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Populism Barely Got Started in 2016 – Just Wait Until Next Year

Across Europe, right-wing populists look set to score big electoral victories, meaning an already limping European liberalism may be over by 2017.

The future's so bright she's gotta wear shades. Marine Le Pen tries on sunglasses at a French Trade market. (Photo: Michel Euler AP/PA)

For those who hoped 2016 was a freak occurrence, there is bad news. A series of coming events look set to dramatically intensify the populist revolt: across a large swathe of Europe an assortment of radical candidates are now actively preparing for a fresh wave of elections, each of which has the potential to pile further pressure onto both an already creaking European Union and the progressive liberals struggling to contain the spread of nationalist and exclusionary politics. Basically, if you thought 2016 was all about populism, you haven't seen anything yet.

In the first part of the year, much of our attention will focus on the presidential elections in France and the fortunes of Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist right-wing Front National. Though historically the FN has never come close to winning the contest, the party, founded in 1972, has sought to use the presidential election as a springboard into attracting headlines and new recruits. In 2002, Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked the world when he reached the second and final round of the contest after receiving almost 17 percent of the vote amid a fragmented field of candidates. Though Le Pen senior was subsequently crushed in the final round by centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac (by a margin of 82-18) that earlier contest was seen as an important watershed in the life of the Front National. It was also a moment that galvanised concern that Europe's radical right was beginning to move from the margins to the mainstream, long before anybody was talking about Donald Trump.

This time around there are new dynamics. Unlike her father, who was seen by many as an extremist, since becoming leader of the FN in 2011 Marine Le Pen has worked hard to "detoxify" the movement, downplaying the strident anti-Semitism and crude biological racism that characterised her father's era. Instead, Marine Le Pen has put more emphasis on the so-called "defence of French values", the perceived threat of Islam and economic protectionism, arguing the French should abandon the Euro single currency and fight back against the unregulated globalisation that is undermining ordinary workers.

Against the backdrop of the terrorist atrocities in Paris and Nice, the political climate in France has also changed. Concerns about security are on the rise and French intellectuals are beginning to talk of a "cultural insecurity" that is spreading among voters and pushing them away from the established parties. There is also evidence that Le Pen is making inroads among groups that shunned her father, such as women and young people. Since her arrival the FN has won mayoral elections across a string of mainly southern towns, made strong gains in local and regional elections and, in 2014, won outright the European Parliament elections with support from one in four voters.

Le Pen with young female voters earlier this year. (Photo: Michel Euler AP/Press Association Images)

The widely unpopular socialist incumbent President Francois Hollande has ruled himself out from running again, and it looks unlikely that another left-wing candidate will able to make it into the second round. Meanwhile, on the centre-right the nomination has gone to Francois Fillon, a former Prime Minister who is widely seen as a Thatcherite and Catholic conservative. Polls suggest that Le Pen will reach the final round, which presents voters on the left with a serious dilemma: do they support the hard-right Thatcherite who advocates policies which they loathe, do they support Le Pen, or do they stay at home? The election will be decided by exactly how many left-wing voters – some of whom may identify with Le Pen's economic protectionism – will "hold their nose" and vote for Fillon. The FN is hoping that reduced turnout among left-wing liberals holds the key to yet another political earthquake.

The French presidential election is by no means the only contest to watch. France will also have fresh elections to their legislative assembly in 2016, meaning that even if Le Pen fails to make a serious dent on the presidential race the FN will have a second opportunity to exert its influence in June. Those races will follow a national election in the Netherlands in which anti-EU and anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is polling strongly and having a visible impact. Recently, the Dutch parliament voted for a partial ban on the burka, seen widely as an attempt to undercut support for Wilders (he responded in a tweet by calling for a complete ban). Now, he is hoping to capitalise further on ongoing public concerns over immigration, the refugee crisis and a lack of economic growth.

Like other populists, Wilders – who was recently found guilty of "public insult and incitement to discrimination" after making strident remarks about reducing the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands – has been profiting from a new climate in which identity concerns among voters have become far stronger. According to a recent large-scale survey by Ipsos-MORI, almost half of voters across 22 countries agreed with the statement that "immigration is causing my country to change in ways that I do not like".

Since the 2010 election, which saw Wilders attract almost 16 percent of the vote and 24 seats, he has continued to attract widespread attention, calling for the Netherlands to withdraw from the EU, reduce the number of Muslim migrants and warning about the "Islamification" of Western societies. Like Le Pen he is now hoping that his support for Trump could encourage a similar backlash among Dutch voters.

A demonstration initiated by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. (Photo: Jens Meyer)

A few months later our eyes will turn to national elections in Germany, which in recent years has been grappling not only with the street-based anti-Islam "Pegida" movement, but the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist right party that was founded in 2013 by an assortment of economists and business leaders who opposed the Euro single currency and the handling of the Eurozone crisis. Since then, a more overtly nationalist faction has become more influential within the party. Led by Frauke Petry, the AfD's political priorities are now opposing Islam (using the slogan "Islam is not a part of Germany") and attacking Angela Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis, while also developing strong ties with Russia and other populist right parties in Europe.

Merkel, who recently called for a burka ban "wherever legally possible", is clearly feeling the pressure. Like the traditional far-right in Germany, the AfD is polling especially strongly in Eastern states like Saxony, and during 2014-2015 secured representation in five state parliaments (including one in the West of the country). Though Merkel is widely expected to retain power in the polls, the AfD is ending 2016 in third place, typically enjoying around 12 percent of the vote, and will be hoping for rising public anxiety over the refugee crisis and terrorism to bolster this support further. According to a recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, around one in three Germans feel that there are too many "foreigners" in Germany. The same proportion agree with the statement "I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own country".

(Photo: Jens Meyer)

This insurgency of far-right parties is a trend being repeated across Europe. Norway last had parliamentary elections in 2013. That time around, a coalition of right-wing parties – including the populist Progress Party – took power. This time, the Progress Party's performance could be a useful way of gauging the strength of the populist right in Scandinavia, where Norway continues to debate the legacy of terrorist Anders Breivik and Sweden chews over the reversal of its liberal approach toward the welcoming of refugees.

Parliamentary elections are due to take place in the next year or so in Austria, where attention will shift to the performance of the Freedom Party. The radical right party, which has strong links to Le Pen and is strongly opposed to refugees, immigration and Islam, could realistically win the election outright. The party is currently sitting comfortably in first place in the polls and in December of 2016 took 46 percent of the vote in a widely covered presidential race. Unlike other radical right parties in Europe, the Austrian Freedom Party has been a serious force since the mid-1980s and has strong support among younger voters (a few years ago, one survey suggested the party enjoyed support from up to 42 percent of young Austrians).

In 2018 elections are also scheduled to take place in Sweden, Italy and Hungary, where an assortment of populist right movements are likely to retain or increase their support, ranging from the Sweden Democrats to the Northern League and Five Star in Italy, and to the anti-Roma and anti-refugee Jobbik movement in Hungary. Elections in East European states such as Hungary will almost certainly witness strong support for radical conservatives who, since 2015, have come to define themselves in opposition to Germany's more liberal stance on the refugee crisis. Strong support for these groups will further erode European solidarity.

The rise of these parties could have further implications for the future of the EU. In the spring of 2019, voters across Europe will go to the polls in the next round of elections to the European Parliament. Against the backdrop of a lingering financial crisis, rising inequality between northern and southern EU member states and growing animosity between east and west over the handling of the refugee crisis, to many voters these elections will be another opportunity to kick the establishment and send an even larger number of Eurosceptics, nationalists and populists into the heart of the EU. By that point Western democracies will also only be one year away from the next presidential election in the United States and possible re-election of Trump. So, if the year 2016 pushed populism to the forefront of our debate, then the next few years could well embed this disruptive force into the fabric of our political life.

How you interpret these events will depend heavily on your outlook on the future. Optimists will point to the ongoing failure of the populist right to rally a coalition of voters that can carry them over the 50 percent line, and their toxicity among women, financially secure voters and ethnic minorities. Seen through this angle, Western states are becoming too diverse for this brand of politics to ever triumph. Pessimists – and after this year, there should be a lot of them around – point to the way in which support for the populist right is generally moving in an upward trajectory, and how even in the United States, which has experienced rapid diversity in recent years, a candidate like Trump can cross the line. Next year we will discover which of these interpretations is correct.

Matthew Goodwin is a professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. Follow him on Twitter.

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