By Stuart Strang
In recent years, a populist wave has swept the European continent. The tides of populist electoral success instilled a fear that the European project was dead, and that fascism may soon rear its face once again.
The success of populist groups has been attributed to their tactics of nativism and charismatic leaders. Populist political parties seek to overturn current political systems by pitting the ‘people’ against the ‘corrupt elite’. Leaders of populist groups claim that they alone speak for the ‘people’. This combination has proven effective for leaders such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Penn, and Gert Wilders. Despite success, the high tide of populism that had risen across the European continent may be lessening.
The Austrian general election this week showcased the latest loss for populist parties in Europe. The right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) lost over a third of its seats. This is a major blow to populist parties, as the FPÖ was a shining example of success for populist parties. Prior to the election the FPÖ were a part of the leading coalition in Austria. Due to scandal, the FPÖ is now unlikely to be included in the new majority.
Is the Austrian case localized or a part of a larger trend of populist decline?
Looking elsewhere in Europe, it is clear that populist parties have been struggling to keep their momentum. Most notably, the European Parliament election earlier this year saw populist parties failing to make significant gains. Other examples include the Italian Lega being ousted from power.
With the losses mounting for populists’, media outlets have started to question if populism has peaked. Has the populist tide lost its momentum? Not Quite.
Europe is not out of the woods yet.
While populist success has somewhat stagnated, populist parties across European countries are still making significant headway electorally. This year alone saw populist parties at the national level in Belgium, Estonia , and Finland make significant gains. This does not appear to be slowing down, as polls also show the Law and Justice Party in Poland with a large lead ahead of the Polish general election on October 13th. Despite less than expected success in the European Parliament election, statements such as “The populists’ finish isn’t that much stronger than in 2014” can be misleading. Put in context, 2014 was the watershed year for populist parties’ success.
But how are populist parties continuing their electoral successes?
Two explanations offer great insight.
The first explanation highlights the flexibility of populist groups. “The People” that populists claim to represent is deliberately loosely defined. Who fits into the in-group defined as ‘the people’ is very fluid. Prominent populist scholar Cas Mudde warns that defining “Us” and “Them” is crucial for the success of far-right populist parties, and the boundaries are constantly shifting”. Populist’s are able to dynamically adapt their policy and rhetoric to better match current political trends.
The second explanation has been a lessening in radical policy. Most prominently, the elimination of calls to leave the European Union. Ironically this shift in rhetoric is due to the populist success of Brexit. The chaos that Brexit has caused has led continental populist parties to adjust course on their policies to leave the European Union towards less radical policies. By promoting less radical policy, populists stand to reach more moderate voters who feel disenfranchised by other mainstream parties.
Populism in Europe is undergoing some stagnation. However, populist parties have demonstrated the ability to be flexible and sustain electoral success.
To claim that European populism is on its way out would be a mistake, the tide may be out at the moment but will soon return if unchecked.