The Rise of Populism in Europe

Can the Center Hold?

Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria, May 2016. Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters

Last Sunday, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria received a stunning 49 percent of the vote in his country’s presidential election. Although Hofer was ultimately defeated, his strong showing opened a new chapter in the story of Europe’s populists.

In several European countries, including Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Switzerland, right-wing parties have taken the reins of government. And even where right-wing populists haven’t gained power, groups such as Britain’s UKIP, the French Front National, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are enjoying record popularity.

In crisis-ridden southern Europe, meanwhile, left-wing populists have seen a renaissance. Spain’s anti-austerity movement Podemos is likely to finish second in elections scheduled for June. In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza party is leading an unlikely coalition government with the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party.

Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma. The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorize any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.

The populist surge is partly a rational response to the apparent political failures of the established parties. It is also an emotional backlash to a sense of disenfranchisement. Increasingly, the European Union’s compromise machine is perceived as an institutionalized grand coalition between the center-left and the center-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.

French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Henin-Beaumont, France, December 2015.
French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Henin-Beaumont, France, December 2015. Yves Herman / Reuters

In contrast to the United States, where political differences between Republicans and Democrats have remained deep, European mainstream parties have in the last decade moved ever closer toward the ideological center. In the case of many left-wing parties, the shift was explicit. Parties deprioritized ideology and embraced what was presumed to be a post-partisan pragmatism. Tony

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