This year will see many democratic countries going to the polls. While the US presidential election in November is grabbing most of the media headlines, the outcome of elections in Europe is of particular interest to us. EU countries will go to the polls in June to elect the new European Parliament, while the UK will have elections at a still-not-determined date. So, what is likely to happen in these elections?

One thing is sure: Europeans are increasingly going into protest mode. Analysis by more than 100 political analysts across 31 countries found that in national elections in 2022, a record 32 per cent of European voters cast their ballots for anti-establishment parties, compared to 20 per cent in the early 2000s and 12 per cent in the early 1990s. Put simply, one in three Europeans now vote anti-establishment.

Almost half of the anti-establishment voters support far-right parties, which is the vote share that is increasing rapidly. Mainstream parties are losing votes; anti-establishment parties are gaining.

The PopuList is a political research organisation that offers academics and journalists an overview of populist, far-left and far-right parties in Europe from 1989 until 2022. Currently, it identifies 234 anti-establishment parties across Europe, including 15 populist parties, most either far-left or far-right.

These parties usually combine populism with right-wing or left-wing “host ideologies”. They divide society into two homogenous and opposing groups – a “pure people” versus a “corrupt elite”. They argue that all politics should express the “will of the people” and do not accept that the will of the people is necessarily represented by a party that wins an election.

Populists argue they are a democratic corrective force privileging ordinary persons against elites, vested interests and an entrenched establishment.

Matthias Rooduijn is a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. He argues that for populist parties, everything that stands between ‘the will of the people’ and policymaking is bad. This includes all those vital checks and balances – a free press, independent courts, protections for minorities – the essential elements of a liberal democracy.

A multitude of factors lie behind the growing trend of populism. Far-right parties have broadened their voter base and are forging coalitions of voters with very different concerns. In many countries, the battle horse of populist parties used to be almost exclusively the immigration question. It still is, but cultural concerns now account for only a minority of their electorate.

Populists now have a more diversified agenda. They capitalise on a whole range of voter insecurities.

Many analysts agree that the big catch-all centre-right and centre-left parties are partly to blame for the rise of populism

During COVID, populists raged against forced lockdowns and compulsory vaccination. Now, they discuss cultural issues, including gender, history, symbols of national identity and the climate crisis. Others are vociferous about the cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Daphne Halikiopoulou is a comparative political scientist at the University of York. She argues that those voting for populist politicians include people who were never voting for the right “who never used to, and you would not expect to: older women, urban voters, the educated middle class. They are willing to trade democracy for something, to say: ‘I know this leader is authoritarian – but at least he will bring economic stability’.”

Many analysts agree that the big catch-all centre-right and centre-left parties are partly to blame for the rise of populism. The traditional centre parties have progressively detached themselves from societal demands.

A growing section of the electorate perceives traditional parties as becoming office-seeking organisations, unresponsive to people’s concerns, and often blaming them for their problems. Anti-establishment politicians project themselves as the response, and voters are more and more willing to give the untried alternatives a chance.

The dynamics of political competition are changing. Traditional parties often adopt populist tactics to stem the bleeding of votes. Some populist parties are already in governing coalitions. They know that to grow, they must compromise with the leading traditional parties on issues they staunchly oppose when in the wilderness of opposition.

Some analysts believe the surge of populist politicians will eventually meet its limits. The European Parliament elections will likely lead to another traditional centre-right and centre-left coalition. In the UK, the Labour Party is favoured to win the election and will have to deal with the persistent economic stagnation and the consequences of Brexit that promised so much but has so far delivered so little. 

Angry European voters will continue to cast protest votes in search of stability in their lives – stability that no longer exists in society or politics.

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