European populism poised for troubling second wave

2 January 2016
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Populism used to be a marginal phenomenon in Europe, but it is now going mainstream. Southern Europe’s high debts and unemployment made it ripe for fringe parties like Podemos, with moral, broadly anti-establishment agendas. Yet populists will gather steam in other European countries, feeding on growing anti-immigration and eurosceptic sentiment.

Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza made 2015 a year of surprises for traditional political groups. The Spanish upstart party rose because of its opposition to austerity and a corrupt elite. But relatively strong economic growth and the arrival of centrist party Ciudadanos has held the movement in check. Podemos-backed parties made something of a comeback in the Spanish elections on Dec. 20, but came in third behind the two main parties. Meanwhile, Athens was forced to back down from its anti-austerity election promises in order to secure bailout funds.

Radical politics isn’t dead in Europe’s periphery: Portugal’s new socialist coalition is sharply left. In Italy, populist parties on the right and left of the political spectrum command close to 50 percent of the support, according to Eurasia Group estimates.

But a different sort of populism is brewing in other parts of Europe, including France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland. Challengers are rising in popularity not because of austerity, but in response to immigration and terrorism and a perception that mainstream political elites are all the same. Weak growth and high unemployment don’t help, but economics is not the main cause for this second wave, and nor can it provide a solution.

The success of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s regional elections is one example. Other eastern European leaders are embracing the far-right vision of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, as Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia points out. Populism hasn’t hit the big league in Germany or the UK, but if it spreads widely elsewhere, it could pose a threat to European integration.

Rising populist parties may not taste much power given the dearth of general elections in most European states in 2016. But as long as migrants and terrorism capture attention, extremism remains a risk, and moderates need to find a way to stay ahead of the debate.

Reuters

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