Conditions are perfect for a populist revival in Europe


On Sunday night, Giorgia Meloni is expected to become the Prime Minister of Italy.

His victory would be historic not only because of his gender, but because he leads a party further to the right than any major political movement Italy has seen since the days of its fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.

His political platform will be familiar to those who have followed far-right rhetoric in recent years: he openly questions LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, aims to reduce immigration, and appears obsessed with the idea that traditional values ​​and ways of life are under attack. everything from globalization to same-sex marriage.

It should come as no surprise to learn that one of his biggest fans is Steve Bannon, the man who largely created the political ideology of former US President Donald Trump and who founded the American alt-right movement.

His likely victory comes on the heels of recent far-right victories elsewhere in Europe.

Although Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, her supporters across the continent rejoiced both at her share of the popular vote and at the fact that she moved the French political center dramatically to the right.

In Sweden, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are expected to play a major role in the new government after winning the second largest share of seats in the general election earlier this month. The party, now dominant, initially had its roots in neo-Nazism.

Europe’s conservative right certainly feels like it’s enjoying a resurgence after a few quiet years.

“Something is definitely going on. From France and Italy, from the main European powers, to Sweden… it seems to us that there is a rejection of the pan-European orthodoxy that is failing among our citizens,” says Gunnar Beck, a member of the European Parliament representing the German Alternative (AfD). ).

The AfD is a far-right party that was the first to be put under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era. At the time, the Central Council of German Jews welcomed the decision, saying: “The destructive politics of the AfD undermines our democratic institutions and rejects democracy among citizens.”

The AfD caused shockwaves across Europe after winning more than 12% of the vote in Germany’s federal election in 2017, becoming the third party and official opposition.

Where does that drive come from?

“The cost of living crisis is weakening governments and European institutions. Of course, the war in Ukraine has made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and the European Central Bank’s monetary policy drove inflation higher before the war. Deteriorating living standards mean that people are dissatisfied with their governments and the political establishment,” adds Beck.

Marine Le Pen won 41% of the vote in the last round of the French presidential election this year.

Crisis always creates opportunities for opposition parties, regardless of their political ideology. But in the context of the crisis, the politics of fear tends to be easier for right-wing populists.

“In the case of Meloni and his party, he was able to criticize both the establishment figure of Mario Draghi, an unelected technocrat installed as prime minister, and the populists who led his coalition government,” says Marianna Griffini, a professor. Department of European and International Studies, King’s College London.

According to Griffini, Italy’s recent woes are particularly vulnerable to anti-establishment ideas. “As a country we suffered very badly from the pandemic, especially very early on. Many people died, many businesses were closed. It was difficult for us to get support from the rest of the EU. Since then, the establishment and the government of Conte and Draghi have been easy targets for throwing stones.”

Why does the crisis create such a unique opportunity for right-wing populists? “Most studies show that conservative voters have a greater need for certainty and stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically attuned to see it as a threat. So it’s much easier to unite these people against real change or perceived threats, such as the energy crisis, inflation, food shortages or immigrants,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defending Democracy.

And there are plenty of perceived threats for populists to point fingers at right now.

“Rising food and fuel prices, declining trust in democratic institutions, widening inequality, reduced class mobility and concerns about migration have created a sense of desperation that can be easily exploited by unscrupulous leaders,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. , in central England.

Meloni is the latest in a long line of successful Italian populist politicians.

According to him, the combination of the current crisis “is a perfect storm for liberal democracy, and it will take greater efforts from those who believe in inclusion, responsible governance and human rights to deal with it”.

The fact that we’re talking about this latest wave of populism means, by definition, that we’ve seen right-wing populists come to power before and we’ve seen them defeated. Why, then, is the prospect of another wave so alarming to those who oppose it?

“The paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems but wants 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, they want to replace them as a strong and cultured leadership. Trump was a natural at this and encouraged others like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Orban to go even further,” added Finchelstein, referring to the authoritarian leaders of Turkey, Brazil and Hungary, where democratic norms have been severely weakened in recent years.

He also pointed out that populists are “very bad at running the government, as we saw with Trump and others during the pandemic”.

That, in a nutshell, is the potential danger of this populist wave. In times of dire crisis, those who claim to have solutions can make things much worse for the citizens they end up serving. And if things get worse, more crises are inevitable, which means more fear is inevitable, along with more options for populists.

In Italy, it doesn’t matter that Meloni is the latest in a long list of successful populist politicians, if the most extreme. Those who succeeded before him and joined the government became his targets in the opposition.

If Europe’s cycle of crisis continues, it is likely that a few years from now we will be discussing the rise of another populist extremist who exploits the fears of the public. And anyone who follows European politics closely knows that hundreds of such people are waiting in the wings, emboldened and encouraged whenever one of their own tribe takes on the establishment and wins.