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The Global Wave of Populist Nationalism Is Not Waning
Whether mainstream parties in Europe and Asia can stem the tide remains to be seen
The rise of the right is not just an American but a global phenomenon and one that my original newsletter, Eyes on the Right, now part of Notes from the Middleground, was launched to expressly track. Although most of my posts would focus on the United States, I’ve aspired to place American events in a wider frame, precisely because of the many striking continuities taking place across the world. Broader patterns unfolding in a multitude of places point toward deeper causes than most analysts tend to discern when focusing exclusively on the U.S. and its distinctive institutions and history.
This post is intended as a spot check on how the populist/nationalist right is doing around the world in the summer of 2023. As I’ll show, mostly using polling results aggregated by Politico.eu, it’s doing remarkably well, at least in many places. After running through the latest in numerous countries, I’ll conclude with a tentative observation about where we are and where we may be going.
The populist right’s biggest setback since Donald Trump’s defeat in late 2020 was Jair Bolsonaro’s narrow loss in Brazil last October to left-wing challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. That Bolsonaro’s supporters undertook a revolutionary insurrection against Lula’s new government six weeks later, eventually leading Bolsonaro to be banned for eight years from running for office, only makes the loss more sweeping.
Where Populism Is Rising
But Brazil is an outlier globally. Over the past year or so, the populist-nationalist right has prevailed in nationwide (free but sometimes questionably fair) elections in Turkey, Hungary, and Israel. Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP Party in India, meanwhile, hasn’t faced nationwide elections since 2019, but polls show Modi and his party maintaining broad-based popularity, despite some recent scandals and minor electoral setbacks.
But it’s in Europe where prospects for the populist-nationalist right seem brightest at the moment.
In addition to Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, right-populist parties currently lead governments in Italy and Poland. But the right’s prospects are gaining in several other countries as well.
In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD) has more than doubled its support (from 10 to 22% in one recent poll) over the past year. The AfD is now the second most popular party in the country (in addition to being highly competitive at the regional and local levels in the states of the former East Germany), coming in just 4 points behind the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and 4 points ahead of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the party that currently leads the government. This isn’t significant just because the AfD is now within striking distance of taking the lead in nationwide election polling. Even if that doesn’t happen, the country’s other parties have vowed not to form a governing coalition with the AfD—something that will become increasingly difficult to uphold if it maintains its current polling strength, let alone if it continues to grow in popularity.
In France, the far-right National Rally (NR) is essentially tied with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s alliance of left-wing parties at 24 and 25% polling support, respectively. But with the center-right Republicans polling at 11% and Eric Zemmour’s far-right Reconquest pulling 5%, the right has the definite advantage at the moment, with the centrist party of French President Emmanuel Macron languishing at just 22%. I wouldn’t be surprised if the right’s prospects brighten even further once we get a poll taken since a wave of summertime rioting in immigrant communities in the Paris suburbs and in some other French cities, though a lot can change between now and the next round of national elections in France four years in the future.
Spain, by contrast, has elections in a few days (on July 23), and there the right-wing party Vox is doing well enough (currently at 14 percent) that it could end up being key to the formation of a government by the conservative People’s Party, which is in a comfortable position at the moment to win a plurality.
Something more dramatic is happening in The Netherlands, where the government just collapsed over a dispute among the four ruling parties about how to rein in migration, with nationwide elections likely to be held sometime this fall. The Netherlands has an incredibly splintered system. (No fewer than 17 parties won legislative seats in the country’s last election in 2021.) Given that fact, it’s remarkable how much the Farmer Citizen Movement has surged in recent months. The right-wing populist-agrarian party won its first regional election in March and has surged into the lead nationally, from support in the high single digits last winter to a peak in the low 20s this past spring. That has now softened a bit to 18 percent. But that would still easily be enough for it to win a plurality if elections were held today.
Elsewhere in the Low Countries, the right-wing Vlaams Belang party is (barely) leading polls in Belgium at 22%, just a hair higher than three other parties.
In Austria the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party (FPO) is polling in first place, at 28%.
In Portugal, Chega, a right-wing party, sits at 11%, down slightly from a few months ago but still high enough to play an important role down the road—though elections are more than three years away.
In Romania, the ultranationalist party Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) has recently moved into second place with 20% support.
And in neighboring Bulgaria, the ultranationalist party Revival sits at 15%, slightly higher than its showing in snap elections this past April.
That’s an awful lot of encouraging news for the populist-nationalist right—though its prospects haven’t been brightening everywhere. In the United Kingdom, the Conservatives may have helped to inaugurate the populist-nationalist moment by scheduling and then following through on the Brexit referendum, but the party has been deeply conflicted about whether and how to embrace a broader populist agenda. The result is a party currently polling far behind the opposition Labor Party, with more aggressively populist parties drawing just 6% support.
Elsewhere in the British Isles, Ireland leans firmly center left, with its more conservative parties largely abjuring the kind of rhetoric and policy demands typical of populist-nationalist parties in other countries.
Finally, Sweden presents a mixed picture. The center-left Swedish Social Democratic Party holds a strong polling lead, at 36% support, but the government currently leans center-right, led by the Moderate Party (at 21%), with key support from the right-populist Sweden Democrats, which enjoys 18% support in the country, along with coalition partners, the Christian Democrats (4%) and Liberals (3%).
“Eyes on the Right” offers an evolving, comprehensive answer to the question of what we should make of these trends. As with any broad-based development, there are many variables and causes involved. Today I just want to emphasize one of them:
The better part of a decade into the right-populist era, I think it’s fair to say that what we’re seeing is a new normal. Throughout most of the postwar decades, and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, parties of the center-left and center-right traded and often shared in ruling, with the differences between them being relatively minor and the overlap considerable. One name for that overlap is technocratic liberalism—a set of bedrock assumptions about immigration, trade, crime, individual rights, and the importance of policy expertise and pragmatism in governance.
Over the past decade or so, this consensus has crumbled, with parties of the right breaking from it more fully and with greater electoral potency than the left. We’ve seen this happen in enough places through enough election cycles in order to conclude that it isn’t a fleeting protest vote. It’s a realignment bringing about potentially long-lasting changes to our political cultures and expectations.
Whether this is something opponents of right-wing populism in various countries can live with—and share rule with—will depend on a mixture several factors: How popular are the populists? Are they one, relatively small, party among many that can reach power only by negotiating the formation of multiparty governments with electoral rivals? Or have they taken over and transformed one of a small number of major parties that they can use as a vehicle for reaching power without a need to negotiate compromises? Can they win pluralities or even majorities all on their own? Or does the electoral system, like the one in the United States, permit them to attain power while failing to win even a plurality of the vote? And what will the populists do to avoid losing elections? Or to keep themselves in power after they’ve lost one? And what will the opposition do in response?
The answer to these and related questions can help us to assess the danger rightwing populism poses to liberal democracy in different places with different institutional arrangements. That work of assessment is bound to continue over the coming months and years.
This is an updated version of a piece originally published in Notes from The Middleground, the author’s newsletter. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in tracking the rise of the new right or understanding the current political scene.