by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 3
November 2020

The twilight of the populists?

All over the world, they are in retreat
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.

Join the discussion

  • As an intentional scanner of both core L/R news sources (figuring the truth is roughly in the centre), this is one of the more surreal reads I’ve seen a good while. Clearly Mr. Franklin favors a particular bias, and his certainty about some of the things he addresses is often quite amusing – at best. Branch out a bit, friend.

    A fellow of interest that he likely abhors (Steve Bannon), distinguishes between geographical (and often race-based) populism, verses value-based populism (Bannon’s preference), and he nicely articulates why they are often inter-twined but quite distinct social forces. (obviously groups of like-minded folks converge and confirm in their respective geographies, but conversely, geography doesn’t inherently cause a particular sort of ‘mindedness’)

    I believe most contemporary ‘populists’ (said without the usual accompanying sneer), attribute their attraction to their chosen tribes based on the behaviors and beliefs of their favored group, *not* the racial/physical attributes, as most folks that eschew populism would have you believe.

    Do you love your country simply because of the earth it’s on or the prevailing color of its people? Or, do you love it because most of its people share your common values – things like good work ethics, and general co-respect for those around you, and a general belief in fair laws and their consistent enforcement?

    The answer matters, and it’s important to appreciate which is being addressed, both when speaking of populism, and when reading articles like this.


  • I suspect that the populist wave we have seen is simply a “fore-shock”, a “1905” so to speak. The “1917” will occur when the results of today’s mainstream policies have their fullest effect, of which recent events in Vienna and Avignon and Paris may well offer a sample. By then, of course, it will be impossible to do very much, but society will be split wide open all the same. This why Douglas Murray hopes for a “soft landing”, which is what we all hope for, from motives both altruistic and self-interested. But on current showing, we won’t be allowed to get it.

  • Hmmmm, another “writer” that thinks if he believes in something hard enough it is true.

    Welcome to Kansas Peter.

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