Populism or Liberalism? Which way will Europe turn?

With a demagogue in power in the White House, and populist policies dominating the agenda in UK politics, what will be the likely impact of these winds of change from the West for Europe’s elections this year? The next 4 key votes in Europe will be the Dutch General Election to be held in one month’s time on 15 March, the Presidential election in France (Second Round scheduled for 7 May), the federal election in Germany (24 September) and the parliamentary elections in Italy (at the latest by May 2018).

In the Netherlands, the polls are currently led by Geert Wilders’ far right populist and nationalist “Freedom Party” (PVV) with 32% He is on course to win the most seats at the general election. His extreme policies mean that it is highly unlikely that any mainstream political parties in the Netherlands would agree to form an alliance with his party. But such a result would be a severe blow against Europe’s liberal policies in an important founding member state of the EU.

Geert Wilders

In France the populist far right Front National led by Marine Le Pen is ahead with 26% in the latest opinion polls for the first round of voting due to be held on 23 April. The battle for second place is crucial in this election, as the contest will go to a second round run-off on 7 May, and historically the French electorate has always voted in this contest for the candidate they dislike the least. Le Pen has very high disapproval ratings in France (over 70%) making her real chances for election as President rather slim.

Currently in second place in the opinion polls is Emmanuel Macron campaigning under the banner of “En Marche!” with 20.5%, and in third place Francois Fillon of the Republican party UMP with 17.5%. Fillon has suffered a recent sharp fall in the polls due to irregularities concerning a public salary he paid to his wife to work as his parliamentary assistant. French voters perceptions are strongly influenced by financial scandal, and it is not clear whether this damage to his reputation will be terminal to his election campaign. So in France the pendulum is for the time being swinging in favour of “Liberalism”, and the front-runner in the French Presidential elections at present is Macron. His Socialist rival Benoit Hamon is widely seen as staking his claim for a longer term future in his Group, and is not realistically expected to do well.

But there are 70 days to go before the poll, and the situation is dynamic. There is evidence of third countries such as Russia seeking to influence the outcome through propaganda and political financing. Both Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon have made open public statements calling for the removal of EU sanctions against Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea. Le Pen has openly admitted that the Front National has received soft loans from Russian banks to assist the party’s funding, and has visited Crimea and Moscow. Fillon has been less forthcoming about his sources of financing, but has been just as vocal in his pro-Russian statements; have his public positions been influenced by third party lobbying?

Last week the Moscow Times reported on Russian attempts to discredit Macron through a social media campaign in an attempt to block him from making it through to the second round of the elections. An ideal ticket for the Kremlin would be a run-off Presidential vote between Fillon and Le Pen. The Elysée Palace is taking the threat of Russian interference in the French Presidential elections seriously, following the release of intelligence about cyber attacks in the run-up to last year’s US elections.

In neighbouring Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term in office as the CDU candidate for the September federal elections. She is widely seen as the strongest European leader to stand up for Western European values in the wake of populist votes in the USA for President Donald Trump, and Brexit in the United Kingdom. But she is currently losing ground, as she faces strong domestic criticism for her liberal policies on immigration, both from the extreme right populist party AfD (Alternativ fur Deutschland) with 10% in the opinion polls, and internally from the right wing of her own alliance of the CDU and the CSU in Bavaria.

Bavaria in particular has been alarmed by the rise in popularity of the AfD in Germany, and wish to see both the CSU and the CDU adopt a stronger centre right line on immigration in order to counter this. The federal election is still basically a two horse race between the CDU and the Socialist Party, but the populist AfD will definitely influence the result, and the collateral damage they are inflicting is helping the Socialist Party to gain in the polls. Unless the CDU can unite their party, the chances of the Socialist candidate Martin Schulz to become Germany’s next Chancellor are likely to continue to increase.

The Italian Parliamentary elections are not due until May 2018, but the populist political movement “Five Star” led by the maverick Beppo Grillo is leading the current opinion polls with 29% in Italy of the vote, ahead of the current ruling Democratic Party.

All of these shifts mean that in 2017 voters in Europe’s heartland face difficult choices that will determine the future political landscape of the continent. Key considerations for any voter must be that personal freedoms, liberal democratic values and human rights are respected by their governments. These are treasures that we cannot take for granted and which the electorate must defend against populist campaigns that are short on facts and long on bigotry. I am personally dismayed by the result of the populist Brexit vote in the UK last June, but perhaps one good thing that has come of it is to rekindle political debate in Europe about the continent’s future, and to show all European voters exactly why they must reject populism and nationalism.