The German elections: a turning point for populism?

The rise of populism in Europe (and in America) has been a constant narrative for the past several years. The quick rise of eurosceptic and populist parties like UKIP, the Front National, and the Five Star Movement all contributed to this narrative. However, this rise appears to have been stopped and now possibly reversed, particularly after Brexit in Europe, followed by the French presidential and legislative elections nearly a year later. Now, Europe’s biggest economy is going to the polls. After years of watching the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) increase its support across the country, the party now finds itself with limited prospects and riddled with internal, yet public, disputes. AfD is now among the many parties vying for third place in the election and has no hope of getting into any coalition government. The fall of the AfD may finally be the end to the rising populism narrative that has dominated Europe for several years.

Although many might not have noticed, populist parties have been losing support across several EU countries over the past year or two. UKIP saw its support plummet in the last UK general election, Marine Le Pen was handedly defeated in the French presidential election and while her party got more deputies in the National Assembly than ever before, the result was seen to be extremely disappointing for the party considering how it was polling a year earlier. These are the most significant examples of declining populism, but there are others such as the splitting up of the True Finns party or the lackluster performance or Geert Wilders in the last Dutch general election. The Five Star Movement in Italy also saw very disappointing results in the previous local elections in several cities across the country.

And now it is time for Europe’s leading economic and political power to give its verdict on populism. The AfD party proved itself capable of taking advantage of opposition to Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the country in 2015. The party reached it’s peak with a strong performance in the 2016 Saxony-Anhalt state elections in which it won nearly a quarter of the votes. Since then however the party has seen its electoral performance decline, getting just under 6% of the votes in the 2017 state election in Schleswig-Holstein. Polls for the federal election also show a party in steady decline. After reaching a peak of nearly 15% in early 2016, the party is now getting support of between 5 and 10 percent of the population, putting it in danger of not entering the Bundestag at all.

Since the crisis, Germany has been at the political and economic center of Europe, and thus its election is very important when looking at trends in European politics. A good sign of when things are going rather smoothly is when the election campaign is “criticized” for being rather boring. In a recent debate between Chancellor Merkel and SPD party leader Martin Shulz, it appeared the two leaders, who are indeed in a coalition government together, agreed on a large amount of topics. The fear of a surge in support for the right-ring and populist AfD has been proven unfounded. The party is struggling to stop its sinking in the polls and faces continuous scandals over racist statements by members and political infighting. Bar any drastic changes in the polls, the AfD is set to relegated to a tiny and ostracised right-wing party in the Bundestag that nobody will work with.

With this decline of the AfD, is it time to end the narrative of rising populism in Europe? The idea that populism is still “rising” can certainly be put away, at least for now. A look at political events and elections in recent years paints the picture of a populism in decline. In the May 2017 UK general election, UKIP lost its only MP and its share of the popular vote dropped over 10 percentage points to just 1.8%. In France, Marine Le Pen only managed to get just over a third of votes in the second round of the presidential election in the spring of 2017. Meanwhile, just a couple weeks later in the legislative elections, her Front National party won just 8 seats in the National Assembly. The score for the party in the first round only managed to reach 13%, over 10 percentage points below what her party managed in other local elections in previous years.

Earlier in the year, in the Dutch general election, far-right populist Geert Wilders and his PVV party also managed just 13%, far below what some had feared. The Five Star Movement in Italy, as mentioned above, also saw a poor performance in local elections in June. Another test for the Italian populists and eurosceptics will come with an upcoming general election where it is expected to battle the centre-left for first place while also avoid losing votes to a resurgent centre-right.

The exact cause(s) of this decline in support for populist parties is hard to pinpoint. It could be the improving European economy after nearly a decade of recession and stagnation. It could also be the shock of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, two events that happened within 6 months of each other. Surveys have shown that after Brexit, there has been an increase in support for the EU in most member states. A similar reaction against that event and Trump could be turning people away from populist parties.

Whatever the cause, the trend clearly is a decline in support for populism. As Europe begins to move on from the financial crisis, and manages to have some control over the migrant crisis, will populist parties prove to have any staying power? So far it doesn’t appear to be so. UKIP’s main point was to get the UK out of the EU. Now that that has been done, the party has been essentially wiped out of the UK political system. Populist parties may end up being a “one-trick pony” that take advantage of people’s’ fears and insecurities in times of economic hardship or sudden mass migration. Once these issues fall in importance to the voter, the parties themselves also see their support fall away as people return to the centre-right or left. Time will tell what happens to these parties and how many, if any, will become long-term fixtures in their respective countries, but the outlook for populism in Europe does not look positive.

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