European View

Will 2017 be the year of populism?

by Luca Ricolfi

24 Exclusive content for IT24

We realized that 2016 was a year of decisive change after we were hit by the double populist blow from Brexit in the UK (June) and the election of Donald Trump in the United States (November).

These two events overshadowed others last year in two less-crucial countries: on December 4, in Austria almost 50% of votes went to Norbert Hofer, candidate to the Presidency of the Republic with the nationalist, anti-immigration right party; on the same day, in Italy, the parties opposing a reform of Italy’s Constitution, led by the most populist Italian political forces, secured a surprising electoral victory.

What is perhaps less evident, however, is that in Europe we will have to wait just a few months into 2017 to witness the first consequences of change.

A mysterious conjunction of the planets of politics has packed the central months of 2017 with a series of elections important to evaluate the strength of populist movements.

In March, ballots will be cast in the Netherlands, where the grand coalition government led by Mark Rutte risks being overwhelmed by the victory of the Freedom Party by Geert Wilders - an anti-islamic, anti-European populist group. Its leader was recently tried for his anti-immigration ideas. He was acquitted of charges of instigation of racial hatred but sentenced for instigation of discrimination. His party is nonetheless rising in the polls, and it's difficult to say whether it’s because or despite the trial against Wilders sought by thousands of members of Muslim communities.

In case of victory, Wilders has promised a clampdown on immigration and a referendum on the membership of the Netherlands to the euro zone.

Elections will take place in France between April and May. The leader of National Front, Marine Le Pen, is the only candidate largely expected to go to the runoff voting. The final winner will likely be the right-wing and pro-EU candidate François Fillon, expected to attract votes from the other pro-EU candidates, but only because the National Front is still considered in France as unfit to rule, and every time it gets to a final electoral showdown it generates a “Republican reaction” that keeps it away from power.

It happened already in 2002 when Le Pen’s father was defeated by the right-left alliance between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin; it happened again in the political election of 2015, when his daughter Marine Le Pen was defeated in the runoff ballot by the left-right Republican front led by Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, traditionally rivals but back then together to stop the National Front.

Italy could go to the polls in June, as hoped for by certain political parties (PD, the Northern League, Brothers of Italy), a solid majority both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Whether the election is in June, September, or when the current term ends (February 2018), Italian voters will not have to choose between populist and anti-populist forces, but between three types of populism vying for the government of the country: the anti-European populism of the Northern League, the anti-German populism of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and the anti-establishment populism of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

In September, polls will open in Norway (one of the three non-EU countries, together with Switzerland and Iceland), currently run by a centre-right government that includes a right-wing populist party (the Party of Progress), strongly hostile to immigration.

Finally, in October, it will be up to Germany, where the strongest pro-EU parties (Popular, Social Democrats, Liberals) currently represent a majority of voters (more than 70% of votes in the 2013 election), but risk of losing part of their support to Alternative für Deutchland, the anti-immigration party by Frauke Petry, which is rising in the polls and in recent electoral tests such as the regional election last year.

On that occasion, in the Land of Mecklenburg, the same where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her constituency, Petry’s party beat Merkel’s with 20.8% of votes against 19.0%, becoming the second-largest party behind the Social Democrats.

Among European countries of western tradition, Germany is probably the least exposed to the populist wave, at least because it’s one of the few to have emerged almost unscathed from the long crisis started in 2007.

However, following the Berlin attack in December, the fifth in 2016, support for Alternative für Deutchland could likely grow.

How much?

Nobody knows, but an estimate can come from the mathematical-statistical model created by Fondazione David Hume to explain the populism rise in the European Union between 2009 and 2014.

According to the model, consensus to populist parties depends on the severity of the economic crisis and fear of immigration and terrorism, which in turn depends on several factors including a country suffering recent terrorist attacks. An estimate of the impact of the latest attacks (to be read with caution) suggests that consensus in the entire Germany could shift by 4 million votes, around 9% of the electorate.

Considering that, compared to the modest 4.7% of 2013, Petry’s party had already grown significantly in the past EU vote and the following regional election, I would not be surprised to see it securing close to 20% of consensus next autumn.

What seems clear is that, in Germany, the true battle will be between the cosmopolitan enlightenment of Angela Merkel and the anti-immigration nationalism by Frauke Petry. The outcome of the battle, together with the other political tests of the electoral calendar, will allow us to have a first idea of the effective strength of the shock wave that has hit Europe and America in the crucial year 2016.