Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad
The spectre of General Gabriele D’Annunzio, Prince of Montenevoso, Duke of Gallese, father of ‘proto-fascism’, awaits the proscenium of new European theatre where a new strain of rightist politics emerges through a maze of a new variant of populism which is no replica of Benito Mussolini brand of Fascism or that of Nazism of Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich. This rise of right races towards the crest of a turbulent anti-immigrant and populist sentiment, is sweeping aside or weakening mainstream party politics across the continent. A Bloomberg scan of several decades of electoral data across 22 European countries infers that the swing is in favour of populist radical-right parties, never seen in the last three decades or so. These parties have built a vote bank of 16 per cent from 11, while a decade ago it was together 5 per cent in 1997.
The victory of centrist French President Emmanuel Macron and the reelection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is its reflex. The hoary-headed official Marxist (read Leninist following) party leaders smell the return of Fascism, forgetting Karl Marx’s unequivocal conviction that history does not merely repeat itself as a fascimile. It does, Marx banteringly said, in the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
The Bloomberg analysis states realistically, some parties that hog the show are in their appearance “anti-elite, nativist, and having a strong law and order focus, as defined by academics that helped shape this analysis. They manoeuvered from the margins, or even from the centre in some cases, to disrupt the European political landscape”.
That’s precisely the new cultivar of populism.
But nowhere to date is there manifestation of ascendancy of fascistically rightist party or coalition.
Take the case of Austria. Although the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs FPÖ) rose to power through the prevailing constitutional route, it teamed up with the centre-right People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei OeVP) whose nominee Sebastian Kurz (31) is the Chancellor, the youngest head of state the world over, while the Vice-Chancellor (VC) Heinz Christian Strache (48) is from the FPÖ.
When the new coalition came to power in mid-December 2017, a large number of agitators, including women’s groups and left-wing parties, came on the street, bearing placards such as ‘Don’t Let Nazis Govern’. The apprehension was not off-the-reality as the government seeks ban on girls from wearing headscarves in elementary schools and kindergartens. The VC defended it, saying “we don’t want parallel societies”. The target is the Muslim society on the plea of putting the foot down against ‘Radical Islam’.
Gabriele D’Annunzio, who is also called the ‘John the Baptist of Italian Fascism’, was deeply involved in the decadent movement, and his literary work had the impress of French Symbolism and British Aesthetism, as also thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche. He was irritated by Mussolini’s culture of dictatorship which was not even manifest during the Italian Regency of Carnaro, led by D’Annunzio, who was instrumental in the self-proclamation of a state in the city of Flume (now Croatia) between 1919 and 1920.
This anger caused his hyphenation from Mussolini, who suppressed his mentor. The emerging right, that aims at drawing a new map according to its desire, dissociates from Fascism and Nazism.
Take German national elections in 2017. The far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which got 12.6 per cent of votes cashed in on the slogan “Dare it, Germany”. Its founder Dr Alexander Gauland, formerly with the Christian Democratic Union party of Chancellor, raked up aggressive nationalism in a xenophobic tone: “We have the right not only to take back our country, but also our past.” For the xenophobic party, German identity is not characterised by the horrors of Nazi Germany but myths like Nibelungs of Wagner’s operas and the legend of Faust of Goethe. But political theorists brand both FPÖ and AfD as ideologically committed to make history of Nazi era repeat albeit sans ‘terrorist dictatorship’ which was the main operational feature of Fascism and Nazism. If 2017 saw the return of moderate politicians in Europe, look again: the election of centrist French President Emmanuel Macron and the reelection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel connote a rising tide of anti-immigrant and populist sentiment that is sweeping aside or weakening mainstream party politics across the continent. A Bloomberg analysis of decades of election results across 22 European countries reveals that support for populist radical-right parties is higher than it’s been at any time over the past 30 years. These parties won 16 per cent of the overall vote on average in the most recent parliamentary election in each country, up from 11 per cent a decade earlier and 5 per cent in 1997.
Among the Right-wing populist parties to be watched especially in Europe include, apart from FPÖ and AfD, the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) of Belgium, Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) and Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet) of Denmark, Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset, PS), Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei, SvP), Swiss Nationalist Party (Partei National Orientierter Schweizer in German; Parti nationaliste suisse in French PNS).
All these parties are professedly anti-migration and anti-Islam. The strength of Right-wing and national populist parties today is based on their ‘core themes’ of xenophobia and critique of the elites, with a bluntly worded message that insinuates innocents to gravitate to racist thinking often unwittingly: ‘no to this Europe’.
These Right-wing and national populist parties drive a wedge among the rank and file of established parties in Europe and their toughened demands of them influence national and European policy in a host of states. None of the strategies adopted by the mainstream parties in their dealings to date with Right-wing and national populists, namely — strict demarcation, partial approximation, toleration for minority governments and cooperation within coalitions — prove to be a panacea.
Genesis: 21st C
Right-wing populist swing (not yet a wave, though) began taking from the dawn of this millennium. In 2000, the FPÖ registered its prominent presence in the Austrian federal parliament. It was followed by the securing of the second seat in the Federal Council, Switzerland, the largest by SvP in 2003. A distinctive push forward was felt.
Things took a bigger shape in and around 2013. First, FPÖ performed almost decisively in the National Council elections in late September 2013, while Finns Party quadrupled its score to very close to 20 per cent, thriving on the Eurosceptic line. In Norway, at the heart of Europe, the Right-wing populist Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) entered the government in the late summer of 2013. However, Euroscepticism, which is built on xenophobia, is not a new phenomenon that flourishes along striking a scale and success of the opponents of the EU, paving the way for the Right-wing and nationalistic populism.
An extensive study conducted by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, in conjunction with the Centre for European Studies (CES), into Right-wing and national populism in Europe (under Karstem Grabow and Florian Hartleb ), four years ago looked into its genesis. It criticised the decision-making processes of the political elites, that were ‘light years away’ from the lives of ‘ordinary people’.
The bailouts accorded to the beleaguered national economies of southern Europe provided welcome fodder for the arguments of Right-wing populists. As long as this problem persists and as long as the EU is perceived as a ‘spaceship of elites’, afloat either way as a ‘bureaucratic monster’, the emerging brand of populism will forge ahead. Hence, the Right-wing populists have, since the middle of the current decade, a favourable ground and sufficient ammunition for Euroscepticism and even anti-EU propaganda.
But the rise of the Right is no one-way traffic. The retaliation fast moves towards a dialectical exactitude. The massive strike of railway workers in France against the right-of-the centre President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to liberalise the sector and modernise the state-owned railway firm SNCF of rolling strike action of two days, followed by three-day breaks until June 28, has been termed by Le Figaro as a “war of attrition.” It has dealt a severe blow to traffic within France, where only one in eight high-speed trains, and only one in five suburban trains are running.
Macron is thrown into the horns of a dangerous dilemma: facing a crucial political choice, because citizens felt irritated as they can’t travel during the spring break period, and this risks turning into anger at his policies. He has the choice to compromise with the unions even by a climb-down on the essence of the reform. If the two-days-a-week strike goes on, unions might feel emboldened by their success and be tempted to play hardball. Alternatively, if Macron sticks to his guns, it would burnish his image as an adamant reformer, but would risk him to be ridiculed in the not-so-remote future as a tone-deaf president unable to understand the confusion of French voters disoriented by the quantity and rhythm of his reforms.
The Right-wing populism is too xenophobic to look at the growth of ‘modern-day slavery’ in Europe. People working in agriculture, hospitality and fisheries are most at risk of exploitation, according to human rights body. The 7th General Report on GRETA — Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings — of 2017 in a country-by-country reports “shows that in many States Parties, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the predominant form of trafficking as far as identified victims are concerned.
At the same time, trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation has been on the rise and was the predominant form of exploitation in some countries (e.g. Belgium, Cyprus, Georgia, Portugal, Serbia and United Kingdom). While there are considerable variations in the number and proportion of labour trafficking victims amongst the evaluated countries, all countries indicated an upward trend of labour exploitation over the years.” The number of identified victims of labour trafficking has increased in every European country monitored twice by the GRETA, based in Strasbourg. “In some countries — including Belgium, Cyprus, Georgia, Portugal, Serbia and the U.K. — labour exploitation has overtaken sex trafficking as the primary form of human trafficking”, it added. “Our monitoring shows that more and more people are being trafficked to work in awful conditions in Europe, both within and across national borders,” said GRETA president Siobhán Mullally.
But the rightward swing is not confined to Europe. In Latin America, where triumphant pro-socialist governments had once swept the region, a fresh wave of populism is rearing its head. Carlos Menem of Argentina, Fernando Collor in Brazil, and Alberto Fujimori of Peru have taken up the new flag of economic populism. They are untainted by corruption and are proponents of market reform. The killing of Rio city council member and human rights activist Marielle Franco in mid-March this year is an omen for the progressives. She tweeted, “How many more must die for this war to end?” In January alone, police killed 154 people in Rio state. But will Right-wing populism achieve stability? Is it against democratic-minded persons the world over – those who love life, love freedom, and all of those who struggle for human rights? Do the xenophobic political groups have a hidden penchant for fascism of a new variant? The verdict is for history to deliver.