Populism without democracy? Has the dust settled in France?

Macron defeated Le Pen again, though he had about 8 % less of the vote, those voters switched to her. At the same time the centre-left Freedom Movement triumphed in Slovenia.

Two defeats for right-wing populism, for nationalism. Two victories for the EU and Social Liberalism. It’s an interesting change of pace after the recent crushing victory of Orbán in Hungary recently.

Though what happened in Slovenia is actually more complicated. The right-wing populist Slovenian Democratic Party actually gained 2 seats and did rather well. It is just that Freedom Movement did a lot better and has easily become the largest party and they’re the reverse of the SDP. They’re a brand new Social Liberal and Green party.

But what can we expect of it exactly? Since it didn’t gain a majority by itself, it will have to form a coalition. One of the (now small) leftist parties seems like the obvious choice, BUT, for social democrats and democratic socialists to be too united to the social liberals could prove disastrous. They might make socialist demands to stay relevant. As such the coalition wouldn’t necessarily be stable and prime minister Janša has come back from defeats before.

Since the new government is intentionally presenting itself as the opposite of Janša, if it fails badly, Janša will be able to rally an immense protest vote. The current climate of polarisation creates fertile ground for the populists in the future.

The same is true for France. Le Pen has broadened her base, just as Janša kept his base stable. The liberals who triumphed over them are viewed by many as the better alternative.

Populists get energised yet defeated in the election as the majority choses the mainstream. Does this mean populism is being contained? Is nationalism being contained? Is the democratic route the only one they can take?

Le Pen enjoys disproportionate supports amongst the police and the military. The former has protested Macron in the thousands, the latter has had factions subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) threatening with a coup.[1]

With similar threats having been made in Spain [2] and the general increase in anti-democratic sentiment, will populists and nationalists now be looking more deeply into alternative ways of achieving power?

The same question can be asked for communists and real socialists who keep being excluded from power by the liberal mainstream. Some have returned to their revolutionary roots and have been getting around 10 % of the vote in countries like Spain, one of the few countries where full blown socialists and even communists are in government.

The extremists on both sides are small enough to be kept out of government most of the time but large enough to a threat and to get at least the occasional taste of power. Establishment, mainstream, Europeanist, are positions that are being actively disputed in elections, not by fringe candidates but by the runners up.

And in these polarised elections, the results are less and less accepted. It wasn’t just Trump who questioned the electoral process. The opposition in Hungary was setting up an attack as well but its defeat appears to have been to crushing. Elections are less and less seen as a source of legitimacy, just a means to power.

Will the war in the Ukraine lessen polarisation? Of course not. It might strengthen support for the EU and for constancy amongst the majority for a while, but it will also harden divisions in a post-corona world and worse, it makes the support from mainstream governments even more fragile. The war is unpredictable, EU-policy not clearly defined and opinions about the right course of actions fluctuating.

The fear of nuclear war does not make nationalist officers less likely to carry out a coup. World War II and the Cold War enabled coups in the countries that felt threatened. An atmosphere of peace strengthens democracy.

Will democratic containment work in war time? Or at least what my view as a war time?


  1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/04/coup-france-far-right-president-marine-le-pen
  2. https://www.voanews.com/a/europe_retired-spanish-officers-say-socialist-led-government-threat-national-unity/6199289.html

Ramon Giralt

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