October 15, 2020


IS THE SLIDE OF EUROPEAN POPULISM PERMANENT? (Sam Jones, Miles Johnson and Guy Chazan, 10/15/20, OZY)

It's an "infinitely painful" result, says Herbert Kickl, a leader of Austria's rightwing populist Freedom party, the FPÖ. "Any attempt to gloss it over is doomed to failure."

Kickl is speaking about Sunday's municipal elections in Vienna that saw the FPÖ's share of the vote collapse from 31 to 9 percent. "This time it wasn't other parties that defeated us: the FPÖ did our opponents' work for them," he tells supporters.

The FPÖ is emblematic of a broader trend. Across Europe, far-right populist parties that once seemed unstoppable are stumbling, riven by infighting and challenged by upstart rivals. They have watched in impotent fury as the coronavirus pandemic has boosted governing parties such as Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and incumbent leaders such as Giuseppe Conte in Italy, pushing them to the political margins.

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's anti-immigration League party, exemplifies the populists' difficulties. He has been unable to dominate the domestic political agenda the way he used to before the pandemic and is leaking support to a rival rightwing party, Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy. 

"People vote for populists when things are going well ... but, when things get serious, they vote for parties they can trust, that will get them through the crisis," says Armin Laschet, the CDU leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. "That's one of the reasons why the CDU is on 35 percent."

Nowhere has the populists' decline been more striking than in Germany, where the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has descended into civil war. Last month, Germans witnessed the bizarre spectacle of two AfD parliamentary groups in effect imploding, in circumstances that highlighted the stark ideological divisions tearing the party apart.

The AfD regional branches in both Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein have long been split between hardliners and moderates. But the internal tensions climaxed in September when moderates quit the AfD parliamentary groups in both states. They were then forced to disband because they lacked the statutory minimum of MPs, and AfD lawmakers suddenly found themselves stripped of their privileges.

Dana Guth is one of the defectors in Lower Saxony. "The AfD must finally decide what ideological direction it wants to take," she says, "because these constant power struggles between the opposing camps are paralyzing the whole party."

Latest polls put the AfD at 9 percent, down from 13 percent at the last national election in 2017, when it emerged as the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at Mainz university, says the internecine feuding had turned off voters, "as has the realization of how many extremists there are in the AfD and how many ties there are between [them] and the classic far-right movement in Germany."

Beyond the power struggles and scandals, another decisive factor in the decline of rightwing populism is the diminishing importance of immigration among voters' concerns. 

Posted by at October 15, 2020 5:43 PM