The conditions are perfect for a populist resurgence in Europe
On Sunday night, it is widely expected that Giorgia Meloni will become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Her victory would be historic not just because of her gender, but because she leads a party that is further to the right than any mainstream political movement Italy has seen since the days of its former fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.
Her policy platform will be familiar to those who have followed far-right rhetoric in recent years: She’s openly questioned LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, aims to curb immigration, and appears obsessed with the idea that traditional values and ways of life are under attack because of everything from globalization to same sex marriage.
It should be of little surprise to learn that one of her biggest fans is Steve Bannon, the man who largely created the political ideology of former US President Donald Trump and is credited with giving birth to the American alt-right movement.
Her probable victory comes off the back of recent triumphs for the far right elsewhere in Europe.
Despite Marine Le Pen losing the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, her supporters across the continent were heartened both at her share of the popular vote and that she shifted France’s political center dramatically to the right.
In Sweden, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are expected to play a major role in the new government after winning the second largest share of seats at a general election earlier this month. The party, now mainstream, initially had roots in neo-Nazism.
Europe’s conservative right certainly feels like it’s enjoying a revival after a few quiet years.
“Something is definitely happening. From France and Italy, major European powers, to Sweden … it feels as though a rejection of the manifestly failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking hold among our citizens,” says Gunnar Beck, a Member of the European Parliament representing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
AfD is a far-right party that became the first to be placed under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era. At the time, the Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed the decision, saying: “The AfD’s destructive politics undermine our democratic institutions and discredit democracy among citizens.”
The AfD sent shockwaves through Europe in 2017 after securing over 12% of the vote in Germany’s federal elections, making it the third largest party and official opposition.
Where is this momentum coming from?
“The cost-of-living crisis is undermining governments and European institutions. Of course the war in Ukraine has made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and monetary policy from the European Central Bank were pushing up inflation before the war. The erosion of living standards means people are naturally becoming dissatisfied with their governments and the political establishment,” Beck adds.
Crisis always creates opportunities for parties in opposition, whatever their political ideology. But the politics of fear in the context of crisis does tend to lend itself more readily to right-wing populists.
“In the case of Meloni and her party, she was able to criticize both the establishment figure of Mario Draghi, an unelected technocrat installed as Prime Minister, and the populists that had propped up his coalition government,” says Marianna Griffini, lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.
Griffini says that Italy’s recent woes have made it particularly susceptible to anti-establishments ideas. “We suffered as a country very badly in the pandemic, especially very early on. Lots of people died, lots of businesses shut down. We had a difficult time getting support from the rest of the EU. Ever since, the establishment and governments of both Conte and Draghi have been easy targets to throw rocks at.”
Why does crisis create such a unique opportunity for right-wing populists? “Most research shows that conservative voters have a greater need for certainty and stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically tuned to see this as a threat. So it’s far easier to unite those people against real changes or perceived threats, like energy crisis, inflation, food shortage, or immigrants,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defend Democracy.
And there are plenty of perceived threats for the populists to point fingers at right now.
“Rising food and fuel prices, falling trust in democratic institutions, growing inequality, declining class mobility, and concerns over migration have created a sense of desperation that unscrupulous leaders can easily exploit,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, in central England.
He believes the current combination of crisis is a “perfect storm for liberal democracy – and it will take far greater efforts from those who believe in inclusion, responsible government and human rights to weather it.”
The fact that we are talking about this most recent wave of populism means that, by definition, we have seen right-wing populists reach power before and we have seen them defeated. Why, then, is the prospect of another wave so alarming to those who oppose it?
“The paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems but seeks to replace them with something worse,” says Federico Finchelstein, a leading expert in populism and author of the book “From Fascism to Populism in History.”
“The failures of political elites an institutions, they seek to replace with powerful, cult-like leadership. Trump was a natural at it and he encouraged others like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and even Orban to go even further,” Finchelstein adds, referring to the authoritarian leaders of Turkey, Brazil and Hungary, where democratic norms have been seriously undermined in recent years.
He also points out that populists are “on the whole very bad at running governments, as we saw with Trump and others during the pandemic.”
That, in a nutshell is the potential danger of this populist wave. At a time of severe crisis, those claiming to have solutions might make everything a lot worse for the citizens they end up serving. And if things get worse, more crises are inevitable, which means more fear is inevitable, along with further opportunities for the populists.
In Italy, it’s worth nothing that Meloni is just the latest – if the most extreme – in a long list of successful populist politicians. Those who succeeded before her and entered government became her targets in opposition.
If Europe’s crisis cycle continues, then it’s plausible that in a few years from now we will be discussing the rise of another extreme populist exploiting the fears of citizens. And anyone who follows European politics closely knows only too well that hundreds of such people are waiting in the wings, emboldened and encouraged each time one of their tribe takes on the establishment and wins.