Right-wing Populism on the Upgrade in Europe

From the European Union’s reformer President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frederic Macron to the EU troublemaker Prime Minister Viktor Orban, both European Union’s most vociferous defenders and skeptics confront tough electoral challenges at home in 2022

By Sankar Ray

“MARKETS hate elections. In an election campaign, politicians can and do make ‘crazy’ promises and undertakings… The risk is enough to make share investors wary,” quipped Australian financial services executive Paul Rickard, in a note to investors. A Brussels-based non-resident Bangladeshi and a corporate investment analyst asked me to read the note to drive his perception home that business lobby and politicians are getting mutually distanced when western and southern Europe is in pyrexia of unforeseeable nature, at least in several western, eastern and southern states.

From the European Union’s reformer President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron to the EU troublemaker Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, both European Union’s most vociferous defenders and skeptics confront tough electoral challenges at home in 2022. Whether the outcome will be a mini-political tsunami across the continent is a political-ideological lemma.

RISE OF SOCIALISM

Broadly Left and anti-neoliberalist masses are upbeat as Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa pulled off a stunning victory winning a third consecutive term. His party Partido Socialista secured an absolute majority, bagging at least 117 seats in the 230-seat Assembleia da República, Exceeding the projected 37 per cent-plus share of votes, it got 41.7 votes in contrast to 28 p.c (projected 30 p.c) share of centre-right Partido Social Democrata, led by his main rival Rui Rio.

The Partido Comunista Português, the offi cial Marxist party (read Leninist) had to pay dearly for voting against the Socialist government on the budget bill, causing the fall of the government. PCP’s share almost halved to 4.4 p.c.. Costa rightly said to cheering supporters. “The Portuguese have confirmed that they want a Socialist Party government for the next four years … they want stability, certainty and security.” But the worrisome news is the increase of far right Chega which shall have 12 lawmakers, up from just one. Significantly Costa warned his supporters against any feel of conceit. “An absolute majority is not absolute power, it’s not about governing alone.”

POLITICS OF COALITION

In Italy’s presidential election, most of the lawmakers and regional electors cast blank ballots (672 ballots) in the first round of voting. Th e winner is required to get a two-thirds majority during the first three rounds. Th e political stalemate deepened as the outgoing President Sergio Mattarella repeatedly said he did not want to run again.

Parties are scrambling to agree on candidates with neither of the main two blocs having enough votes for a simple majority. Uncertainty about the election of 13th Italian President persists. With the Prime Minister Mario Draghi being the most likely contender, pins and needles dog the political scenario in Rome as his promotion to the top slot might endanger the fate of the coalition he leads and trigger early national elections.

Populist politics in Europe has struck deep roots in Czechia (Czech Republic), Hungary and Poland in recent years, and synergistically right-wing populist movements have gained momentum in France, Spain and the United Kingdom

While Germany under Chancellor Olaf Scholz-led three party coalition comprising centre-left party of social democrats, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Die Grünen(Greens) and libertarian free democratic Freie Demokratische Partei heads towards a Left, the rest of Europe is no leftward, excepting Spain and of course Portugal.

RIGHTIST VERSUS CENTRIST

Political analysts and investors eagerly await the fate of Macron although he is yet to officially announce that he will be fighting once again to reign in from Elysée Palace for another five years. In France the election is due in April. The parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in June. The parliamentary vote will be crucial for him, if reelected, for bringing in reforms he is committed to. He is on tenterhooks after defeats suffered by his centrist La République En Marche party in local elections, although he proved his mettle in pandemic handling. The economy is also relatively stable, particularly in streamlining hefty pension plans and loosening labour regulations. Amsterdam based ING group, a leading bank, in a study, confirms “The French population is unlikely to embrace painful reform after years of tough COVID-19 measures impacting daily life.”

La République En Marche contender confronts more than ten rivals, mentionable of which are far-right Rassemblement national (National Front)-backed Marine Le Pen, TV pundit-turned politician Eric Zemmour, Reconquete! (Reconquer!) party, conservative Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse, moderately right Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region in northern France, and of course, Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist, and leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), a left-wing movement.

Mélenchon got seven million votes in the presidential poll 2017. This time his slogan is ‘citizen’s revolution’. In an interview to Ballast magazine he elaborated his point. “Today, we are facing a great social homogenisation. Liberals think that we are all connected and enveloped by the market. In fact, we are all dependent on collective networks and this dependence institutes a new social actor. This is the central thesis of what I call the “age of the people”. The revolutionary actor of our time is the people”, he said, adding ‘Make the path you go’. Chances of his victory are thin, but he may get more votes. Giovanni Capoccia, professor of Comparative Politics, University of Oxford tweeted. Macron doubles down on advancing EU integration to counter a predominantly Eurosceptic right. Unlike after 2017, if he’s elected next year his plans will stand a better chance, given that the new German govt is much more pro-integration than Merkel’s (translated from French).

RIGHT-WING POPULISM

Europe’s future is also at stake in April elections in Hungary, where conservative southern small-town Hódmezővásárhely mayor (and former resident of Toronto and New Castle, Indiana) Peter Marki-Zay, as the common opposition candidate is pitted against the far-right nationalist premier Viktor Orbán. Whether the knife-edge campaign will end the 11-year anti-EU regime, is eagerly awaited. Hungary under the right-wing populist Orbán is the most Europe-hostile state. He has an edge, according to pre-poll forecasts but he confronts a very tough electoral battle The opposition leaves no nerve unstrained to oust Orbán and his national-conservative Fidesz party from Karmelita kolostor (Carmelite Monastery of Buda), the seat of power in Hungary.

The forty-nine-year-old challenger holds0020a chance due to both his biography and the nature of his ascent. The alliance is dominated by the centre-left parties although it includes the right-wing Jobbik party. All this has catapulted Márki-Zay to an unlikely high hope for Eurocrats who have been sick and tired of watching Orbán stomp all over their agenda. In case Orbán is dislodged, a new pro-EU politics will gain ground causing a sense of uneasiness to the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Orbán’s friends. With a PhD in economics, Márki-Zay in power means creating a likelihood of aligning more closely with the EU, the US and NATO. Euroskeptics in that case will have to beat a retreat.
Slovenian parliamentary elections are due on 24 April 24, followed by the presidential in October. There too Ivan Janša, baptised as Janez Janša, a close Orbán ally, faces an electoral challenge in the spring before the country. The current President Borut Pahor is not eligible for re-election due to term limits. For Janša this is to be his fourth term in office, he took over the government in early March 2020, amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

He managed to cobble together a combine of four parties after the collapse of the previous centre-left government. A communist in his youth Janša’s political opportunism was adrift rightward from a liberal to prodemocracy dissident when the Hungarian communist party (Magyar Kommunista Párt,) to a social democrat and finally a rightwinger. However, his own coalition started crumbling following the exit of Demokratična Stranka Upokojencev Slovenije (Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia) last December.

The socialists’ party – Parti socialiste, which had its nominee elected as French President five times during the last four decades, beginning with François Marie Adrien Mitterrand, elected in 1981, has now 30 MPs.

Political analysts eye the Serbian elections due in April this year. The Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has been the most prominent political figure in Serbia over the past decade. Serbia, an outlier in the Western Balkans under Vučić authoritarian course draws flak both inside and outside the country, especially academics, rights activists, diplomats and opposition politicians. His government has been siding with Moscow and Beijing allowing genocide denialists to celebrate war criminals. Thousands of Serbian citizens took to the streets during the last two months of 2021, blocked thoroughfares in protest against proposed legislation that would cause expropriate favouring a large-scale lithium mine planned in Western Serbia by the multinational company Rio Tinto. Lack of transparency around the mine project, serious environmental damage and large-scale corruption are protesters’ concerns. Vucic’s authoritarian rule increasingly isolated Serbia from the West and the EU. Serbians are anathematic towards China which has taken over old industrial sites in and around Belgrade that is vital to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Serbian citizens are threatened by unchecked ecocide, but a regional poll commissioned by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group shows that 80.4 p.c. of the region’s citizens want Serbia to join the EU.

In Sweden, it’s Magdalena Anderson who recently did swear in as the first female Prime minister and her party Series Socialdemokratiska Arbetarepartiv (Social Democratic Party) of Sweden in the richest Scandinavian country will have to take on Ulf Hjalmar Kristersson-led centreright Moderata samlingspartiet (Moderate Party) and rightwing populist Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democratic party), led by Jimmie Åkesson in the national elections to Swedish parliament Riksdag, due in September. Andersson faces a tough challenge from the right albeit intra-right battle for assertive identity.

Right-wing populism is ascending in Europe. The victory of Maltese centre right MEP Roberta Metsola to the post of President of the European Parliament as the candidate of the European People’s Party that controls two of the largest EU institutions connotes an emblematic assertion of anti-Left assertion Forty three-year-old Metsola us the youngest ever head of the 705-seat assembly.

DECLINE OF COMMUNISM

The traditional and official Marxist parties in Europe gradually reach a semi-comatose state. In Italy, the once powerful and dominant Partito Comunista Italiano, the party of Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, was officially liquidated and converted into Partito Democratico Della Sinistra (Democratic Party of Left) in 1991 after the dissolution of Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Soviet Union. It has 15 MPs in the 535- elected member Camera dei deputati (chamber of deputies). Parti communiste français (Communist Party of France) with 10 MPs in 577 elected members Assemblée nationale (national assembly) is an identity crisis. The socialists’ party- Parti socialiste, which had its nominee elected as French President five times during the last four decades, beginning with François Marie Adrien Maurice Mitterrand, elected in 1981, has now 30 MPs.

Populist politics has struck deep roots in Czechia (Czech Republic), Hungary and Poland in recent years, and synergistically right-wing populist movements have gained momentum in France, Spain and the United Kingdom. While in Hungary and Poland there is in the rule of law, along with an increase in the persecution of minorities, a spurt in authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. “The threat is deadly,” says the principal investigator of a survey, undertaken jointly by Rutgers University in the United States and University College London. But the Hungarian despot Viktor Orbán still cries aloud, “There is no such thing as illiberal democracy.”

Leninism is unlikely to stage a comeback as it is in essence vulgarization of Marx and his theories whose genuine experimentation remains at bay. His theoretical formulations remain relevant, asserted Paresh Chattopadhyay, author of Communism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the six-volume Oxford Handbook on the History of Communism, a year before the onset of the financial tsunami in 2008. The rising sales graph of Das Kapital proved nonagenarian Chattopadhyay right. In contrast, Lenin’s books are left dusty at bookstands, let alone those by Stalin and even Mao.!

Sankar Ray

Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazine, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad.

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