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

The Rise of Populism in Europe

Can the Center Hold?

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.

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 Blair’s New Labour and Gerhard Schröder’s Neue Mitte (New Center) in Germany are cases in point.

Both parties were rewarded with historic victories in the 1990s. Thereafter, years of centrist economic policies generated growth, but also alienated large chunks of the center-left’s traditional supporters. Disillusioned leftist voters became easy targets for populists. Although this process was gradual, the effects can be seen in the disappearance of time-honored center-left parties such as the Greek Pasok and the Polish Social Democrats.

A similar pattern holds true for Europe’s center-right parties, which are paying a price for their shift toward more progressive positions—first and foremost on sociocultural matters.

Nowhere has this process been more striking than in Germany. Here, Chancellor Angela Merkel has shifted her conservative Christian Democratic Union to the left on a wide range of issues. Merkel’s welcoming stance on refugees last year was only one—albeit the most apparent—change in what constitutes a comprehensive reinvention of German conservatives.

Likewise, following the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, Merkel almost single-handedly overturned long-standing party policy to forgo nuclear energy altogether—an unprecedented change of course for a political group that had traditionally considered this technology “indispensable.” In the same year, Merkel’s government abolished the military draft, previously a cornerstone of her party’s conservative platform, and in 2014, she introduced new rules on German citizenship, allowing children of non-German parents to keep two passports—a further move away from previously held conservative beliefs.

Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis.

To be clear, many of these decisions were popular. However, they also left staunchly conservative supporters without a political home. As such, Merkel’s shift facilitated the establishment of a populist party to the right of the Christian Democrats, a nightmarish scenario for generations of German center-right leaders. It was no coincidence that in their first programmatic convention in May this year, the Alternative für Deutschland pointedly addressed every single one of Merkel’s policies. The newly drafted program called for a reversal of double citizenship, a lifetime extension of nuclear power plants, the reintroduction of the military draft, and—unsurprisingly—an end to the welcoming approach toward refugees.

In the end, the Alternative für Deutschland gained seats in three additional state parliaments this spring by tapping into the reservoir of people who don’t typically vote and—last but not least—of former center-left supporters. Meanwhile, in the British elections of 2015, the right-wing UKIP won substantial support from working-class voters. Finally, in last week’s Austrian vote, a stunning 86 percent of workers cast their votes for right-wing populists.

To win back vote share from the fringes and to combat impressions that the established parties have drifted too close together (in a recent study in southern Germany, 59 percent of respondents complained that the established parties were “too similar to one another”), the center-left and center-right parties will have to change. The question is how. Certainly, mimicking a populist stance is not an adequate response to populism. Here, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has risen from the radical fringes to the top of the party, is a case in point. His promise to transform Labour into a “party of principle” through a far-reaching tilt to the extreme left has electrified his supporters but, at the same time, has alienated the center and rendered winning the British general elections in 2020 almost impossible.

Voters who feel excluded cannot be won back with insults.

Rather than advocating a radical change, of course, Europe’s political parties would be well advised to rediscover the virtues of ideological heterogeneity. For decades, the continent’s major parties were composed of outspoken political factions, representing employers, trade unions, and even Marxists and nationalists. Today, dissenting voices from within the political party are often quickly silenced. Party structures need to open the spectrum back up to diverging, dissenting, and controversial views.

Classic social milieus and classes have largely disappeared. Social injustice, however, has not. For the center-left, this opens up a wide field of political activism with a renewed focus on traditional working-class voters. What the parties need is a coherent alternative to economic policies that have too often contributed to widening income gaps across the continent.

A center-left economic stance that forsakes austerity and holds accountable those responsible for banking scandals would go a long way in recapturing disillusioned voters. In Berlin, Sigmar Gabriel’s recent shift to re-focus German social democrats on social justice as a “historical core competence”—for example, by increasing the capital gains tax—is a step in the right direction. So is the approach of the recently inaugurated center-left chancellor of Austria, Christian Kern. In his inaugural speech, Kern called for a “New Deal” and a break with policies that had “replaced political convictions with tactical opportunism.” Although details of his approach are still vague, he has suggested a shift toward increased public investment, demand-side policies, and higher taxation of capital and other financial assets.

A United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and European Parliament member takes part in a voting session in Strasbourg, France, April 2016.
A United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and European Parliament member takes part in a voting session in Strasbourg, France, April 2016.

The center-right also has room to maneuver. Voters’ concerns about the rule of law, insecurity caused by migration, and national identity should be addressed as legitimate, rather than ridiculed as immoral. Merkel’s recent attempt to strengthen the European Union’s external borders was one attempt to regain popularity among the traditional center-right on one of the country’s most divisive issues. Furthermore, as 15 members of parliament from the German Christian Democrats recently suggested, conservative parties should rediscover their traditional stances on lower tax rates, deregulation of the labor market, lower inheritance taxes, and “family policies that focus on marriage.”

Such a recalibration of Europe’s centrist parties based on their traditional core beliefs would present voters with a wider range of choices. However, a comprehensive strategy for confronting populism refers not only to what established parties should do but also to what they should cease to do.

For one, displays of outrage about populism by the established political parties may be morally justified. And although a strategy of cordon sanitaire might be useful for confronting violent extremists, such a strategy will fail against populists. Closing the ranks of the establishment in unanimous exasperation has so far only strengthened the populist anti-elite narrative. So has demonizing populist voters as “a national disgrace” and calling on intelligence services to deal with the new parties. Voters who feel excluded cannot be won back with insults.

In 1953, German poet Bertolt Brecht witnessed a very different example of public dissatisfaction. As East Berlin workers took to the street in an act of protest against the Socialist Party nomenclature, Brecht reminded shocked party leaders of an unpleasant truth: A government that has forfeited the confidence of the people cannot simply “dissolve the people and elect another.” This certainly resonates today. Lamenting alienated voters is not an option. Reintroducing viable political alternatives is.

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