Has the Populist Right become the new normal?

The worry is that the Populist right current does lasting damage to democratic politics institutions and norms while in power

Former US President and presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the New York Young Republican Club's 111th annual gala in New York on December 9, 2023.
Former US President and presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the New York Young Republican Club's 111th annual gala in New York on December 9, 2023.

Has the Populist Right become the new normal?

The recent success of populists in first the Argentinian and then the Dutch elections has once again shined the spotlight on the rise of ‘far’ right political figures and parties in the West. In the past few years, especially after Donald Trump failed to gain re-election to the White House in 2020, many commentators and analysts had speculated whether right wing Populism might have run its course.

The sight of Centrist politicians like Joe Biden in the US and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil defeating populists like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro respectively encouraged some to believe that western politics was returning to ‘normal’ and the shift to the far right was a temporary aberration.

However, the election of first Georgia Meloni in Italy, head of the right-wing Brothers of Italy coalition, followed by the success of Javier Milei in Argentina and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have turned these assumptions on their head.

With Populist movements and parties continuing to enjoy growing support across Europe and the West, perhaps Populism is here to stay. Might right-wing Populism soon become the new ‘normal’ in many western states?

Read more: The rise of Europe's far right: Origins and dangers

The rise of the Populist Right

After the defeat of Nazism and Fascism during the Second World War, far right politics was largely relegated to the periphery of most western democracies. In some states far right parties enjoyed a degree of support. The neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) reached a high of 8.7% of the vote in the 1972 election.

In France, Jean Marie Le Pen, founder of the far right Front National, reached the final two in the 2002 presidential election, but was soundly beaten, receiving just 17% of the vote. However, in most countries the far right remained on the radical fringes of politics: skinhead neo-Nazi gangs in Germany, or the Fascistic National Front in Britain.

However, after the 2008 financial crash and accompanying recession far right groups began to enjoy increased electoral success. New parties and those that had formerly enjoyed little popularity tapped into growing frustration at the fall out of the economic disaster.

Pitching themselves in stark nationalist, often nativist, language, they took aim at immigrants, globalisation and, often in Europe, the European Union. Crucially, they presented themselves as outsider insurgents, challenging a supposed ‘establishment’ that had failed. This allowed them to win votes not just from the traditional conservative parties on the right, but also from left-wing parties, who saw some of their traditional working-class voters drawn to the populists.

Victor Orban’s Fidesz came to power in Hungary in 2010, while the similarly Populist Law and Justice Party took charge of Poland five years later. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was US president from 2017-21, while Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil ruled from 2019-22.

Elsewhere, populist right parties didn’t win outright power, but gained sufficient votes to join coalition governments. The True Finns ruled in a coalition in Finland for two years from 2015-17, while in Austria the Freedom Party ruled as the junior government party for two years after winning 26% of the vote in the 2017 election.

Some countries’ political systems made it harder for Populist parties to enter government, but they still saw a surge in support. Alternative fur Deutschland (AFD) in Germany won 12% in the 2017 election and 10% in 2021, as well as a series of successes in local votes. Meanwhile in France, Le Pen’s daughter and successor, Marine, reached the runoff in the last two presidential elections, scoring 34% of the vote in 2017 and 41% in 2022. In Britain, although the first-past-the-post electoral system made it difficult for the Populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) to gain parliamentary seats, their rising popularity contributed to the referendum vote to leave the EU.

It also influenced the ruling Conservative party’s subsequent move towards embracing right-wing populist policies for fear of losing voters to UKIP’s successors, ‘the Brexit Party’ and ‘Reform’.

A Populist revival?

Some had hoped that the right-wing populism had peaked with the departure from office of Donald Trump in 2021. The defeat of Bolsonaro a year later and the fall of Poland’s Law and Justice Party in October created the impression that Populism’s popularity might have waned.

However, just as the initial shift to the right was prompted by the 2008 economic crash and its long shadow, the 2022 Ukraine war and the accompanying cost of living crisis appear to have given Populism another boost.

Meloni, for example, was propelled to the Italian premiership in September 2022, partly as the result of the economic squeeze. Though she denies being Fascist, her party has drawn in many former members of the MSI and is widely regarded as the most right-wing Italian government since the Second World War.

The Ukraine war also played a major role in the success of Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in November’s Dutch elections. Wilders’ anti-immigrant and, especially, anti-Islam rhetoric had gradually gained traction with Dutch voters since his party was formed in 2006. However, few expected the PVV to win the largest number of seats in the 2023 election, 37 out of 150, far higher than the incumbent People’s Party who secured only 24.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni delivers statements at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2023.

Most experts agree that Wilder’s popularity soared after he successfully connected the cost of living crisis to his traditional hostility to migration in the eyes of many voters, and also criticised the Dutch military’s support of Kiev – despite opposing Putin’s invasion.

Read more: How the man who challenged Putin met his predictable end

That said, the success of Milei in Argentina suggests the Ukraine war and its aftereffects are far from the only cause of Populist success. Milei won the presidential run off by 14.5 million votes to his rival’s 11.5 million, by articulating a plan to rescue Argentina from an economic crisis that far outdates the Ukraine war.

While global fuel price rises may have played a role in Argentina’s galloping inflation, most analysts point to the incumbent government’s devaluation policies and the drought that has hit Argentina’s agricultural sector.

As with many populists, Milei, a climate change denier who has pledged to abolish the central bank and dollarize the economy, took aim at the Peronist ‘establishment’ that have been in power for decades. Milei’s apparent sympathies with Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship has alarmed many with some fearing he will institute more autocratic policies.

For those opposed to the populist right in both the West and elsewhere, these developments are alarming. 

Moderation in power?

For those opposed to the populist right in both the West and elsewhere, these developments are alarming. However, the past record of the Populist right in power is mixed. Many have turned out to be far less radical than feared, often moderating their stances once faced with the realities of office.

The True Finns, for example, had campaigned for Finland to leave the Euro, but softened their stance once they joined the government. Analysts of Dutch politics are already suggesting Wilders will have to make similar compromises in order to former a governing coalition.

Rem Korteweg, of the Clingendael Institute thinktank told the Guardian, "Each party has its red lines, its bargaining chips. There's always endless horse-trading; this time there'll be even more. Manifestos become almost irrelevant." To win the election Wilders already watered down much of his anti-Islam rhetoric.

He has since declared that much of his anti-Islam programme is not a pressing priority and will be put, "on ice,' for now. Similarly, despite having campaigned for a 'Nexit' referendum on the Netherlands' EU membership and proposed leaving the Euro, none of his potential coalition partners will consider this and the pledge will likely be ditched.

Far-right demonstrators in Hungary on July 7 declare their support for the French government's measures to suppress the demonstrations that followed the killing of a young man by police shooting.

Meloni similarly appeared to moderate on taking office. Many feared that she would withdraw Italy's support for Ukraine given the past positions of her party. However, on assuming office she has championed Kiev's cause, winning praise from Joe Biden in the process.

Similarly, while maintaining a harsh line on immigrants, including cracking down on illegal immigrants, she has opted for the more conventional option of working with neighbouring countries, Tunisia and Albania, as well as the EU, to deal with the issue. 

Early signs even suggest that Milei may prove less radical than expected. Despite the abolition of the central bank and replacing the Peso with the Dollar being one of his core electoral pledges, he has appointed a moderate to be his new economy minister.

The appointee, Luis Caputo, is known to oppose Milei's radical plans, and many see his appointment as a practical step from the new president, suggesting he will take a more cautious path at first. 

Authoritarian Fears

Yet while some Populists have proven more moderate than anticipated in power, others have still pursued radical agendas with long lasting consequences. Social policies in particular have provoked concern among western liberals.

Meloni, for example, has taken aim at LGBT+ rights in Italy, issuing decrees that remove the rights of same-sex couple parents. Similarly, Poland's Law and Justice government cracked down hard on abortion laws. This would later be echoed in the US when the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade in 2022. Though Donald Trump had left office by this point, the judgement was made possible by the Conservative judges he had appointed during his time in office.

But what most alarms many about the Populist right is their tendency to embrace more autocratic politics. The fear is that, once in power, Populists will undermine the very democratic institutions they used to come into office. This has been seen most egregiously in Hungary. Since Viktor Orban was elected in 2010, Hungary has been reclassified by the think tank Freedom House from 'free' to only 'partly free'.

This reflects the widespread crackdowns Orban has overseen on press freedom, the independence of the judiciary and the multiparty political system. Many, including EU officials, have accused Poland under the Law and Justice party of similar democratic backsliding.

This has been seen most egregiously in Hungary. Since Viktor Orban was elected in 2010, Hungary has been reclassified by the think tank Freedom House from 'free' to only 'partly free'.

Of course, the most famous allegations of Populists undermining democratic structures was Donald Trump's claims that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen from him. This 'big lie' has been dismissed by the US judicial system multiple times but is still officially the line of the opposition Republican Party.

Moreover, it is widely alleged that Trump incited the take-over of the US capitol building by rioters to prevent his loss of power, an accusation that has seen Trump subject to numerous court indictments.

Of the many concerns that Trump's opponents have about his possible return to power in 2024 is this apparent disregard for America's democratic institutions and his seeming willingness to permanently damage them.

The New Normal?

Were Trump to be re-elected it would seem to confirm even further that Populism is not going away, something already suggested by the successes of Milei, Meloni and Wilders. How permanent this shift rightwards is in the West is hard to tell.

On the one hand, it could be argued that politics is often cyclical. Trump was eventually displaced by Biden and Bolsonaro by Lula and, eventually, the same will happen to the current batch of Populists.

The worry is that the Populist right current does lasting damage to democratic politics institutions and norms while in power

After a while, in most cases in politics, the insurgents come to be seen as 'the establishment' and they in turn will be replaced by new outsiders, often from different ideological positions. 

On the other hand, as seen with Trump and Orban, the worry is that the Populist right do lasting damage to democratic politics institutions and norms while in power.

The more successful they are, the more likely it is that other political actors seek to replicate their techniques, normalising policies and approaches that were for so long deemed too radical or beyond the pale.

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