Reading the media, it’s easy to believe that Europe is in a doomsday scenario. After Brexit, and the unknown future impacts of the new US administration, countless articles tell us of the rise of populism and its seizure of power across continental Europe. Is this really the case though? The media wouldn’t exactly sell papers by telling us everything should be fine. A closer examination of the major “threats” of populism, in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, show that the most likely scenario by the end of the year, once all three of these countries hold their general elections, is continued rule by the established political parties. This is not to say that the uptick in support for populist parties is negligible and should be ignored, but rather that doom and gloom may not be an accurate picture of 2017, at least not yet.
The first of these countries to hold their general election is the Netherlands where the rise of Geert Wilders and his PVV party has caused a stir. Wilders has repeatedly pushed the envelope in terms of hate speech and inciting racial tensions, but instead of being shunned, polls show a rise in his support. The PVV is indeed on track to “win” the elections in March. However, the ruling centre-right VVD has stated that it will not work with Wilders, dashing any hopes of the PVV being part of the government. As the left will not even consider such an option, Wilders has no opportunity to be a part of Dutch government unless a massive upset happens and his party wins a majority on its own, which is nearly impossible considering the large number of Dutch parties taking part in the election. Wilders will continue to cause controversy (and win media coverage) but a role in government is out of his reach.
The next country to hold their election will be France in April and May. Marine Le Pen and her National Front (FN) have done a considerably good job in softening the party’s image to appeal to more centre-right voters who had been turned off by the extreme rhetoric used by Marine’s father, the former head of the party. Marine is now set to come first in the first round of the presidential election, followed by either Macron or Fillon. Up to 30% of French voters are willing to support the FN in the first round according to recent polls. The success of Marine to market her party in a softer light cannot be denied. However, the first round is not the final verdict. No matter who Marine faces in the second round, every poll shows her losing by large margins (66-33). In the legislative elections, thanks to the French electoral system, the FN is unlikely to win many seats, just as it struggled to do so in regional and departmental elections in recent years. Again, the access of this party to the government will be closed. While the FN has come a long way in seducing many French voters, it is still not enough. The party’s appeal to certain significant segments of the population is very real, however it has a ceiling. Not all of France is rural nor is it former industrial areas that have come upon tough economic times. The FN is now a player in French politics but it can not (yet) win a presidential election and will have to be content on continuing to pull the centre-right further right.
Finally, Germany will hold its federal election in September. Being much later in the year, there is still a lot of time for drastic events to shape German politics beforehand. However, as it stands now, Angela Merkel is likely to win herself another term as Chancellor although perhaps not as easily as she thought thanks to a recent rise in support for the SPD after Martin Schulz made the move from Brussels to Berlin to head the party. Either way, the main story in Germany has been the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). It has entered a number of state parliaments with impressive vote shares, especially during and immediately after the migrant crisis of 2015 when Germany saw roughly one million migrants enter the country. As it stands the AfD has since seen its support hold but fall off slightly. It’s currently polling between 10% and 15% at the national level, just above the scores of the Greens and Linke. Like the other populist parties mentioned, the AfD has no viable partners to form a coalition at the federal level. It’s level of support, if maintained at this relatively low level, is not high enough to become a kingmaker in any coalition. Germany may well enter into another mandate of the Grand Coalition between the CDU and SPD. If any minor party is to join a governing coalition it will be the Greens, or even the FDP which has seen its popularity rise slightly. The AfD will be left on the sidelines. The question for the party is if it can survive if there is no significant crisis relating to migrants or islamic terrorism.
2017 does not necessarily have to be a year of doom and gloom and may well maintain a relative status quo. The rise of populism cannot be denied and it has clearly impacted politics, mainly by pulling centre-right parties further to the right to avoid losing voters. However, these parties are usually shut out from government and their influence thus stunted. Their extensive coverage in the media (which they ironically tend to despite) helps them maintain more influence than they merit. Brexit and the US election do not necessarily have to be replicated in Europe. Continental Europe is a different game with different rules and while it’s easy to claim that populism is going to rule over Europe, this should not be assumed.