Populism in Europe — An increasingly polarized landscape

By Alexan­dru Filip.

Recent elec­tions and elec­tion fore­casts have giv­en us many a rea­son to pause and think about the evo­lu­tion of the polit­i­cal land­scape in Europe and beyond. In a num­ber of coun­tries, polit­i­cal par­ties and actors that lay on the fringes of the polit­i­cal scene are mount­ing an ever grow­ing chal­lenge for the cen­tre stage of the elec­toral race. The caus­es are mul­ti­ple and inter­twined, rang­ing from vot­er dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the carteli­sa­tion of pol­i­tics, to the ero­sion of par­ty-con­stituen­cy ties, to grow­ing appre­hen­sion about glob­al­i­sa­tion. One of the con­se­quences of said devel­op­ments is the grow­ing suc­cess of pop­ulist or fringe par­ties, and a grow­ing polar­i­sa­tion of pol­i­cy pref­er­ences with­in the land­scape of pub­lic opinion.

For­ays in a world of pop­ulist challengers

Con­sid­er Aus­tria, where the most recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion pro­duced a run-off result so close that the country’s con­sti­tu­tion­al court has decid­ed that the sec­ond round of the elec­tion must be repeat­ed. While this in itself might seem news-wor­thy and enough to attract atten­tion to a nation­al polit­i­cal scene that rarely makes the world head­lines, it is not the most inter­est­ing or note­wor­thy aspect sur­round­ing it.

More impor­tant per­haps is the fact that nei­ther of the two can­di­dates come from one of the two main, estab­lished par­ties of Aus­tri­an pol­i­tics (the can­di­dates of the SPÖ and the ÖVP came 4th and 5th respec­tive­ly). Not only was there a poor show­ing by the his­tor­i­cal Volksparteien, but the two can­di­dates that made it to the sec­ond round rep­re­sent what is arguably the poles of the polit­i­cal land­scape: Nor­bert Hofer of the right-wing Aus­tri­an Free­dom Par­ty and Alexan­der Van der Bellen, nom­i­nal­ly an inde­pen­dent can­di­date but actu­al­ly a mem­ber of the Green Par­ty.[1]

The land­scape of pub­lic opin­ion and polit­i­cal pref­er­ences has become such that vot­ers are aban­don­ing the polit­i­cal cen­tre for fringes of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. This phe­nom­e­non is not iso­lat­ed. It is instead part and par­cel of a larg­er wave of polit­i­cal dis­con­tent with main­stream pol­i­tics com­bined with an appar­ent polar­i­sa­tion of pub­lic opin­ion and polit­i­cal pref­er­ences (especially/more so along the lines of alter­na­tive polit­i­cal dimen­sions). This man­i­fests itself in grow­ing vot­er defec­tions where­by indi­vid­u­als are tak­ing their all pre­cious vote either to a (re-)surging pop­ulist far right that espous­es com­mu­ni­tar­i­an, con­ser­v­a­tive, anti-immi­grant, anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion as a polit­i­cal mes­sage, or a left wing scene (often pop­ulist as well) that com­bines a tra­di­tion­al focus on social equi­ty and redis­tri­b­u­tion with pro­gres­sive posi­tions on immi­gra­tion, envi­ron­ment, bot­tom-up deci­sion making.

A grow­ing trend

While Aus­tria might be a par­tic­u­lar­ly expres­sive exam­ple of this phe­nom­e­non (because the sec­ond round run-off forces can­di­dates out of the race and both remain­ing can­di­dates were inter­est­ing­ly ‘fringe’ can­di­dates), such ten­den­cies can be detect­ed in many oth­er west­ern polities.

A process of a some­what sim­i­lar flavour is ani­mat­ing Ger­man pol­i­tics, where cur­rent fore­casts pre­dict that the com­ing leg­isla­tive elec­tions will see sig­nif­i­cant loss­es by both the CDU as well as the SPD, with the AfD and the Green Par­ty gain­ing at their expense. Opin­ion polar­i­sa­tion has been gal­vanised by issues such as the Euro cri­sis and the recent refugee cri­sis, with polit­i­cal actors and seg­ments of soci­ety tak­ing sides on a cleav­age defined seem­ing­ly ever more by a cos­mopoli­tan-nativist (pro/anti – immi­gra­tion, refugees, EU) divide where the AfD stands at one pole and more pro­gres­sive, left-lean­ing forces (The Greens, for exam­ple) at the other.

In the USA, among the last three per­sons vying for nom­i­na­tion as pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates (D. Trump hav­ing already secured Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and B. Sanders and H. Clin­ton fight­ing over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic one) one advo­cat­ed pol­i­cy views often decried as far-right pop­ulist, while anoth­er ran on a pop­ulist left-wing plat­form. Both pre­sent­ed the idea of ‘turn­ing away’ from main­stream pol­i­tics in a break with the past and the polit­i­cal establishment.

In Great Britain, UKIP has not only mobilised on the issue of Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion and forced debate about it to the very cen­tre of the polit­i­cal agen­da, it has man­aged to achieve and accom­plish its rai­son d’etre: the Unit­ed King­dom has vot­ed to leave the Euro­pean Union. At the same time, the two main polit­i­cal par­ties (reflect­ing devel­op­ments across the ocean) are forced to put up with inter­nal ten­sions that reflect wider vot­er appre­hen­sion with main­stream pol­i­tics. The main cen­tre-left par­ty is rebelling against its leader whom some deem to be too far to the left (but appears to have the back­ing of the mass­es), while on the cen­tre-right the Tories are strug­gling to bal­ance the com­pet­ing demands of mod­er­a­tion and oppo­si­tion to integration.

A reversed pic­ture in the South

In South­ern Europe, the rel­a­tive strength and influ­ence of the far right and the more pro­gres­sive far left is some­what reversed com­pared to the rest of the con­ti­nent, with right wing pop­ulism being the weak­er pole.

The Lega Nord in Italy was for a long time the country’s ‘flag­ship’ euroscep­tic par­ty and its leader, Umber­to Bossi, was per­haps the face of Ital­ian euroscep­ti­cism until Giuseppe Gril­lo ini­ti­at­ed the Five Star Move­ment. While being a pop­ulist, anti-estab­lish­ment, anti-EU par­ty, the lat­ter is also char­ac­terised by a focus on sus­tain­abil­i­ty, envi­ron­men­tal­ism, and grass-roots ori­en­ta­tion (the par­ty is some­times even referred to as an ‘e‑party’). While the Lega Nord has main­tained its posi­tion and sup­port­ers on the far right of Ital­ian pol­i­tics, the Five Star Move­ment has been a jug­ger­naut in Ital­ian pol­i­tics draw­ing large num­bers of vot­ers from oth­er par­ties – only a few years after its birth, it has become the largest oppo­si­tion par­ty in Italy, and the sec­ond largest behind the social-demo­c­ra­t­ic PD (the PD itself result­ed after a series of merg­ers by var­i­ous small­er cen­tre-left parties).

In Greece, the social fall­out of the Euro cri­sis and the elec­tion of Alex­is Tsipras has pro­duced a sit­u­a­tion that is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a tragedy and fairy tale of social­ism and the far left in Europe. Syriza’s left wing leader became Prime Min­is­ter in the eco­nom­i­cal­ly embat­tled coun­try, but the polit­i­cal scene there has had to con­tend with pop­ulist forces from the oth­er edge of the ide­o­log­i­cal land­scape as well: right wing par­ties such as Gold­en Dawn and The Inde­pen­dent Greeks have con­tributed to the sap in sup­port for tra­di­tion­al, more estab­lished parties.

Spain seems to have been spared the fight with right-wing pop­ulism. While the left-wing anti-estab­lish­ment Podemos has man­aged to become the third best rep­re­sent­ed par­ty behind the estab­lished PP and PSOE, the oth­er par­ty that is attract­ing vot­ers at the expense of oth­er, tra­di­tion­al, polit­i­cal actors is the mod­er­ate Ciu­dadanos. These are just some exam­ples from Europe’s (and beyond) more impor­tant nation­al polit­i­cal are­nas, where the ide­o­log­i­cal cen­tre is los­ing to both the right and the left.

A pos­tu­late of change

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the struc­ture of polit­i­cal con­flict and the shape of polit­i­cal par­ties has often been a func­tion of wider soci­etal polit­i­cal change. From ‘Weltan­schaungsparteien’ to the Mass Par­ty in the era of expand­ing enfran­chise­ment, and from Kirchheimer’s Catch-all Par­ty to the carteli­sa­tion of par­ties in more recent times [2], the nature of the con­test between par­ties has been a func­tion of the chang­ing land­scape of con­stituen­cies and dynam­ics of pub­lic opinion.

West­ern poli­ties are increas­ing­ly char­ac­terised by the simul­ta­ne­ous weak­en­ing of par­ty ties, dis­con­tent with tra­di­tion­al pol­i­tics and the grow­ing gap between sup­port­ers and oppo­nents of glob­al­i­sa­tion, inte­gra­tion, dena­tion­al­i­sa­tion. In 2008, Hanspeter Kriesi and col­leagues [3] described the lat­ter process in their now famous New Cleav­age Hypoth­e­sis.
One ques­tion that might be posed here is the fol­low­ing: if cur­rent trends of polit­i­cal defec­tion from his­tor­i­cal polit­i­cal par­ties to alter­na­tive, less estab­lished par­ties con­tin­ue; and if the trends of defec­tion con­tin­ue to be mul­ti-direc­tion­al (in oth­er words, if vot­ers move towards polit­i­cal entre­pre­neurs on both the right and left wing, result­ing in vot­er dis­tri­b­u­tions that are ever less bell-shaped and ever more flat), what con­se­quences might this hold for elec­toral pol­i­tics and inter-par­ty com­pe­ti­tion in the near and mid-term future? Is this a mere tem­po­rary weak­en­ing of large cen­tre par­ties, or a more last­ing effect? If cur­rent polar­i­sa­tion and divi­sive­ness over cul­tur­al and ‘vertical’/non-economic pol­i­cy issues remain (or grow) what will that mean for the future of catch-all pol­i­tics in ‘the West’?

A new era of politics

I sus­pect that we are at the doorstep of a new era of par­ty pol­i­tics, in which aggres­sive chal­lenger par­ties try to carve out as big a niche as pos­si­ble before estab­lished ones aban­don the strat­e­gy of ‘win­ning it all’, and attempt to hun­ker down and defend ter­ri­to­ry. As pro­gres­sive and con­ser­v­a­tive fringe par­ties are tap­ping into pop­u­lar angst, ener­gy, hope and dis­il­lu­sion­ment, they will leave main­stream par­ties with no choice but to adapt and try to tap into that same elec­toral cap­i­tal by seek­ing to ‘get back in touch’ with voters.

In the USA, one might arguably say that this is tak­ing shape, as the Repub­li­can Par­ty found itself ever more inspired by the Tea Par­ty Move­ment. Empow­er­ing the so-called Free­dom Cau­cus and pres­sur­ing repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al can­di­dates by lend­ing or with­draw­ing sup­port for them, the small but vocal move­ment man­aged to influ­ence and draw large parts of the par­ty to the right not by large num­bers and resources, but robust bot­tom-up activism and intense com­mit­ment. Such traits are par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive in pri­ma­ry and 2nd order elec­tions, and were also man­i­fest­ed in the pri­ma­ry con­test that was won by Don­ald Trump. Calls are cur­rent­ly grow­ing with­in the rank and file of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to align the par­ty with the ‘Sanders move­ment’. Mod­er­ate democ­rats are con­tem­plat­ing sur­ren­der and hand­ing over the keys to the left wing of the par­ty. A con­se­quence of such actions fur­ther down the line might be a decreas­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty space for bi-par­ti­san pol­i­tics between the two major parties.

In mul­ti-par­ty sys­tems, as the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er between cen­tre par­ties and fringe par­ties evens out (even if not entire­ly, at least to some degree), and Social Democ­rats and Chris­t­ian Democ­rats find them­selves rely­ing on an ever more ide­o­log­i­cal­ly cen­tral and thin­ning vot­er base, the ques­tion is who will defect first from the cur­rent tac­it con­sen­sus on main­stream pol­i­tics: the cen­tre left or the cen­tre right? The polit­i­cal hori­zon appears tumultuous.

Alexan­dru Fil­ip is a PhD can­di­date at the Bre­men Inter­na­tion­al Grad­u­ate School of Social Sci­ences, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bre­men. He is pur­su­ing a PhD on the top­ic of the influ­ence of euroscep­tic par­ties on the polit­i­cal main­stream in West­ern Europe. His favourite top­ics include the Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion, com­par­a­tive Euro­pean pol­i­tics, elec­toral dynam­ics and the study of populism.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] Green par­ties have tra­di­tion­al­ly been labelled as fringe par­ties or sin­gle-issue par­ties due to their focus on envi­ron­men­tal issues, alter­na­tive pol­i­tics and anti-estab­lish­ment, grass-roots ori­ent­ed stances, but are com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the left wing pole of the ide­o­log­i­cal spectrum.

[2] For an overview of the catch-all par­ty the­sis, see Krouwel, André (2003) ‘Otto Kirch­heimer and the catch-all par­ty’, West Euro­pean Pol­i­tics, 26: 2, 23 — 40.

[3] Kriesi, H., Grande, E., Lachat, R., Dolezal, M., Born­schi­er, S. and Frey, T. (2008) West Euro­pean Pol­i­tics in the Age of Glob­al­iza­tion. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Pic­ture:  Trav­el Map: Europe by Kevin Hale (own work) via Flickr, released under Cre­ative Commons.

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