These are tough times to be a mainstream party or candidate in Europe. Economic anxiety has left voters all over the continent grumpy. Fears about migration, displacement, national identity, and terrorist attacks are kindling anger.
Voters are flocking away from established parties as a result. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is suffering blow after blow in regional elections as voters shift to the anti-immigrant Alternative fuer Deutschland party. In Ireland earlier this year, the two main centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, won less than a majority of the vote for the first time in the country’s history. Spain has not had an elected government for over nine months because the center-right Popular Party and center-left Socialists have lost so much vote share to new or extreme options.
With the center no longer holding, populist leaders and parties are on the rise. According to the Economist, the populist vote has doubled since 2000. Fully a fifth of European voters back a populist party of the right or left. Such parties hold posts in nine countries’ governments.
The populist roots are diverse. In Western Europe and Scandinavia, the far right is attracting voters into anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties like Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. In central and eastern Europe, more nationalist and ultraconservative parties hold power, such as Poland’s Law and Justice and Hungary’s Fidesz. Southern European states hit hardest by the economic downturn, like Spain and Greece, have moved to the far left propelled by the Podemos and Syriza, respectively. Still, common threads of frustration bind all these populist forces together: immigration, jobs, EU, and resentment against a political establishment that seems corrupt, out of touch, or both.
With anger and fear building, the post-World War II tide of integration has given way to a new tide of disintegration. Following Brexit, voices in France, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands are calling for their own referendums to leave the EU, and regional voices in Scotland, Catalonia, and Flanders continue to press for separation and independence.
As centrifugal forces continue to tear at Europe’s political unity and stability, here are four dynamics to watch - all of which could make life even harder for those who long for a return of stable, centrist politics in Europe:
First, coalitions will be harder to form and harder to hold. Post-election coalitions are often messy by the nature of parliamentary systems and proportional representation electoral systems. Often, there are minor parties that become the kingmaker in coalition deals and then hold the government hostage over fringe issues.
But the rise of populist parties makes it even harder. Beyond the Spanish case, several inconclusive European elections this year produced fractured parliaments, hostile coalitions, and unstable governments. In Slovakia, for example, eight radically different parties won seats in parliament including two from the far right. The result: a weakened prime minister forced to patch together an unstable coalition of rival parties, rife with disagreements.
Second, voters may not reward success. Or at least, they may have a very different definition of what economic success looks like. Even when the macro-economic statistics tell a story of recovery - inducing politicians to pat themselves on the back and ask for another term - voters are often living a different reality. Too many are still out of a job and saddled with new taxes and charges. Even those who return to work often complain the work is part-time, lower salaried, or less certain. Even where the macro numbers look like good news, the reality still feels pretty grim where most voters live.
In Ireland, the ruling Fine Gael party went into their 2015 elections with all of the economic indicators telling a success story. Ireland rescued its banks after they crashed in 2010, exited the bail-out engineered by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, and ended austerity budgets. The GDP returned to Celtic Tiger growth rates and unemployment fell back to single digits. But feelings remained raw long after the austerity budgets had ended, and Fine Gael was forced into a minority government of dubious longevity.
Third, referendums are on the rise and they are dangerous for the establishment. There is an easy but perilous attraction to the idea of taking power out of the hands of the politicians and putting it direction into the hands of the people. Brexit, of course, is the prime example. And even though that didn’t end well for David Cameron, his political demise is unlikely to dissuade others from using referendums as a political tool to grapple with populist frustration.
The lure of referendums is almost irresistible to politicians of nearly every stripe. For some mainstream leaders, calling for a direct popular vote is a way to push back on perceptions that they are elitist and out-of-touch. For populist leaders, referendums offer a way to stir the pot further fuel anger against mainstream policies. Yet even some of the populists are getting burned by referenda results: Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban held an early October referendum on his anti-immigration agenda; it got strong majority support - but turnout was so low, well below the mandatory 50% threshold, that, to his embarrassment, the referendum failed.
Finally, Russia is doing its best to disrupt campaigns and influence elections in Europe. The Cold War may be over, but Russia has been waging a Cool War to undermine the EU, Europe’s mainstream parties, and other institutions of European strength.
Russia had long exerted political pressure in neighboring democracies, such as by crashing websites in Estonia and exploiting frozen post-Soviet conflicts in the Republic of Georgia to weaken a democratically elected government. Now Russia has become bolder, directly bankrolling numerous parties on both extremes, such as France’s National Front, Britain’s UKIP party, Hungary’s Jobbick, and Greece’s Golden Dawn. Unsurprisingly, each of these parties praise Vladimir Putin and vocally oppose sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
At the same time, Moscow-based online trolls are launching cyber-attacks that propagate fictitious stories in attempts to sway public opinion. Obviously, this effort has not stopped at Europe’s borders: witness the computer hacking of America’s Democratic Party this year, believed to be the work of Russian intelligence agencies. But Russia has a more direct interest and purpose in Europe, where it still longs to regain lost influence, and actively works to hurt the chances of countries in the Balkans and elsewhere from gaining full EU membership.
With more than a dozen European elections slated for next year, the continent finds itself in its most precarious political position since the fall of the Soviet Union. Disturbingly, with fragile governments, hostile electorates, more frequent referendums, and a meddling former superpower on its periphery, this might just be the new normal.