Populism, RIP?

This is a longer version of the commentary which appeared in The Washington Post/Monkey Cage on 17th May 2017.

Populism, RIP?

Pippa Norris

Many commentators are proclaiming that the populist wave has now stalled. Support for this view comes from the remarkable victory of the pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections, as well as the defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria. For some observers, the outcome of the UK Brexit referenda in June 2016, and the Electoral College victory of President Trump in four months later, appear to be remarkable exceptions, not the rule. Instead of a fatal populist virus spreading across the European continent, the EU hopes that the contagion has been halted at the English Channel.

If we look more closely, however, to paraphrase Mark Twain, it is apparent that headline reports joyfully proclaiming the death of populism are premature.  Growing voting support for this phenomenon, due to a cultural backlash, is a long-term trend, like melting in Antarctica. But the electoral success or failure of populist candidates, parties and issues cannot be read straightforwardly by who gains office. As exemplified by the U.S. Electoral College, rules matter for converting votes into seats. If similar rules had operated in the first round of the French elections, the Economist suggests that arguably Le Pen could have won. Actors also matter in the political game of chess, including how mainstream  parties react to rising support for populist rivals by either moving further right, when seeking to absorb their policies and rhetoric (‘Brexit means Brexit’), or else by trying to isolate them in purdah from any governing coalition (as in the Netherlands).  Individual populist leaders rise and fall, for all sorts of reasons. But the fact that populist parties and candidates have not won a series of recent elections disguises the fact the populist tide has continued to advance silently in the electorate.

What is the evidence?

During the last two decades, although patterns differ across states, populist parties of diverse stripes and persuasions have taken root in many countries, gaining legislative seats, reaching ministerial office, and holding the balance of power.

Populist authoritarian strongmen govern several states worldwide, from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte  in the Philippines. In Hungary, the success of the neo-fascist Jobbik party pushed the ruling Fidesz party even further towards authoritarianism, leading them to build a wall against the wave of migrants flooding across Europe. Bulgaria’s Atakaand the Slovakia’s SNS also fall into the populist mold. In Poland, since Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party came to power in December 2015, they have corroding democracy and fought a rear-guard culture war against more liberal sexual and gender norms on everything from gay rights to women’s equality.  Latin America has a long legacy of populist-progressives from Argentina’s Perons and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori to Cristina Fernández in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Victor Maduro.

These cases can always be discounted as not comparable to Western countries, however, as these are hybrid regimes, neither fully autocratic nor democratic, lacking deep-rooted democratic cultures and practices.

But in West European democracies, as well,  populist-authoritarian parties now compete at the ballot box in almost all countries (see Figure 1). This include Albert Rösti’s Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy, Jimmie Åkesson’s Swedish Democrats, Timo Soini’s True Finns, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN), Tom Van Grieken’s Flemish Vlaams Belang, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, and Kristian Thulesen Dahl’s Danish People’s Party (DF), among many others. Europe has also seen growing support for several populist-progressive parties as well,  include Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Italy’s Five Star Movement.

Across Europe, estimates suggest that the average share of the vote for populist parties in national and European parliamentary elections has more than doubled since the 1960s, from around 5.1% to 13.2%.  During the same era, their share of seats has tripled, from 3.8% to 12.8%.

A series of recent and forthcoming elections provide signs about the current electoral fortunes of populist forces in Europe, including whether their support continues to rise or whether it has peaked.

Austria: Presidential elections,  4 December 2016

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), shifted to become a far right populist and nationalist party in 1986, when Jörg  Haider’s took over as party leader.  Under his leadership,  the party launched the controversial ‘Austria First!’ initiative and advocated a referendum on immigration issues. In the 1999 legislative election the FPÖ won 26.9% of the vote, its best-ever result in a nationwide election, entering a coalition government the next year,  before internal splits and coalition policies led to falling support. In 2010, the FPÖ’s presidential candidate, Barbara Rosenkranz, was badly defeated in the first round, with only 15.2% of the vote.

The subsequent Austrian presidential elections were held on 24 April 2016, where the Freedom Party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, stood on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-establishment, welfare chauvinism, and Eurosceptic platform. He surged into first place with 35% of the vote, attracting support across the whole of Austria, easily defeating both mainstream Social Democratic and Austrian’s People’s Party candidates. Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent Green, was his closest rival, but much further behind in the first round, with 21% of the vote.  Since no candidate had won an absolute majority, the run-off contest was held on 22 May 2016, when moderate tactical voters flocked towards Van der Bellen, who defeated Hofer though with a wafer thin margin (a lead of just 30,863 votes or 0.6%).  The results were declared invalid and annulled by the Constitutional Court, however, due to technical irregularities (the early counting of postal ballots before observers were present). The contest was rerun on 4 December 2016 when Van der Bellen won with 54%, a more comfortable lead. Although defeated, Norbert Hofer doubled the FPÖ’s share of the vote, compared with 2012, and he still came within almost 350,000 votes of victory.  

The Netherlands: parliamentary elections, 15 March 2017

The Netherlands went to the polls on 15 March 2017 to elect the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer). The Netherlands has a highly fragmented party system and coalition governments due to the Proportional Representation electoral system with a single nation-wide constituency and an exceptionally low legal threshold of one seat (0.67% of the vote),  providing opportunities for smaller parties.  The  2012 parliamentary elections produced a coalition government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), a conservative liberal party, with the Labour Party (PvdA).  

The 2017 parliamentary elections posed a major test for the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid – PVV)  led by Geert Wilders, standing on a populist, nationalist, and anti-immigrant platform. A flamboyant, controversial and deeply divisive figure, he pledged to take the Netherlands out of the EU, close all mosques, and called for ban on the Koran, all in the name of preserving traditional Dutch values. At the same time he has distanced himself from Le Pen and Haider. His party won 9 seats in the 2006 elections and surged to 24 in 2010.  The PVV led in the polls from September 2015 until late-February 2017, but the last 10 days of the campaign saw a late swing, where Mark Rutte’s VVD regained its projected poll lead. This shift was attributed in part to Wilder’ refusal to take part in two TV debates, and to Rutte’s strong stance against Turkish President Erdoğan.

The final result on 15 March 2017 saw Mark Rutte’s VVD win in first place with 21.3% of the vote (-5.3%) and 33 seats (down 8). By contrast, Gert Wilder’s PVV come second with 13.1% of the vote (+3.0%) and 20 seats (up 5). The party made gains but demonstrated a poorer performance than in European Parliamentary elections. The Christian Democrats (CDA) and the liberal D66 party were close behind with 19 seats each. Labour was badly squeezed by the fragmentation of the left. The negotiator tasked with exploring government coalition negotiations after the election immediately set about forming a coalition with four other parties, to achieve a parliamentary majority of at least 76 seats, led by the VVD and including centre-right CDA and liberal D66. The talks have subsequently beenexpanded to include Wilders. The new Rutte-led coalition government is expected to be in place before summer.

The Dutch elections therefore can be regarded as disappointing for the Freedom Party, which failed to become the largest parliamentary party, as expected in earlier opinion polls. But the outcome still saw PVV voting and seat gains. Moreover, by adopting a milder version of Geert Wilder’s rhetoric and policies towards stricter restrictions on migrants, the populist surge influenced Mark Rutte’s positions on these issues, such as his January 2017 speech warning migrants to ‘be normal or be gone’. Resurgent populist parties thereby influence center party policies and rhetoric, with a contagion from the right, even when they fail to gain an outright victory.

French presidential elections, 23 April - 7 May 2017


The French presidential elections provide further indications of the state of populism in Europe. Brexit was a shock to the European Union, but it was widely predicted that a Frexit referendum, if held and passed, as promised by Marine Le Pen, would trigger the collapse of the EU.

The 2017 presidential elections shattered the predominanceof the mainstream socialist and center-right parties. The electoral system introduced by de Gaulle in 1958 when he established the 5th French Republic constitution aimed to curb extreme party system fragmentation and government instability. Under the electoral systems, all contenders compete in the first ballot.  But minor parties are eliminated if unable to secure an absolute majority of the vote (50%+). Therun-off second ballot usually provides incentives for  center-left and right party coalitions to cluster around two major party candidates. Under this system, the socialists and center-right have rotated in office and won the presidency in every contest since 1958.

2017 broke the mold. The unpopularity of President Francois Holland’s government dragged down the Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, who attracted just 6.4% of the vote in the first round, the worst result for PS since 1969. On the center right, the Republican candidate, Francois Fillon, came third with 20% of the vote, damaged by accusations of corruption. By contrast, Emmanuel Macron led the field,  winning 24% of the vote in the first round, and triumphing with a decisive 65% of the vote in the final runoff. A youthful newcomer who held ministerial office under Holland, and who founded his own party (En Marche!) in April 2016, Macron had never held elected office before. Pro-EU, he appealed to moderates and to tactical voters.

The populist and nationalistic Front National (FN) currently has 24 members in the European parliament, as well as local councilors and mayors. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the party, was convicted of hate speech and described the Holocaust as a ‘detail of history’. His greatest success came in the 2002 presidential elections, where he came second with 16.8% of the vote in the 1st round and 17.8% in the run-off.  His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has now beaten this record with 21.3% of the vote in the first ballot and 34.5% in the runoff contest. She has long sought to project a more moderate image, rejecting the xenophobia and anti-Semitism associated with her father, although she continues to stand on an extreme nationalist platform against the European Union, immigration, and globalization.

United Kingdom general election, 8 June 2017

What does the aftermath of Brexit,  and the forthcoming 8 June UK general election, indicate about the state of populism in the UK? This is another case, like the Netherlands, where populist clothes have been stolen by center-right parties. Under Theresa May’s leadership this process has profoundly influenced the Conservative government’s policies towards immigration and Europe, as well as dampening opposition from the Remain camp, although prevented a substantial breakthrough for the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

In 2013, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if reelected in the next general election. This decision was taken in an attempt to stem surging support for the Euro-skeptic populist UKIP, who had been achieving18% in the opinion polls, largely at the expense of the Tories.  A referendum could also help to silence the euro-skeptic wing within his own party, in the expectation that the pro-EU forces would win. The Remain side, which focused on the economic risks of withdrawal, had a modest but consistent lead in the telephone polls and the betting markets during the May campaign, although online polls showed greater uncertainty. On 23 June 2016, the outcome of the Brexit referendum upended UK politics as usual, with 52% voting to leave the EU while 48% voted to remain, a close result but one with decisive consequences for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Cameron immediately resigned after the result was declared to be replaced by Theresa May who promised to lead the withdrawal negotiations on thegrounds that “Brexit meant Brexit”.

In the UK, in April 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election to be held on 8 June. She argued that this timing would strengthen the government’s position in the lengthy negotiations with the EU. The Conservatives hope to capitalize on their substantial and consistent 20-point lead in the opinion polls, making gains over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, as well as the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the SNP in Scotland.

During the campaign, the Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly pledged to provide ‘strong and stable’ leadership, and to be ultra-tough with the EU in the Brexit negotiations. May has also adopted more populist language, for example towards immigration reform.  The Euro-skeptic wing of the party has faded into the shadows. Tony Blair has reappeared to fly the tattered pro-EU flag, like Marley's ghost of Christmas past, forever shacked by the chains of Iraq.

This stance has eroded UKIP support; they are currently around 7-8% in the polls and they lost 140 councilors in the May 4th 2017 local elections. Polls suggest that UKIP voters have switched to the Tories. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labor was hit in the 4 May 2017 local election, losing many seats and councils. The polls suggest that they face an electoral drubbing on June 8th at Westminster. The party performed particularly badly in the Scottish local elections, for example losing control of Glasgow council, and the Scottish Conservatives see prospects of a recovery in the region. The Scottish National Party seeks a special status to remain in the single market and their party leader Nicola Sturgeon has insisted on a second independence referendum for Scotland before all Brexit negotiations are settled. But, outside of some urban areas, England is now Theresa May country.

German parliamentary elections 24 September 2017

Germany will elect the 598 members of the Bundestag (German Federal Diet) on 24 September 2017. The country’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system allocates 299 seats through plurality vote in single member constituencies, while the other 299 members are allocated by popular vote from state party lists. The Bundestag majority in turn elects the Chancellor, head of the executive, for a four-year term.

The 2017 election provides a test to see whether the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing populist party, can break through into office. Previous extremist parties have been banned from organizing and contesting elections by the German Federal Constitutional Court.  Article 21 of the Basic Law specifies that political parties which seek to impair German democratic principles shall be declared unconstitutional. The Court outlawed the Sozialistsche Reichspartei (SRP) in 1952, a successor party of the Nazi NSDAP. However, several attempts to disband the far-right Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) failed in the Court, as recently as January 2017. The Court has also outlawed many xenophobic skinhead groups, ultra-nationalist organizations, and neo-Nazi movements which were actively engaged in violent acts of intimidation and hate crimes against asylum-seekers, Turkish migrants, foreigners, and the Jewish community, for example the German branch of an international white supremacist group, Blood and Honor.

AfD was founded in 2013, originally with a platform calling for an end of the Euro. In reaction to the upsurge in migrants arriving in mid-to late 2015, and in opposition to Merkel’s open door refugee policy, the party shifted its focus to an anti-immigrant and nationalist platform. Regarded as the “most successful newly founded parties in Germany since the 1950s,” the AfD has managed to gain entry to eleven state parliaments. Polls in early-2017 suggested that it was expected to cross the 5% threshold for the Federal Diet with ease. In the late-spring, however, the AfD popularity appears to have diminished in the polls, hovering around 10%.  A leadership change in April 2017 brought Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel to the party’s helm. Gauland, known for racist remarks directed against Afro-German soccer players in the national team, is part of the party’s rightist, anti-Islam wing. Weidel has accused Chancellor Merkel of “being personally responsible for the rape and murder of a young woman by an Afghan refugee.”

Among the mainstream parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU was challenged during spring 2017 by the upswing in polling support for the Social Democrats. With the nomination of the widely popular former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, the SPD managed to close the gap with the CDU, with both parties briefly reaching around 30% in opinion polls, before subsequent surveys saw the CDU back in the lead. It remains to be seen how party fortunes shift in the run up to the September 2017 Bundestag elections and whether the AfD can get over the 5% vote threshold to win seats.

Like the U.S. and France, there are concerns about foreign meddling in the German election through hacking and denial-of-service attacks, as well as the manipulation of public opinion via ‘social bots’ in online social media. It is too early to do more than speculate at this stage but the September contest will provide further signs of whether populism continues to expand in the heart of Europe, or whether the upsurge has peaked.

Comparing populist support in European contests

To summarize, Figure 1 shows populist parties by country and Figure 2provides an overview of populist fortunes in several recent and forthcoming European contests.

In three European cases --  Austria, the Netherlands, and France -- populists have strengthened their electoral support but failed to break through into office. In part this is because center right parties, like the British Conservatives and the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, have adopted more populist policies and nationalist rhetoric. In France, the presidential elections saw further growth in FN support – with Marine Le Pen almost doubling the share of the vote which her father won in 2002 - although failing to achieve the Élysée Palace. As a moderate outsider, Macron provided a credible alternative to Le Pen, while still breaking the old Socialist-Republican establishment.

Across the Channel, UKIP’s vote share is down in the current polls, which indicate that Leave supporters have switched en masse to Theresa May’s Conservatives. But populism is far from dead in Britain; instead anti-European policies and nationalist rhetoric have gone mainstream to be absorbed into the life blood of the Conservatives.

In Germany, it remains far too early at this stage to make any assessment about prospects for AfD and whether this minor party can build sufficient support to surmount the 5% vote hurdle needed to gain seats in the Bundestag. The entry of the AfD into the federal parliament would give them an aura of legitimacy which would transform their prospects in future contests. Again, it's a marathon over successive elections, not victory in any one.

In a series of recent European elections, therefore, populism has often been a growing force in politics, reshaping the policy agenda along a cultural cleavage dividing populist nationalists from cosmopolitan liberals. There is no common trajectory across diverse contexts but long-term gains in public support are evident, even in cases where populist candidates and parties have failed to produce breakthroughs in votes and seats. And populism has undeniably altered the politics and policies of center-right parties – as well as generating an existential crisis of the social democratic center-left. The parallels across the Atlantic are unmistakable. The underlying forces which have fueled the populist surge in Western democracies, particularly the cultural backlash against progressive cultural shifts,  have not and will not suddenly vanish overnight. Even though many cosmopolitan liberals long to end this age of populist anxiety, it would be premature and foolish to misread the headlines and underestimate the risks.

Figure 1: Populist parties by country

Note:The classification of types of parties is based on the CHES dataset. 


Figure 2: Populist performance in recent European elections

Pop performance.jpeg


Note: * Latest estimate from opinion polls, 7 May 2017 Source: Compiled from IFES Election Guide http://www.electionguide.org/

Bio: Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, the ARC Laureate Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Founding Director of the Electoral Integrity Project (www.electoralintegrityproject.com). She is the author of more than forty books including Radical Right (2005), Why Elections Fail (2016) and Strengthening Electoral Integrity (2017), all with Cambridge University Press.