The 2017 European Elections: Neither the Victory nor the Defeat of Populism

By Cas Mudde, Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs

After the political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump in 2016, both defying the wisdom of most polls and pundits, the European elections of 2017 were framed by the international media as an epic battle between an emboldened populism and an embattled political establishment. However, as Europe is a heterogeneous continent, rather than a homogeneous country, the election results show no clear patterns.

In both the Austrian and Dutch elections, the mainstream candidate beat out his populist radical right challenger by adopting, what they euphemistically called, “good populism,” which in reality was a tougher stand on crime and immigration that was clearly inspired by the program of their radical right opponents. In both cases, the populist radical right party gained compared to the last national election, but stayed well below the polls, both from last year and from a few months before the elections.

The biggest election, however, was in France, where first a president and then a parliament was elected. The presidential elections are different than in the US, as the two most popular candidates of the first round face each other in a second one, to ensure that the president has been elected by a majority of voters. For years it was certain that populist radical right leader, Marine Le Pen, would be one of the two last-standing, but to the surprise of many, she would face Emmanuel Macron, a relative political unknown, who represented a newly founded “movement” rather than one of the established parties. Macron easily defeated Le Pen in the second round, but then also swept to victory in the following parliamentary elections, making both the left populist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and right populist, Le Pen, mere figurants in French politics.

Finally, the German elections were widely seen as a referendum on the pro-refugees policies of center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, the longest-serving head-of-government of any Western democracy. And while the populist radical right Alternative for Germany did win a shocking 12.6 percent of the vote, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union remained the biggest party, and she will continue her already 12-year old Chancellorship – albeit as head of a different coalition.

In sort, 2017 saw neither the ultimate victory nor the ultimate defeat of populism in Europe. Rather, it confirmed that populism – and particularly the populist radical right (which combines populism with authoritarianism and nativism) – has become an established part of European politics. It predates not only the rise of Donald Trump, but also the Great Recession, and it will survive both.

At the same time, populism is not the dominant force in European politics. While some states have populist leaders, from the left (Greece) or the right (Hungary), in most countries they are the 3rd or 4th biggest party. They either are a junior partner in the coalition government (e.g. Austria, Norway) or one of the biggest opposition parties (e.g. Netherlands, Spain). Given that the reasons for their success are structural, there is no reason to assume this will change in the foreseeable future. Just like in the US, populism will be part of Europe’s future.