DISCLAIMER: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the position of UNM IGNITE.
Right-wing populism emerged as a powerful force
In 1992, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) successfully, albeit slightly, managed to mount a successful campaign against Switzerland joining the European Economic Area, which was a blow towards the Swiss government and establishment at that time. In 2003, SVP won the most seats in the Swiss Federal election, four years after winning the most votes in the election in 1999. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National defied opinion polling to progress into the second round of the French Presidential Election after gaining more votes than the Socialist Party candidate in the first round of elections. In 2017, Marine Le Pen, who is his daughter, progressed into the second round of the presidential election, gaining 33.9% of the vote, an increase of 16.1% compared to her father’s vote share. After the 2017 German federal election, Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the German Parliament for the first time after winning 94 seats. What these parties have in common is that they are right-wing populist parties.
How did the right-wing populists re-emerge
After multiple terror attacks, far-right populist parties in Europe came out strongly against Islam, stating that they would fight against Islamists, or rather Sharia Law from taking a hold on their country’s values. An example of this could be seen in the case of the Front National where Marine Le Pen said that she would not allow Islam to destroy the secular values of France. This is a little ironic seeing that Le Pen’s policies are more favourable towards traditional values, which in itself is also backwards. The financial crisis of 2008 could also be seen to have led to the rise of populist parties, especially with the rise of austerity measures by various governments at the time to combat the economic recession.
It is more visible, however, that right-wing populist parties campaigns on the issue of immigration. This because the increasing number of immigrants in these countries indirectly gives populist figures an attacking point against the failures of the establishment to so-called preserving the sovereignty of the nation. Arguably, immigration is one of the most common themes of right-wing populism as could be seen in the United Kingdom where the Brexit camp heavily campaigned on the issue of immigration and also in the United States where Trump spewed anti-Mexican rhetoric.
Right-wing populists are also in support of conservative social values as could be seen in Germany where AfD is against same-sex marriage, same-sex adoptions and are self-described as being anti-feminist. Other right-wing populist parties have also been accused of bigotry such as antisemitism, sexism and racism as observed with the case of Vox, a political party in Spain and the Brexit Party. While I do agree that some voters who voted for these populist parties are bigoted, I do not believe that this is the case for all voters who voted for these parties. In other words, I believe some voters do not agree with the overtly conservative take on social issues but still voted for these parties anyway because they are desperate and believed that these political party would help them economically.
Liberals and centrists also vote for right-wing populists.
As mentioned above, I do not believe that all voters of votes for right-wing populists are bigoted and hold bigoted views. However, their disdain of the establishment whom they believe has abandoned them lead them to vote for these populist figures who are seen as anti-establishment figures. For example, exit poll in the 2017 French Presidential Election shows that 11% of centrists and 23% of left-wingers voted for Le Pen, the far-right candidate. It has been said that the left-wingers who voted for her were simply because they were very displeased with the establishment and Macron, who was the centrist in the election was too establishment-friendly for them. Thus, he was not trusted to care for their wellbeing.
In the United States, on the other hand, 12% of voters who identify themselves as Liberals in Pennsylvania, voted for Trump. I believe the reason for this is simple, which is they saw Trump as an anti-establishment figure who stated that he would fight for the American people. They might be in a bad economic and financial situation and thus, saw this as their only hope.
Defeating right-wing populism
In the belief that ‘fire needs to be fight with fire’, I believe that right-wing populism could only be defeated with left-wing populism. Right-wing populism is not the only type of populism that has been increasing in popularity. While both left and right-wing populists are anti-establishment, left-wing populist seems to be more inclusive of minorities, supports a more liberal stance on social issues than most establishment-friendly political parties and in my opinion, is more trustworthy to protect the working class.
Left-wing populism is not a movement that needs to be started from scratch Instead, it is a movement that already exists for a long time, which has always cared for the rights of the people against the exploitation of large corporations or rather, as I call them, oligarchs. Left-wing populists have made several significant gains in elections. For example, in Spain where the leftist populist party, Podemos won 69 seats in the 2015 election, finishing third and after the 2019 election formed a coalition minority government with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
Defeating right-wing populists is admittedly not easy, especially as it seems that in some countries, it is gaining in popularity like in Italy where opinion polls have shown that Lega is growing their support since the last election. Some might not even be comfortable with fighting one form of populism with another, viewing both groups as too extremist for their taste. However, if left populism is the only viable option against right-wing populism, I would say that it is always better for a group that is better on human rights to be in power.
Written by Nasrul Haziq