After success in Britain and the U.S., populists are setting their sights on the next five dominoes at risk.
Votes are looming within less than a year in Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, France and then Germany. Exasperation with the political and business establishment over a raft of grievances from inequality to immigration will likely shape all of these votes, with the outcome increasingly hard to predict.
“Now, I think, we are beginning to learn that the polls always under-report the extremist, nationalist candidate,” Bob Janjuah, senior independent client adviser at Nomura, told Bloomberg TV’s Guy Johnson.
The populist surge first broke through the establishment barrier in Britain. Below is a timeline of its past triumphs, and the challenges of the coming 10 months.
The June 23 vote to leave the European Union was the watershed moment, as voters defied the massed ranks of the British establishment and the advice of global institutions from the International Monetary Fund to NATO. The reverberations are still being felt in Britain as uncertainty clouds Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans four months after she came to power.
Fast forward to Donald Trump’s win, and “the revolution continues,” Nigel Farage, acting leader of the U.K. Independence Party and an architect of the Brexit vote, said in a phone interview. “Two massive upsets in 2016. The unholy alliance of big business, big banks and big politics is I believe coming to an end.”
The first test is less than a month off. Italians vote on Dec. 4 in a constitutional referendum that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says will make governments more stable and streamline legislation. Renzi’s promise to resign if he loses has helped turn the plebiscite into a vote on his premiership. Opinion polls, if they are to be believed, predict a narrow defeat for Renzi, which would boost the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. It could also trigger early elections next year — meaning that governments accounting for more than 75 percent of the euro area would be in play in just one year.
Comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, co-founder of Five Star, said that the Trump win was “incredible” in his online blog. “This is the deflagration of an epoch. It’s the apocalypse of this information system, of the TVs, of the big newspapers, of the intellectuals, of the journalists.” Five Star, which already runs cities including Rome and Turin, calls for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro area.
Former premier Enrico Letta told Italian newspaper La Stampa that elected officials need to overhaul their relationship with voters and what he called the Clinton model, in which politicians enjoy “such long careers,” is over for ever. “Traditional parties, as we have conceived them, are finished,” he added.
The same day, Dec. 4, Austrians return to the polls to elect a new president after an earlier attempt was annulled. While in Austria as in neighboring Germany the real power is held by the chancellor, the contest for the mostly ceremonial post of president will be closely watched since it could bring to power the first far-right leader of a western European country since World War II. In May, Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen eked out a victory over the anti-immigration Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer of about 30,000 votes from the more than 4.5 million cast. Polls suggest the outcome this time around is still too close to call.
For Chancellor Christian Kern, the U.S. vote holds lessons for Europe. “I’m convinced that electoral battles will become fierce battles for the middle classes, and that’s a fight we’ll take on,” he told journalists in Vienna.
The Dutch kick off Europe’s unprecedented 2017 voting season with parliamentary elections on March 15. The Netherlands is something of a laboratory for European politics, with unstable, multi-party coalitions the norm and some 13 parties poised to enter parliament next year. Geert Wilders, who leads the anti-Islam Freedom Party — allied with but no relation to the Austrian party of the same name — is running neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals (VVD) in some polls. “The people are taking their country back,” tweeted Wilders, who wants to emulate Britain with a “Nexit” vote on European Union membership. “So will we.”
And yet the Netherlands, with more than a decade of experience of populists stretching back to Pim Fortuyn, may use the time to help thwart a Wilders surge. Rutte has ruled out a coalition with the Freedom Party, and it’s hard to see how Wilders could cobble together a working majority if he won the election. “On the one hand, the victory of Trump makes populist politics more accepted,” said Kees Aarts, professor of political science at Groningen University. “But on the other, all parties and politicians that might have still been a little asleep regarding the March elections, are now wide awake.’’
French voters have twice backed the National Front to the runoff stage of elections, under two separate generations of Le Pens, only to back away from the anti-immigration party at the last moment. Brexit and Trump’s victory show nothing can be taken for granted in the presidential election second round on May 7.
With Hollande the most unpopular president in French history and his deeply disliked predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy vying to ride the Republican nomination to a comeback, Marine Le Pen may have an opening. The only head of a major French political party to have backed Trump, she congratulated him in a post on Twitter referring to “the American people, free!” Le Pen later said she trusted the French, “who cherish their liberty,” would break with the system which was “shackling them.”
“Up to now everybody in France has said, just as all kind of informed opinion so-called in America has said, ‘Oh well, Trump cannot win, Marine le Pen cannot win,”’ Howard Davies, Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, told Bloomberg TV’s Tom Keene. “Well, I think there’ll be a lot of people asking themselves if that really is quite so certain, and so I think the French will be very nervous.”
Germany, with its constitutional checks and balances intended to prevent dictatorial bents, is also the European country most resistant to populism. Federal elections in the fall of 2017 will show if that postwar assumption still holds.
Frauke Petry, co-leader of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, sees Trump’s victory as a lesson for Germany. “Just as Americans didn’t believe the pollsters of the mainstream media, Germans also must have the courage to make their mark at the ballot box themselves,” Petry said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has yet to reveal whether she will run again, has already suffered a series of regional election defeats on the back of an open-door refugee policy denounced by AfD and described as “insane” by Trump. The Republican’s surprise victory might just tip her in favor of seeking a fourth term.