9.4.2 European Populism

Conrad King

Until the twenty-first century, populism was a marginal ideology in Europe. This ideology was subsumed into communist or fascist movements during the 1920s and 1930s, and it failed to re-ignite after World War II. The only notable exception was Poujadism in France, where Pierre Poujade established a nascent populist party to contest the 1956 French national election, but he failed and Poujadism faded away. A young Jean-Marie Le Pen was active in Poujade’s party, and he would go on to form his own political party, the National Front, which has since become synonymous with a European populism that is largely of the right-wing, nativist variety. This party (renamed National Rally) is now led by his daughter, Marine Le Pen. She was runner-up in the 2017 French presidential election, which might have been the highwater mark for right-wing populism in Europe, a wave that began in the 1990s with the creation of xenophobic extreme-right parties in national political arenas across the continent. Many of these right-wing parties were politically irrelevant until changing conditions provided them the opportunity to make broad populist appeals. Two major events (or “crises”) generated support for these formerly fringe parties: the 2008–2009 global recession and the 2015–2016 immigration “crisis.” Populist parties and leaders capitalized on feelings of nativism by publicly rejecting both immigration and the European Union (EU). Nowhere were the results of this nativist populism starker than in the United Kingdom, where the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) successfully campaigned to win a 2016 referendum that would have the UK leave the EU. UKIP and the Brexit referendum had all the hallmarks of right-wing populism: opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, opposition to the Brussels “Eurocracy” as distant and illegitimate political elites, highly emotive (and seldom factual) campaigning, and the use of direct democracy – the referendum itself – as a fulsome and irrevocable expression of the general will (even though less than 52% of Britons actually supported Brexit). Populism thrives in conditions of fear and insecurity, and populists like Nigel Farage (head of UKIP) promised certainty, simplicity, and unity, with things like a clear and binding national identity.

Although right-wing populism has been predominant in twenty-first century Europe, left-wing populists have also found some electoral success, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The country that seems to have seen it all is Italy, but then anyone familiar with Italian politics (the “basket-case” of European politics) might not be surprised by this. The range of populisms in Italy rivals that of Argentina, but in a shorter span of time. Silvio Berlusconi was a neoliberal populist who served as Italy’s prime minister three times (1994–5, 2001–6, and 2008–11) and used his personal resources as a media tycoon (and owner of AC Milan football club) to spread his populist appeal. In 2018, a short-lived Italian government was formed from a bizarre coalition of populists. The Five Star Movement (ostensibly an anarchist-populist party) took on as a junior partner the Northern League (a right-wing populist party that changed its name to just “League” to broaden its appeal). Like Argentina, Italy might be the Western European country that has provided the greatest variety of populism and where populism has had significant impacts as a governing regime.

Finally, it is worth noting European cases where populism has had the most transformative effect, inasmuch liberal democracy (or even democracy itself) no longer functions. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was a relative unknown when he won the presidential election in 2000 with 53.4% of the popular vote. Since then, Putin has used a populist platform to subvert liberalism in Russia and then undermine representative democracy altogether. Russia is no longer a meaningful democracy. In Hungary and Poland, illiberal and right-wing populist parties are in government, where they run afoul of their obligations to the EU as well as actively suppress free media and public universities (Hungary) or politicize the judiciary (Poland). In Turkey, current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has altered the constitutional order to retain personal power as a populist. Erdoğan was not a populist when he became prime minister of Turkey in 2003, yet he succumbed to the allure of populism at a party congress in 2007, when he demanded of his critics: “We are the people. Who are you?” (Müller, 2016, p. 3). The advent of right-wing populism on the periphery of Western Europe will not inevitably lead to populists governing in places like France or Germany, yet with right-wing populists in every country in Europe, populism is waiting for suitable conditions to flourish.


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