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How Populism Is Mindf***ing And Fragmenting Traditional Politics

Rene Cuperus

Why has the nationalist-populist tsunami, expected to win all 2016-2017 elections, so far been contained to the English-speaking world? This tidal wave peaked with Brexit and Trump’s win of the US presidency. And then it stopped in its tracks.

Instead, we have encountered a phenomenon that has been dubbed ’the strange non-death of Old Europe’. Right-wing populism lost (narrowly) in the Austrian presidential election. It did not triumph in the Dutch parliamentary elections, nor in the contest for the French presidency. Both Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) and Marine Le Pen’s Front National admittedly emerged as clear contenders for pole position but both failed and are now relegated back to the margins of everyday politics.

In Germany meanwhile, we witness a total meltdown of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), combined with a hegemonic restoration of the traditional political centre. Chancellor Angela Merkel has fully restored her authority after faltering during the 2015 refugee crisis, when she came under fire from both AfD and her Bavarian partner, Christian Social Union (CSU). But no, it is hard to imagine that in September’s federal elections she will fail to be re-elected as chancellor. No ‘Macron revolt’ in Germany, nor an existential wipe-out for the German SPD, as has been the tragic fate of its sister parties, the Dutch PvdA and French PS. The SPD is still unlikely, though, to be seen as a serious alternative to the Merkel regime, and can be expected to achieve a modest to poor performance.

So, the expected nationalist-populist tsunami has not conquered the European continent. Instead, we have witnessed a new boost for the mainstream and for European co-operation. One could posit that the (assumed) impending political chaos of a post-Brexit UK and a Trump-led US are aiding a campaign for the Establishment in Europe. The adage in Old Europe, in Brussels and Berlin, now seems to be: Macron should succeed at any cost, and Brexit has to fail, or at least should not be successful in the short run. Electorates are not stupid. When they see instability, chaos, mayhem as a result of political regime change, they stick to the old and familiar.

Another explanation was given by Nick Clegg in a speech reported by the Guardian. Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, who lost his own seat in the general election, suggested that ‘’neglect of public services, including social housing, had made Britons more susceptible to the appeal of populism than other Europeans. This went for Americans too’’. So, bigger inequalities, injustices and social deficits in the English-speaking world, compared to Scandinavian and western European countries, may explain the electoral breakthrough of populism in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. But does this mean that populism has been defeated on the continent?

Not at all. Populism in Europe is still alive and kicking, both under the radar of governmental politics and by influencing Establishment politics. We can see evidence of this in the cabinet formation process still underway in the Netherlands after more than four months.

A running joke in Dutch political circles is that the country is on track to beat the Guinness World Record for the longest cabinet formation: officially set by the Belgians in 2010-2011 at 541 days. The Dutch had their parliamentary elections on 15 March, but a cabinet is only expected to be in place after the return from the summer break, in September or October. This will conclude a process lasting more than 200 days.

Why does the Netherlands, a medium-sized country (not by geography, but by demography) in the middle of the European storms, allow itself such a relaxed and leisurely timetable? Indeed, its economy is doing fine. There is low unemployment and respectable growth. There have been no jihadi-terrorist attacks (so far). The country, despite its huge populist discontents, is sky-high on every ranking of happy, innovative countries. The Netherlands is a symbol for political and social cooperation (‘the consociational polder model’). Why then this problematic coalition formation process? Here we see where the Dutch political system intersects with the moving populist tide.

First, the Netherlands – because of Brexit and the Trump victory – fears losing two of its main global anchors: the transatlantic relationship with the US (Pax Americana, free trade, multilateralism, NATO) and its partnership with a European UK, which has always acted as a counterweight to the Franco-German axis. With this disruption to its position between the European continent and the Atlantic world, one of the main questions for cabinet formation in the Netherlands is (or should be) the country’s reorientation in light of the re-energising Macron-Merkel relationship. For that reason, the Netherlands is exploring new alliances and partnerships. In The Hague in June, Prime Minister Mark Rutte organised a summit for the leaders of the Baltic, Benelux and Nordic countries, an apparent counterpart to the Club Mediterranée of southern Europe.

Another reason for the complexity of cabinet formation stems from the fact that the election campaign was a battle between populism and anti-populist forces. The centre-right parties – the conservative-liberal VVD and the Christian Democratic CDA – in direct competition for the electorate of Geert Wilders, did much to bend over towards right-wing populist discourse and policy positions. On the other hand, the progressive parties – especially the social-liberal D66 and the Green Left party, parties for academic/liberal professionals – stood firm in their radical anti-populist positions, remaining unconditionally pro-EU and pro-refugee. Wilders was beaten, but the price to pay for that was a polarised, fragmented party political landscape, in which the political centre (read: the social democratic PvdA) exploded into its identity-politics constituent parts.

Such a polarised landscape makes coalition formation across the centre extremely politically difficult. The prime minister’s party, VVD, has become the biggest and therefore allowed to lead the coalition formation process. An attempt to make a new government with CDA, D66 and Green Left failed. Green Left quit the stage and no agreement over refugee deals with north Africa could be reached. At the moment, VVD, CDA and D66 are negotiating with a new coalition partner: the economically mildly progressive Christian Union. This attempt might succeed, although D66 is worried about losing its progressive profile in such a conservative cabinet. In particular, it is likely to clash with the socially conservative Christian Union over medical-ethical issues, such as the expanded practice of euthanasia.

As the Dutch have all gone on vacation without a new cabinet, the outcome remains insecure. Let’s allow them to enjoy the summer first.

First published at “State of the Left” by Policy Network, London

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