Preventing Populism

‘There is a spectre haunting Europe’and all the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it.’

When Karl Marx wrote those words in 1848, he was warning the powers-that-be the growing influence of communism. Later that year, anti-establishment and left wing forces led revolutions across the continent. Now, in 2017, a new spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism.

Support for populist parties in Europe and across the Western world have been increasing. Spurred on by the success of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, the battles between established parties and populist insurgents have become the centerpieces of recent elections.

In France, Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate for the far-right Front National, is the top choice for almost half of the voting public. In Germany, support for the anti-EU Alternative for Germany has been growing consistently and is trying to prevent Angela Merkel from forming government in the next election. High polling numbers are the norm for far-right parties across Europe.

Most establishment parties fear that these populist parties — which are anti-EU, anti-globalization, and anti-immigration — will gain power and upend the existing global order. Radical and without a history of democratic service, populist parties in Europe could wreak havoc on the continent’s political institutions and way of life.

The question, then, is how to deal with these parties. In the U.S. the Democrats lambasted Trump for nonsensical policy statements, outright lies, and sexist and racist remarks. He still won. In Britain, all major parties campaigned in favour of continued EU membership, while UKIP, which had only one member of parliament, succeeded in its campaign to leave the EU.

Recently, Sweden undertook a more drastic attempt to stop the rise of a populist party. The 2014 elections left Sweden with a minority centre-left Social Democratic government led by Stefan Lofven. However, the populist insurgent party, the Sweden Democrats, more than doubled their seats and continued to rise in the polls. As Lofven’s government was unable to form an effective coalition or even pass a budget, everyone assumed there would be another election. However, in a shocking turn of events, the opposition centre-right parties agreed to support Lofven’s government (despite their continued dislike of Lofven’s budget) in order to stop the Sweden Democrats from winning a plurality of seats.

This decision appears to have backfired. Sweden faces many of the same issues plaguing Europe — high levels of public debt, a sluggish economy, and growing public discontent with the ongoing refugee crisis . When all parties on the left and right came together to stop the Sweden Democrats, it wasn’t seen as an act of solidarity to protect the nation; rather, it was seen as a self-serving act committed by widely unpopular politicians. Currently, the polls show that if the election was held today, the Sweden Democrats would, once again, double their share of the vote and become the largest party in parliament.

If intellectual criticism, public campaigns, and blocking electoral participation can’t stop populism, how then can establishment parties deal with the growing threat? Finland’s current prime minister Juha Sipil’ offers a potential roadmap.

After the 2015 elections, Sipil’, leader of the rural Centre party, formed a coalition with the conservative National Coalition and the populist True Finns. The True Finns had become the second largest party in parliament and, initially, looked like they would continue to grow year over year. However, two years after joining the government ‘ and two years of continued economic stagnation, high public debt, and a refugee crisis without a foreseeable solution ‘ the True Finns have lost half their public support.

The reason is that populist parties are inherently protest votes. Their membership is comprised of radicals and activists who have little or no experience in actually governing a country, let alone navigating the intricacies of a state bureaucracy. One could call them untested, but their supporters see them as untarnished by the mistakes made by the establishment parties.

However, this untarnished persona disappears quickly when brought into government. When insurgent parties are forced to address the realities of government — and all the deal-making, broken promises, and disappointed constituents that entails — they lose their sheen because they were supposed to be different. They promised a politics that would deal with the ‘real problems’ facing the public (whatever they claim those to be). When this doesn’t happen, the public is faced with the reality that populist parties are not a magic wand that can wipe away the existing problems in the system. In practice, populist parties are no different than establishment parties when they are forced to govern.

Electoral success for populist parties might be viewed as an apocalyptic outcome by establishment parties, but it may only be a pyrrhic victory for populism. As Juha Sipil’ and his dealings with the True Finns show, the most disastrous outcome for populist parties and their charismatic leaders might be forming government in the first place. You can’t be anti-establishment if you are the establishment.