An introduction by Henry Milner
A comparative advantage of Inroads is our network of experts with links to Canada based in many countries where important developments are taking place. This network has allowed us to provide ongoing coverage of the emergence of populism and the resulting erosion of the left-right division that has characterized modern democratic politics. Populist leaders rally the people against outsiders. Traditional parties adapt to the new identity politics or fall by the wayside.
Thus, in December 2017, Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the populist Freedom Party, became Vice-Chancellor of Austria as his party entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party led by Sebastian Kurz, the new Chancellor. And in the nearby German state of Bavaria, the once-mighty Social Democrats, the party of Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder, won a dismal 9 per cent in an October 2018 election. Each of the five European countries addressed in this section manifests this development in a different way.
One is Italy, which still manages to surprise us. In the context of a continuing stagnant economy and huge debt load, Italy is now ruled by an unlikely coalition of the populist left and the populist right, which in March 2018 replaced the centre-left government of Matteo Renzi. As Giorgio Malet puts it, Renzi’s economic and political reforms – specifically the 2014 labour market reform passed despite large-scale mobilization of the unions and the constitutional reform rejected in a referendum – “gave false hope to international observers even as they alienated Italian voters.” The new government is composed of the Five Star Movement (FSM) led by Luigi Di Maio and the now nationalist League (formerly Northern League) led by Matteo Salvini.
The politicization of the migration issue has so far benefited the League, which as of this writing leads in polls, its success pushing FSM supporters to oppose open immigration. Russian interference in Italian politics, in the form of stoking anti-EU views, has furthered this process. As Giorgio notes, in preparing its budget for the coming year, this coalition of two parties with irreconcilable fiscal policies will be tempted to engage in a symbolic fight with a common enemy, the European Commission, over the deficit spending cap. The only thing that may hold them back is a fear that investors might not continue to further finance Italy’s massive public debt. Failure to resolve this dilemma, he concludes, could test “the very stability of European institutions.”
Click to read What’s The Matter With Italy? by Giorgio Malet.
While instability in Italy is perhaps only to be expected, Sweden is the country where traditional class politics has been most stable. The September 2018 election was consistent with recent Swedish elections in that it produced a virtual tie between the centre-right and centre-left alliances. But almost 18 per cent voted for the Swedish Democrats (SD), who finished third. SD is a populist-nationalist party whose main message is opposition to immigration. The very difficult process of forming a government is boiling down to one question: with or without SD? While all the parties have promised not to depend on support from SD, the Conservatives and Christian Democrats have said they are willing to meet and talk with the Swedish Democrats, though what that means remains unclear at this moment. Richard Murray and Olof Kleberg report that whether to include or exclude SD has become a matter of public debate, transcending partisan strategies, with pundits and political scientists arguing that the appropriate democratic response to the election outcome is a centre-right government supported by SD.
Unlike in 2014 when the two alliances arrived at an informal working arrangements, Richard and Olof agree that there is little chance a government could survive without at least passive SD support. But they add that what that government would be is not self-evident. An analysis of SD positions in parliamentary votes shows that SD has overall lined up more frequently with the Redgreen alliance on the left, although less so more recently. Once issues regarding immigrants and refugees are excluded, SD positions tend to be more favourable to maintaining welfare-state programs than those of the centre-right alliance. Moreover, the Social Democrats have been moving closer to the SD position on immigration. However, since most SD voters when surveyed identify with the right, SD leaders now state a preference for a government led by the Conservatives. Two of the Conservatives’ alliance partners, the Liberals and Centre, have closed the door on cooperation with SD, leaving matters at an impasse. So as we go to press, two months after the election, there is still no new Swedish government.
Click to read Sweden is Still Waiting for a New Government by Richard Murray and Olof Kleberg.
As we move farther east, we go from populist parties threatening stability to their winning power and instituting “illiberal democracy.” In this context the traditional left-right distinction becomes effectively meaningless. In Hungary, as Zsuzsanna Magyar reports, Victor Orbán has managed to keep his base – which he organized after losing the 2002 election – mobilized. At first, in the rallies of “us versus them,” the “them” were the Hungarian ruling elite with their neoliberal economic and liberal social goals. As Orbán consolidated his base, winning every election since 2010 and in the process changing the electoral system to favour his Fidesz party, the “them” evolved and George Soros became a particular target. In the April 2018 election, with Orbán’s campaign warning that electing the opposition meant uncontrolled immigration, Fidesz won 47 per cent of the popular vote and two thirds of the seats.
Most recently, in September, the European Parliament accepted the Sargentini report, initiating the process in the Lisbon Treaty that could lead to Hungary’s losing its voting rights in the European Council. The report voiced concerns over 12 issues ranging from corruption to the limitation of academic freedoms, curtailing media freedoms and civil rights. Orbán responded that the accusations are false, meant to punish the Hungarian people for defying the EU on immigration. Most visible in the nationwide campaign which he initiated, Zsuzsanna reports, were billboards whose message soon changed from “Stop Brussels” to “Stop Soros,” with a picture of the Hungarian-born American billionaire.
Click to read Hungary’s Viktor Orbán: Populist Message, Machine Methods by Zsuzsanna Magyar.
A parallel process has taken place in Turkey. The parliamentary and presidential elections of June 2018 returned Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as head of state, with the powers of a much-strengthened executive presidency, and with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) allied with the ultranationalist MHP to form a parliamentary majority. As reported by Semih Çakır, support for the Erdoğan government has grown since it first came into power in 2002. The AKP created a partisan base by resorting to increasingly polarizing rhetoric: in a society largely divided between secularists and conservatives, Erdoğan portrayed the secularists as seeking to undermine governments elected by the will of the people. Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government declared a state of emergency and, even though all opposition parties condemned the coup attempt, repeatedly labelled the secularists as coup supporters. This set the stage for Erdoğan to bring constitutional change in the April 2017 referendum.
In the constitutional referendum, Erdoğan persuaded a majority of voters that the failed coup attempt showed that since democracy could still be undermined by the military, it had to be protected by a more powerful executive presidency. The opposition was still reeling from its defeat when Erdoğan called the early election in June 2018, despite Turkey’s still being under the state of emergency, with many journalists still in jail on terrorism-related grounds and the last remaining independent media company having been sold to an AKP loyalist. Under these conditions, Semih concludes, it was far from a fair election, and left the fractured opposition in no position to face Erdoğan’s coalition in local elections to be held in March 2019.
Click to read Turkey’s Election: A Step Toward Electoral Authoritarianism by Semih Çakır.
Finally, we turn to the U.K. where, exceptionally, the party system is stable. Voters break down almost equally between Labour and the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the identity, insider-outsider, dimension is very much present: it manifests itself over Brexit, with the divisions over Europe more within than between the major parties. As Eric Shaw reports, the Conservatives are divided between support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Chequers deal” with the EU and the “Canada plus” approach – named after the Canada-EU free trade deal. Complicating the issue is May’s unpopularity, with several senior ministers snapping at her heels. Labour too is divided, but its divisions over the EU no longer coincide with Labour’s left-right cleavage. Most members of the party’s centre-right are pro-EU, often favouring a second referendum, but many are not, either because they are Eurosceptics or because they fear tarnishing Labour’s appeal to working-class Brexit voters in their constituencies.
Eric, who has followed Labour closely for many years, focuses on the party’s left. The Corbynistas, who now control the leadership, are instinctively anti-EU, their views essentially unchanged from the 1970s. Corbyn, his key lieutenant, shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonell, and his highly influential adviser Seamus Milne have long labelled the EU a “capitalist club” that will constrain Labour’s ability to pursue radical policies. Yet, Eric notes, less visible are the views of many younger Corbynistas who dispute this and, like most Labour-affiliated trade unions, worry that Corbyn ignores the wider economic consequences of Brexit.
Click to read Aftershocks of the Brexit Eruption by Eric Shaw.