Populist insurgency spreads against Western establishments

By: Dr. Sadık Ünay*

Would it be too much of an exaggeration to say that the conventional “right and left” political categories are beginning to lose meaning in light of the recent restructuration of political architecture in the West? Perhaps not.

The belated repercussions of the global economic crisis, substantial erosion in the status of the middle class, the selective nature of post-crisis economic policies, alienation from the conventional representatives of the political establishment and widespread resentment against waves of migration seem to have brought social tensions to a tipping point in both the U.S. and Europe. Economic isolationism, trade and currency wars, rejection of established political parties or well-known moderate leaders, xenophobia, Islamophobia, hate speech, self-centered politics are rapidly gaining ground in much of the Western polities.

In this context, Donald Trump’s unlikely presidential election victory despite the systematic campaign support that Wall Street provided to Hillary Clinton, along with high-tech moguls and mainstream media and opinion manipulators caused the dissemination of shock waves across the world. How was it possible that Clinton’s more refined, diplomatic, friendly and politically correct style was squarely beaten by Trump’s unorthodox, rude, xenophobic and quasi-fascist rhetoric? For observers concentrating on the deep socio-economic waves of Western societies, this outcome was far from a quagmire. The “pendulum swing” in American politics and the growth signals in the U.S. economy had already been necessitating a power shift towards the Republicans after eight years of Democratic rule but the “Zeitgeist” of global protest against political establishments strengthened the hand of Trump as an unorthodox candidate to bring this power shift.

Although the U.K. has not yet experienced a full-fledged political shift towards the far-right, the unexpected degree of popular support for Brexit and the rising influence of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) was illuminative of the widespread disappointment seen with the European integration project. As Brexit was followed with the Trump victory, far-right, anti-systemic tendencies transcended continental Europe and began to invade Anglo-Saxon democracies, reflecting the belated repercussion of ever-deepening socio-economic traumas in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

Next in the line for a switch towards populist far-right could be France, where next spring’s presidential elections will be held between two far-right candidates. To the surprise of many political observers, François Fillon came victorious out of the nomination battle of the center-right Republicans. Fillon’s victory over former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister, Alain Juppé, on a platform nearly as nationalist and Islamophobic as that of Le Pen’s National Front marked another example of the rejection of mainstream politics. Fillon represents another unorthodox far-right leader who started his campaign as an underdog like Trump and now stands with a substantial chance of leading a major European country after the elections; polls suggest that he will easily “trump” Front National’s Marine Le Pen which would add to the anti-integrationist, xenophobic, anti-establishment mood sweeping the West.

In the meantime, other European countries are also witnessing the rise of extreme right and populist political parties that directly target political establishments. While Italy is heading to a referendum this weekend for governance reforms, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is having trouble overcoming the challenge of the far-right Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S). Even the fact that this movement is led by a former comedian is sufficient to convey the strength of centrifugal political forces in Italy.

Moreover, Austria will have a rerun of the presidential elections next week due to technical reasons. A potential victory by the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, would represent a significant result for the anti-migrant, xenophobic, Eurosceptic right. If elected, Hofer will be the first head of state or government from the far right popularly elected since World War II. Likewise, in the forthcoming Dutch General Elections in March, the “Party for Freedom” (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV) led by extreme nationalist Geert Wilders is leading the polls which might constitute another critical election outcome. Finally, in the German elections which are scheduled for August, Angela Merkel might manage to embark on another term in office, but the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) looks to secure enough seats in the Bundestag to be a constant source of agitation on critical issues such as migration, counter-terror laws and EU subsidies.

The populist insurgency continues to spread against political establishments in the Western world. Moderation, tolerance, commonsense, empathy with other cultures and societies will be much needed in the near future.


*Dr. Sadık Ünay has been a lecturer at Manchester, Birmingham and Huddersfield Universities in the United Kingdom and Balıkesir, Maltepe, Fatih, Yıldız Technical and İstanbul Şehir Universities in Turkey. He co-edited the Special Issue of Insight Turkey on the Political Economy of Turkish Foreign Policy. He also writes for Daily Sabah Turkish newspaper.

(Published in Daily Sabah on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016)