The Populist Epidemic and 2017 Elections

By Isabelle Sagraves

In the past few years, political populism has been on the rise. Yet this is a difficult trend to quantify, since the term “populism” can represent a myriad of different policies and agendas.  The term itself dates to the 1890s, when the American Populist party championed the interests of the rural masses against the urban Republican Party. Since then, it has been applied to almost any political movement that is “popular” and therefore motivates the masses, yet the term is infinitely more complex than this. Cas Mudde defines populism as a “’thin ideology’, one that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite.” This term can then intersect with other, perhaps clearer ideologies, such as capitalism, socialism, nationalism etc. Considering populism in this light, it is evident that this “us-versus-them” narrative has exploded across the political scene in recent years, from Trump’s election in the United States to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the E.U. (referred to as “Brexit” in this article). 2017 is an extremely important year in European politics due to the high number of elections occurring, and so this paper attempts to understand and evaluate the increase in nationalist populism and how it might affect the European political arena during and after these elections.

Why is populism so popular?

Several current issues have served to sharply divide politics in Europe, most notably the waves of immigration coming into the continent. This is coupled with underlying economic problems kick-started by the 2008 recession: in 2010, the IMF documented that workers were paid less for more work, as wage increases (1.2%) failed to stay on par with rising prices (6.5%). This economic stress has contributed to a diminished European quality of life, with 37.5% of Europeans reporting “low satisfaction with their material living conditions.” These economic conditions, that have clearly existed since the early 2010s, have since been compounded by the influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East as a result of the various political crises and violence that have taken place there. As European nationals have experienced this economic downturn, they have also seen a huge increase in immigration, which provides them with an easy scapegoat. While the immigration and border control problems are very real and very complex, the anti-immigration sentiment has contributed to the rise of a nationalist populism as defined by Mudde: the “rightful” European natives have been stripped of their success by the immigrants arriving in their nations. From Farage in the U.K. to Wilders in the Netherlands to Le Pen in France, populist leaders have cultivated this “thin ideology” on the basis of anti-immigration and anti-European Union policies, both of which stem from dissatisfaction with the current quality of life and the nationalist resentment that accompanies it.

The Manifesto

In Time Magazine’s article entitled “Europe’s Populist Revolt”, Simon Shuster writes: “For more than a generation, the Western elites settled into a consensus on most major issues – from the benefits of free trade and immigration to the need for marriage equality. Their uniformity on these basic questions consigned dissenters to the political fringe – further aggravating the sense of grievance that now threatens the mainstream.” These dissenters have traction now, and have bounced back from the fringe in full force, riding the wave of nationalist populism as well as an anti-establishment sentiment that accompanies it. But what do most of these movements have in common in terms of policy? Most support removal from the European Union – which makes sense, since most are against the lax immigration laws under the Schengen Treaty. Strict immigration laws are present in almost every platform. Most are decidedly anti-Muslim and support deportation policies, spurred on by a majority of Muslim immigrants from Syria and the Middle East as well as ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Normandy and Brussels.  Most candidates, such as Nigel Farage of U.K.I.P, also tend to be far right economically, and support low taxes and a cutback in government spending. Along with these policies, the populist candidates utilize nationalist rhetoric to garner support for their campaigns: Marine Le Pen of France has promised to return France to greatness, claiming she will make it “nothing like you have seen in the last 30 years.” This nostalgic nationalism has struck a chord with populations that also feel threatened by the ethnic diversity that accompanies immigration.

First Steps: “Brexit”

The first victory for nationalist populism in Europe came with Britain’s 2016 decision to “Leave” the European Union, a policy rejected by its Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron. In a move that was decidedly anti-establishment, the nation rejected the E.U. and all of its benefits, citing immigration and economic imbalances as the key reasons to leave. Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party spearheaded the Leave campaign: Farage has been campaigning for seventeen years for the United Kingdom to leave the E.U., and is now convinced that “the European project is finished.”

The United Kingdom, however, has always enjoyed a ‘special relationship’ with the European Union, as it has not adopted the Euro and is separated from the continent by the Channel. Interestingly, British nationalist nostalgia often points to World War Two, in “its Darkest Hour, standing alone as the British Empire against Nazi Germany in 1940-41,” which “informs a modern view of the U.K. as it’s own best friend.” Since British nationalism so clearly leans towards isolationism, the rise of nationalist populism as a way to “Leave” the European Union was clearly successful. Yet Farage does not hold executive office in the United Kingdom, and the more moderate Conservative Theresa May (who supported “Remain”) is expected to steer the nation away from xenophobic rhetoric during her term as Prime Minister.

“Failure” of Populism in the Netherlands

In March 2017, Europe saw another test of the populist movement, as demonstrated by Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. Wilders gained fame for “Fitna”, a film that placed footage of terrorist attacks alongside verses of the Quran – a provocative move that gained him fame in 2008. His campaign rested on many of the characteristic policies of the nationalist populist parties, such as “de-Islamization”, which includes “no Islamic headscarves”, “preventive detention of radical Muslims”, and a mandate to “close all mosques and Islamic schools and ban the Koran.” He also advocated for lower income taxes and for the Netherlands to leave the European Union.

On March 14th, incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party, the VVD, gained the majority of seats at 33 of the 150 seats, while Wilders won 20 seats. With the necessity for a coalition in the proportional parliamentary system, Wilders’ policies are not going to be enacted; yet the PVV did gain five seats and Wilders has pledged that the Dutch Prime Minister has not seen the last of him.

Many have heralded Wilders’ loss as an optimistic defeat for the populist movements. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany commented, “I was very glad, and I think many people are, that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result,” while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker claimed that the Dutch people voted for “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe.” However, Mabel Berezin, a professor at Cornell University, diminished this victory: “Wilders does not represent a populist wave… how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism. The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen’s quest for the French presidency, starting April 23.” While Wilders’ defeat halts the pattern of populist victories in Britain and the United States, it does not ensure the subsequent defeat of other parties in the upcoming elections.

What’s Next: France and Germany

Marine Le Pen, 2017 candidate for the populist National Front in France, has stated: “I think the British, with the Brexit, then the Americans, with the election of Donald Trump, did that,” she tells TIME. “They made possible the impossible.” After Wilders’ defeat, one is left asking whether the rest of Europe will follow the Dutch or the British. Since each populist movement is decidedly nationalistic, this very much may depend on the country and the fervor of its individual nationalist tendencies.

Marine Le Pen is France’s populist candidate, and as of March 1st, was winning by several percentage points in opinion polls. She is challenged by center-right candidate Francois Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron; incumbent Francois Hollande has declined to run for another term. Le Pen’s platform includes a dramatic slash in legal immigration quotas from 200,000 to 10,000, as well as independence from the European Union (including the Schengen Treaty), mass-rearmament in military and police forces, and a ban on fundamentalist Islamic groups. France is an important player in the European Union as one of the more economically prosperous regions; however, it has also been the site of several serious terrorist attacks credited to ISIS, which has motivated much anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment. For France, then, Le Pen may have a serious chance at victory.

Germany, the other major upcoming election in 2017, has a much less strong populist movement, but recent developments in Europe could signal policy changes within the major centrist parties that are more in line with other nations’ nationalist views. Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel will re-run with the Christian Democratic Party, and is expected to maintain the majority in September, although she is predicted to revise her ‘open door’ immigration policy soon. 42% of Germans want a referendum on E.U. membership. Germany’s far right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party has struggled to maintain early support after their leader, Björn Höcke, implied that the Berlin Holocaust memorial was a “monument of shame.” This perhaps highlights the nuanced differences between nationalism in other nations such as France and Germany: for Germany, a nostalgic view of right wing nationalist pride cannot help but to evoke the painful history of Nazism – a past that Germany does not want to repeat. Although many in Germany may pressure Merkel and the other center and left-of-center candidates to crack down on immigration issues, it seems unlikely that a nationalist populist party will spring forward in the upcoming Germany election.

Regarding the 2015 referendum for Scottish independence, David Cameron remarked: “We’ve heard the noise of the nationalist few, but now it is time for the voices of the silent majority to be heard.” This “silent majority” of moderates may or may not exist – and it may exist in different numbers depending on the country – but they are the focus of speculation in the lead-up to this year’s elections, particularly in France and Germany. The populist movements are the media’s top stories, perhaps hiding a group of moderate voters who will make their voices heard come Election Day.


In conclusion, the rise of populist parties in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands and many more nations (such as Italy and Hungary, which are outside the scope of this paper), have threatened to drastically alter the European political landscape as they campaign on nationalistic and anti-immigration platforms. The European Union itself may be called into question as one or more of these nations vote to leave, thus making the Union less and less effective: it is a system that relies on unified cooperation in order to thrive. Additionally, the early policies of Trump administration, and the international evaluation of its success in the coming months, may also affect the outcomes of these various elections. Although the populist movements have very similar policies, their nationalist element – which, by definition is unique to each nation – makes the future of each European election difficult to predict and almost impossible to compare. We must wait to see whether Cameron’s “silent moderate majority” will make its voice heard – if it is even a majority at all.


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