The conditions are perfect for a populist resurgence in Europe
It should come as no surprise to learn that one of his biggest fans is Steve Bannon, the man who largely created former US President Donald Trump’s political ideology and is credited with giving birth to to the American alt-right movement.
His likely victory follows recent far-right triumphs elsewhere in Europe.
Although Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, her supporters across the continent have been encouraged both by her share of the popular vote and by the fact that she has radically shifted the political center of the France to the right.
Europe’s conservative right certainly feels like it is experiencing a revival after a few quiet years.
“Something is definitely happening. From Europe’s great powers France and Italy to Sweden…it feels like a rejection of the glaringly failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking hold among our citizens” , says Gunnar Beck, Member of the European Parliament representing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The AfD is a far-right party that has become the first to be placed under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era. At the time, the Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed the decision, saying: “The AfD’s destructive policy undermines our democratic institutions and discredits democracy among citizens.”
Where does this momentum come from?
“The cost of living crisis is undermining European governments and institutions. Of course, the war in Ukraine made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and European Central Bank monetary policy were driving up inflation. before the war, the erosion of living standards meant that people naturally became dissatisfied with their governments and the political establishment,” adds Beck.
The crisis always creates opportunities for opposition parties, regardless of their political ideology. But the politics of fear in a crisis context tends to lend itself more easily to right-wing populists.
“In the case of Meloni and her party, she was able to criticize both the establishment figure of Mario Draghi, an unelected technocrat installed as prime minister, and the populists who had backed her coalition government” , explains Marianna Griffini, senior lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.
Griffini says Italy’s recent woes have made it particularly susceptible to anti-establishment ideas. “As a country, we suffered a lot from the pandemic, especially very early on. A lot of people died, a lot of businesses closed. We struggled to get support from the rest of the EU. Since then, the creation and the governments of Conte and Draghi were easy targets to throw stones at.”
Why is the crisis creating such a unique opportunity for right-wing populists? “Most research shows that conservative voters have a greater need for certainty and stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically attuned to see this as a threat. So it’s much easier to unite these people against real changes or perceived threats, like the energy crisis, inflation, food shortages or immigrants,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defend Democracy.
And there are plenty of perceived threats populists can point to right now.
“Rising food and fuel prices, loss of faith in democratic institutions, growing inequality, declining class mobility and worries about migration have created a sense of hopelessness that unscrupulous leaders can easily exploit,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. , in central England.
He thinks the current combination of crises is a “perfect storm for liberal democracy – and it will take far greater efforts by those who believe in inclusion, responsible government and human rights to get there.” to face”.
The fact that we are talking about this latest wave of populism means that, by definition, we have already seen right-wing populists come to power and we have seen them defeated. Why, then, is the prospect of a new wave so alarming to those who oppose it?
“The paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems but seeks to replace them with something worse,” says Federico Finchelstein, a leading expert on populism and author of the book “From Fascism to Populism in History”.
“The failures of political elites and institutions, which they seek to replace with powerful, bigoted leadership. Trump was a natural at this and he encouraged others like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and even Orban to go even further” , adds Finchelstein, referring to the authoritarian rulers of Turkey, Brazil and Hungary, where democratic standards have been seriously undermined in recent years.
He also points out that populists are “on the whole very bad at running governments, as we’ve seen with Trump and others during the pandemic.”
That, in a nutshell, is the potential danger of this populist wave. In times of severe crisis, those who claim to have solutions could make things worse for the citizens they end up serving. And if things get worse, more crises are inevitable, which means more fear is inevitable, as well as new opportunities for populists.
In Italy, it means nothing that Meloni is just the latest – if not the most extreme – in a long line of successful populist politicians. Those who succeeded before her and entered the government became her targets in the opposition.
If Europe’s cycle of crisis continues, then it is plausible that in a few years we will be discussing the rise of another extreme populism exploiting citizens’ fears. And anyone who follows European politics knows all too well that hundreds of such people wait in the wings, emboldened and encouraged each time a member of their tribe takes on the establishment and wins.