Populist Revolt

The Populist Revolt

It is now abundantly clear that the Western world is in the midst of an expansive, multifaceted populist revolt. The ideological, institutional and cultural achievements of the Left in recent decades are now at risk of implosion. The return of the right to the political discourse in force and uncertainty around security and economics are shifting the tectonic plates that have underpinned the West since the 1980s. The Left’s victory in the culture wars led it to overreach, and the consequences of this overreach are now plain to see. The populist revolt in the Western world can be traced back to the dawn of this millennium and is far from over. What started as a flicker in France and the Netherlands now threatens to engulf Europe and the West in populist flames.

The Preamble

Several events in the first decade of the 21st century foreshadowed the populist tsunami to come. France and the Netherlands were the first European countries to have populism reverberate through their national polities in any meaningful way. All these populist parties developed rhetoric focusing on the same nexus of immigration, cultural assimilationism and anti-Muslim positions. Their chief concerns were to protect the socio-cultural values and national heritage of their societies from the threat they perceived to be emanating from immigration (particularly Muslim immigration) and the failure for immigrants to assimilate to the degree which they desired.

In 2002, the Pim Fortuyn List (PFL), a now little discussed right-wing populist party, erupted onto the national political stage in the Netherlands led by the charismatic former university professor and political columnist Pim Fortuyn. The party won 17% of the national vote and earned 26 of the 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives on a platform aiming to protect the socio-cultural values of Netherlands from what the party perceived to be the extra civilizational challenge of Islamism. Nine days before the election Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf, helping propel PFL to 17% of the national vote.

The rise of PFL was mirrored by the rise of the National Front in France. In the first round of the 2002 French Presidential Elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen the leader of the extreme right-wing national party secured almost 17% of the vote, coming in second and securing himself a place in the second and final round of the election. The 2002 Presidential election was the first election in French history with a candidate from the far-right and the first since 1969 without a candidate representing the left. The stunning performance of the Le Pen left France shellshocked. His anti-immigrant, law-and-order focused platform was anathema to the center-right and left, and its success in 2002 altered France’s political consciousness fundamentally. While Le Pen was easily brushed aside in the second round of the election, the National Front successfully established itself as a force in French politics which would continue to grow in years to come.

The events of 2002 were to be replicated on a similar scale by the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Golden Dawn in Greece in the years to come. In 2006 the Party for Freedom launched itself onto the national stage by winning 9 of 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. The collapse of the Pim Fortuyn List by 2006 coincided with the rise of the Party for Freedom. By 2010 they won 15.5% of the national vote and secured 24 out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Their success in 2010 was similar in size and scale to that of PFL in 2002.

Golden Dawn Rally
Members of Golden Dawn rallying in Greece

But perhaps the most worrying party to foreshadow the populism of today was Golden Dawn. Amid Greece’s economic collapse and the brutal structural adjustment program imposed on it by the IMF, ECB and WB, the Popular Association – Golden Dawn was formed. It has been described as a fascist and neo-Nazi party by scholars and observers and the party has expressed admiration for former Greek Dictator Ioannis Metaxas. Golden Dawn promoted the idea of Greater Greece through territorial expansion into neighboring countries but later refocused and took an anti-immigrant, anti-muslim stance. It contributed fighters to the Greek Volunteer Guard which were complicit in the atrocities at Srebrenica in in 1995. In 2012, Golden Dawn won 7% of the national vote and 21 of the 300 seats in the Hellenic Parliament. This shocked Greece and the world. It has continued to perform at the same level in elections ever since.

Brexit and Trexit

The populist revolt now underway in the Western world fired its first major salvos in its two English-speaking powerhouses. Brexit was the result of a promise to voters, by then British Prime Minister David Cameron, that should his party (the Conservative Party) win the 2015 General Elections than it would hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. This election ploy was successful in winning him and the Conservative Party reelection, but turned into a disaster when it went ahead this year – forcing Cameron to resign and likely ending his political career. A poorly-led and executed “Remain” campaign lacking in energy, zest and basic arguments that connected with voters was overcome by a “Leave” campaign spearheaded by the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party that had blossomed under the leadership of Nigel Farage in 2009.

When on the 24th of June it became clear that the Leave campaign had beaten Remain 52% to 48%, the fragility of the global world order was exposed for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the 27th of June, global markets had lost over $3 trillion dollars in value in direct response to the result of the referendum and what is presaged for Britain and the rise of populism across the West.

While many thought Britain was to be the zenith of populist rejection of the established order, Donald Trump’s stunning triumph in the US Election on the 8th of November has now shaken the very foundations of the Liberal World Order. Questions abound on all axes. What do voters want? Is the system at risk? Is fascism returning to the Western world? How has the Left failed voters and itself? Trump’s threat to pullback from Nato, climate change agreements and end the US’s commitment to free trade all represent a massive slap in the face to the global economic and security framework that has predominated since the 1980s.

The Next Dominoes

While Brexit and Trexit are the first sparks in the populist fire, they are not the last. The next dominoes are Austria, Italy and France. To put these dominoes into context, Franc and Italy are the Euro Area’s 2nd and 3rd largest economies while Austria was Europe’s third richest economy per capita as of 2014. The population of France as of 2014 was 66 million, Italy’s was 61 million and Austria’s was 8 million.

In the second round of Austria’s presidential election on May 22nd Alexander Van der Bellen – the Green party candidate – beat Norber Hofer – the candidate of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party – by 30,000 votes. However, in July the constitutional court ordered a recount of some mail-in ballots and it emerged that many of the envelopes for the mail-in ballots were faulty, and were not sealed. In response, Austria will be holding a third round of the election on December 4th between Mr. Van der Bellen and Mr. Hofer. Polling shows Mr. Hofer slightly ahead and in light of recent events Austria stands on a precipice between a narrow victory for a mainstream candidate, or Mr. Hofer’s victory and ascension to becoming Europe’s only current far-right head of state.

Austria’s coming election already threatens Europe’s fragile political stability but it is events in Italy in the same month that could rupture the established order and potentially presage the end of the Eurozone. In February 2014 Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest Prime Minister ever at the age of 39. His rise was built on a platform of radical reform of Italy’s political and economic institutions to shake up the corrupt, inefficient and bogged down existing-order. While his program has had some success it has been constrained by a quirk of Italian legislative law that requires both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to approve a law before it can be brought into force. This has seriously slowed down legislation and reform in Italy’s modern history.

Beppe Grillo Five Star Movement
Beppe Grillo, former comedian and head of the Five Star Movement

Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate approved Renzi’s constitutional reform package multiple times, but failed to do so according to the two-thirds majority required to avoid a referendum according to Article 138 of the Italian constitution. As such, Prime Minister Renzi has set December 4th as the date of a referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms. Voters will be asked whether they agree with the shrinking of the senate to 100 members from 315 and whether they agree with a reform that will make it harder for the senate to veto legislation. Renzi has promised to resign if he loses the referendum. Early polling suggests that this is likely to be the case. The opposition to the referendum is being spearheaded by the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the Northern League. The Five Star Movement was founded by Comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 and muscled its way into the national political discourse in 2013 by winning 109 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (8.6 million votes, 25% of overall vote), 54 out of 315 seats in the Senate (7.2 million votes, 23% of the overall vote) and 17 of Italy’s 73 seats in the European parliament.

Finally and most worryingly the specter of the National Front has returned to France with vengeance. Under the leadership of Marie Le Pen – Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter – the National Front has rebranded and moved slightly more towards the centerground. It remains a aggressively anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-European party. Polling suggest Marie Le Pen is certain to make it to the second round of the Presidential Election in 2017. However, given recent trends the likelihood of her winning the Presidential Election is high.

The Illiberal Democratic Turn

How will populism evolve if it continues to succeed in disrupting the political order and capturing the offices and seats of government around Europe? Poland, Hungary and Russia are microcosms of how things will potentially evolve. They all embody what is now referred to as “illiberal democracy” which is governing system where elections take place but where citizens are cut off from the knowledge about who controls power and where civil liberties are constrained. In Hungary, the right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban has led a joint assault on Hungary’s democracy and the European Union’s integrity. Orban has declared that he is building “an illiberal state” capable of protecting and guiding the Hungarian nation to greater and greater heights in the year to come. He has promised to replace individualism and individual liberty with collectivist policies to raise the power and prestige of the Hungarian nation and people. He has used his party’s two-thirds majority in parliament to rewrite the constitution and pass hundreds of new laws that have eroded the independence of the judiciary, packed courts with political loyalists and purged the civil service. Hungary has also been ramping up its assault on the free press and civil liberties.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has mirrored Victor Orban’s assault on democracy in Hungary and has declared war on the Polish judicial system. In just over a year in power it has moved swiftly to gain control over the country’s public media, its civil service and has largely neutered the nation’s highest court the Constitutional Tribunal. It has invalidated 5 appointments to the constitutional court by the previous government and picked five new judges, a gross violation of the constitutional order. Likewise the independence of Poland’s chief prosecutor has been constrained as the government has placed him under the minister of justice. Meritocracy in particular has been under attack in the government, with parliament passing an amended Civil Service law that eliminated merit-based appointments for high-ranking officials. Most controversially a law passed in January of this year as transferred the power to pick the head of public broadcasting from a government-appointed panel to the Treasury ministry.

Putin and Russia
Putin’s Russia

Russia represents the pinnacle of what a nationalist, right-wing government is likely to look like within a illiberal democratic framework. Vladimir Putin started off as the darling of the West and oversaw a period of stellar economic and income growth in Russia powered by the commodity supercycle. However, in recent years he has moved aggressively to weaken the democratic framework of Russia and establish himself as the sole pole of power. Russia today is dominated by a kleptocracy of former KGB operatives and powerful, wealthy scions of the capitalist classes who control the state at every level. Through the promotion of nationalist slogans, symbols and ideas Putin is able to boost his popularity and maintain his control of the state despite deepening economic troubles. His wars in Georgia, his seizure of Crimea and his invasion of eastern Ukraine all contribute to the development and maintenance of Russia’s illiberal democratic framework.

This is the ultimate endgame for any right-wing nationalist government in Europe – a socially-conservative state with a weak, illiberal democracy which promotes nationalism and nativism to regiment the population into control. War is not the first tool for the promotion of nationalist thought, but it seems to be a necessary one at a certain point in the cycle of an illiberal state. Europe’s post-Cold War Security framework has already been heavily shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Any similar action, such as in the Balkans, would threaten to destroy that order and necessitate the development of a new one.


The ideologies of the left, particularly the Neoliberal agenda and the agenda of Equality, have achieved much in the last 30 years. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty and millions have had systems of oppression lifted and opportunities granted to them that they never enjoyed before. But globalization and the victory in the culture war by the Left brought good to many, but left many behind as well. The Left’s failure in government to develop policy positions and redistributive and retraining mechanisms as well as its censorship of political dialogue (by labelling of those that disagree as racist, misogynist, nationalist etc) has pushed a significant part of the West’s population into the welcoming hands of the nationalist right. They are now revolting through the ballot box. They are revolting against the liberal value-system, the neoliberal economic order and the globalization of economic and political power. A populist tsunami is crashing down on the world order underpinned by the West. If the Left fails to engage the Right in dialogue then the Left is at risk of polarizing the debate even more. That polarization will empower the Right and could lead to the violation of even the most basic rights of any democracy. The first salvos have been fired, it is now up to the Left to respond in a concerted, rational and conscious fashion.


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