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The Anti-Establishment Challenge for Social Democratic Parties

Robert Ladrech
Professor of European Politics

The anger felt towards the political class in advanced industrial democracies by large parts of the population must no longer be underestimated.

By the end of 2017, general elections will have been conducted in three key European states, namely the Netherlands (March), France (May and June) and Germany (September). A critical theme that links the political situation in these countries is the growing strength of extreme right-wing parties riding a wave of anti-establishment political reaction. Although the extreme right does not have a monopoly on anti-establishment sentiment – witness Syriza in Greece – it does challenge social democratic parties in the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. If the success of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Trump to the US presidency impart a lesson, it is to avoid underestimating the anger of large swathes of the population in advanced industrial democracies toward the political class, including social democrats.

The manipulation of this anti-establishment sentiment by extreme right-wing parties has focused on two issues, economic insecurity and immigration. The supporters of these parties have been described as the ‘losers’ of globalization, or the ‘left behind’, feeling not only economically insecure but frustrated by what they are told is an unfair system favouring immigrants, thus pitting ‘native born’ citizens with newcomers, and fomenting resentment and a focus on identity. Listening to Marine Le Pen recently, she now cloaks herself as leader of a European anti-globalisation movement.

A push for the right-wing 
These are, of course, the same sentiments that fed into the 1930’s rise of fascist movements, and demagogic party leaders have exploited contemporary media to push their messages, whether it is Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, or even Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. The election of Trump in the United States, following on the heels of Brexit, has cheered politicians such as Marine Le Pen because it may point to the ‘normalisation’ of this political phenomenon. In this regard, the social democratic parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany have a particularly difficult task in the run-up to their elections next year.

Politicians from Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party to Sergei Stanishev of the Party of European Socialists have reacted to Trump’s election by referring to it as a ‘wake-up’ call for progressive parties. For the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), French Socialist Party (PS), and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), polls and recent electoral history demonstrate that their political position has been precarious for some time.

Each country’s party system is different, but there are some common trends that Trump’s election exacerbates. In France and the Netherlands, Wilders Freedom Party and Le Pen’s Front National have not only been riding high in public opinion polls for the last several years, but local and regional elections (and national in the Netherlands) demonstrate that they are popular with voters. In France, it is now a foregone conclusion that Le Pen will be on the second ballot for the presidency in May 2017. In Germany, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland takes votes from both the SPD as well as from the Christian Democrats.

Anti-establishment and anti-globalisation
By attempting to identify their parties with an anti-establishment and anti-globalisation sentiment, the extreme right has portrayed social democratic parties as part of the Establishment, ‘fellow travellers’ with the centre-right as agents of neo-liberalisation and subsequent job insecurity. The perception is not helped by the fact that the PvdA and SPD are junior members of a left-right, or grand coalition, in their respective countries. Both the PvdA and SPD have seen their vote in polling since they entered government in 2012 and 2013 plummet to all-time lows. The SPD and the PvdA also must deal with electoral threats from their left, the die Linke in Germany and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands.

Perhaps Trump’s election will be the long-awaited catalyst for European social democratic parties to fashion a popular response to the feelings of insecurity among their core electorate. Perhaps the long-term viability and renewal – intellectually as well as politically – of social democracy will now take centre-stage. Allowing the radical left and right to appropriate the mantle of opposition to neo-liberalisation has undermined the belief that another Europe is possible under social democratic leadership. Hard choices await social democrats in next year’s elections, and ‘politics as usual’ is no longer an option now that the stakes are so high.


Photo: © mikeledray / Shutterstock

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