The conditions are perfect for a populist resurgence in Europe


On Sunday evening, Giorgia Meloni is expected to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

Her victory would be historic not just because of her gender, but because she leads a more right-wing party than any mainstream political movement Italy has seen since the days of its former fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.

Her political platform will be familiar to those who have followed far-right rhetoric in recent years: she openly questions LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, aims to curb immigration, and seems obsessed with the idea. that traditional values ​​and ways of life are under attack because of 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 former US President Donald Trump’s political ideology and is credited with giving birth to to the American alt-right movement.

His likely victory follows recent far-right triumphs elsewhere in Europe.

Although Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, her supporters across the continent have been encouraged both by her share of the popular vote and by the fact that she has radically shifted the political center of the France to the right.

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

Europe’s conservative right certainly feels like it is experiencing a revival after a few quiet years.

“There is definitely something going on. From France and Italy, major European powers, to Sweden… it feels like a rejection of the obviously failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking hold among our citizens,” says Gunnar Beck, Member of the European Parliament representing Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The AfD is a far-right party that has become the first to be placed under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era. At the time, the Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed the decision, saying: “The AfD’s destructive policy undermines our democratic institutions and discredits democracy among citizens.”

The AfD sent shockwaves across Europe in 2017 after winning more than 12% of the vote in German federal elections, making it the third largest party and official opposition.

Where does this momentum come from?

“The cost of living crisis is weakening European governments and institutions. Sure, the war in Ukraine made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and European Central Bank monetary policy were driving up inflation before the war. The erosion of living standards means that people naturally become 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.

The crisis always creates opportunities for opposition parties, regardless of their political ideology. But the politics of fear in a crisis context tends to lend itself more easily to right-wing populists.

“In the case of Meloni and her party, she was able to criticize both the establishment figure of Mario Draghi, an unelected technocrat installed as prime minister, and the populists who had backed her coalition government” , explains Marianna Griffini, senior lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.

Griffini says Italy’s recent woes have made it particularly susceptible to anti-establishment ideas. “We have suffered a lot as a country from the pandemic, especially very early on. Lots of people died, lots of businesses closed. We struggled to gain support from the rest of the EU. Since then, the establishment and the governments of Conte and Draghi have been easy targets to throw stones at.

Why is the crisis creating such a unique opportunity for right-wing populists? “Most research shows that conservative voters have a greater need for certainty and stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically attuned to see this as a threat. It is therefore much easier to unite these people against real changes or perceived threats, such as the energy crisis, inflation, food shortage or immigrants,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defend Democracy.

And there are plenty of perceived threats populists can point to right now.

“Rising food and fuel prices, loss of faith in democratic institutions, growing inequality, declining class mobility and anxieties over migration have created a sense of hopelessness that unscrupulous leaders can easily exploit,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. , in central England.

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

He thinks the current combination of crises is a “perfect storm for liberal democracy – and it will take far greater efforts by those who believe in inclusion, responsible government and human rights to get there.” to face”.

The fact that we are talking about this latest wave of populism means that, by definition, we have already seen right-wing populists come to power and we have seen them defeated. Why, then, is the prospect of a new wave so alarming to those who oppose it?

“The paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems but seeks to replace them with something worse,” says Federico Finchelstein, a populism expert and author of the book “From Fascism to Populism in History.”

“The failures of political elites and institutions, they seek to replace them with powerful, sectarian leadership. Trump was a natural and he encouraged others like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and even Orban to go even further,” adds Finchelstein, referring to authoritarian leaders in Turkey, Brazil and Hungary, where democratic standards have been seriously undermined in recent times. last years.

He also points out that populists are “on the whole very bad at running governments, as we’ve seen with Trump and others during the pandemic.”

That, in a nutshell, is the potential danger of this populist wave. In times of severe crisis, those who claim to have solutions could make things worse for the citizens they end up serving. And if things get worse, more crises are inevitable, which means more fear is inevitable, as well as new opportunities for populists.

In Italy, it means nothing that Meloni is just the latest – if not the most extreme – in a long line of successful populist politicians. Those who succeeded before her and entered the government became her targets in the opposition.

If Europe’s cycle of crisis continues, then it is plausible that in a few years we will be discussing the rise of another extreme populism exploiting citizens’ fears. And anyone who follows European politics knows all too well that hundreds of such people wait in the wings, emboldened and encouraged each time a member of their tribe takes on the establishment and wins.