by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 3
November 2020

The twilight of the populists?

by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

Look around the world and you see populist parties in retreat.

🇩🇰 In Denmark, the latest opinion poll shows the Danish People’s Party on just 5%. Only five years ago, they got 21% at the 2015 general election and became the largest party in government.

🇮🇹 In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League continues to dribble away support and is now barely ahead of the centre-left Democrats (who replaced the League in the governing coalition).

🇦🇹 In Austria, the Freedom Party was one of the first populist parties to make a breakthrough in modern times. However, it’s now a shadow of its former self. The most recent blow was the Viennese State Election, at which it plummeted from second to fifth place and from 31% of the vote to just 7%.

🇳🇿 Meanwhile, in last month’s New Zealand general election, the New Zealand First party lost all of its seats — including that of its veteran leader, Winston Peters.

🇺🇸 Finally, we come to the USA and today’s Presidential election. According to the polls, Donald Trump is set to lose badly. A crushing defeat, if that’s what it proves to be, would surely mark an end to the great populist surge.

Or would it? With so many examples of populism on the slide, one could easily conclude that what we’re seeing across the western world is a generalised phenomenon. But beyond the impact of the Covid crisis on voter priorities, it’s important to distinguish local from global factors.

Thus in Denmark, the immigration-sceptic stance of the People’s Party has been absorbed into the political mainstream. As a party, it’s in retreat; but its agenda has triumphed.

In Italy, it’s more a case of one populist party fading while another — (in this case, the Brothers of Italy) surges. Incidentally, this is also what happened in the Netherlands: a newer bunch of populists (temporarily) drawing support away from an older outfit.

In Austria, the most important factor in Freedom Party’s downfall was the “Ibiza-gate” scandal. However, it’s worth remembering that the FPÖ has recovered from complete disarray before.

New Zealand First is another party known for its comebacks (they also lost all their seats in 2008). This time round, their downfall was a function of Jacinda Arden’s enormous popularity. They weren’t even in a position to win votes from those New Zealanders who don’t like the Labor leader. That’s because when Winston Peters held the balance of power following the 2017 general election, he decided to make Arden the PM instead of Bill English of the Nationals (who’d actually come a clear first).

As for Donald Trump, if he’s fired by the American people today, then he’s only got himself to blame. While his self-indulgence was unbelievable at the best of times, it became intolerable in a moment of crisis. I don’t know if he was simply unable to rise to the occasion, but he was certainly unwilling.

In short, there’s nothing inevitable about populist decline. In every country where it’s actually happening, there’s a very specific reason why. There is no general return to politics as usual and so the establishment parties should not rest easy.

In the tough years that lie ahead of us, the populists will still be around looking for their next chance.

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