What Does 2017 Hold for Populism in Europe?

2016, politically, will probably be remembered as the year that populism struck a blow to word politics. The campaign for Brexit, spearheaded by Nigel Farage, a man who has never been elected to Parliament despite trying 5 times, won mainly due to populist anger at immigration caused by the media. Donald Trump, an extremely wealthy-businessman, managed to convince working-class voters he was on their side through his plain speaking and childishly simple policies. So, what will 2017 hold in Europe, a continent reeling from political turmoil, terrorism and a migrant crisis?

Germany

Party: AFD (Alternativ fur Deutschland)

Starting off with the biggest fish in the pond, Germany is the biggest player in the EU right now, and consequently one of the most powerful countries in the world. Rocked by a migrant crisis and an appalling terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market, Germans may turn to the right at this election. However, it’s doubtful whether they’ll turn to the AFD. Angela Merkel is still proving extremely hard to unseat, and it’s unlikely that any one party will gain a majority in the Bundestag. Whoever controls Germany virtually controls Western Europe, but another coalition looks likely in 2017. The current coalition between the Christian Democratic Union and the German Socialist Party looks like it will remain, with the CDU at 35% and the SPD at 22%. No other 2 parties can get a majority in the Bundestag according to the polls. However, the SPD may try to sneak into power with a coalition between them, the Greens, and the far-left Linke party, but that’s unlikely. Expect stability.

Italy

Party: 5 Star Movement

Following the Brexit vote, the populist 5 Star Movement has taken its chance to ascend. Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-politician, has overseen a steady ascendancy in the polls of his party, catching up to the leading Democratic Party, who are social democrats led by Paolo Gentiloni following the resignation of Matteo Renzi following his defeat in a referendum on changing the constitution of Italy. The Democratic Party holds a slim lead in the polls, but it may play on what happened last time Italy had a flamboyant populist as a leader: the disastrous tenure of Silvio Berlusconi still holds a bitter taste on the tongue for most Italians. The Five Star Movement may take power in Italy this year, which could cause a lot of anxiety over the future of the EU. This is too hard to definitively call, but I have a hunch Italians will opt for the Democratic Party this year.

Netherlands

Party: PVV (Freedom Party)

The Netherlands are in a precarious position. The ruling party, the VVD, are behind in the polls to the populist PVV, led by Geert Wilders, who was recently jailed for saying “we need less Moroccans” which was judged to be a hate crime by a Dutch court. The PVV has previously called for “street commandos”, a paramilitary force who would act as law enforcement to counter improper law enforcement. If they were to win the elections, it could be a disaster for E.U. supporters, liberals and minorities in the Netherlands and in Western Europe. A PVV win is a very distinct possibility, as the polls seem to show a lead. I’d predict Wilders and his party to take power this year.

France

Party: National Front

Following a string of terrorist attacks, and the failings of Francois Hollande’s socialist government, voters have flown to the right of the political spectrum in France. The right has been emboldened by Brexit and the election of Trump, and seeks to win a shock victory of its own. France is a powerful player in the E.U. and it’s withdrawal from it could be a death knell for political Europhiles, and for the E.U. itself. Fears over the migrant crisis have only stoked the rise of the National Front, a party that has had various controversies over racism and holocaust revisionism, leading to charges of fascism and even Neo-Nazism. Led by Marine Le Pen, the National Front are polling strongly, and Le Pen has the lead in the first round of voting, according to some polling think-tanks. However, the socialists are yet to pick a candidate, and Emmanuel Macron, a former finance minister who resigned to run for election, may yet be a threat to the right. A lot has been made of Le Pen and the National Front by the media (nothing new there then), but it remains to be seen if they can gain power in a national election, which carries far more weight and impact than local elections. I don’t think the National Front will win, and Le Pen won’t be in power, but they might run it very close in the end.

So, populism in Europe probably won’t have as good a year in 2017 as it did in 2016. Most populist and eurosceptic parties still look to struggle to turn media attention and grassroots support into genuine political gain, but there’s no dening the polls are very close in some cases. But polls are fallible. Remember in 2014 when some backed Scottish independence in the run-up to the referendum? Remember in 2015 when some backed Milliband over Cameron? So, don’t believe the hype – this year, populism won’t be all that popular.

Words by Gabriel Rutherford

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