‘A perfect storm brewing’: how populists could challenge Europe this autumn | Europe

The shape of three European governments could be decided by the performances of populist, far-right, or anti-establishment parties in elections this autumn, as the continent’s fractured political landscape continues to splinter.

September’s parliamentary poll in Slovakia, a country of just five million people, could prove critical to Europe’s continuing support for Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, returning to power a proto-populist, Robert Fico, who is stridently pro-Moscow.

In Poland, which votes in October, surveys suggest hopes of forming a majority in the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) – self-proclaimed champions of the conservative, Catholic working class – may rest on the even-further-right Confederation.

And when Dutch voters go to the polls in November, their already fragmented politics will be further disrupted by a wildly popular campaigning former Christian Democrat MP and his brand new anti-establishment party, as well as a group claiming to speak for angry farmers.

“These are all very, very different parties,” said Catherine Fieschi, an expert on populism and the far right. “All they have in common is that they are, to varying degrees, anti-establishment. They’re not easy to pigeonhole ideologically, partly because they’re adapting to different areas of resentment.”

The fact that each looks likely to play a significant role in forthcoming elections shows just how much more fragmented and, in many cases, polarised, Europe’s politics have become, Fieschi said. “None of the old rules apply, and everything is fluid,” she said.

“There’s a perfect storm brewing between a backlash against economic liberalism, and a backlash against the green agenda,” she said. “And people are saying ‘I’ll vote this,’ then ‘I’ll vote that’, then ‘I won’t vote’. Disappointed voters are willing to ‘try something new’ in a sort of political consumerism – and in a desperate quest for protection against the winds of change.”

As new data shows a record almost one in three Europeans voted anti-establishment last year, and with coalitions including, or backed, by far-right parties in power from Finland to Italy, this autumn’s elections could prove key tests of the insurgent mood, with Europe-wide consequences.

Slovakia’s pro-western government has shown staunch support for Ukraine. But despite corruption allegations, Fico’s Smer-SD – populist, nationalist, socially conservative – is comfortably ahead in the polls on 21%, and has not ruled out governing with the extreme-right, anti-minorities Republic party, in fourth.

NSC party graphic

Fico, prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and 2012 to 2018 before being ousted by huge anti-government protests after the murders of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, has blamed Russia’s invasion on “Ukrainian fascists” and said he will end military aid to Ukraine and “useless and counterproductive” sanctions against Russia.

Slawomir Mentzen, pictured in Krakow in August, once said his supporters stood against ‘Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxation and the EU’. Photograph: Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

For good measure, he has called Slovakia’s pro-western president a US puppet. Exploiting the pro-Russian sentiment of many Slovaks (only 40% blame Moscow for the war, the lowest percentage in central and eastern Europe), Fico has radically, opportunistically and effectively diversified his party’s offer.

“Until very recently, the populists’ – especially far-right populists’ – golden formula was always: nativism, anti-immigration, pro-law and order, Euroscepticism,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “That’s changing. Governments’ Covid response was important for some; gender and agrarian interests are for others. Climate change and the green agenda are for most. For Smer-SD, it’s also Europe’s response to the war on Ukraine – and its cost.”

Poland’s election on 15 October looks likely to be the country’s tightest, dirtiest and most important for decades, pitting the ruling rightwing populists of (PiS), in power since 2015, against the opposition Civic Platform of Donald Tusk, with neither looking likely to secure a majority alone.

Analysts say the outcome could be crucial in determining whether Poland returns unambiguously to the pro-EU fold or pursues its illiberal course towards more and deeper disputes with Brussels over the rule of law.

PiS started 20-plus years ago ostensibly as Christian democrats, but swiftly veered right into full-blown cultural, social and national conservatism. It is now firmly part of the establishment, and faces a challenge on the radical right.

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While not classed as populist, the far-right Confederation alliance of free marketeers, hardcore nationalists and conspiracy theorists, is polling at 11% – which, with PiS leading on 38%, could sway the outcome.

Opposed to immigration, abortion and lockdowns, Confederation’s co-leader, Slawomir Mentzen, 36, once said his supporters stood against “Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxation and the EU” (he has said he was joking). But his core message – low taxes, less welfare spending, no obligatory pension and healthcare contributions – resonates, especially with young men, 40% who say they will vote for his party. PiS, he says, is too interventionist, and far too generous.

Confederation has sworn not to work with either of the two leading parties, raising the prospect of a political crisis when Europe least needs it and, eventually, fresh elections – from which it would hope to benefit.

Smiling Dutch politician Pieter Omtzigt walks by a poster that reads reads the Binnenhof Lezing Pieter OmtzigtPieter Omtzigt, in the Hague on 6 September, promises a ‘new way of governing’. Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

“It’s a recurring feature,” said Ben Stanley, a political scientist at SWPS University in Warsaw. “The established system is cyclically vulnerable to these kinds of parties: it’s the appeal of ‘we haven’t governed before, so we’re not responsible for this mess’.”

In the Netherlands’ November ballot, the dominant anti-establishment insurgents were for months thought likely to be the rural populists of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), who swept to victory in provincial elections in March.

Surfing on rural anger at government environmental policies, notably a plan to buy out farmers and slash livestock numbers to reduce nitrogen emissions, the BBB exploited the rural-urban divide and widespread discontent with mainstream parties.

But its support in the polls peaked in May at 22% – and first place – and it has since halved to 11%, as a month-old, moderate but anti-establishment party shot into the lead.

New Social Contract (NSC) is led by the former Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt, best known for felling Mark Rutte’s government in 2021 over a scandal in which 20,000 families were wrongly accused of child benefit fraud, many on the basis of ethnicity.

Omtzigt and the as-yet unbuilt NSC, on 19%, ahead of the outgoing prime minister Rutte’s liberal-conservative VVD and a Socialist-Green alliance, is different again: “centrist outsiders”, said Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia. “He’s the centrist, anti-establishment candidate,” he said. “A normal, decent political guy who brought a government down. People want alternatives to the mainstream – including, perhaps, alternatives a bit calmer than populists.”

Omtzigt’s arrival, pledging “a new way of governing”, could, however, explode the Dutch political landscape as Emmanuel Macron’s did in France in 2017. A coalition may be hard to form, and prove fragile. Europe’s volatile politics are becoming ever more complex.

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