February 6, 2019

Populist parties and figures dominated global political news in 2018. That dominance looks set to continue in 2019, with populist parties gaining in popularity and threatening to further upend traditional political settlements across the West. Here are five elections to watch.

1. Germany

Germany’s state elections will be a test of the strength of blue-collar populists on the one hand, and the centrist anti-populist reaction on the other. State elections held last year showed that the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has support even in parts of Western Germany. AfD entered the regional parliaments in Bavaria and Hesse, taking votes from both the centre-Right CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD. But other voters abandoned the mainstream parties for the opposite reason – they thought the grand coalition too restrictive of migration, with the Greens being the greatest beneficiary.

Bremen’s election this year, scheduled on May 26, the day of the EU elections, will test the SPD’s resilience – the party has received the most votes there in every state election since 1946. No polls have been taken since the recent Green spurt, but in August the SPD were level with the CSU and only 6% ahead of the Greens. If the national poll trends since then – which show the SPD falling and the Greens rising – are occurring in Bremen too, the SPD is currently running behind the CDU in Bremen and running neck and neck with the Greens.

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Such a result would be a disaster for the SPD and would likely pile the pressure on them to abandon their grand coalition with Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU. Should that occur, it is unlikely that Merkel or CDU party president, and presumed heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Krannenbauer, could form a government since the only alternative to a grand coalition is a CDU/CSU-Green-FDP coalition. A governmental collapse would then send Germans to the polls in a snap federal election.

The other state elections occur in three former East German states, and the key question there is whether the AfD will take first place in any – or even all – contests. The most recent polls in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia all show the AfD in second place, but only a few points behind the front runner. Moreover, each state’s poll shows the combined vote share for the AfD and the descendants of the former East German Communist party, Die Linke (“The Left”), at between 39% and 44%.

That would make for extremely fraught coalition talks, as the only possible outcome that excludes both parties involves four party administrations involving the CDU, SPD, the liberal FDP and the Greens. In Thuringia and Saxony, polls indicate that the only alternative to such a rainbow coalition would require the CDU to partner with the AfD or Die Linke, neither of which the party has ever been willing to do.

2. Spain

In conjunction with the EU vote on May 26th, 13 of Spain’s regions will go to the polls. All three types of populists have parties contesting these elections, and two of them look to be rising. The Right-wing populist party, Vox, is poised to enter most regions’ parliaments. The centrist populist Ciudadanos are also poised for significant gains, giving them near equal status with Spain’s two traditional parties in many regions. But the Leftist populist Podemos, or Unidos Podemos in some regions where they have combined with the former United Left, are likely to slip in most states.

All three trends are apparent in the Madrid region. Vox’s staunch opposition to Catalonian separatism and migration has seen it skyrocket in the polls, where it currently receives 12-18%. Much of this support, seemingly, comes from the traditional party of the centre-Right, Partido Popular (PP). But support also seems to be coming from former Podemos voters too. Podemos and the United Left had received over 23% in 2015, but the new grouping Unidos Podemos was polling at only 18% in early January. Just as is the case with support for similar parties around the world, like the Sweden Democrats and Germany’s AfD, Vox’s support thus seems to come from both the Left and Right.

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Spain’s government is likely to become even less stable over the coming years. The current parliament is roughly split between a Left-populist bloc and a Right-centre bloc, with Vox currently unrepresented. The balance of power is held by a grab bag of regional parties and Catalonian separatists. If the government were to fall this year, unable to paper over the differences between these groups, Vox seem likely to gain enough seats to hold the balance of power.

This would present Spain with the same dilemma as other Europeans countries: either they create a grand coalition that weakens over time or they invite the populists into government in a centre-Right led coalition. Either course is likely to increase political instability in the EU’s fourth largest economy.

3. Estonia

Estonia’s election on March 1 is likely to see a new, Eurosceptic and ethno-nationalist party hold the balance of power. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) has recently been polling around 20%, making it the third largest party in the country. With the market-liberal Reform Party and the centre-Left, Centre Party running roughly even, the EKRE could decide which party takes the Prime Minister’s chair.

EKRE emphasises Estonian nationality above all else – arguing that Estonia has become a “vassal state” of the EU. It strongly opposes immigration and Russian involvement in the Ukraine and Georgia, and challenges the market forces it says have made Estonia a home of cheap labour for foreign capital. Inclusion of the EKRE in government would undoubtedly sound alarm bells among the European establishment, but their participation may be unavoidable if there is to be stable government.

4. Denmark

The Danish election, which must be held on or before 17 June, seems likely to further demonstrate populism’s impact. The Danish People’s Party (DF) is one of Europe’s more successful blue-collar populist parties and has been a mainstay of the current centre-Right governing coalition. Even the Social Democrats have backed some of the government’s anti-immigration proposals (at the expense of their link with longtime partners the Social Liberals). While the Social Democrats look set to finish in first place, Denmark’s fragmented party system requires at least three parties to coalesce to form a government. The Social Democrats’ shift on migration issues opens up the possibility of a European first: a centre-left-led government that includes a blue-collar populist party.

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DF has been so successful that it has now spawned a competitor, the New Right (Nye Boergerlige in Danish). Formed by former members of the Conservative People’s Party, the New Right argues that DF is too supportive of migrants. It is also well to DF’s right on economic matters, with its leader supporting the total elimination of corporate taxation. Polls show it is consistently above the 2% threshold for parliamentary representation.

5. Canada

Canada’s general election, scheduled for October 19th, will be another test of populism’s appeal. Despite having one of the largest shares of immigrants in the Western world, Canada – thanks in part to a skills-based immigration policy – has largely avoided anti-migrant populism. But that will be put to the test by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada.

Bernier left the Conservatives after narrowly losing his bid to become their leader. His new party will campaign on pro-market economics and lower levels of overall immigration. It is currently polling below 2% in the polls, and, like the UK, Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system prevents small parties from winning many, if any, seats. Its influence could nevertheless force the Conservatives to the Right in order to increase their chance of beating Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Even raising the issue threatens to break Canada’s pro-immigration consensus.

Bernier’s home province of Quebec is particularly interesting. Quebec is the only province allowed to admit its own economic immigrants, and the province’s desire to maintain its predominantly Francophone status has meant it is increasingly admitting migrants from North Africa. Quebec is also where anti-Muslim feelings are strongest, and a centre-Right party pledging to reduce immigration by 20% won a majority of seats in last year’s provincial election.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer recently said he wants to work with the Quebec government to give it more authority over non-economic migration in the province, a position widely believed to be crafted to court the Quebec centre-Right vote.

Much can happen in a year, but it’s hard to see the elites’ dream of a return to normalcy becoming a reality. Too many voters are dreaming of something quite different to the status quo, and the populist parties look most likely to deliver it for them.

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