Populists are not taking over Europe, but neither are they on the way out

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The time has therefore come to take populists seriously as builders of organizations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power. Their success may be far from inevitable, but they are definitely here to stay.”  

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The political developments of the last year or so have inspired a flurry of articles and analyses on the future of populism in Europe. However, too often the term “populism” is deployed in inconsistent, loose and undefined ways; moreover, the commentary tends to be characterised by unfounded claims about, either the populists’ alleged successes, or indeed their impending demise.

Populism is not the attempt to put forward “popular” proposals, nor is it about appealing to emotions during campaigns, or else every politician should by default be called a “populist” and the term would become useless. Moreover, the essence of populism is not necessarily overpromising. Whether we conceive of populism as a “thin”, simplistic ideology attaching itself to other ideologies (for instance, socialism and nationalism), or “just” a rhetorical style, its core argument is that the people, depicted as virtuous and homogeneous, are always pitted against a set of elites, who are depriving the people of everything they own - from their material wealth to their very identity. In other words, the core of populism is its anti-establishment rhetoric and anti-elitism.

Following the events leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the USA, it may be understandable to find so many commentators buying into a narrative whereby Europe would be on the verge of being “swept” by a populist tide. This narrative often reveals the Anglo-centric perspective of its proponents, as it is predicated on an understanding of political competition whereby only two/three actors can have a go at forming the government, usually on their own. But since the majority of European electoral systems have strong elements of proportionality, and in several of them (such as, for instance France, Germany, Belgium and, more recently, also the Netherlands) mainstream parties would find it very difficult to engage in forms of collaboration with their populist competitors, the picture on our continent seems in fact more nuanced. This, however, does not mean, as some commentators have concluded after Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election, that populism must now have “peaked”, let alone that it is on the way out. Assertions of this kind are not substantiated by the electoral data, nor indeed by a simple consideration of how often populists have been included in governing coalitions in recent years.

As far as elections are concerned, European populist parties have quite simply seen their vote share increase steadily and consistently since the 1970s. Even the recent and much discussed “defeats” that populists are alleged to have suffered in the Netherlands, France and Austria were very honourable indeed. Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom increased its tally of seats, the Austrian Norbert Gerwald Hofer came very close to being elected President of his country with 46 per cent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen attracted a much higher vote share than her father ever did when attempting to capture the French Presidency in the past.

As for populists accessing governments, all the signs are that they have a realistic hope to go on being included in government coalitions in several countries in the future.This has happened on numerous occasions in the recent past, and shrinking support for moderate parties militates in favour of populists remaining “coalitionable”.

Indeed, in countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Hungary, Poland, and others, this has happened fairly recently - not to mention nations such as Denmark and again, the Netherlands, in which populists have provided essential external support to executives. If this were not enough, in many European countries it is the populist parties that are now the most seasoned and durable parties of all, sometimes benefiting from very rooted and efficient organisations. In other words, they are most certainly not “new” challengers – quite the opposite in fact.

The time has therefore come to take populists seriously as builders of organizations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power. Their success may be far from inevitable, but they are definitely here to stay.

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