THE RISE OF POPULISM

2016 has offered seismic shifts in the Western political hemisphere. In Europe, over the past several years, there has been a notable resurgence in right wing, populist movements, led by nascent political parties which have gained alarming momentum in representative terms. In Poland and Hungary extreme nationalist governments are currently in place. The Law and Justice party in the former, advocates highly conservative, Catholic values and has been accused of undermining the independence of the judiciary and overseeing democratic backsliding. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s ruling Fides party has built a fence to keep migrants out and is taking increasingly hardline measures to deter voters from abandoning them in favour of the even more radical, undeniably racist Jobbik party. In countries like Germany, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, movements of a similarly intolerant, nationalistic ilk are gaining votes with worrying alacrity. 

Buttressed by anti-immigration rhetoric, which has easily exploited incidents of terrorism and fears of swathes of refugees unbalancing the economic status quo, these parties have also gained traction thanks to the UK’s Brexit vote, which confirmed and legitimised widespread dissatisfaction. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. has also registered the disillusionment voters feel with what they see as an out-of-touch, elitist, political class and emboldened those who feel similarly. The same complaints are reverberating across Europe, with the refugee crisis at its nucleus, but incorporating a gamut of affiliated complaints, among them the European Union’s inability to reach consensus, its inequalities, and what certain nations perceive of as the domineering sway of Brussels and Berlin. 

Security issues, which have come to the forefront because of the spate of terrorist incidents, have given Schengen critics a reason to lambast the principle of free movement in Europe. According to a recent poll, more than 50% of respondents in 8 out of 10 EU member states believe refugees “increased the risk of terrorism”. Centrist parties are moving further to the right in order to regain votes from the hardliners, in the process shuffling the entire spectrum to the right. The existential threat to the EU should not be underestimated. If 2016 felt like a body blow to prized notions of tolerance, plurality and a belief in certain human rights, it may be unwise to hope for better things in 2017. Upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany are all opportunities for the right wing to tighten its grasp on the political institutions of Europe. 

On January 21, leaders of four far right parties of Europe gathered for a meeting in the German city of Koblenz, to set out their plans of a shared “vision for a Europe of freedom”. The leaders of Germany’s AfD, Frauke Petry; Italy’s Northern League, Matteo Salvini; and of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders; were gathered there at the invitation of the leader of France’s Front National, Marine Le Pen, who organised the “counter summit.” Le Pen is one of the foremost figures of the hardline European right wing, a scion of extremism, thanks to the efforts of her father, FN founder Jean Marie Le Pen, who famously horrified France in 2002 by defeating the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential elections. This reflects, to some extent, the long standing appeal of the extreme right wing in France. The turbulence of the past three years, in the form of the refugee crisis and the wave of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, have only given the FN more ammunition against immigrants and have been championed loudly by LePen’s media-savvy daughter. “The aim,” Le Pen said of the Koblenz summit, “is to outline the Europe of tomorrow. Each of us is strongly attached to sovereignty and freedom in general. ”Le Pen has a strong chance, polls suggest, of reaching the second round run-off of the presidential elections in April and May of this year. Although most pundits suspect that François Fillon (also a dyed-in-the-wool conservative) will ultimately swing to victory, LePen and the right in general, have many advantages. Firstly, considered a disconnected, technocratic elite, the left wing is in a state of disarray. Francois Hollande, the current Socialist Party President, broke the record as the most unpopular French president after six months at the helm. The candidates now vying for the left wing nomination have not managed to dazzle and the Socialist Party is seen as lacklustre. Additionally, Le Pen has made concerted efforts to improve the image of her party, by attempting to detoxify the brand. Unlike her father, who was a provocative anti-establishment element, willing to exploit any right wing strains (such as homophobia and anti-Semitism) his more subtle daughter has tried harder to present it as a credible political force. Discipline is a key word in articles about the new FN. “Voluntarily or not, he gave ammunition to our adversaries,” Le Pen says of her father. But she insists that she has changed the operations of the party, stating, “I fired them all … all those people who expressed an ideology or held views that I found unacceptable.” She has also been ready with a pithy sound bite for her supporters, at any political event from which she can gain capital. She was quick to congratulate the British voters for the Brexit vote. She also commented on the Trump victory in an interview with CNN: “Donald Trump has made possible what was presented as completely impossible. So it’s a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization. They cannot bear the political life led by the elites.” 

The preponderance of terrorist incidents in France (from the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in January 2015, through to the attacks of November 13 2015, to the Bastille Day massacre in Nice in 2016), has allowed her to fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment. She used the recent shooting of Anis Amri, the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack, as another occasion to enforce the necessity of national borders. Amri had managed to travel from Germany to Italy (using tickets bought in France), a fact, she says, which is “symptomatic of the total security disaster represented by the Schengen area”. In her statement, Le Pen wrote: “Without permanent national borders, France and its neighbours are reduced to learning that an armed and dangerous jihadi was probably wandering on its soil, only after the event. I reiterate my commitment to give France full control over its national borders and to put an end to the Schengen agreement. The myth of total free movement in Europe, to which my opponents still cling in this presidential election, must be buried.” 

Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party was another attendee of the Koblenz meeting. In advance of the summit, like LePen, he underscored how inspiring Trump’s victory has been by using the hashtag #WeWillMakeOurCountriesGreatAgain, a riff on the President’s campaign slogan. Anti-Islam sentiment is the raison d’être of the Freedom Party, whose manifesto proposes closing every mosque in the state and banning the Qur’an from public buildings. The Freedom party is alarmingly poised to be the most popular party in the Dutch parliamentary elections of March 15, with polls suggesting it will get around 24% of the vote. Since Trump entered the White House, the party has gained on the Liberals (VVD) led by Mark Rutte, the prime minister. Rutte has vowed, however, that he would never form a coalition with the PVV unless Wilders withdraws his comments on Moroccans. 
In September 2016 Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination after making comments aimed at Dutch Moroccans in a post-election speech. However, with a proportional representation system, if the PVV had a major lead it might prove impossible to build a coalition without him. Wilders’ constant lament is that the country has been overtaken by Muslims and that the ruling on inciting discrimination is an attack of freedom of speech. He wrote, “The Netherlands have become a sick country. I am not a racist and neither are my voters. This sentence proves that you judges are completely out of touch. Support for the Party for Freedom is stronger than ever and keeps growing every day. The Dutch want their country back. Today I was convicted in a political trial which, shortly before the elections, attempts to neutralise the leader of the largest and most popular opposition party. But they will not succeed, not even with this verdict, because I speak on behalf of millions of Dutch.” It has been warned that the condemnation of Wilders is unlikely to deter his supporters. If anything, it is likely to harden them. Sociologist Koen Damhuis notes, “They won’t walk away from Wilders if he’s found guilty. Moreover, PVV voters think he should be given a statue for the stance he has taken.” 

Other examples in recent Dutch history confirm that the victimisation of right wing figures only bolsters their popularity. As in France, the right wing ascendancy can be seen developing in the early 2000s. In 2002, the extreme right wing leader Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by an activist who cited Fortuyn’s stance on Islam as a motivation for the murder. National elections took place 9 days later and his party, the Pim Fortuyn List, became the second largest in the Netherlands with 17% of the vote. 

How is it that states like the Netherlands are traditionally seen as bastions of liberalism, yet the Netherlands are turning rightwards? The answer is, in part it seems, because the leaders of the right wing parties have managed to capitalise on the causes of the left, using issues like women’s equality, gay rights and penalising anti-Semitism. The anti-Islam parties have effectively deployed the idea that Islam aggresses all three of these groups - and painted all immigrants as hardline Muslims who are constitutionally intolerant of any “infidels”. Fortuyn was a case in point, as a former Communist wedded to ideas of the welfare state and a gay man who vaunted his sexual orientation. In this way, he saw how the right wing could in fact be used to defend secular, indeed liberal ideas, against the archly conservative values of branches of Islam. Additionally to this, a chilling assassination in 2004 shook the political landscape. The filmmaker, Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Moroccan who pinned a note to his chest with a death threat for Islamic critic and parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The violent dimension of these events have been used by the right wing to indicate that proponents of Islam have inevitably warring, ultraviolent tendencies. 

The right has also managed to gain ground by attracting voters with fiscal policies that traditionally belonged to the left wing. LePen has done it effectively in France where in the northern Pas de Calais region, which was socialist-communist for 80 years, she won 45% of the vote. Focusing on the needs of the underprivileged native populations, has won many hearts, as has the idea that the welfare state is being chipped away by the arrival of immigrants. 

In Norway, where the right wing is also on the rise, in the form of the Progress Party (FP), it has been noted that their promises to protect the welfare state (which is highly prized by the country’s citizens) have been instrumental in their success. In the parliamentary elections of September 2013 the party came to power as part of a coalition government with the Conservative Party. The fact that avowed neo-Nazi Anders B. Breivik, (the man who killed seventy-nine people in the worst terrorist attack in Norwegian history in 2011) was actively involved with the party for ten years, provides something of an introduction to its political character. Though the political mainstream had long refused to countenance an alliance with the Progress Party, it seems that times have changed. In 2009 the Conservative Party concluded it had no other choice. On matters of immigration, many of their views coincide and have been borne out in policy. The government has, in the past two years, deported a number of underage children of asylum seekers to countries which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees cautions against returning people. The Norwegian state is currently in negotiations with Eritrea to deport thousands of refugees who had already been awarded the right to stay. There are members of the FP who want to abolish the right to seek asylum in Norway, completely. What appeals, along with the anti-immigration stance, are the FP’s pledges to outspend other parties in terms of public sector spending. By the same logic, the 2014 state budget (which offered huge tax rebates to the richest parts of society) was met with outcry, and support for the government, and the FP, has begun to decrease. 

In Finland, the Finns Party (formerly known as the True Finns) has also pledged to protect the welfare state, whilst defeating what one of its MPs called “this nightmare called multiculturalism”. The MP in question, Olli Immonen, will not be sacked for his comments, says the party’s head Timo Soini, who is also the Foreign Minister. Since the party wields considerable power, gaining one fifth of the vote in last year’s election and having 38 seats in the Finnish parliament, their views are not ignored. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party has similarly gained enormous support by out-lefting the left wing in terms of its commitments to welfare spending, especially for the sick and elderly, and subsidized housing. In eight years the party’s share of the vote increased by 50% and in June 2015, the party came second in the general election. Its leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, has, however, taken note of the Norwegian example and chosen not to join the government in order to maintain the independence of the party, for fear that its anti-establishment image would be tainted by an association with power. The party’s central tenets include cutting the number of asylum seekers and reintroducing border controls. Worryingly, in January, the Danish government passed a law known as the “jewellery law” which would confiscate valuables worth more than the equivalent of £1,200 from any refugee. It is worth noting that this law was not only backed by the DPP and the government - but also the Social Democrats. In evidence of how the Brexit vote has galvanized populist parties, it also hopes to see reform of the EU, using Britain as an ally. 

Meanwhile neighbouring Sweden’s far right wing party, the Swedish Democrats, who won 49 seats in the 2014 elections, have only been kept from wielding greater influence because of the refusal of other parliamentary groups to cooperate with them. Sweden receives more asylum applications per capita than any other European country and had offered permanent residency to all Syrians who are fleeing the war there and it is likely, some analysts say, that the hearty welcome it has offered refugees has prompted this backlash.

We might suggest that the German case bears similarities. Angela Merkel has extended Germany’s welcome to 1.1 million asylum seekers, a fact which has not been met with glee across the country. In 2014, the Pegida movement, a citizens' initiative, which holds regular anti-immigration demonstrations in the eastern city of Dresden, began to make headlines. It has a powerful political corollary (though the two are not in any way linked to the Alternative for Germany party (AFD). The party was formed in 2013 principally to campaign against the euro, but has quickly begun to narrow its attention on the matter of immigration. What is causing deep concern, is how it is faring at the polls (14-15%) since federal elections will be held on September 24 this year. Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as Chancellor but her Christian Democrats Party is losing votes to the AFD. Several events have fuelled anti-immigration sentiment. Firstly, the New Year’s Eve sex attacks on women at Cologne train station in 2015, sparked fear of the incompatibility of supposedly Islamic narrow perceptions of women and those of the German state. Secondly the series of small, localized terrorist attacks, culminating in the Christmas market attack in Berlin on December 19 perpetrated by a Tunisian national, which claimed 12 lives, has stoked fears that the influx of refugees has offered opportunities for IS to spread violence across continental Europe. Hence the AFD’s plans to close the EU's borders and establish regimented identity checks have found favour. They also argue that Islam is incompatible with the German constitution. 

Alarmingly, far from attracting one particular wing of society, according to research, the AFD has siphoned votes from across the political spectrum and even in Berlin, which is traditionally left wing, it gained 14.2% of the vote last year. Notably, the AFD is hostile to the European Union in its current state, wants powers devolved to a national level, and to see the scrapping of the euro. 

The intertwined nature of concerns about free movement due to Schengen and a hatred for the single currency is also seen in Italy, where Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is on the rise. “Italy has become a pathway for terrorists, who we are not able to recognise, thanks to Schengen,” Grillo said, in reference to the shooting of Berlin market suspect, the Tunisian Anis Amri on December 23 in a suburb of Milan. This party won 25% of the national vote in 2015. As a former anti-establishment party run by a former comedian, some might consider the organisation (which has few allies) as something of an agent provocateur, rather than a game changer. This is not however any reason to dismiss it. The provocations of Donald Trump, so recently dismissed as ludicrous, are now the substance of terrifying policies. The dismissal of marginal politics has been part of its making, as the past year has seen. 

Whilst there are many reasons to feel pessimistic about the future of Europe in 2017, there are also some reasons to be hopeful. We can hope that the intelligence community manages to prevent further terrorist attacks, which have been instrumental in turning the tide against refugees. Some have suggested that populism might have reached its peak, and the severe effects of Brexit and the Trump presidency, will discourage other nations from hastening into seismic decisions. The fact that in Austria’s recent presidential election left -leaning candidate Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed over the far right wing’s Norbert Hofer (just), may indicate ennui with this extreme brand of politics, an ennui that may spread in other countries if the populist parties become part of the establishment. Whilst many of the far right-wing movements are media savvy and well organised, attempts to ally them, like that mentioned above, undertaken by Marine LePen in Koblenz, rarely have any practical pay off. The Finns and the Danish People’s Party loathe the Front National for example. Since these and similar parties are inherently inward looking and jingoistic, attempts to broaden their power structure through pan-national alliances are unlikely to work. Hopefully, though perhaps’ whistling in the dark’, the mood of intolerance will cease to spread like wild fire across the continent. The loss of left wing votes to right wing parties has provoked a crisis in the left wing in Britain, in France and in the Nordic countries. 

A great deal of soul searching is taking place among the established political parties. We have to hope they can discover a new vitality and emerge the better for it.

Sara Bielecki