By Niklas Ylander

2017 is the year of European elections, with a particular focus placed on France and Germany. While many were relieved that center-oriented Emmanuel Macron won the French election, others noted that Marine Le Pen managed to get a third of the votes – the best result for the National Front so far. The rise of right-wing populism cannot be neglected anymore. At the same time we have to prepare ourselves for a long-lasting period of political turmoil, characterized by uncertainty of direction.

The new political reality, after the victory of the newcomer Macron over Le Pen is a devastating result for the traditional French establishment. With neither a socialist nor a conservative candidate in the second round it is evident that the establishment is losing its relevance. The traditional main parties, the Socialist Party and the Republicans, have struggled to find leadership with clear visions and political mandate to solve the current mess.

The rise of populism has often been referred to as an increase in the conflict between globalism and nationalism. Frustrated people are voting for parties, without any real policies, who claims that they can solve those issues that concern this group of voters. After Brexit and the presidential elections in the US and France, populism has shown its wide support among voters that, in a higher degree, consider national issues more relevant.

What does it tell us about the state of the Western democracy, that an ignorant bully suddenly can beat the whole political establishment, and become the most powerful person on earth? Much attention have been put on Trump’s ‘straightforward’ statements and speeches. However, the problem is probably deeper than racist comments and passionate speeches about, for instance, a project to build a wall and gladly say that Mexico shall pay for it. Trump announced his candidacy when the anger among Republican voters, against the political establishment, had been growing for a long time. He used the ‘window of opportunity’ when people were ready for his ‘straightforward’ messages.       

Populism is also too often seen as a coherent political movement. If you take a closer look at right-wing populists in different countries, you will see different strategies. In UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, they are mobilizing voters on different issues: immigration and how to deal with it, concerns about EU and the Euro, a declining welfare state, and a ‘decadent’ establishment. In the US, voters’ skepticism of state intervention is also important to have in mind. In southern Europe on the other hand, populism has instead been represented by a successful left-wing, which shows us the complexity of populism as a phenomenon. Hence, there are strong national differences giving us no ‘one size fits all’-solution.

Even in the light of history there were differences. Communist and fascist parties attracted voters that dreamed about a new society with a clear revolutionary vision. Populism of today is less visionary and less coherent. The common ground amongst the right wing-populists seems to be skepticism towards liberal progressivism and a focus on societal trends that many voters react to with anxiety and fear. It indicates that the rise of populism is an illustration of a problem, rather than the problem itself. There is no real well-defined ‘utopia’ or grand project to vote for, only ‘no-slogans’: no refugees, no EU, no elite…

This can provide us with hope, since the populists are not proactive, they only react on anger. It gives momentum to new politicians ready to formulate new initiatives that are focused on voters who have lost their confidence in the establishment.       

For example, when Trump made his way to White House he was eager for certain, but unprepared. It did not take long before president Trump changed his view on key issues, for example on NATO. The defence alliance is not “obsolete” and totally irrelevant anymore due to lack of focus on terrorism, as Trump claimed last year. The panic among other NATO-members and policy analysts began to decrease.

However, populism could very well be here to stay. Maybe populism will adapt and transform to a more moderate version giving new input to the political system. In Finland and Norway populist parties are part of the government. It is also worth remembering that it took decades for socialist parties to adapt and to be accepted by the system 100 years ago.

The pressure that the polarized Western societies are exposed to forces us once again not only to adapt policy making, but also to learn how to bring people together.    

By Niklas Ylander

Editorial note: The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not express the position of Uttryck’s editorial team, or those of UF as an organisation.

Banner photo: Flickr CC

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