On the surface it would seem that the populists are fragmenting in Europe. In France, Marion Maréchal is about to go into battle with her aunt, Marine Le Pen, as the lead candidate for a rival right-wing party in next year’s European Parliament 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 far right. Meanwhile, current polling indicates the far-right AfD is the second largest party in Germany after the centre-right CDU/CSU. You might have thought such fragmentation would be bad for the populists: this is not true. The entry of a second populist party could increase their total share of the votes, if they can attract voters from different parts of the political spectrum.
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 German politics. There are many on the left, in east Germany especially, who support an immediate end to weapons deliveries to Ukraine. She could take some votes away from the AfD. But some 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 did 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 governs the state in coalition with the Free Voters, a local populist party. A story has recently emerged about the Free Voters leader and Bavaria’s deputy premier, Hubert Aiwanger, regarding his school days and an odious anti-Semitic leaflet his teachers reportedly found in his bag.
That story triggered a media campaign and calls for his resignation – but 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, they were the second largest party in the state. The harder opponents pushed against Aiwanger, the stronger he got.
For centrist parties this raises a question: how do we attack the extremists and the populists without alienating their voters? Wagenknecht has taken note of the backlash against the centre-left policies of the metropolitan elites, and she embodies the most important trend in European politics: a new divide that does not map on to the classic left-right split.
The similarities with Brexit are hard to overlook. East Germany is like northern England – the part of the country most alienated by Western metropolitan politics. Wagenknecht, who is from the east, has concluded that her old political home, the fractious Left Party, no longer captures that sense of alienation many east Germans have felt since unification. Angela Merkel successfully responded to this division to some extent, but her successor as CDU leader, Friedrich Merz, is too west German to pick up on that sentiment. This has left a wide-open gap for the AfD and this new rival party to exploit.
While it’s a somewhat minority position, I view grand coalitions of centrist parties as toxic political constellations, which provide a breeding ground for extremism. They feed false but potent establishment-versus-the-people narratives. The mechanism by which centrist parties end up in coalitions with each other is a so-called cordon sanitaire – in Germany’s case at the moment, this translates into a refusal to enter into coalitions with the AfD. By isolating your opponents, you effectively brand their supporters as deplorables too.
If you want to defeat Aiwanger, why not focus on his record as Bavaria’s economics minister? Munich, the state capital, is suffering a mighty property crash right now. Why waste this opportunity by talking about his schoolbag? This is the kind of strategic political error centrists keep on making.
The EU does it too. The “rule of law” regulation lets the European Commission withhold funds from member states that breach legal norms – a procedure that has been used against Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán. But this ended up alienating Hungarian voters. Last year, Orbán won a landslide victory while everyone 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 disagree with pursuing him in the courts. Trump was politically almost finished after the Republicans did so badly in the midterm elections; the court cases had the perverse effect of bringing him back.
Trump and Orbán offer cautionary tales. So does Brexit. The strength of the populists in Germany shows 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.
Populism’s rise in the West has many deep causes. Financial globalisation has played an important role because, in my view, it is ultimately at odds with nation-state democracy. I’m not pretending this problem can be solved with a column.But what’s certain is that nothing will be achieved until centrist politicians stop offending voters. Yet they and their supporters in the media keep on doing the opposite – repeatedly doubling down on their mistake, and doing the divisive work of the populist parties for them.
[See also: The Trussites are plotting their comeback]
This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites