Winners and losers as Europe’s populist tide ebbs and flows

Leading figures in ‘The Movement’, an alliance of European populists – (left to right) former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini; and Brussels-based Jewish lawyer Mischael Modrikamen

While Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party celebrated big victories in this week’s European elections, the much-advertised populist breakthrough proved to be at best a patchy affair.

Predictably the big populist winners included Italy‘s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, whose anti-immigration Lega party topped the polls with 34.3% and 29 seats – a huge increase on their 6.2% and five seats in 2014, when the party was known as Lega Nord (Northern League).

Also continuing to advance were the nationalist-conservative governing parties in Poland and Hungary.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party are suspended from the European conservative group EPP, but Orban had the last laugh this week. While most European conservative parties are in crisis, Fidesz increased their support to 52.3%, up from 51.5% in 2014.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was among the big winners at this year’s Euro-elections

A very radical nationalist party polled exceptionally well in Slovakia. Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia – a party that stands staunchly in the tradition of Slovakia’s wartime leader Monsignor Jozef Tiso – gained two MEPs after polling 12.1% (up from 1.8% in 2014).

By contrast some previously successful populist and anti-Islam parties suffered poor results. The once-influential Dutch Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders was wiped out, losing all four of their MEPs and polling 3.5% (down from 13.2% in 2014).

Also badly beaten was the Danish People’s Party who lost three of their four MEPs after their vote fell from 26.6% to 10.7%. Voters in Denmark showed the strongest evidence of a trend also witnessed in some other European countries: an anti-populist backlash with increased turnouts among previously apathetic voters.

Marine Le Pen, once Europe’s most successful anti-immigration politician, has been to some extent eclipsed by her Italian ally Salvini, but Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) – previously the National Front (FN) – again topped the poll in France with 23.3% (slightly down from the FN’s 24.9% in 2014). The more ‘moderate’ French eurosceptic party France Arise (DLF) led by Farage’s main French ally Nicolas Dupont-Aignan fell below the 5% threshold to obtain MEPs. DLF polled 3.5% (down from 3.8% under an earlier party name in 2014).

Marine Le Pen (leader of the renamed French National Front) stayed top of the polls, but her ally Geert Wilders saw his Dutch Freedom Party wiped out.

Le Pen’s former FN vice-president Florian Philippot broke away in September 2017 to form a splinter party called The Patriots, mainly on the European issue: unlike Le Pen he wants France to leave the European Union. Philippot’s party polled only 0.7% despite seeking to appropriate the name of the anti-establishment “yellow vest” street protestors.

Having lost one of her main European parliamentary allies with the demise of Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party, Le Pen will have been greatly cheered by the landslide gains for the Flemish nationalists Vlaams Belang. In simultaneous Belgian regional, parliamentary and European elections, VB’s young leader Tom Van Grieken (elected in 2014 as a 28-year-old) succeeded in turning round the party’s fortunes.

VB now have 18 seats in the Belgian Parliament (up from 3 in 2014) and three MEPs (up from one in 2014).

The other important Le Pen ally is the Austrian Freedom Party, who managed to hold on 18.1% (down from 19.7% in 2014) despite a financial scandal that has destroyed the career of party leader and former Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. In fact these European elections pale into insignificance against the background of Austria’s political crisis, which has now brought down the government and provoked a general election to be held in September.

Rather than consistent populist/nationalist success, the main event of this year’s European elections in most of the continent was a dramatic increase in turnout: up from 42.2% to 50.1% in France; from 48.1% to 61.4% in Germany; and from 43.8% to 64.3% in Spain.

Golden Dawn supporters rally outside the Greek Parliament

The new Spanish anti-immigration party Vox elected three MEPs for the first time after polling 6.2% (up from 1.6% in 2014 but down from 10.3% at this year’s general election).

In Germany the civic nationalist and anti-immigration party AfD (Alternative for Germany) polled 4.1m votes (11.0%), up from 2.1m votes (7.1%) in 2014, increasing their tally of MEPs from seven to eleven.

One side-effect of AfD’s success was the defeat of the long-established German nationalist party NPD, who polled 101,000 votes (0.3%), down from 301,000 votes (1.0%) in 2014. The NPD’s sole MEP Udo Voigt consequently lost his seat. Two smaller German nationalist parties also contested the Euro-election. Die Rechte polled 25,000 votes for a slate headed by 90-year-old author and historical justice campaigner Ursula Haverbeck, who is presently serving a prison sentence for “holocaust denial”. The III Path (Dritte Weg) polled 13,000 votes.

Greek national socialist party Golden Dawn lost one of their three MEPs after polling 4.8%, down from 9.4% in 2014 (though in contrast to some populist parties Golden Dawn is disproportionately strong among young voters). Their Maltese counterparts Imperium Europa, a national socialist party led by Norman Lowell, polled 3.2%, up from 2.8% in 2014.



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