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Following the thrilling Brexit referendum and the tough US Presidential election, many pundits and scholars described 2016 as the year populism went mainstream. After 44 years of political marriage, the UK – one of Europe’s and the world’s freest economies – is now ready to leave the EU. At the same time, Donald Trump won a ferocious election against Hillary Clinton after having run a campaign which – amongst many other things – called for the introduction of a wall with Mexico, more protectionist trade policies and a fight against America’s corrupt and crony elite.
Not surprisingly, commentators’ tone changed quite dramatically after the 2017 Dutch and French elections. The prospect of a domino effect of populism never materialised. Strong anti-establishment candidates like Mr. Wilders, Mr. Melenchon and Mrs. Le Pen were defeated. The more reassuring figures of Mr. Rutte and Mr. Macron were either able to retain power or to overhaul the entire system from within.
Despite the victories of Mr. Rutte and Mr. Macron, left- and right-wing populist parties made significant gains. According to the latest 2017 Authoritarian Populism Index, published by TIMBRO on 11 July, the share of votes in favour of anti-establishment parties increased substantially in both France and the Netherlands. In fact, compared to 2016, the Index records a vote share increase of 6.4% in France (from 21.7% to 28.1%) and an increase of 6.8% in The Netherlands (from 10.1% to 16.9%). Mr. Macron and Mr. Rutte officially won the elections, but populist parties can claim victory, too. Just think, for example, that more than 6.3 million people supported a French populist party during the latest Presidential election. Thus, if Macron is not able to deliver on his reforms and electoral promises, in 2022 populist parties might well enter into the Élysée Palace.
On top of this, in around three months’ time, on 15 October 2017, Austria will also elect a new government. As the latest polls suggest, Mr. Kurz, the new chairman of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), is leading the electoral race quite comfortably. With a current average lead of around 6-7 percentage points over the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Mr. Kurz, aged 31, might soon become Europe’s youngest Prime Minister. However, as 2016 reminded us, nothing should be taken for granted. If Mr. Kurz fails to win, Austria might soon become the eighth EU Member State with an authoritarian-populist party in government. Even if he wins, Mr. Kurz might be forced into a coalition government with the FPÖ. Rising concerns about migration flows from Italy, Eastern Europe and the Balkans will surely play a key role during the forthcoming electoral campaign and the FPÖ is likely to gain support, once again.
Finally, there is Italy. The third largest Eurozone country is under threat. Currently, the left-wing authoritarian populist Five Stars Movement (M5S) is leading the polls. Given the country’s extremely intricate electoral system (with two different laws for the two chambers), several commentators suggest a future populist alliance between Mr. Grillo’s 5 Stars Movement, Mr. Salvini’s Northern League and Mrs. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. In a parallel world, if Italian President Mr. Matteralla were to call an early general election tomorrow, the only possible parliamentary majority would be this Grillo-Salvini-Meloni “Strange-Coalition”.
Over the last few years, these three parties have run a strong anti-Euro, anti-austerity, anti-free trade campaign. At the same time, contrary to Mr. Macron’s successful political strategy, Mr. Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party (the main centre-left party in Italy), is rapidly turning towards populist ideas. Mr. Renzi’s latest book, published today, demonstrates this ideological shift.
Thus, as the 2017 Authoritarian Populism Index highlights, never before have populist parties had as strong of support throughout Europe as they do today. Whether or not their authoritarian and illiberal ideas will enjoy the same breadth of appeal remains an open question. But, so far, they seem to be winning the battle of ideas too. This, of course, is very bad news for all those who believe in economic and individual freedom.
If 2016 was the year populism went mainstream, the next twelve months might soon be remembered as the year of the siege of Vienna and the sack of Rome.
Giovanni Caccavello is a Research Fellow at Epicenter