End of right-wing populism?

The outcome of the recent elections in several European countries - Austria, the Netherlands, Britain and France - is raising question about whether right-wing populism has peaked. The possibility that this ideology has run its course is further strengthened by the several challenges Donald Trump is facing in the USA, with his popularity plummeting in several polls while many are calling for his impeachment.

Though there are several variants of right-wing populism, they are all united by their combination of ethnocentrism, anti-elitism, nationalism and xenophobia. Right-wing populism is essentially a political ideology that rejects the current political consensus in the Western world. It is called populism because of its direct appeal to the ‘common man’, - the Uncle Joe - as opposed to the elites. Various hues of right-wing populist parties are also united in their opposition to immigration, particularly from Africa and the Muslim world.

From the 1990s, right-wing parties, which were previously confined to the outermost fringes of the political process, began to win seats in the legislatures of several mature democraciesincluding Canada, Norway, France and Israel. In countries like Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy and Denmark, they managed to be part of the coalition government. From around 2010, the popularity of these hitherto fringe populist parties – such as the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the UK Independence Party began to grow by leaps and bounds as they articulated or opportunistically tapped into street sentiments on immigration, euro-scepticism and discontents at the economic policies of the European Union. So powerful was the surge of these rightist parties that several supranational organisations such as the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the United Nations and variousglobal economic groupings were considered to be under threat. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States was regarded as the ‘halleluiah moment’ of right-wing populism.

Suddenly when it seemed that right-wing populism has taken over, what appears to be a backlash started emerging: in Austria, presidential elections were held on April 24, 2016, with a second run-off on May 22, 2016. Austria’s President is directly elected by universal adult suffrage once every six years. The election is held under a two-round system and if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, then a second ballot is organised between the two candidates who received the largest number of votes in the first round. President Heinz Fischer who served two terms was not eligible to take part in the election. In the first round of the election, leader of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) received the most votes but fell short of securing over 50 per cent of the votes which was needed for an outright victory. Alexander Van der Bellen, who was a member of the Austrian Greens party but who contested as an independent candidate came second. Hofer and Van der Bellen went head-to-head in the second round re-run in May. The results were however cancelled after they weresuccessfully challenged in court.The second round re-vote was planned forOctober 2, 2016 but was postponed to December 4, 2016.

The run-off vote was generally seen as litmus test. This was before Britain voted to leave the European Union and before the election of Donald Trump. It should be recalled thatNorbert Hofer’s right-wing Freedom Party lost the May election by less than a percentage point, and polls had for months shown that the race was too close to call. During the campaign, Alexander Van der Bellenconstantly warned his fellow countrymen and womenthat the right-wingHofer would lead Austria down the same road as Britain,which he argued would amount to playing with fire. Van der Bellen ultimately won the second round re-vote with 53.8 per cent of the vote on a voter turnout of 74.2 per cent. Had Hofer won, he would have become the first freely elected far-right head of state in Europe since World War Two.

In March 2017 the Netherlands held a general election to elect all 150 members of the House of Representatives. Again the Dutch electorate defeated right-wing populism by denying the Party for Freedom (PVV) of “the Dutch Trump”, Geert Wilders, from becoming the biggest party in parliament. In fact the Party slumped from 33 to 9 seats. In the UK general election which took place on June 8 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative Party (which was defending a working majority of 17 against the Labour Part and had hoped to secure a larger majority tostrengthen her hands in ‘hard Brexit’ negotiations) lost its majority. Theresa May is just about the only Western leader that Donald Trump seems to get along with. More tellingly the far-right UK Independence Party, which received 12.9 per cent of the vote in the 2015 elections in the country, was almost wiped out. It also lost its lone seat in the parliament. In the same vein, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which supports the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and was promising voters a second referendum, lost 21 seats. It won 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies in 2015.On the other hand, the Scottish Conservative Party, which was against Scottish independence from the United Kingdom and campaigned against a second referendum promised by the SNP, gained 12 seats.

In France, EmmanuelMacron’s 66 per cent to 34 per cent victory over Ms Le Pen was emphatic. In the US, Donald Trump’s popularity has plummeted in several polls, with many prominent Americans calling for his impeachment

Do all these mean that right-wing populism has plateaued? It is too early to call because Ms. Le Pen’s 34 per cent share of the vote in France was almost double that won by her father Jean Marie Le Pen in 2002. In fact the right-wing National Fronthas been on a steady upwards trajectory. Similarly in the US, some purveyors of views that were hitherto confined to the fringes have found themselves at the White House.

It can only be surmised that the rise of right-wing populism has been contained – at least for now. And the world is better off for it!

How will the apparent containment of right-wing populism impact on separatist agitations in countries like Nigeria? The defeat of Brexit sentiments across Europe is expected to strengthen the hands of those opposed to separations. In fact separatist groups like IPOB hoped to benefit from that sentiment and from the rise of Donald Trump. It has failed to happen. Anti-Bexit sentiments in Europe are currently buoyed by the fact that growth is back and jobs are being created in the EU as Eurozone growth outstripped that of the US in 2016.

But separatist agitations in Nigeria are likely to continue - at least for a while- because they are being propelled by different dynamics. One of these is that in democratizing societies, the free speech guarantees of liberal democracies will in the short to medium term continue to aggravate the structures of conflict. And given the multi-ethnic character of the society, it is expected that separatist agitations will be one of such. There is also the question of groups delinking from states into primordial identities, which further challenges the legitimacy of the state. In this sense, the level of separatist agitations is likely to be tied to the success or otherwise of the nation-building process.

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Articles by Jideofor Adibe