Western Europe still without an anti-immigrant populist leader, for now

Recent votes in Austria and Italy were neither absolute defeats nor absolute victories for populist movements.

Anti-referendum posters showing Premier Matteo Renzi are seen in Rome a day after the referendum vote, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Anti-referendum posters showing Premier Matteo Renzi are seen in Rome a day after the referendum vote, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Two votes took place in Western Europe over the weekend. While one ensured that Western Europe remains without its first far-right populist leader since World War II, neither result should be seen as an absolutist victory by either pro- or anti-European Union advocates.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms were voted down and the 41-year-old Italian leader said he would resign. Even though the vote comes on the heels of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the Italian vote can’t be seen as a clear victory for anti-European populists against the pro-European establishment.

“Themes such as globalization and immigration did not feature as strongly in the debate. Instead, after Renzi stated that he would resign if the constitutional reforms were rejected, the debate was focused on his own record as prime minister,” Luigi Scazzieri, the Clara Marina O’Donnell fellow at the Centre for European Reform, wrote in the Guardian. “And while of course populists voted no, many of the other no voters did so against the substance of the reforms, arguing that they were anti-democratic and would have altered constitutional checks and balances. Unlike Britain and the US, where elites were homogeneously in favor of remaining in the EU and opposed to Trump, in the Italian case, the political establishment and the experts were split in two.”

The vote that pro-Europeeans and opponents of right wing populism will take more heart in will be the Austrian one. Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old former Green Party leader, defeated Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old leader of the Freedom Party, which was set up by former Nazis in 1950.

While the vote will surely be lauded by advocates of liberal democracy, it’s important to take it in context. Van der Bellen won by 6.6 percent of the vote, surprising many of his supporters who feared the right wing Hofer would ride a populist wave to victory.

And while Hofer is skeptical of the EU, and although he is the leader of a party created by actual fascists, he stopped short of calling for an Austrian exit from the EU, the New York Times reported.

Liberal democracy in Western Europe may still be just beyond the grasp of right wing ideologues.

The takeaway from the respective nations’ votes is dual. First, nativst populism may be on the rise in Europe, but as of now no far right-wing populist parties run a government in Western Europe. Austria ensured that. And two, while the Freedom Party may have been defeated in the latest vote, it doesn’t mean the tide of nativist and anti-EU populism has been stemmed.

Austria came closer to having a populist leader than any other nation in Europe with Hofer losing out by only 31,000 votes and accumulating nearly 50 percent of the vote.

Italy isn’t expected to hold early elections (the next election is in 2018) to name another prime minister. Instead, another member of Renzi’s Democratic Party is likely to take his place, the Washington Post reported. The opposition Five Star Movement, a nativist, populist, anti-EU party that is spreading fake populist news throughout Italy, could provide the country’s next democratically elected PM in 2018; party member Luigi Di Maio, the deputy leader of the lower house of Parliament, is a leading candidate.

And while liberal democracy in Western Europe may still be just beyond the grasp of right wing ideologues or populists, the same cannot be said of Eastern Europe. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Beata Szydlo are among the nativist, anti-immigrant rulers in the former Soviet bloc. And there are still fears this brand of nativism could spread to Western Europe with the upcoming French elections — where a right of center Russophile appears to be headed for a face-off with a xenophobic, anti-Muslim, nativist in Marine Le Pen. There are also serious concerns that similar movements could be on the rise in other parts of Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark.

“I voted for the lesser of two evils,” a Van der Bellen voter, 35-year-old Peter Krohn, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday in Vienna. “Criticizing Europe is definitely justified, but one can’t address this with isolation and hatred.”