Nationalist populism remains a concern, but recent setbacks offer hope
World | by Gwynne Dyer
Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Okay, peak hard-right nationalist then. If we have, that would be reassuring. And three events in the past week give some cause for hope.
First, on Sunday September 1st, Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming government, Saxony and Brandenburg.
Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country 30 years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).
So out of Germany’s 16 states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote, but who realised their votes were needed to stop the AfD.
Secondly, on Tuesday September 3rd, it became clear the hard-right League party in Italy has been effectively snookered. Back in the days when it was the “Northern” League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa” is how the nastier variety of northern Italians put it.
The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party. For the past 18 months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in opinion polls, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in a bid to win sole power in a new election.
Instead, M5S found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote (the party is ultra-democratic) and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.
And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on September 3rd and immediately lost a key vote — because 21 members of his own party voted against him.
Boris (who was “Al” to his friends, family and many lovers before switching to “Boris” as a young man because he thought it was more memorable) is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, he’s just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.
Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are “‘Little-Englander” nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the UK. Together, they have hijacked the Conservative Party.
Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out in a “no-deal” exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit one far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted in 2016).
Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the “disaster capitalists” who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the “United” Kingdom (especially Scotland) the perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.
But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative MPs mean that there will have to be an election — which Johnson may well lose.
There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past 60 years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.
That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany — the only question was “Who’s next?”
Now, the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some — and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.