A Populist Revolution in Europe? Not Just Yet

The relative success of pro-Russian populists in Europe doesn't amount to Trump-like disruption.

Trump wannabe.

Photographer: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Donald Trump-like politicians won presidential elections in two small European countries -- Bulgaria and Moldova. A populist nationalist appears poised to win the Austrian presidential election, another one leads in some Dutch polls, and similar figures in France and Italy are within a few points of the leading establishment candidate -- just far enough behind to recall Trump's pre-election poll performance.

So was Sweden's neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement right when it proclaimed during a Saturday march in Stockholm that a "world revolution" was beginning? A revival of the right is certainly in evidence. The recent developments are not the first: Local "Trumps" have already triumphed in the U.K., Poland and Hungary, and, just beyond the European Union's borders, in Turkey. But the EU, for all its well-publicized flaws, may be better-designed than the U.S. to deal with this constructively.

In Bulgaria, former air force commander Rumen Radev beat the ruling center-right party's candidate Tsetka Tsacheva 59.4 percent to 36.2 percent. In all but this big lead, the election was eerily like the U.S. one. Radev, a political novice, campaigned against corruption and for closing the borders to immigrants, and he's been accused of being a Russian puppet, something he, like Trump, has denied. He has, however, praised Trump for advocating better dialogue with Russia. The candidate he beat was a woman who would have been the first female president of Bulgaria, an experienced politician and a representative of the established ideological orthodoxy.

In Moldova, Igor Dodon also beat a woman who would have been the country's first female president, Maia Sandu -- 55 percent to 45 percent. Dodon, unlike Trump, has plenty of government and political experience; he's also a leftist. And yet he, too, has run on an anti-corruption platform and called for closer ties with Russia. He welcomed Trump's win in the U.S., calling it "American citizens' victory over the liberal permissiveness that was eroding the foundations of society." U.S.-educated Sandu, with her staunch center-right, pro-EU views, was accused of being part of the same globalist elite that backed Hillary Clinton.

In Austria, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party narrowly leads the Green Party's Alexander van der Bellen in the replay presidential election scheduled for Dec. 4 after the nation's Supreme Court invalidated the October election result, a van der Bellen victory. 

These three results look somewhat less ominous if one remembers that Bulgaria, Moldova and Austria have weak, largely ceremonial presidencies. It's relatively easy for citizens to deliver warnings through presidential votes without fearing far-reaching consequences. In Bulgaria, the prime minister, center-right Boiko Borisov, has vowed to resign after Radev's victory, but it's likely that an establishment party will win an early election since there's no populist political force with enough infrastructure to do it. In Austria, a Hofer win won't affect a ruling centrist coalition that keeps the Freedom Party out of government.

In the Netherlands, which will hold a parliamentary election in March, a Nov. 13 poll showed the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freedom Party led by Putin-fan Geert Wilders at the top of the field with 29 projected seats in parliament, ahead of current Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals (26 seats). Even if Wilders wins that kind of plurality in March, he probably won't govern since it will be hard for him to find coalition partners. 

The same goes for Italy's Five Star Movement, which polls four to five points behind Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party. Even if it beats Renzi in a Dec. 4 political reform referendum and in the next election, it won't necessarily get to run the government (and even if it does, chances are Italians will soon toss it out: They are notoriously impatient with their cabinets).

Spain's experience this year and last shows what happens in a European democracy when a strong populist challenge is mounted. After months of deadlock, political struggles, repeated elections and failed coalition talks, Mariano Rajoy -- an establishment politician if there ever was one -- is prime minister again. His power to push through laws is severely limited by the nature of a minority government, however. That's the European way: It's messy because it's not winner-take-all, but it does ensure representation for almost everyone who is politically engaged.

Even in the few European countries where right-wing populists have prevailed, parliamentary democracy can often hold them in check on the most important issues. In Poland, a proposal for a near-total ban on abortions, backed by many legislators from the ruling PiS party, was voted down last month after mass protests led by the left-wing opposition. More recently, Jobbik, a party to the right of  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz, defeated Orban's effort to exempt his country from the EU's refugee resettlement quotas. 

It might be different in France, one of the few European countries with a presidency strong enough to matter. There, the polls show Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in second place behind center-right Alain Juppe; but his lead is substantial, and it's likely that with France's left also throwing its weight behind Juppe in a possible run-off with Le Pen, he will beat her comfortably. 

It's possible that all the polls are wrong, as they were before the U.S. election, and right-wingers are poised to win not just pluralities but majorities throughout Europe. There is no evidence, however, that this is the case. Just as the Nordic Resistance Movement was outnumbered by its liberal opponents as it marched through Stockholm, anti-immigrant rallies meet with at least equal resistance in Germany and other countries, and far-right parties are comfortably outnumbered in parliaments almost everywhere.

That, of course, doesn't grant establishment parties a license to ignore right-wing agendas. It's likely that immigration rules are going to become stricter in most EU countries and social assistance for immigrants will shrink. As the right-wing forces get more representation, pressure will mount on governments to take a softer stance on Russia, the far-right's new ally which has lent these parties its propaganda machine and, at least in the case of the National Front, money. These changes, however, won't amount to a revolution. They will only signal a certain realignment in recognition of voters' shift to the right.

In the medium term, it should be healthy for the EU if the populists gain more representation and visibility. It will destroy the hubris and overconfidence of European centrists long before they are tossed out of power as unceremoniously as the Democrats have been in the U.S. In turbulent times, a softer, less well-defined, less-governable, less-stable political model has some clear advantages over a more robust and clear-cut one: A feather doesn't land as hard as a cannonball.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.