Despite the narrative of decline, certain parties are gathering power
Imagine the following: the SNP tries to hold an illegal referendum on Scottish independence. The UK government launches a crackdown. Several SNP ministers are arrested, put on trial and sentenced to long jail terms. Nicola Sturgeon flees to Belgium and remains there in permanent exile.
Meanwhile, there’s a unionist backlash in England and Wales against the separatists. A populist party of the hard Right — called ‘Voice’ — emerges from nowhere to become the third force in British politics. In fact, it does so well that it’s about win seats in the Scottish Parliament too.
It’s an absurd scenario, but something very similar is playing out in Spain right now — only with the role of Scotland filled by Catalonia, where the zealously anti-separatist Vox party looks set to enter the regional parliament in elections this Sunday.
It’s yet another reminder that national populism is not a spent force. Other examples include Portugal — which like its Iberian neighbour was once thought immune to the lure of the populist Right. And yet, Chega (meaning ‘enough’), a party that was only formed in 2019, is making headway. Its leader, André Ventura came third in the recent Presidential election with a first round vote of 12%.
In France, the candidate of the hard Right is now firmly re-established as the main challenger to Emmanuel Macron. POLITICO Europe somewhat breathlessly reports that “Marine Le Pen has never been closer to seizing power in France than she is now.” Meanwhile, in Rome, the ‘technical’ (i.e. unelected) government of Mario Draghi is all that’s keeping the Italian Right out of power.
However, it’s a complex picture. In the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy — which surged to first place in the 2019 provincial elections — has now fallen to bits. But that’s allowed Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party — an older populist outfit — to stage a comeback. It is now second in the polls again. Meanwhile in Denmark, the People’s Party is another example of slumping populism, except in this case it’s because the governing Social Democrats have moved onto their territory. Only last month, the Danish PM, Mette Fredericksen, set an ambition for zero asylum seekers.
In short, the narrative of growing populist irrelevance is as overdone as the previous narrative of an imminent populist takeover. Better to think of populism as a continuing and unpredictable source of disruption.