Whence Popularity? The New Wave of European Populist Parties

Protesters gather in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square as part of the 15-M anti-austerity movement. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A populist wave has crashed down upon the streets of Europe. Populist parties, old and new, left and right, have been dominating headlines in Europe over the past few years. Such parties are often led by charismatic leaders, and they claim to represent the will of the people against the elite or status quo. “The people” they appeal to are often those who feel alienated by European integration -- those who feel threatened by economic reform or lenient immigration policies.

In Spain, thousands marched in Madrid as part of the 15-M anti-austerity movement, which spawned the leftist party Podemos. To the east, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, has governed Greece on an anti-austerity mandate since January 2015. In Italy, a comedian’s experiment became the Five Star Movement, a party founded on e-democracy and Euroskepticism that garnered about a quarter of the national vote in the 2013 national and 2014 European elections. And in France, Marine Le Pen charges toward the Élysée Palace as she and her nationalist party, the Front National, have surged in popularity ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

These parties have inspired a gamut of emotions in Europe, from existential fear for the European Project to hope for relief from “failed” economic policies. In unprecedented fashion, these parties are winning voter support and seats in national legislatures and the European Parliament. This has left scholars, journalists and citizens alike asking: what ripples stirred this wave and what does it mean for European democracy?

All of these parties share a few common themes, chiefly nationalism. Although nationalist rhetoric ranges from Le Pen’s sharp critique of French immigration policy to SYRIZA’s fight against Europe’s financial regulators, populist parties all garner popularity through calls for more state sovereignty within an increasingly integrated European Union (EU). This principle informs their opinions of today’s EU. Podemos and SYRIZA reject foreign nations and bodies that are “dictating” their economic policies. Likewise, supporters of the Front National and other right-wing parties fear the rising numbers of unassimilated immigrants, which they blame on EU migration policies.

While some scholars blame distaste for establishment parties’ efficacy or a lack of trust in today’s politicians, political science professor Liubomir Topaloff argues globalization’s inherent economic costs remain at the heart of this discontent.

Regardless of what fuels these parties’ rise, we must remember that no one ideology or party can represent the will of the people. Citizens are free to join their party of choice, and these new populist parties simply offer another choice. This new wave could signal a sea change in European democracy, or it could simply express disillusionment with the political status quo. But at the moment, we cannot presume to know whether these parties and the movements behind them will alter the state of European democracy.

However, we can recognize their effects on mainstream parties. Although SYRIZA has struggled to govern based on its principles and Podemos has dropped in the polls, the populist sentiment remains, and mainstream parties are listening. As Topaloff writes, marginal parties “could actually be good for European integration, assuming that the elite can adapt” to the spawn of populist sentiment. Populist parties might not upend Europe’s democracies, but they have sent a message to establishment parties: “the people” are dissatisfied with the current state of Europe’s institutions, and these institutions require an update.