fall off, too, from 65% to 54%.
A monthly aggregation of polls pulled together by Germany-based Europe Elects also suggests there has been a decrease in support for populists, of the far right and far left, with the popularity of populist parties decreasing in 10 European countries and only increasing in three — the Netherlands, Portugal and Cyprus.
Hans-Georg Betz, an academic at the University of Zurich and the author of several books on right-wing populism, attributes part of the decline in populist support across Europe to fading public worries about immigration.
“For the populist right, with COVID-19, the question of Islam’s place in Western societies faded into oblivion, and with it dwindled the populist right’s appeal and support,” he said in a commentary for the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, a UK-based research group.
“The most egregious example is the Danish People’s Party, DF. Until recently, the DF was a pivotal actor in Danish politics, which managed to impose its position on migrants on refugees on the mainstream parties. By now, it has virtually disappeared from the political landscape. Other parties have fared better, but more often than not are way below their pre-pandemic highs,” he added.
But counting out the continent’s nationalist populists may be premature, certainly outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel thinks so when it comes to Central Europe. In a recent media interview Merkel highlighted her worries about the serial spats between Brussels and the former communist countries of Central Europe over the rule of law, press freedom and immigration.
She warned divisions may deepen and cautioned that the “feeling that there is little national room for maneuver creates disappointment.” And after attending her final meeting with other EU heads of state last month, she urged Brussels and Western European leaders to pursue compromise with the more populist-minded Central European countries which “joined a club already formed without having input into all of its rules and requirements.”
Some analysts fear that with Merkel’s departure from the political scene, the clashes between the EU and the populist, nationalist-minded leaders and parties of Central Europe could worsen. Merkel was a restraining voice, always seeking to defuse confrontations and keen to balance the interests of the EU as a bloc with the national interests of individual member states.
Her departure could allow squabbles between the EU and the more internationalist-minded members of the bloc on the one hand and the more nationalist governments of Hungary, Poland and Slovenia on the other to spin out of control, possibly to the electoral benefit of euro-skeptic populist leaders.
Populists are also looking to the latter stages of the coronavirus pandemic to revive their political fortunes as public anger and fatigue builds over the prolonging of restrictions and with renewed constraints imposed by governments amid a fourth wave of infections. This month several countries, including the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, saw the staging of mass protests against new pandemic restrictions intended to stem a surge in transmission rates. The demonstrations were encouraged by populist parties,
Protests turned violent in Rotterdam, where police fired warning shots and used water cannons earlier this month to control demonstrators who pelted officers with rocks and burned cars.
“With the fourth wave sweeping across Europe, and no end in sight, societies appear to be rapidly approaching a breaking point, reflected in growing frustration and exasperation, occasionally erupting in furious, even violent protest,” says Swiss academic Hans-Georg Betz.
He says the populist right may have found with the pandemic restrictions “a wedge issue that allows them to regain lost political ground.”