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19 September 2023

How not to deal with the populists

On the surface it would appear that the populists are fragmenting in Europe. In France, Marion Marechal is about to go into battle with her aunt, Marine Le Pen, as lead candidate for a rival right-wing party in next year's European elections.

A maverick politician of the German left, Sahra Wagenknecht, is about to launch her own party, one that would straddle the far left and the far right. I have written about the rise of the far-right AfD, which polls show as the second largest party in Germany after the CDU/CSU. German polls give conflicting answers about the support a Wagenknecht party would enjoy. You would have thought that fragmentation is bad for the populists. This is not true. The entry of a second populist party can increase their total share of the votes if they attract different parts of the political spectrum. This is the case here. 

Wagenknecht is a politician of the far left, but shares positions of the far right - on immigration for example. Her declared enemy is the urbanite centre-left. She is probably the most outspoken supporter of Vladimir Putin in the German political scene. There are a lot of people on the left, in east Germany especially, who support an immediate end to weapons deliveries. She could take some votes away from the AfD. But some votes would also come from the political centre. 

The reason I worry about Germany is that the political class keeps on making the same mistake Hillary Clinton committed in 2016 when she referred to Trump voters as deplorables. We see this right now in the politics of Bavaria, where Markus Söder's Christian Social Union leads a government with the Free Voters, a local populist party. A story has recently emerged about the party's leader, Hubert Aiwanger, Bavaria's deputy prime minister. When he was 17, teachers found an odious anti-semitic leaflet in his school bag. That story triggered a media campaign against him with calls for his resignation. It backfired. Aiwanger has since become the hero of the beer tent, the agora of Bavarian politics. The Free Voters, who had been polling steadily around 12 per cent, are now at 16 per cent. In two of the last three polls, Aiwanger's Free Voters are the second largest party in the state. The harder they pushed against him, the stronger he got. 

For the centrist parties this raises the question: how do we attack the extremists and the populists without alienating their voters? Wagenknecht is right in her diagnosis that there is a backlash going on against the centre-left policies of the Metropolitan elites. She embodies the most important trend in European politics - a new  political divide that does not run between the classic left and the right. 

Similarities to Brexit are hard to overlook. East Germany is the Northern England of German politics, the part of the country most alienated by western Metropolitan politics. Wagenknecht, who herself hails from the east, has concluded that her old party, the fractious Left Party, no longer captures that sense of alienation many East Germans have felt since unification. Angela Merkel succeeded to some extent. Friedrich Merz, her successor, is too West German to pick up on that sentiment. This leaves a wide open gap for the AfD and this new rival party.

I am in a minority of those who believe that permanent grand coalitions of centrist parties are the most toxic political constellations and provide a breeding ground for extremism. They feed false but potent establishment-versus-the-people narratives. The mechanism through which centrist parties always end up in coalitions with each other is a so-called sanitary cordon, a refusa go enter into coalitions with the AfD. By isolating your opponents, you effectively brand their supporters as deplorables too. 

If you want to defeat Aiwanger in Bavaria, why not focus on his record as Bavaria's economics minister. Munich, the state capital, is suffering a mighty property market crash right now. Why waste this opportunity and talk about his school bag? This is the kind of strategic political errors centrists keep on committing. And they keep on doubling down.

The EU does it too. The rule-of-law procedure allows the European Commission to withhold funds from the EU budget from member states in breach of European law. It invoked this procedure against Hungary's leader, Viktor Orbán. But it ended up alienating Hungarian voters. Last year, Orbán won a landslide victory while everybody in Brussels had been supporting the opposition.  

An often underestimated factor is the solidarity effect. There are people in the US who did not vote for Donald Trump but who disagree with the legal pursuit against him. Trump was politically almost finished 10 months ago after the Republicans did badly in the midterm elections. The court cases had the perverse effect of bringing him back. 

The story of Trump and Orbán are cautionary tales. So is Brexit. The strength of the populists in Germany tells that you have to take their voters seriously. For example, you cannot declare a change of era in geopolitics, as Olaf Scholz did after the start of the Ukraine war, without having secured a democratic mandate for this first.

There are many deep causes behind the rise in populism in the western world. I personally see financial globalisation playing an important role because the way it works is not consistent with nation-state democracy in the long-run. 

I am not pretending that I can solve this problem in a column. But what I can say for sure that it would be a good start for centrist parties to stop offending voters. The reason why I am pessimistic is the observation that the political centrist and their supporters in the media keep on doubling down no matter what.

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