There is a powerful shift emerging in politics around the world and in Europe in particular. While broadly there has been a gradual rise in populism in recent years, it’s the right-wing part of the populist movement that has redrawn politics in Europe lately. The election of centrist president Emmanuel Macron in France and the re-election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year was just a temporary pause in the rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping aside mainstream party politics. While the surge to the right in Europe is nowhere near over, Sweden is the latest and one more addition to the list of countries where populist radical-right has manoeuvred its way from the margins, to disrupt the continent’s political landscape.
According to a Bloomberg analysis of decades of election results in 22 European countries, support for populist radical-right parties is higher than it’s been at any time in the past 30 years. In the most recent elections, these parties won an average of 16 per cent of the overall votes, compared to 11 per cent a decade ago and 5 per cent two decades earlier. So, what’s causing Europe’s swing to the far right? There is no one definite reason behind the rise of organised and racist nationalism that is defying half a century of liberalism, but a combination of socio-economic factors: emotional xenophobia against migrants, anaemic growth, falling incomes, rising income inequality, disappearing manufacturing jobs, unemployment and declining living standards. Other factors include national sovereignty, globalisation and disenchantment with traditional mainstream politics and political elites.
The glaring message that comes out of all recent elections in Western Europe is that immigration is not only the dominant issue in Europe’s present day politics, it is also an issue that is dividing Europe. Uncontrolled immigration has obsessed voters in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria and Britain. Two weeks ago, it also dominated the elections in Sweden where the populist, anti-immigrant party, Sweden Democrats, won 17.6 per cent of the vote. The governing Social Democrats, while maintaining their record of finishing first in every election since 1917, saw their score fall to 28.7 per cent, the main centre-right opposition Moderate party also slipped to 19.8 per cent. Sweden’s election was the first since the government allowed 163,000 migrants into the country, the most in terms of per capita in any European nation, during Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, which polarised the country’s 7.3 million voters.
It is another matter that Swedish voters did not deliver the kind of boost to the xenophobic Sweden Democrats many had feared earlier. But the punishment the Moderates and Social Democrats received is no different from the dismal electoral performance of mainstream parties in France, Germany and Italy. The bad news for the mainstream parties just doesn’t seem to end; in the last two years, far right parties have made significant gains at the expense of traditional political mainstream, centre-left and centre-right, across Western Europe. They have formed the government in Hungary and Poland and are now in government in Italy, Austria, Norway and Finland. Whether the loss for the mainstream parties is because of their failure to respond to the discontent that exists or whether the discontent is directly related to the economy and unemployment is difficult to say. However, experts are of the view that the simmering discontent may be related to the loss of faith in the political system that has ruled Western Europe since the Second World War.
No analysis captures the whole story about the exact causes of decimation of political mainstream and the rise of the far right. But some surveys, like the Eurobarometer’s May 2017 survey, do show the correlation between the issues that are a cause of concern for European Union (EU) citizens and the relatively widespread support for some of the extreme parties’ pet causes. For instance, immigration is one of the two most important issues for roughly 1 in 5 EU citizens, while almost 2 out of 5 are not optimistic about the EU’s future. These issues have dominated in most of the elections in Europe after the 2015 migration crisis. But the outcome has been different from country to country: in some countries the populist-right has sprung a surprise, while in other countries the political centre, though shaken, has held its fort.
This does not mean that the idea that brought about the EU after the World War II is under serious threat. But the toxic nationalism that destroyed Europe is making a comeback from the dustbin of history with the help of illiberal, anti-European and outright fascist parties. While in most of the Western European countries 80 per cent of the population still votes for the moderate parties, the fact that nearly 20 per cent of the population is willing to support fascist and destructive parties, means that Europe needs a new narrative and vision to combat these forces. The EU also needs to correct the birth defects of the common currency (Euro) that has led to economic imbalance within the Union. The Euro-Zone is dominated by Germany and many countries – Italy, Greece and most of the Eastern European nations – resent it. It is why some of these countries want to exit the Euro. This is also why the resentment against the EU has resulted in the shift of working class votes from social democrats to far-right parties.
Though European leaders like Macron, Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have warned against ‘unhealthy nationalism’, the problem with EU is that while economically it is a strong and united bloc, the political structure of the Union, with a weak elected parliament and a relatively strong but unelected Commission that is prone to pulls and pressures of national power politics, remains weak. Given the democratic shortcomings of the EU, smaller nations, unable to pull their weight in the Union against bigger countries like Germany and France, view EU as part of the problem. This has made it easier for anti-European and anti-democratic parties to become the most vocal protest option for voters.
In recent years, the resurgence of nationalism across the EU has gained so much ground that even mainstream political parties have been forced to tilt to the right, often retreating from their core principles of tolerance, openness and diversity. Therefore, the most seemingly far-fetched electoral upsets have begun to seem plausible, particularly after Britain shocked the world by voting to leave the EU two years ago.
A L I Chougule is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.