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2020, A Turning Point for European Populists?

2020, A Turning Point for European Populists?
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

December is always a good time to draw up year-end balance sheets. That is all the more true for this particular year, one of profound changes whose medium and long term effects are yet to be known.

Among all the upheavals that have taken place, one paradoxically ambivalent one in particular deserves a closer look. While Time magazine described 2020 as "the worst year ever", many democrats and political commentators rejoiced at the thought that, finally, populist parties are stagnating, and their ideas regressing. This growing trend was recorded in the survey of 26,000 people, in 25 countries around the world, carried out by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project. Essentially, populism is losing its vigor. 2020 could thus mark the end of a political cycle that has touched the whole of Europe, and in particular the countries belonging to the Cold War remnant of what we call "Western Europe".

Indeed, since the 1990s and even more so since the beginning of this century, populism has made remarkable strides around the globe. It is above all a political style, more or less combined with fragments of ideologies, claimed by various parties, movements and leaders. These affirm the existence of a fundamental antagonism between, on the one hand, a supposedly united and virtuous people and, on the other hand, a ruling class, an "establishment", homogeneous and constantly plotting against the people. 

2020 could thus mark the end of a political cycle that has touched the whole of Europe, and in particular the countries belonging to the Cold War remnant of what we call "Western Europe".

For populists who share a Manichean view of politics and the world, there are no complicated problems but only simple solutions, no adversaries but multiple enemies. For them, there is no need to waste time seeking expertise and deliberating: they operate with urgency and in the short term. Today, unlike most populists of the past, populists declare themselves committed to democracy, but a one in which the sovereignty of the people is unlimited and materialized in the figure of an all-powerful leader.

These characteristics are shared amongst all populists, be they right-wing, left-wing, neither, or regionalists who, moreover, vary considerably. But until 2020, what was most striking was their notable progress across multiple countries. This was made particularly obvious in the 2019 European Parliament elections, where right-wing populists were the most numerous and the strongest. Admittedly however, unlike in Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, most of these right-wing populists are not in power, except for the Lega Nord in Italy, (later known simply as Lega). This latter one has been in government coalitions four times, the last one between 2018 and 2019. But although they are in opposition, right-wing populist parties do have an influence on the way politics is done. In fact, several opponents of populism, such as Matteo Renzi in Italy between 2014 and 2016, Emmanuel Macron in France during his 2017 presidential campaign, and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, did deliberately use a populist style to win, or even to govern, as Prime Minister Johnson has shown.

So then, what happened in 2020? Covid-19 and the defeat of Donald Trump in the United States. Both seem to signal a turning point for populists, the beginning of their decline, according to the dominant discourse in most media. The pandemic seems to have exposed many of their inconsistencies, incoherences and demagogy, whether they are in opposition or in power. 

In countries such as France and Italy, where populists are powerful - the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France insoumise for the former, Matteo Salvini's Lega and Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d’Italia for the latter - their criticism of the health measures taken by governments has not gained ground. The populations still tend to approve of the measures and restrictions, massively in Italy, and largely in France. The recurring attacks of these same populists on foreigners and migrants are also less audible now that everyone’s number one priority is health. Their incessant denunciation of the experts and scientists also falls short because, ultimately, the experts are listened to, even if they sometimes deliver divergent and debatable analyses. Just before last summer, the populists constantly lambasted the European Union's inability to act, some hoping that this would be the straw that would break the camel’s back and lead to the disintegration of the EU. However, the Next Generation EU plan pulled the rug from under their feet. Trump’s defeat was an additional trauma for the populists who much appreciated him, and for whom he had become a herald of their policies. Matteo Salvini had even supported his campaign in Italy, symbolically donning a "Trump 2020" mask, while Marine Le Pen is still having a hard time admitting Joe Biden's victory. 

In short, the populist dynamic has been disrupted. In Italy, Lega is declining in the polls (though it still counts nearly a quarter of the electorate and remains the leading Italian party) and so is Salvini’s popularity, who has been asked by leading members of his own party to change his approach. In France, Marine le Pen is certainly well positioned in the polls in the run-up to the first round of the 2022 presidential election, ranging between 24 and 27% according to an IFOP survey at the end of September. However, she still seems unable to attract the large swathes of the population that she needs in order to reach the Élysée, which has led to members of her close circle to start distancing themselves. These populists are divided over the strategy that they should adopt to win the next elections and to enlarge their select electorate, which is certainly significant but quite powerless politically.

Solemnly announcing that populists are now a thing of the past would be a hasty judgement to make. Populists remain both the expression and the gas pedals of three profound crises that are deeply affecting our societies. 

On that note, we’ve seen that, in 2020, populists who have an undeniable capacity to create imagined communities and an imagined world have exposed their inescapable inability to face reality. They thus lose their credibility which, incidentally, is their Achilles' heel.

Nevertheless, solemnly announcing that populists are now a thing of the past would be a hasty judgement to make. Populists remain both the expression and the gas pedals of three profound crises that are deeply affecting our societies.

They reflect a deep mistrust - the intensity of which varies from country to country - towards institutions, traditional political parties and leaders, the media and more generally the ruling class as a whole. All opinion polls, including the aforementioned Cambridge survey, record a rise in notable fractions of public opinion of such conspiratorial sentiments, as well as a growing quest for more authority and strong leadership. Populists are working to exacerbate this widespread mistrust, while their leaders present themselves as saviors in these troubled times. 

2020 certainly marks a halt in what seemed to be an unstoppable rise of the populists.

On the other hand, populists prosper when the social equilibria deteriorate. Unemployment, precariousness, inequalities of all kinds and poverty are all on the rise, and it could get worse next year. Moreover, for the moment, European aid plans are not yet taking effect in the daily lives of Europeans, and the uncertainties provoked by the vetoes of Hungary and Poland are only tarnishing the image of the European Union.

The populists will blame the governments in power, Brussels and globalization which has indeed increased the social and cultural fractures in Europe, hitting the working classes, and even parts of the middle classes, particularly hard. 

Finally, Europeans' fears and anxieties about immigrants, migrants and Islam, which many associate with radical Islamism and Jihadist terrorism, are bound to grow if more migration flows arrive on the continent and if new attacks occur. The idea of closing the borders is spreading and is even gaining ground within the Left in France and Germany. All this supplies populists with arguments, as they deliberately exploit these concerns and temptations towards withdrawal. 

2020 certainly marks a halt in what seemed to be an unstoppable rise of the populists. They will certainly need to do a lot to adjust their proposals, adapt their programs, and even change the behavior of their leaders in order to both talk to their traditional clientele who remain loyal to them, like Donald Trump's voters, and to attract new ones. Yet, firmly entrenched in the electorate, they remain essential protagonists of political competition and key influencers of public debate. In other words, they now constitute a component of our democracies which, far from being marginal, influences the organization and functioning of these democracies. 



Copyright: Pau Barrena / AFP

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