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Fears of Right-Wing Populism May Be Overblown in Europe



Europe faces a series of crucial elections this year, kicking off with the Netherlands on March 15 and followed by France, Germany, and potentially Italy and the United Kingdom if Brexit negotiations break down. The widely assumed risk of success by populist parties could prove overstated, however.

The Netherlands

In the Dutch elections, the populist Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has surged in public attention. But opinion polls paint a different picture. The strictly proportional Dutch electoral system is predicted to send perhaps 12 different parties to parliament with no single party receiving more than 16 to 17 percent of the vote.

According to polls, the Freedom Party may increase its vote from 10 percent in 2012 to 16 percent this year, falling short of becoming the largest party. It could thus remain a peripheral player with no obvious coalition partner. The possibility of a populist landslide, followed by a Dutch departure from the euro, seems unlikely. Prime Minister Mark Rutte seems poised to hold his post, following lengthy multiparty coalition negotiations and amid continuing anti-immigration rhetoric voiced to blunt Wilders’s appeal. The recent showdown with Turkish strongman Erdogan is hence not a coincidence but political theater that could well benefit both governments.


In France, current polling indicates that neither the mainstream center-right (Republicans) or center-left (Socialist Party) party candidates are likely to reach the second round of the presidential elections due in May. Instead, self-proclaimed outsiders Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron top the polls for the first round. The Republican candidate Francois Fillon appears doomed by scandal, while Socialist Benoit Hamon is too far left to have more than limited appeal for mainstream voters.

Heightened anxiety surrounds Le Pen’s bid, especially because she advocates a referendum on membership in the euro area and/or the European Union. But she is only likely to win if in a second round her opponent implodes because of personal scandals or other unforeseen issues . With her hard core supporters constituting 30 percent of the French electorate, turnout would have to be low for her to win.

This path to victory has implications for how well Le Pen's National Front can be expected to perform in the French parliamentary elections about one month after the president is elected. Rather than assume that a victorious Le Pen sweeps the subsequent parliamentary elections as well, it seems more realistic in France’s two-round parliamentary election system that the National Front will do poorly in the parliamentary elections because mainstream voters have higher turnout and vote strategically. Le Pen is therefore highly unlikely to get a National Front parliamentary majority or majority coalition, rendering her ability to radically change France and call a Frexit referendum impossible.

The deliberately constructed checks-and-balances election system in France thus makes it unlikely that a populist candidate can govern. In fact, unless Macron stumbles, he could have the unusual opportunity to call upon centrist members of parliament from both the left and the right to craft the first de facto grand coalition in recent French political history—obviously good news for needed economic reforms in France.


Germany’s late September elections remain some distance away. The new Social Democratic (SPD) party leader Martin Schultz has caught up to the Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent opinion polls. But Merkel remains the favorite to continue as chancellor. Given that the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is limited to 10 percent of the vote, a new grand coalition looks most likely in Germany. The SPD’s increased vote has drawn from other left-wing parties, making a red-red-green coalition unlikely.

United Kingdom

Prime Minister Theresa May is about to launch the article 50 negotiations with the rest of the European Union, having recently seen a number of her Conservative members of both houses of Parliament rebel against her government and support significant amendments to the bill officially launching the divorce. More ominously, Conservative backbenchers have assailed her call in the budget for a minor increase in social charges levied on the self-employed, limiting her latitude as she goes into her hard Brexit strategy. The conservative rebellion could produce a struggle to maintain Tory party discipline in the face of likely tough and expensive early EU-27 demands during the article 50 negotiations. The prime minister could let the article 50 negotiations collapse and then call early elections to try to secure a mandate to oversee Brexit.

The weakness of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would make May a heavy favorite to win such snap elections. The uncertain political landscape makes it possible that a new pro-European centrist party, centered on the Liberal-Democrats, but attracting pro-European elements from both the Conservative and Labour parties, could emerge, especially if centrists win in France.

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