Across the continent, there have been opposite results
Has Putin’s invasion of Ukraine punctured populism in western democracies? Last week I looked for evidence in recent polling, but there was no clear pattern. While support for some populists is down, support for others is up.
However, my focus was on Right-wing populism alone. I didn’t consider the populists at the other extreme of the political spectrum — or, if you prefer, the other side of the horseshoe. In some European countries, the parties of the anti-establishment Left are a significant presence. Many of them are characterised by a foreign policy platform that, if not explicitly pro-Putin, is anti-NATO.
So perhaps it’s on the Left that we’ll find evidence of an anti-populist backlash? But in most countries there are few obvious signs. For instance, SYRIZA in Greece is against sending weapons to Ukraine, but its support since the crisis has remained steady. The same goes for Sinn Fein in Ireland, which is staunchly opposed to the republic joining NATO. In Norway, the surge in support for the avowedly Marxist Red Party has been blunted, but it is still polling well above its performance in the general election last year.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of a Putin-effect comes from Germany, where the Left Party (Die Linke) has been a presence in the Bundestag since 2005. On Sunday it had a disastrous result in the Saarland regional election. From 12.8% of the vote in 2017, its support fell to just 2.6%. It lost all seven of its seats in the regional parliament. That’s in marked contrast to the performance of the populist Right, where support for the AfD fell only slightly.
It seems reasonable to assume that Die Linke, which wants to get rid of NATO and remove American troops from Germany, is being punished by an electorate that’s been reminded that the western alliance is not a relic of the Cold War. It is also doesn’t help that one of the parties that formed Die Linke is a direct descendant of the old East German communist party.
However, it should also be noted that support for Die Linke was already on the slide well before the invasion. In the German federal election last September, the party scored its worst-ever result, winning just 4.9% of the vote.
Meanwhile, in France, it’s a very different story. Support for the populist Left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which had faded since 2017, is growing again. The latest polls put him in third place, behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen — but well ahead of Éric Zemmour and the conservative candidate, Valérie Pécresse.
France, Elabe poll:
Macron (EC-RE): 28% (+0.5)
Le Pen (RN-ID): 21% (+1)
Mélenchon (LFI-LEFT): 15.5% (+0.5)
Zemmour (REC-NI): 10.5% (+0.5)
Pécresse (LR-EPP): 9.5% (-0.5)
+/- vs. 19-21 March 2022
— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) March 30, 2022
As for the rest of the French Left, Mélenchon has left them in the dust. Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the once dominant Socialist Party, is on a pitiful 2%. Even among voters who supported the Socialist candidate in 2007, she’s in fourth place.
All of this is happening despite Mélenchon’s foreign policy stance. Though he has condemned Putin’s invasion, he wants to pull France out of NATO and has blamed the eastward expansion of the defence alliance for provoking the Russians.
It’s worth noting that the combined support for Mélenchon, Le Pen and Zemmour — all of them NATO sceptics — comes close to 50%. Furthermore, two of those three (Mélenchon and Le Pen) have gained support since the invasion. It’s easy to imagine support for populism as a bubble, ready to burst when reality intrudes. But the phenomenon is clearly more complex — and persistent — than its enemies would wish.