Liberals in Europe were quite relieved on Wednesday with the results of the closely watched Dutch elections, which the right wing extremist leader, Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party lost. As Prime Minister Mark Rutte won the elections with a victory over 33 seats, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist Wilders came staggering behind with 20 seats. The elections in Netherlands were awaited with much apprehension as they came after the victory of the right wing in America and the conservative vote winning the Brexit.
For a Europe caught in the middle of economic and political challenges like the debt crisis, the issue with refugees, terrorism and the Turkey-European Union (EU) refugee deal, populist right wing ideologies have been on the rise. Over the years, conversation in Europe has shifted towards a debate over ‘open Europe’ versus ‘close Europe’. The Netherlands vote in that sense was decisive in marking a shift away from the seemingly popular feeling of fear of the outsider. Soon after the results were declared, the French foreign minister is reported to have congratulated the Netherlands “for halting the advance of the far right.”
The elections in Netherlands is first among a series of elections scheduled to be held in Europe in the near future. The French presidential elections is set to take place on May this year, followed by Germany in September and Italy in May 2018. The Dutch vote seems significant in determining the expectations from these three other countries, each of whom were the founding fathers of the European Union. In the aftermath of the Netherlands elections, here is how France, Germany and Italy are politically placed before it goes to polls in the near future.
The west European power has steadily remained one of the most influential member countries of the EU since its conception in the post World War II period. Having successfully managed to keep right wing ideology away, the French government has been governed by the Socialists or the Republicans since the formation of the 5th Republic in 1958. In the past five years however, the rise of Marine Le Pen of the National Front has been of much worry for the liberals in the state.
Taking a strong stance against globalisation, the EU, the Eurozone, immigration and Islam, Marine Le Pen had gathered support for herself in the presidential campaign of 2012. In the past five years, opinion polls in the country has shown a dip in support for Le Pen, but the shadow of right wing populism has definitely not disappeared. As per a recent poll conducted by Franceinfo, only 42 per cent of those surveyed believed that Marine La Pen was capable of securing votes beyond her party base. Majority of the respondents believed that her party is a danger to democracy. La Pen’s signature policy proposal of a return to the Franc has also shown a significant dip in support from 33 per cent last year to 22 per cent this year.
We also need to keep in mind that there is a marked difference in political atmosphere between urban and rural France. While the cosmopolitan cities in France are relatively at ease with globalisation and rather welcome to the outsider, in the rural areas, a sense of neglect is hard to ignore. Statistics shows that while jobs in the cities increased by 5 per cent between 2006 and 2011, in France as a whole jobs were in fact lost during the same period.
La Pen’s support is mainly restricted to Southern France, the rust belt of north and east and the peripheral areas which are about 40-50 kms away from the centre of Paris.
Rebuilding itself after the massacre it experienced in World War II, Germany like France was one of the biggest force that formed the European Union. The experience of Nazism on its soil had left a deep fear of the right and is quite strongly entrenched within the country. The fear of the outsider, however has increasingly sought the attention of the average German as is evident from the rise in popularity of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) that is against the establishment, the eurozone, immigration and Islam.
The party that was founded in 2013 had a strong presence in recent state elections and is currently in power in 10 out of 16 state parliaments. As per a report by the New York Times, the party is expected to make its presence felt in the upcoming general elections. The rise of the party’s popularity is phenomenal considering that what right wing parties in France and Netherlands managed to achieve in three or four decades, Alternative for Germany did in three years.
Anti-immigration is perhaps the strongest point around which the party has based its campaign. Support for the party received a strong boost in the wake of the Berlin truck attack last Christmas that claimed the lives of 12 people. The incident was seen as a result of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lenient immigration policy. As per a local poll, the party received a 2.5 per cent boost soon after the attack. The party’s confidence soared further when Donald Trump won the elections in America. Among all other Germany’s political parties it was AfD alone that celebrated Trump’s victory, hailing his roots in German soil.
AfD’s popularity is still limited with majority of the population in cities like Berlin and Munich strongly urging the rest to stay away from the party. Majority of its supporters, however, are those who are tired of being apologetic of Germany’s national past and have been in strong need for a party to represent their economic and social interests. As per polls, the party is expected to receive 16 per cent of the national vote in 2017, making it the third largest party after Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party.
The other big victim of Nazism, Italy had joined France, Netherlands, Germany and Luxemberg in its bid to stay away from war in future. Right wing populism had accordingly been kept away for precisely the same reason. However, being one of the foremost destinations for immigrants from the Middle East, Italy has moved towards an extremist anti-outsider stance over the years. The fall of liberalism in the country was most evident when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after losing referendum in constitutional reforms.
Populist anti-establishment parties like the Five Star Movement, founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo, and the anti-immigrant Northern League led the opposition to the government’s efforts in restructuring the Italian government. The Five Star Movement has in the past couple of years increasingly gained support. After losing the European elections of 2014, the party managed to win the mayoralties of Rome and Turin in the local elections held in the summer of 2016. Political analyst Eric Jones believes that the party will be able to exploit the “deep and painful fractures” in Italian society when the country goes to polls in May 2018.
The right wing party’s biggest support comes from those who are dissatisfied by the political elite’s incapability to undo the economic stagnation imposed by EU. Recent opinion polls show the Five Star Party to be almost at par in popularity with the ruling Democratic Party.