Populists Still Not Ready to Rule Europe
Sunday's regional elections in Spain and France were the first big test for European populist parties since January, when far left Syriza won power in Greece. This time, the radicals were moderately successful, but still lost. Anyone hoping that the political establishment in major European nations may soon be toppled -- anyone such as Russian President Vladimir Putin -- should note the resilience and fighting spirit of traditional parties: They are far from finished.
In Spain, parliamentary elections were held in the country's most populous region, Andalusia, where unemployment stands at 34 percent, even higher than Greece's 26 percent. The local version of Syriza, Podemos -- whose platform calls for public debt restructuring, increased subsidies for the poor, and less-labor market flexibility -- won 14.9 percent of the vote. That's a lot for a new party, and Podemos candidates were all smiles, but they'll have only 15 seats out of 109 in the regional parliament. Sunday's winner, with 35.9 percent of the vote, was the Socialist Party, which has run Andalusia for 33 years. The party took 47 seats -- not enough for an outright majority but plenty to form a coalition that won't include Podemos. The other establishment political force, the center-right Popular Party, also beat Podemos, with 26.3 percent of the vote.
"The bipartisan political model in Spain is not yet dead as some people had eagerly anticipated," The Spain Report blog concluded. "Wounded, yes, but not even mortally so."
Of course, the election results closely matched the polls, so it could be argued that Podemos, which leads in the national polls now, could beat the establishment parties in December's nationwide elections. I doubt it, however: If a left-wing populist party doesn't win in a country's most depressed region, it's not likely to perform miracles elsewhere.
In France, Marine Le Pen's far right National Front was poised to win yesterday's departmental elections. This is a vote for the councils that run France's 101 departments, which have power over local transport and school systems. It's not a particularly important level of power -- President Francois Hollande and a majority of French people favor abolishing the councils -- but as the National Front struggles to muscle into the political establishment and prove it can actually govern, every election is crucial.
Yesterday, it ended up in second place with 25.2 percent of the vote, though polls had given it the lead. Former Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP led with 29.4 percent, and President Francois Hollande's Socialists came in third place with 21.2 percent. It's a major loss for Hollande and a much-needed win for Sarkozy. Le Pen may also claim victory, since her party, for the first time in its history, will end up running a few departments. Nevertheless, the result augurs ill for her chances on a national level (the presidential election is in two years), because the traditional parties can still beat the National Front when they concentrate on it.
Countries with less disastrously run economies and more stable democratic systems than Greece has are susceptible to populist viruses, too -- though the mechanism of infection is indirect. Political analysts have said for years that Europe differs from the U.S., where majority voting (in which voters choose specific candidates, not party lists) favors the creation of two-party systems. Of the 28 members of the European Union, 24 are run by coalitions. Few of these, however, include radical populists, and in many cases the coalitions are created specifically to exclude them.
In Germany, for example, the Social Democrats would rather form an alliance with Christian Democrat arch-rivals than with Die Linke, the far-left successor to former East Germany's ruling party. In Austria, the big center-right and center-left parties have also formed a "grand coalition," keeping the far-right Freedom Party securely outnumbered. As long as at least one one of the establishment parties manages to finish ahead of the populists, a centrist coalition remains a difficult but perfectly workable option for keeping the upstarts out of power.
However, as Sir Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford University's school of government, points out, the coalitions that are built to sideline the far left and far right still benefit the populist parties -- by setting them up as alternative governments. According to him, populist parties remain the future of European politics:
The centre has been weakened as a result of rising social diversity interacting with outdated voting systems. Political parties are run by activists: in Europe they elect the party leaders, in America they provide the workforce needed to win primary elections. Activism has always been greater among the political extremes, but as diversity has pulled the extremes further apart, so the parties in which they are disproportionately influential, have positioned themselves further from the centre.
The centrist forces, however, are not static. On the one hand, creating a credible alternative to emotional populism can be an attractive platform for activists: Stopping the far right or the hard left becomes a cause, not just a political goal.
On the other hand, the mainstream parties can internalize some of the populists' ideas, in detoxified form. The National Front's toughness on illegal immigration is nothing that Sarkozy's UMP can't match, skirting Le Pen's xenophobic and anti-European excesses. And traditional socialist parties are not averse to all the leftist ideas of Podemos and Syriza -- they just need to pick and choose the ones they like and make them workable.
Syriza's victory may have given populists across Europe a boost, offering fresh hope for Putin's Kremlin, which has cultivated relationships with these parties on both the left and right. Yet Syriza's experience so far -- its inability to agree with creditors on terms or accomplish quick economic or governmental reforms -- is hardly helpful to radicals elsewhere. Spain exited its international bailout last year, and Spaniards are not eager for their country to end up like Greece. The French, too, for all their dissatisfaction with traditional parties, are hesitant to hand power to untested, extreme forces.
Mainstream parties are still able to win -- as long as they do their homework and work together.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at email@example.com