Watchin’ the Tide Roll Away?

By Absalom Sink

It’s becoming a tiresome cliché, isn’t it? Almost as tiresome as the cliché from a few years ago: that of a ‘rising tide of far-right populism’ in Europe. And while that old number is still getting plenty of play, it seems like every month there’s a handful of new articles and op-eds pontificating on whether the ‘populist tide’ has peaked and begun to ebb.

To be fair, I can understand the urge behind writing pieces like those. The ‘populist right’ has been dealt a number of blows this year. There was the “stunning rebuke” against populism in Slovakia with the election of centre-left, liberal Zuzana Caputova. Just over a week ago in Bologna, Italy, a rally held by the populist Matteo Salvini and attended by a little under 6000 supporters was counter-protested by between 12000 and 15000 people. Similarly, far-right rallies held last week by Pegida in Dresden and the ultranationalist NPD in Hannover were dwarfed by counter-protesters. And it’s hard not to see 13500 people marching in Paris against Islamophobia as a raised middle finger aimed at the Rassemblement National (RN), the political embodiment of Islamophobia in France. Finally, let’s not forget the “collapse of the far-right” in the Austrian election this past September, when the FPO lost 10% of the overall vote as compared to the last election because of a corruption scandal.

The problem is when we try to use events like these to extrapolate out over the whole of Europe. In fact, just framing it as the populist right is problematic. Certainly, there are transnational connections between populist movements/parties, but there is no single, monolithic populism. These groups cooperate to the extent that it’s practical. But if, say, Germany’s AfD were to suddenly founder, it’s a fair bet that the Swiss Peoples’ Party and the RN and the Sweden Democrats—far-right populists, all—would let them sink before risking their own positions. By lumping all these groups together when declaring that the ‘populist tide is receding’, we massively oversimply a complex transnational political situation.

Aside from oversimplifying things, there’s also the worry that such statements might make voters complacent; believing the threat to be behind them, voters might have less impetus to vote. The problem is a number of far-right populist parties in Europe still have fairly robust polling numbers. Germany’s AfD has held steady at 13-14% in the national polls for two years, while in Thuringia’s state election last month it came second, with over 23% of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen’s RN is actually leading the presidential poll, hovering around 28%. Even in Austria, where the ‘Ibiza affair’ saw the FPÖ drop by 10% in the last election, they picked up enough seats that they were able to maintain their coalition government with the winning ÖVP. How can we claim that far-right populism has peaked when a party like the ‘formerly’ fascist Sweden Democrats are poised to become the biggest party in their country, and could conceivably with the 2022 election?

My point in all of this is simply that journalists and political observers alike should be wary of making sweeping declarations on the state of far-right populism. Europe is bigger and more diverse than we sometimes recognize; when we’re talking about an entire continent, it’s worth remembering that high tide happens at different times in Helsinki, Finland and Cadiz, Spain. The same goes for the metaphorical tide. While populism might ebb in one region, it can still be in flood in another.

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